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The Anatomy of a White River Brown Trout Trophy Hunt

Almost everyone who comes to the White River has dreams the night before their first day on the water of hooking into one of the river's legendary brown trout. Despite the sometimes tough circumstances that confront this fishery, the White still produces incredible numbers of brown trout in the seven to twenty-pound range - and bigger ones than twenty-pounds are caught every year. Although it is fun to contemplate the experience of fishing for these hogs in the Ozarks, without careful planning and diligent research, the odds of being successful in this pursuit are virtually zero. The trout that do manage to get big here are extremely well-adapted creatures that have learned to avoid anything related to humans whenever possible. This means that it pays to know the habits of these fish and it is a good idea to understand how each flow dynamic affects the behavior of the big browns - there is an 'art' to being at the right place at the right time on the White.

The challenge and fun of fly fishing makes hunting big fish the perfect endeavor for the serious sportsman. There may be easier ways to target large trout, but a fly rod is a very versatile weapon in the right hands. Big fish often eat big meals, so heavy rods (six to eight-weight) are suggested when casting large flies with the hopes of hooking into a submarine.

If you are truly serious about getting a shot at a nice brown, the tips outlined below are a good place to start. Never be afraid to ask lots of questions of local guides and fly shops, and come to these rivers expecting the unexpected. Chasing trophy trout is quite different than just trying to catch lots of fish with the hope of hooking into a nice one; be sure that you are fully aware of the sacrifices that go into hunting the mammoth browns of the White River.

The feel of each season
Because the White River fluctuates drastically almost every day, the actual season that you choose to fish is more a matter of personal preference than it is about actually trying to predict the best fishing. Huge browns are hooked every month of the year, and most are fooled during really high water. Since many fly anglers prefer to wade fish over drifting out of a boat, it is important to ask yourself just how badly you want that big fish. It would be great if the really huge browns gorged themselves consistently during the day when the water is low, but that simply is not the case. Serious trophy hunters will adapt their techniques in order to put themselves in the optimum position for success, even if it means not fishing the way they prefer.
 Photo courtesy of resident guide Larry Babin.
Unfortunately, many of the large brown trout caught by fly anglers during low water come off of spawning redds (beds), but this is not to say that there are only unethical places to catch big fish when the rivers are down. Certain seasons are characterized by specific water conditions, but everything about these rivers is subject to change on a moment's notice. The best chance for finding extended low water is during the fall and winter, so these seasons are very popular amongst fly fishermen. This is spawning time, so if you do fish during the colder months, please try and avoid stepping through or fishing to actively spawning browns. Instead, thoroughly work the deepest water that you can find below the shoal areas. Fall and winter can be great months for solitude and big fish, but be prepared to do a lot of walking.

Spring is usually a high-water time, but every once in awhile, conditions will remain dry and the water will be low during this season - in general, expect heavy releases. For targeting big browns, there is definitely an opportunity when the rivers are running very high during the late winter or early spring. This is because high water at this time of year usually means that shad are coming through (or have come through) the dam; the shad kill is a dream situation for those who live for fish measured in feet, not inches. Once the shad kill dies down into April, high water can still be ideal for trophy hunting. If the water happens to be low during your spring hunt, do not fret - many huge fish fall for dry flies during a good hatch, and the amazing water clarity of later spring makes it easier to sight-fish than at any other time of year. There definitely are many "silver linings" to finding low-water in April, May and June.

A normal summer flow regime will provide both a mix of high and low water, and this can be ideal for those who want to try several different techniques when going after big browns. The water will be low on the White most mornings, but things will get rocking and rolling by mid-afternoon. Late July through August is perhaps the best time of year for action on big browns during high water because they have become comfortable feeding due to the consistent conditions. Summer is the season when the greatest numbers of big trout are landed on the White. Be sure to fish the "magic hour" before the evening fog rolls in during late August - there have been many pigs hooked in this situation on shad patterns. Rising water can also be good with hoppers and other terrestrial patterns.

When it comes to choosing the time of year to fish the Ozarks for trophy browns, consider the pros and cons of each season, and then pick based on the weather and techniques you prefer. As long as you are able to keep your fly near the fish you want to catch, it is only a matter of time until a shot will be granted by the "Fly Fishing Gods".

What to expect when trophy hunting on the White and Norfork

The pursuit of big fish takes a lot of patience, no matter what fishery you are on. It sounds so cliché, but it's true; trout that grow large have learned to recognize the difference between fake and real food. For the most part, there is only a small window of opportunity to hook into each big brown on the White, so it basically becomes a game of percentages like muskie fishing. The chances of success increase with each successive cast, but this type of fishing is not for those in search of action; there are no compromises when it comes to trophy trout fishing. This is because to specifically target the biggest browns in the river, very large flies must usually be used; it's either catch a big fish or catch nothing. Using nymphs is only productive for serious trophy fishing in specific and uncommon situations. If relied upon, this technique will waste a lot of time with small fish. This is fine, but for those who committed to feeling that bite of a lifetime, anything smaller than a pig is can be a frustrating letdown.


 Photo courtesy of resident guide Forrest Smith.
Giving yourself the greatest odds of White River Basin brown trout success not only involves understanding big fish flies and techniques; anglers must also know where the largest fish are likely to be during all water conditions. There is a science to consistently staying on top of trophy browns which involves intimately understanding the habits of these fish, but when just starting out, there are a few basics that will increase your chances of finding what you are looking for. When the water is low, spend the majority of your time fishing the deepest water that you can find. Focus on areas with plenty of large structure in the form of trees, boulders and root wads.  The slow, deep tailouts below big shoals are also good spots to hit, especially during low-light conditions. When the water is high, the river's big browns will often move into shallower areas to feed, while spending inactive periods in the deepest and slowest water available. The shallow fish are much easier to get a fly in front of, so a good strategy is to work slower banks heavy in structure - rarely does fishing blind down the middle of the river produce. Be prepared to lose some flies casting towards structure on high water because it is imperative to get deep and tight, but pulling a hog out during heavy flows is a thrill worth far greater sacrifices than just losing a few patterns.

Browns are predominantly nocturnal feeders, so early in the morning and right before dark will typically be the best times of day for finding active fish. Most fly anglers prefer to fish during the day, but when it comes to fooling a huge trout, we must often stray away from our comfort zone. During the afternoon, browns will often rest, only feeding sporadically. Cloudy weather and wind chop on low water will often get big fish feeding aggressively.

Pros and cons of using a guide

Most fly fishermen are guilty of putting the cart before the horse, but this tendency will absolutely cause despair on the White. The chances of going to any river and experiencing immediate results on the bigger resident trout is not likely to happen, and on the Ozark tailwaters, the overwhelming majority of neophyte trophy hunters end up very frustrated. This is primarily because of unpredictable water flows coupled with the unique behavioral traits of these trout. Without specialized and intimate knowledge, the White River can be one of the tougher places to fish in the country. Once a decent understanding of this fishery is realized though, there may be no better river to hook into oversized brown trout on a steady basis in the country. 

Hiring an experienced local guide will exponentially increase your chances of being in optimal position for realizing success. The White is an expansive waterway, so it takes being on the river virtually every day to know where the pods of big browns are located at any given time. A guide will also help with fly selection, and by informing them of any trophy aspirations well before the trip, they can immediately begin formulating a plan to cater to your desires. The biggest upside to hiring a guide on an Ozark tailwater is that they will be able to keep you catching fish all day long on high and low water. Letting a guide take care of the inevitable worries of fishing and operating a boat on this river will help keep you safe, while allowing for the most relaxing day possible.

Some people would rather keep their fishing and accomplishments to themselves, and this is understandable, but without help, there is always the chance that river dynamics will make productive fishing difficult. If you are committed to trophy hunting by yourself, try to come during the fall or winter when water levels are most likely to be low. Another strategy for reclusive anglers is to hire a guide for their first day to learn the basics of fishing the river, and then fish by themselves on subsequent outings.  It is very important to plan a White River trip that takes into account all of the variables at play; no one wants to waste one moment of fishing time because of something that could have been anticipated well in advance.

Flies and techniques

White River trophy brown trout can be caught on a variety of flies and techniques, but there are ways to specifically target the biggest fish in the river. The most important aspect of fishing to big trout involves locating and effectively covering the areas where these fish live. From there, it is critical to pay close attention to your approach. Water levels and weather conditions will dictate the "how" and "where" of fishing the White for large quarry and it is up to the angler to devise a strategy that will give them the best chance of hooking into the fish of a lifetime. To be fully prepared for any situation, most area guides recommend having a heavy streamer rod and a nymph fishing outfit ready to go at all times. 


  Photo courtesy of resident guide Forrest Smith.

If you find yourself in an spot with a high concentration of browns and the water is low, proceed with caution; one false move could scatter the entire group during these conditions. Haphazardly chucking a streamer at these fish creates a "do or die" situation. Huge browns will eat tiny meals, so if you have some time, try putting a variety of nymphs in the vicinity of cruising or stationary fish. Midges work amazingly well on big trout, so this is a good fly to start with. Scuds, sow bugs, San Juan worms (in moving water primarily) and beefy bead head hare's mask patterns are all other good fly choices; egg patterns can be used at the angler's discretion, but throwing such flies at spawning fish is considered unethical and should be avoided. One potential pitfall to nymph fishing for big browns on low water is that there is the real possibility that a small rainbow may grab the fly immediately; this can have the same effect as plopping a big streamer in the water. Still, it's worth starting out with a subtle approach, if time permits.

High water periods are the ideal time to focus on catching big browns, primarily because the fish are far less spooky when the river is up. On light to moderate flow conditions, big browns can still be found feeding below drop-offs and in deep pools, but when the river really gets moving, it's time to work bank structure with heavy rigs. Big streamers are in order, and the best patterns imitate shad, sculpin, minnows and crayfish. Sizes #4 to #8 are the most popular, but huge trout have been caught on much larger offerings. Sink-tip lines will really help get the fly down in a hurry, and it is a good idea to have one person dedicated to operating the boat at all times for the sake of safety. Big water offers an excellent opportunity to target and fool the river's apex predators, but these conditions are dangerous. Be sure to adequately prepare before attempting to fly fish high water conditions by yourself.

Night fishing is also a possibility on the White, and getting out after dark definitely takes advantage of the nocturnal nature of big browns. Low water is common at these times, so wading is the most utilized method of fishing late into the evening and early morning. Be sure to scout the area you plan on fishing thoroughly during daylight hours if possible, and the safest spots to get acclimated to night fishing are near the dam. This is because the horn warning of rising water is easily heard up here. It is not common for the flow to increase in the middle of the night, but it does happen, so you need to be aware of this possibility.

Almost everyone wants to catch a huge fish, but in reality, very few fly anglers have the patience to do everything that it takes to stack the odds in their favor. Even the most patient fisherman will get frustrated after hours (or days) of arduously casting with hardly a nibble. Fortunately, the White River is a fishery where a trophy brown can be hooked anytime that your fly is in the water, so switching to action-fishing techniques once in awhile does not mean that you have admitted defeat. Still, if your objective is catching a big fish, do not get overly distracted by the little ones for too long.  There are few river systems in the world that produce as many brown trout over ten-pounds as the White does, and with some education and preparation, anglers have a real shot of hooking into a behemoth. It takes dedication, extreme patience and varying degrees of luck to turn any fly fishing dream into reality, but the rewards of success make all preceding efforts seem insignificant. The thrill of landing a massive White River Brown is a "life-altering" experience, so very serious angler should have a dedicated brown trout trophy hunt in the Ozarks high up on their fishing "bucket list".
Visit our website for additional information relating to the nuances of our home waters. Many thanks to those of you that have already booked a guide trip in May and for those who have yet to do so, send us an inquiry about available dates soon. blueribbonflyfish@hotmail.com 

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