Targeting Cow Shoals on the Little Red River
On The Fly Freshwater
Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs
When it comes to tailwater trout fishing in Arkansas, the White River tailwater downstream of Bull Shoals Dam seems to get most of the publicity. Having a 100-plus-mile fishery that is stocked with more than 700,000 fish per year tends to promote that type of reputation. But that same river also features the Beaver Tailwater upstream of Bull Shoals. Additionally, there are tailwater trout fisheries on its feeder streams – the North Fork River (commonly called the Norfork) and the Little Red River.
In the case of the Little Red, arguably the only advantage the White has over it is massive size. The quality of the trout yielded on the Little Red also is world-class. The Little Red’s 32-miles of trout water from the dam at the 31,500-acre Greers Ferry Lake down to Dewey Bridge on Arkansas Route 305, in recent years has received around 180.000 rainbow trout annually. Additionally, the river gets a few thousand brook trout in years when the hatcheries have a surplus, and even some cutthroat trout have been released in past years. All of those stockings occur during the period of October to April.
No brown trout were ever stocked in the Little Red River by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Back in the mid to late 1970s the Arkansas Fly Fishers of Little Rock and the Mid-South Fly Fishers from Memphis teamed up to release 5,000 brown trout fingerlings in the Little Red, while the Arkansas club also planted 10,000 brown trout eggs in Vibert boxes at Cow Shoals.
Those browns prospered to the extent they are now self-sustaining in the river. The browns also grow large, with fish of more than 20 pounds having been taken. More specifically, in 1992 Rip Collins caught a then all-tackle world record brown from the Little Red that tipped the scales at 40 pounds and 4 ounces. Though later bested by a New Zealand fish, Collin’s catch is still the Arkansas state record.
Being a smaller flow, the Little Red River is more wader-friendly than the White, having several access points that are wadable on low water. But, of course, caution is advised when wading. Greers Ferry Dam has two turbines and when one is releasing water the river rises 4 feet. When both are in operations the rise is more like 8 1/2 to 9 feet. You can check the Greers Ferry Dam release schedule by calling the Southwestern Power Administration voice-activated line at (866) 494-1993, or visiting their website.
Another difference about the Little Red is that float fishing is less prevalent than on the other tailwaters. That is in part due to the greater area that can be waded. On low water the river is a series of long pools separated by shallow swift shoals.
Among those low-water wading areas, Cow Shoals has attained virtual legendary status. Located 5 1/2 miles downstream of Greers Ferry Dam, it was the site of the first releases of brown trout. It also was the first area of the river where that species was verified to be reproducing.
For wading fly fishers, Cow Shoals is ideal. The river features a long stretch of shallow flats and riffles where you are usually only wading about knee to thigh deep. Also, along the western shore where the access is located, a gravel bar runs for about a half mile, making for easy entry to the water.
Getting to this water is easy for wading anglers. Back in 1988 the two fly fishing clubs mentioned earlier again combined efforts, raising $4,000 to buy a small tract of land bordering Cow Shoals. They then donated that property to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission that in turn created the Cow Shoals Walk-In Access.
The parking area for the access is at the end of Industrial Park Road (Arkansas Route 210) to the east of town of Heber Springs. The AGFC has added a set of stairs down the steep slope to the shore of the river.
A couple of other reasons make Cow Shoals accommodating for fly casters. The first is the fishing regulations that apply. From the head of the shoals, downstream to the mouth of Canoe Creek only single-hook, barbless hooks are allowed, and all fish must be immediately released. The catch-and-release area is open year-round to fishing from 30 minutes prior to sunrise until 30 minutes after sundown.
Also, due to the narrow channel through the shoal, swift currents make float fishing the shoal difficult on high water. Thus, virtually all angling here takes place via wading on lower flow levels.
Based on the great conditions for fly casting, you can expect to have company on the shoal on weekends. Weekdays are better choices to avoid other anglers.
While the very top of the shoal, as well as the foot of it, are considered the best places for fishing, be aware that those are also the top spots for the brown trout to build their redds. These fish spawn from October to January at Cow Shoals. During that period, it is wise to limit your angling to the mid-section of the shoal, otherwise you may be stomping on the spawning beds and destroying a future generation of fish.
With regard to fly choices when fishing Cow Shoals, in spring a tan Elk-Hair Caddis in size No. 16 is a good choice for dry fly action, though most attractor flies work unless a hatch is taking place. Also, most popular nymphs, like the Prince, Pheasant Tail or Tellico Nymph work on the river’s rainbows.
Be aware that the most abundant forage in the Little Red is composed of sow bugs. These tiny crustaceans are abundant in the plentiful aquatic vegetation in the water and the browns and rainbows both feed on them. A pattern that imitates a sow bug needs to be in your fly box for a visit to this water.