The White River’s Big Brown Trout

It’s hard to explain how big, how wide, and how overwhelming Arkansas’ White River appeared when we first came upon it. There was just so much water, all of it moving down at a good pace. With flows at 27,000 cfs, it was a volume of moving freshwater that you rarely see. Enormous and somewhat brutal. And, it was cold.

We were a group of six, mostly from Metro Boston, down for four days of fishing and evening repartee, which for some included very fine Scotch, tequila, and martinis. We were a collegial lot. We all got along, helped cook and clean, and were on a Concord Outfitters trip to which I’ve long looked forward.

We came down for various reasons, some to throw big streamers for as long as possible, but all came for a shot at a big fish. The browns there grow large, some to 40 lbs. A 20″ trout is very do-able, but the target fish is 24″ or larger. Behemoths.

It was all about the float game, and we paired off to go out on boats from Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher. The guides were great and highly skilled. With water so high, we did a fair amount of motoring to various spots, in search of brief stretches of calm water. The guides did a lot of rowing to put us on top of fish and worked very hard.

For the most part, we threw big streamers to start and end each day and nymphed in-between. On one day, I threw big streamers all day with Steve Dally, which was humbling for me. A few hundred casts on a nine-weight with a 350-grain sinking line was a ton of work. But, I learned a lot.

One day, I fished with guide Davy Wotton, a world-famous angler. He’s a very skilled nympher. Using 12′-long leaders, we threw junk flies, and the two of us who fished with him landed 40 trout, including five big browns.

On another day, with guide Gabe Levin, I was fortunate to land my personal best brownie, a 22.5″ fish with nice leopard spots.

I’m not one for hyperbole, but the White River is an incredible fishery. The state stocks 750,000 rainbows a year, and many of them become forage fish for the browns. Reasonable protections protect the brown trout, but there’s a lot of catching-and-keeping of the ‘bows.

And, when people clean their fish and throw the entrails in the water, there’s even more protein for the big fish. It’s one reason why boat ramps sometimes produce large browns. Fish hang out there, like catfish, chowing down the guts.

It was amazing how spoiled we quickly became. After Day 1, we stopped taking photos of 20″ browns. They were “common.” And, when we found ourselves with a nice rainbow that would make any New Englander happy, we unhooked them as fast as possible, eager to get back to our quest for browns.

By no means was this an “easy” trip.” It took two flights and a three-hour drive each way to get to Cotter, Arkansas, from Boston. The days were cold and windy for the most part. Restaurants were decent, but they’re closed on Sundays and Mondays. Accommodations were fine but nothing special.

But, oh, the fish. I’m not sure if you can ever find a river where it’s expected to land a big brown trout each day.

So, do yourself a favor and put the White River on your Bucket List. Going there truly was an experience.

Many thanks to Concord Outfitters’ Andy Bonzagni and Dan Bean for a trip I’ll never forget!


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7 thoughts on “The White River’s Big Brown Trout

  1. I’ve been looking forward to this post for a long time. Good work on the browns! Any fishery where you throw streamers on a 9 wt. must have some serious fish.

  2. Great report. Did you guys try any night fishing? Saw ” live the stream” recently and was intrigued by the idea of fishing for big browns there. How about upstate NY and PA? I hear November for big browns there?

  3. Jo -looks like the conditions were a challenge but nice work getting into the fish! Cool pictures. Do you know if there is a “best” or “better” time of year there for big browns?

    1. February and September from what I heard, but it seems that flows are highly variable, given the amount of rain and the farmers’ needs down river. This winter has been an unusually rainy one. Hence, the high flows.

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