Wading in thigh-deep water atop a gravel bar, my son and I cast to a trough that probably was deep enough to go over the tops of our waders. Seemingly his Teeny Wee Crawfish and my Tracdown Minnow were appealing to the trout, because both were producing thick-bodied rainbows at a steady pace. I don’t recall the number of fish we landed or how many doubles we managed, but both numbers were pretty big.

Part of why I don’t remember exact numbers is that the day wasn’t necessarily a stand-out for fishing the White River below Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas. It was a very good day. No doubt. However, I’ve experienced many very good days of fishing this prolific river over the years.

The scope of the Bull Shoals tailwater trout fishery and the amount of opportunity it provides for anglers are pretty astounding. Waters cold enough to support trout extend nearly 100 miles below Bull Shoals Dam, and 1.2 million trout get stocked in those waters ever year. The largest numbers are stocked in the tailwater’s upper end, where habitat and access are best, but the entire trout section gets a very good dose of fish. Trout stockings get spread throughout the year, and fishing can be good all 12 months.

The White River trout fishery is also very diverse in the opportunity it provides. Rainbows, which make up approximately three-quarters of the total number of trout stocked, are always plentiful, allowing for fast action and a good opportunity for many anglers to take home a limit of trout. However, creel surveys show that about 70 percent of the fishing is catch-and-release, and the fish grow quickly in this food-rich environment. Consequently, rainbow catches normally aren’t made up of all “cookie cutter” 12-inch stockers like you find in many stocked streams. Instead commonly-caught rainbow range up to 16 or 17 inches, and many are super plump.

A recent regulation change, allowing only one trout of more than 14 inches in a five fish daily limit should make the average quality of White River rainbows even better, along with adding trophy rainbow potential.

White River brown trout provide a totally different type of experience. Though far less numerous, the browns grow substantially larger and are protected by a one-fish limit and 24-inch minimum size, which create a catch-and-release fishery in most cases. The river also supports substantial brown natural reproduction, so while the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission does stock 110,000 young brown trout in the tailwater each fall, many of the browns are stream-bred, and all grow up in the river and look and act like wild fish. Anglers who specifically target brown trout enjoy good catches of thick-bodied fish that commonly range from about 15 to 22 inches in length, and genuine trophy browns are a legitimate possibility any given day.

Adding even greater variety to potential catches, annual stockings also sometimes include cutthroat and brook trout, with brook trout stocked in the smallest numbers. Neither species makes up a huge part of the catch, but catching either is a possibility any given day, adding fun variety. Under new regulations, only one brook trout and one cutthroat trout may be part of a daily limit, and the minimum size for cutthroat trout is 24 inches.

Beyond supporting a diverse trout fishery, the White River below Bull Shoals varies enormously in character, based on the amount of power generation through Bull Shoals Dam. The dam has eight turbines, so water the water level and the power of the river can fluctuate immensely according to the number of turbines that are turning. On low flows it’s an easy river to wade in many places, but the fish can get picky. On high water, only bank fishing or boating is possible, but the fish typically become more aggressive.

White River Strategies

Drifting or anchoring with natural bait fished at the bottom is by far the most popular way to fish the White River, but it’s far from the only way enjoy good trout fishing. Rainbows readily attack various hard baits and jigs, with specific baits, spots and strategies varying according to the amount of water that is flowing. Browns like big minnow-style lures, especially when at least a few generators are running.

During low flows, rainbows congregate in deeper troughs between gravel bars and deep holes along the bank. Excellent offerings include a Lindy Quiver Spoon (sold mostly as an ice lure, but excellent for casting and retrieving for trout) and a Rebel Deep Teeny Wee-Crawfish.

When more water is flowing, the rainbows push tighter to banks or move higher on gravel bars. A TD47 Tracdown Ghost Minnow handles current very well and is an excellent choice for rainbows when a couple of generators are running. A Fuzz-E Grub is also a really good choice for getting down to the fish when a bit more water is running. A Middle Wee-Craw also works nicely under those conditions.

Brown trout eat artificial lures best when three or more generators are running. They hold in downed trees and eddies behind jetties, islands, gravel bars and docks, ready for ambush attacks. They won’t chase anything very far, but they’ll attack violently if the right offering shows up in their kitchen.

Arguably, the best lure for high-water browns is a Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue, which flashes as it dives and then suspends in the strike zone when you pause it. Pauses are critical. Cast tight to the bank or to cover, jerk the bait down with two or three hard but short downward snaps and then pause the bait and let it suspend. That’s when most browns will hit. Excellent colors include Chrome/Blue Back/Orange Belly and Avocado Shad.

One note about water levels: They can change quickly. If you are wading in the Bull Shoals Tailwater (or any tailwater), pick an identifiable rock or stick that’s barely out of the water and peek at it frequently. If it ever disappears, get out immediately, and wait till the water level stabilizes to reassess wading options.            

White River Planning

River Access

Public access areas for boat launching, shore-fishing and wading, including a few walk-in wade-access areas, are scattered all along the river. An access map in the Trout Fishing Guide Book on the AGFC website shows all access areas. Some resorts and campgrounds along the river also allow fishing access.

Lodging

Cedar Wood Lodge 

Gaston’s Whiter River Resort

Denton RV Park 

Camping

Bull Shoals-White River State Park 

Guided Fishing

Cranor’s Guide Service 

Regulations

A five fish total trout daily limit may not include more than one brown trout, one brook trout or one brown trout, and only one fish in a daily limit may be more than 14 inches long. The minimum size for brown trout and cutthroat trout is 24 inches. Only a single hooking point is allowed per hook for bait fishing. Two special catch-and-release areas and one seasonally closed area have special regulations. See the Trout Fishing Guide Book for details and special areas and complete White River regulations.

Lurenet Favorites

Rebel TD47 Tracdown Minnow, Rainbow Trout 

Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue, Chrome/Blue Back/Orange Belly, 

Lindy Quiver Spoon, Chrome, 1/8 

Thill Ice’ N Fly Special 

Rebel Middle Wee-Crawfish, Stream Crawfish