Bull Shoal’s Overlooked Rainbows

White River, Arkansas

On The Fly Freshwater

February 2022

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

Arkansas’ fabled White River trout fishery has established a reputation as nothing short of world class. That notoriety is based mostly on the abundant, naturally-producing and often gigantic brown trout this tailwater has yielded.

As a result of the fantastic brown trout story, the fishing for rainbow trout, which is the staple of the river’s fishery, gets far less publicity. These fish don’t reproduce, so the population has to be supplemented through stocking.

A Bull Shoals Tailwater rainbow.

Everything about the White River downstream of Bull Shoals Dam is massive. It is a big flow, fed by eight generators in the dam. The trout water created by the flow coming from the lake’s 120-foot depths at a constant 48 to 54 degrees and stretches for more than 100 miles downriver to Lock & Dam No. 3 below the village of Guion.

To support the fishing, the Norfork National Fish Hatchery annual releases more than one million trout in the flow. In addition to the rainbows, the Bull Shoals tailwater now gets plantings of cutthroat, brook and golden rainbows. Still, it is the rainbows that offer the bulk of the fishing action.

The fishing pressure on the White these days precludes the rainbows from reaching sizes seen in the past. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission estimates that ups to 97 percent of the rainbow are caught and kept within a year of release.

Still ,there have been some sizeable ‘bows taken from this tailwater. In fact, seven of the 10 state record rainbows caught in Arkansas since the AGFC started keeping records in 1959 have come from the Bull Shoals tailwater. The initial record trout was an 11-pound 3-ounce rainbow in 1959. The present record is held by another Bull Shoals fish that weighed 19 pounds, 1 ounce and was taken in 1981 by Jim Miller of Memphis, Tennessee.

White River johnboat.

A great deal of deal of the fishing on the White is from boats, since that method can work even when water is being released at the dam. Much of this action occurs from 20-foot johnboats that are a tradition dating back about a century on the stream.

On the other hand, when generation is low – particularly if no generators are running – the White becomes a wade fisherman’s dream. The fly patterns that work on this tailwater run the gamut. Some that are recommended by the AGFC are Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Copper Johns, Zebra Midges and scud patterns. For stripping, try Wooly Buggers, Muddler Minnows or Maribou Streamers. For the surface action, turn to Stimulators, Parachute Adams and Blue-Winged Olive dry flies.

A variety of fly patterns work on the Bull Shoals tailwater.

Trying to describe the rainbow trout fishing on the Bull Shoals’ 100-mile tailwater would take a full book, rather than a web journal article. For that reason, let’s concentrate on the first 25 miles from Bull Shoals Dam down to Rim Shoals near the village of Buford. One factor in choosing this stretch is the presence of Bull Shoals State Park, as well as two of the best wade-fishing shoals for fly fishing found on the river. Those latter two are found at Wildcat Shoals Public Access and the Rim Shoals Walk-In area. Along with the park those will be the focus of our attention.

Bull Shoals State Park

This park covers 725 acres of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ land at the foot of Bull Shoals Dam. Laying along the east side of river, the park offers bank access, wadable shoals at low water levels, a boat ramp, campground, parking areas and a state-owned trout dock. Of special interest to fly casters is Dew Eddy Shoals that are positioned at the downstream edge of the park land.

This site also has been identified as the Ozark’s largest spawning ground for brown trout. As a result, special regulations cover the fishing action here. No fishing is allowed in the first 100 yards downstream of the dam. From that point to the downstream boundary of the park, the regulations call for catch-and-release fishing from February 1 to October 31. Only artificial lures and flies are permitted and all hooks must be barbless.

Starting on November 1 to January 31 no fishing is allowed from the dam down to the wing dike at the state trout dock. Below the dike, downstream to the park boundary the lure restrictions still apply and brown trout must be released.

Wildcat Shoals Access

Locate 12 miles downstream of the dam, this is a AGFC property on the eastern shore. There is a parking area and paved boat ramp and it is one of the most popular sites on the river for low-water fly casting. The landing is on Denton Ferry Road (Baxter County Road 9).

The shoal is actually downstream around the bend from the access site. There is a spur road off of Denton Ferry Road to the east of the access site, with a pathway leading down to the river. There are no special regulations for fishing at this site.

It takes water releases an estimated three hours to reach this location.

Rim Shoals Walk-In Access

Rim Shoals is 24.5 miles below Bull Shoals Dam and located on the east side of the White River. On the river through here, from the mouth of Jenkins Creek downstream to the first powerline crossing, only artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks are allowed, and all fish must be immediately released.

Rim Shoals, just upstream of Upper Rim Island.

This site has walk-in access for low-water wading from Baxter County Road 60. The shoal contains two islands referred to as Upper Rim and Lower Rim. That second one is sometimes called White Shoals by locals.

Rim Shoals during a high water period.

A bonus at this site is the operation run by the adjacent Rim Shoals Resort. During high water periods, they provide a daily river taxi service. For a round trip fee of $10 they ferry anglers to several areas of the shoal that remain wadable. That service operates most days from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Water releases arrive here approximately six hours after starting at Bull Shoals Dam.