Photos and Story: Four Days on the White River

Written by: Emily Roley, Taos Fly Shop

Emily shows off a beautiful brown, even if it isn’t the monster she was looking for.
Photo by Ron Sedall

Here is the extent of what I knew about the White River the morning we head east: it is in Arkansas, it is a big tailwater, and it is home to massive brown trout. Of these three facts the most significant was the big browns. Dare I say I love big browns?

Ron and I decide to suck it up and get there in one day, so we load the dog, the gear, and the boat, and drive 14 hours straight from Taos, New Mexico, to Gassville, Arkansas. We pull in around midnight, exhausted, and curse under our breath as we unload every single thing that isn’t bolted down, including the oars. Call it big-fish neurosis, but we are not risking anything. It is fish or die for the next four days.

I pop a beer and looked around the motel: synthetic comforters, hot shower, and TV: just the basics, and the only true necessities besides whiskey, which we have in good supply. I start to organize my gear and listen to the white noise made by the trucks consistently passing on the highway and it hits me–I am about to fish new water and anything can happen.

There is excitement in fishing a river for the first time, in figuring it out, learning the structure, observing the rhythms and wildlife, discovering the similarities and differences to all the rivers in my past. Each river has its own personality, and although I don’t believe that four days is nearly long enough to become good friends, we can at least have a couple of good conversations, and I’ll get a taste of her particular flavor.

Low water meant for long, slow days in the drifty.
Photo by Ron Sedall

The White river is massive, originating in the mountains of northwestern Arkansas, from where it flows up to Missouri and back down through Arkansas to join with the mighty Mississippi. Along this 700-mile trek, the White is dammed six times, the last of these being Bull Shoals Dam, a hydroelectric dam located in Mountain Home and the starting point of our adventure. On the way to Bull Shoals, we pass countless signs and billboards with grainy photographs of smiling people hoisting colossal browns, and the air in the truck gets a little more electric as we count down the miles.

On day one, we hit the river in low flows and push off into crystal-clear water with a gentle current and a wicked headwind, the combination of which leads to one heck of a workout. When the dam is not generating and the river is low, the fish hold in structure which is spread out, with riffles, runs and shelves more than a mile distant at certain stretches. We feel envy as we watch boats zip past us, hitting runs up and down the river, then up and down the river again, while we row our Rocky Mountain Skiff gently down the stream. The first lesson: next time rent a boat with a motor. We retire at the end of the day, only floating a short four-mile stretch, having caught a decent number of stockers and a couple small browns.

Day two is more of the same. Low flows again find us rowing into the wind. Six miles, more stockers and one bass is the tally for the day.

Ron nets another beauty, which were more plentiful once the water came up.
Photo by Emily Roley

On day three, we hit a high flow window. The dam begins generating in the early hours of the morning, running up to two hundred generators at a time. This unloads a wall of water and causes the river to rise, pushing food along with it. Due to good intel by local guides Steve and Ben out of Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher, we discover that the best fishing for browns is on the front of the wave, riding the high water and chucking articulated streamers along the edge. In the push of water, the big fish move out to the edges and gorge. We put in early with the sun, navigating at first light through fog, which is something of a strange phenomenon for high-desert dwellers such as ourselves, and can immediately tell a difference in the river from yesterday. The water is agitated and the color of weak, black coffee. Bits of debris swirl around us, and as soon as we push off we are taken downstream in a swift but manageable rate. I elect to row first and ferry us to the far bank, where we shortly pull our first decent brown. This energizes us, and we continue to follow the bank, heaving streamers like mad, barely breaking for lunch, switching off on the oars, rotating fish for fish.

The river is a different beast at high flows. Where six miles required effort, the 12 miles we cover on day three go by without sweat. The wind is indiscernible, and we surf the wave with an occasional backstroke to slow us down, miles of bank-side structure stretch out ahead and we race herons, chasing them from their hunting grounds time and time again. By far the most productive day to date, we log only browns, all in the 12- to 18-inch range. We retire with a biting urgency for our final day.

On day four, we get ambitious, blessed again with a small window of high flows, we arrive early with the fog, push out into now familiar waters, row to the far bank, and start the 18-mile crusade. Again, I elect to be first on the oars. When piloting the boat, I pay close attention to the surrounding details: I notice the wildlife, attempt to identify the trees, and often lean back and stare at the shifting patterns in the sky. It’s a welcome contrast to the intensity I feel when I am fishing. With rod in hand, I becoming singularly focused, blind to anything outside the 30 feet of water between the boat and the bank. Stripping the line in rhythm, I feel the textured surface rub my finger raw. I watch the changing clarity of the water as the streamer comes in and out of view, rising and falling in an arousing pattern, tempting the browns to play. I become manic, hardly able to stop, even for a sip of whisky. This mania only increases on the final day, as I yearn to squeeze every drop out of the experience. I am spent when we reach the ramp. Eighteen miles has gone by in a flash, again with a decent run of browns to add to the tally.

We did not bag the big one. We did not set a record. We will not see our smiling image atop a tall and peeling billboard. No matter. The river will always be there, waiting. Through the seasons, the fog, and the tides, the browns will survive. And we will be back.

Emily Roley is a guide at Taos Fly Shop, in Taos, New Mexico. Watch the video above to learn about her journey to becoming a fly-fishing pro.

7 thoughts on “Photos and Story: Four Days on the White River”

  1. Thanks for the generous offer John! I’ll email you shortly with my travel plans (i kid i kid). Great article…fun River!

  2. Nice article on the White River. As Suzie and I found out too it is all up to the flows! We can’t wait to fish with you again on your home waters! I also enjoyed viewing your video again! In fact we are going to Lees Ferry in February! Take care,

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