Cinderella Story: The White River’s Beautiful Stepsister

Written by Henry Hooks of Tall Tails Media

The White River in Northern Arkansas is firmly rooted in the upper echelon of famous trout rivers in the United States, and for good reason. The average brown trout from the White measures anywhere from 18-24 inches, with trophies over 25” caught every day. Anglers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the legendary river year after year in hopes of landing the fish of a lifetime. But just like the old fairytale, amongst the raucous and esteemed guests at the prince’s ball, there hides a Cinderella, a diamond in the rough, a beautiful stepsister that ought to be sought after with a zeal comparable to its more famous counterpart.

The North Fork of the White River, or the Norfork, as it is known more colloquially, is a roughly 4-and-a-half-mile ice cold tailwater of Norfork Lake that is home to one of the healthiest trout populations in the southeast. Its size and gradient lend itself more to the style of fishing that those of us more accustomed to freestone mountain creeks find success in. The Norfork plays a significant role in the prowess of the White River as well, as it contributes its waters to the main river more than 30 miles downstream from its origin at Bull Shoals Dam, allowing the White to continue to harbor trout well beyond its source. But the Norfork is much more than just a source of cold water, it is a fishery that rivals its big sister in almost every way.

After a weekend spent fishing the White River, the missed fish, long days on the water, and overwhelming size of the beast had begun to take its toll. Monday morning meant the long drive home was soon to be upon us, but it also meant a 6:00 AM wakeup call to hit the Norfork. A thick mist lay over the water, fresh from the bottom of the lake that towered over us, and that first step into the river did more than the instant coffee from camp could dream of doing to wake me up. As our small raft pushed into the current, I glanced down and saw three beautiful stream bred rainbow trout all over 20 inches. At that point, casting at them served no purpose, but I had all I needed already: supreme confidence in a banner day.

As do most ambitious anglers with an insatiable desire for chasing that ever larger fish, I spent most of the morning throwing streamers, but to no avail. As our crew drifted slowly down the gentle riffles molded by that days minimum flows, nymphs and dry flies began to fool fish after fish and it seemed that as the day went on, those that reached the net grew increasingly impressive in size. By around ten that morning, every riffle was yielding beautiful wild rainbows, and every slack water was bubbling with rising fish.

Out of the quiet suddenly rang out, “Hey! Big one! Get down here!” Out of the slack water on a size 18 parachute adams had come a wild rainbow easily rivaling the biggest I had seen on public water. Following the obligatory high fives and photos, the beautiful fish was laid gently back into the bubbles to one day bring that joy to another angler. Every trout angler knows the thrill of sticking a large fish on a dry fly, especially in low, clear water, where the odds are stacked so high against you. However, I could not get the thought out of my head that on this river, which is so often overlooked, a fish of that caliber is nowhere near the unicorn that it would be on another body of water. Beyond that, rainbows are so often ignored as a trophy species, but in a river like the Norfork, they fight just as hard and are just as powerful as most browns in the White River basin.

Fly fishing is entrancing for a myriad of reasons. For me, the destinations that it takes me and the company I keep far outweigh the fish that find their way into my net. Arkansas is no different. While not a grand destination surrounded by endless rugged mountains or miles of white sand beaches, the prestige of the White River is irrefutable. I have landed my fair share of impressive browns on that river, but every visit I am drawn to the Norfork. The lack of crowds, the stellar fish, the beautiful riffles, the accessibility in a simple raft or canoe. All these things remind me of how often I focus on the destination and forget about everything that it brings with it.

As our crew was eating lunch at Norfork Brewing Company, we were regaling tales of our unique travel experiences. Jacob, one of the most well-traveled in our little posse, revealed his self-imposed requirements for having truly visited a place. He must do three things: eat at a local restaurant, do something cultural, and visit a cathedral. In the same way that one could not say that they have visited Paris just because they saw the Eiffel Tower from a plane window, I believe that in order to truly know a place, you must experience more than just its most notable feature. The White River bears the title of Arkansas’s most famous trout river, but a few river miles from its source lies its Cinderella, the beautiful stepsister who is so often overlooked.