When I was growing up, we didn’t take vacations. Or at least, if we did, they weren’t the typical sightseeing vacations.
We always went to a tiny town called Calico Rock in northern Arkansas. Always. I mean, almost every year. Sure, lots of my family lived there, but it wasn’t just about the quaint little downtown or the historical society.
For us, it was about trout fishing on the White River.
Since I was little, semi-annual trips to fish the White were a tradition. Living in Indiana, the fishing can be finicky. On the White River, though, my Pop was fond of saying, “It’s never if you’re going to catch them. It’s how many.”
About the White River
The White River runs 722 miles through Arkansas and southern Missouri. It starts in the Boston Mountains, runs north into Missouri, then back south into Arkansas again. The section we fished was well south of Bull Shoals Lake.
That lake, and its dam (complete with hydroelectric plant), feeds the rest of the river…and also plays a big role in how much water is flowing downriver. My uncle—ever the optimist—would be fond of saying, “Well, we need to see how many turbines Shoals is runnin’…we may not make it up the river. We can’t make it up the river, we won’t catch no trout.”
And indeed, much of the river around Calico Rock is quite shallow in parts. Enough so that if you’re visiting and don’t know the lay of the water—as it were—it’s important to hire a guide. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself without a propeller and paddling desperately to reach the shore.
The Fish in the White River
Without a doubt, the trout are the biggest draw to this river. Rainbow trout are the most prolific, though there are a good number of trophy browns, as well as cutthroats, that have been hauled from these waters.
There are several hatcheries nearby the White River, where trout—rainbows particularly—are stocked into the river. This ensures a healthy supply, and some of these trout have the opportunity to grow up and be big ones. Otherwise, younger trout are also delicious.
It’s worth noting that there are several conserved areas of the river meant to help the trout population thrive. These areas are catch-and-release only, and usually require the use of a barbless hook. You’ll see signs posted from the banks making you aware.
On that note, if you’re keeping any for dinner (please mind limits), beware of pin bones. They’re akin to Y bones you’d find in a Northern Pike. They fry out pretty well, but if you have other cooking plans, ask your guide to show you how to properly clean a trout.
Fishing the White River
The majority of the fishing I’ve done on the White involves a spinning reel and a johnboat. My uncle, who knew the twists in the river better than he knew his way to work in the morning (this isn’t to say my uncle didn’t like to work. He worked his butt off for his entire career, so by this I mean he knew his way to work quite well.) He would motor us up, sometimes several miles and sometimes only so far. Angling us perpendicular he would drop the trolling motor while another of us would sit at the front of the boat with an oar.
We would sit facing upriver and cast out our spinning reels, loaded with a gold-spooned inline spinner and a nightcrawler. We would float, letting the river do the work for us, and wait—but usually not for long.
You quickly understand the difference between your spinner bumping the extremely rocky bottom and a trout grabbing it and then running, a quick hook set and you should be ready for a fun catch.
Because the White River has a steady flow and is moderately shallow with lots of ripples, fly fishing has always been popular and becomes more so every year. Even in winter, where the water cools and it tends to rain more than the summer months (summers can be dry and arid in northern Arkansas). This gets the water moving and gets the monster brown trout active.
Without a doubt, the most key thing you need to fish on the White River is a good guide. They know the river inside and out, upside and down. All the honey holes, and all of the rock beds. Hire one and you can be almost guaranteed a good time. Otherwise, you could always have an active family member who loves trout fishing live nearby.
Have you fished the White River or a river like it? Leave a comment below.