If your first taste of meat was a filet of Kobe beef at a high end Japanese steakhouse, there is a good chance that it might impact your opinion of every backyard sirloin for the foreseeable future. The first time I ever saw a trout river, the sheer number and size of the fish was ridiculous. For a while, every little creek back home was compared to the wide, cold, trout-filled waters of the Little Red River.
The southernmost of Arkansas’ major tailwater systems, the Little Red’s tributaries and forks meet up north of the village of Heber Springs to form Greers Ferry Lake. In 1959, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continued to tame the south’s waterways by damming up the Little Red for energy, flood control, and the economic benefits of recreation. Upon completion of the dam in 1962, President John F. Kennedy appeared at the dedication. It was to be his last significant public appearance before his assassination in Dallas the next month. The federal trout hatchery below the dam bears his name.
As is the case with any impoundment and tailwater, there are lengthy lists of pros and cons respective to its creation and existence. Generally speaking, if the new lake submerged one’s property or interests the reception was and is quite icy. The history of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other similar projects in the south is fascinating and worth being aware of. Culturally and anthropologically, the relationship between the government, the locals, and the physical environment is complex and often emotional.
And then there are the fish. Like the towns and hamlets that are now under hundreds of feet of water in Greers Ferry Lake, the impounding of the river system created a new ecosystem that made native species’ existence impossible. Today, bass and crappie can’t survive in the frigid releases that make up the Little Red’s flow. But, as is the case with any drastic change in nature, another species has filled the niche.
The government stocks rainbow trout. A lot of them. The bright-pink and green rainbows can be seen on signs for tackle shops, motels, and restaurants in the surrounding area. Brook and cutthroat trout are also found in the Little Red. But most fishermen think about brown trout when they consider the Little Red. The group known today as the Arkansas Fly Fishers introduced brown trout through the planting of fertilized eggs and some fingerlings in the early 1970’s. By the 1980’s, the fish were reproducing and the population was self-sustaining. In 1992, local angler Howard “Rip” Collins hooked and landed a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown on a tiny marabou jig. Even though the record has since been broken, the Little Red brown was the biggest on the books for nearly 20 years.
Although anglers shouldn’t expect to catch 40-pound trout, the Little Red still yields enormous fish on a weekly basis. Four seasons, multiple catch and release stretches, and fish-fattening forage sources bring fly fishers from all over the country and world. With new fly patterns and fishing techniques coming out of Southern tailwaters, particularly those in Arkansas, these rivers have become synonymous with trout fishing. Perhaps lost in the big fish, big streamer, big resort scene is the remarkable existence of the river and fishing themselves.
Standing above the Greers Ferry Dam in the summer, the 100-plus degree heat and presence of watersports of all kinds would seem to be completely alien to any environment suitable to cold water species. As with any tailwater, the river valley that emerges from the discharge produces a drastically different ecology. Year-round 52-degree water in the stretch below the dam, prolific and diverse macroinvertebrate populations, and robust aquatic vegetation create a completely foreign river system for the region. Yet the most dramatic observation is the aesthetic of the thick morning fog and sight of midge-sipping trout.
Potentially derided by some as an artificial fishery, the Little Red has as much legitimacy as any river across the country that has been restored or “improved” by an impoundment or the stocking of fish. Furthermore, the technical approach that many accomplished local fly fishers employ on the river shatters the common stereotype of the denim-vested, catfish-noodling, chaw-lipped southerner. And while the motels and “trout docks” may add a bit of commercialism to the banks, the area is significantly less developed and more remote than most famous trout rivers east of the Mississippi.
Fifty years into this experiment show that the results are a clear success. Add in the White and Norfork Rivers to the north (not even mentioning the prenominal warm water lake and river fisheries), and Arkansas has become a premier destination. Add in the local cuisine (barbeque, fried chicken, catfish), friendly locals, and an affordable experience, and visiting is a no-brainer. For the fly fisher coming from the southeast and the small to medium freestone mountain streams he or she has access to locally, the size of the Ozark tailwaters are impressive. More so, the abundance of trout that average what would be trophy size back home will probably get the heartrate up. That is precisely why most people fish, and particularly why so many people fish on the Little Red.
For updated flow data and fishing conditions, check out Orvis’ report page.
To learn more about the region and its fly fishing history, visit the Arkansas Fly Fishers’ website.
If you are arriving in Little Rock or in Heber Springs, stop in at the Ozark Angler for flies and gear.