Fishing the North Fork of the White River by Dennis Galyard

Mike Tipton has been after me for about a year to write an article for the news letter, on fishing the North Fork of the White River in Missouri.  The problem is, I could write a short book on this river after fishing it and guiding on it for nearly 30 years.      The North Fork is a free flowing, spring fed river that is managed for trout for about 12 miles by the state of Missouri.  The primary trout waters are from Rainbow Springs downstream to James Bridge. This is the finest trout water in the state.  The river can be turbulent and varies from 40 to 120 feet wide.  The bottom is bed rock, gravel and weed beds; and has been described by some NAFF club members as the River From Hell.  Felt soles are a must and studded felt is better.  The rate of flow of the river depends on spring water and runoff.  Fishable rates vary from 300 cfs to 1000 cfs. For the perfect fishing (wading), 500 is the number to look for; so how do you know where to look?  The USGS has a web site that provides the cfs of the NF on a real-time basis.  That website is This is the most important information you can have before coming to the river other than calling me.  Since I am not always there, try this first.  When river flows are under 350 cfs, stealth is required to fool the native wild rainbow trout and the browns that inhabit the river.     Rainbows have not been stocked for over 40 years.  That means that the trout grow up in the river and by the time they are 12" long, they have seen it all ... eagles, otters, mink, osprey, kingfishers, herons, anglers, canoes. You get the picture.  The wild rainbows are nothing like the stocked fish of the White and Norfork Rivers.  The Brown trout are stocked each fall.  Sometime in October the fisheries guys distribute about 5000 4-7" browns in the river.  For a while these little guys are pretty stupid; but by January the survivors have wised up.  Brown trout, by their nature, are smarter than other trout. Davy Wotton says so!     Now, here is the deal. Let's say they are running water in Arkansas and you just have to get out and fish. The NF is running about 600 cfs so you figure you can give it a shot.  From the map, you see there are 3 bridges to access the river so you pick one and head out.  It is a fine day in April and you can expect to see 3 or 4 species of caddis, a mayfly hatch, and ever present stone flies, along with crane flies, scuds, terrestrials, minnows, sculpins, and crayfish.  There are no skinny trout in the NF; which brings up another point.     The trout number about 600 per mile---upper river mostly rainbows, lower river mostly browns.  None of which are easy to catch.  A 12" brown has been in the river about 2 years, a rainbow, all its life.  This is not a beginner's river.  From Rainbow Spring to Patrick Bridge, the limit is one fish per day, 18" or better ... basically catch and release.  From Patrick down to Dawt Mill, the population is almost all browns i.e. "smarty pants".  They are well fed on 7 species of stone flies including the 2 " Pteronarcyes, over 10 species of caddis, and at least that many mayfly species that inhabit the river.  The big fish eat sculpins, crayfish, big stone flies and shiners.  They don't bother with most hatches unless there are tons of bugs on the water.     Bring your 9-10 foot, 4 or 5 wt rod, a wide assortment of caddis, may and stone wets along with some wooly buggers. For dries, Elk Hair Caddis in sizes 16 to 10 are a good bet.  There may be a Sulfur hatch in the late afternoon in April so bring some of those in about a 16 ComparaDun. Better have some Sulfur emergers too. They get pretty picky.   Tippits 6-4X, on 9 to12 foot leaders, please.     Walk away from the bridges as the fish are smarter closer to bridges.  The further you walk, the more you will catch.  Ranibows feed deep most of the time.  Browns will be more inclined to rise to a soft hackle or a dry.  Work the river thoroughly as there are only 600 fish per mile, not one behind every rock.  A great day on this stream would be 15 fish with one or two over 15".  Most anglers average 3 fish in the 12" or less range.     I have fished this water for years and find no shame in coming home after an evening's fishing and telling a friend that I hooked four but only landed two.  This ain't the White River!!     The North Fork takes a while to learn. If you are lucky and a good fisherman and don't fall in and give up, you will catch fish.  And the fish you catch really mean something.  You fooled a fish that is wild, smart, well fed and nervous.  If all this sounds like too much work, then go to the Spring River where they dump them in on a weekly basis.  If it sounds like the challenge that trout fishing can and should be, this could be your home water too. See you on the river.  Dennis Galyardt