Ozarks

Oct. 14, 2009

My passion for wildness and clear, fast water has led me far and away yet again.
   When an opportunity presented itself, my girl and I took it and left Friday a week ago, headed north. Our journey would end with a week’s stay in Mountain Home, Arkansas, there between the valleys of two rivers.
   It was a two-day drive for us, we can’t handle 12 hours at a shot anymore. We stayed over in Texarkana – a smelly, hazy city that I’d rather not visit again – and completed the drive Saturday. The Southern Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers just happened to be holding its annual conclave in Mountain Home that weekend, with 1,600 fly fishermen in attendance.
   We arrived too late for the conclave, which ended an hour early, but we were able to have supper with my friends Larry Offner and his wife Debbie, of Denham Springs, and Glen Cormier of Baton Rouge.
   Mountain Home is spitting distance from the Missouri border in the center of the top of Arkansas. Its sprawling size is counter intuitive to its population of 11,000. Nestled there in the hills of the Salem Plateau, the city is home to a tremendous tourism industry, mostly based on fishing.
   To the west of Mountain Home is the White River, the lower section created by the construction of Bull Shoals Lake Dam. To the east, the Norfork River or “North Fork of the White River” properly, was created by the dam on Lake Norfork. South is the Buffalo River, the first national scenic river so designated in the U.S., back in 1972. It has no dam, thanks to the efforts of citizens who protested and won federal protection for what remains one of few unpolluted river systems in this country.
   West and southeast is Ozark National Forest; a bit farther east from Mountain Home, close to Missouri still, is Mammoth Springs, a 9 million gallon per day natural spring that creates the Spring River.
   Before the dams were constructed, the White and the Norfork were cool, not cold, rivers. They supported excellent populations of smallmouth bass and panfish. But the towering concrete walls that formed the lakes and provide hydroelectric power to the area now let in extremely cold water from their bases, water cold enough to support that most magnificent species of freshwater fish, the trout.
   Since the construction of the dams in the 1940s and early 1950s, the White River and Norfork River have become world-class fisheries. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has been stocking rainbow, brown, brook and cutthroat trout there and in the Spring River for decades, establishing a population that is partially wild and partially stockers.
   The Ozarks are, technically, not mountains. The area was a huge plateau uplifted some 300 millions years ago, which was subsequently eroded by rivers. Their neighbors to the south, the Ouachitas, are true mountains. Regardless, you can’t tell the difference now, 300 million years later! Summits in the Ozarks can reach 2,500 feet, but most are in the 500-1,500 foot range.
   The unfortunate thing about these dams is that, when the power generators are running, the water levels rise quickly and dangerously. Fishermen have to be very careful, or risk being swept away by the sudden surge of released water. When the generators are not running, the White and Norfork settle into slower-flowing, crystal clear rivers teeming with trout.
   See why when the opportunity arose, I took it?
   Fortune was not to treat me kindly, though. Due to all the recent rains, both lakes were at flood pool and, upon our arrival, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers felt the need to reduce that level in the lakes, especially with forecasts of more water on the way. So, just my luck, all dams ran at full output 24-hours a day the entire week.
   This makes fishing nearly impossible, except from a boat, which I didn’t have nor did I wish to rent, for they are too costly for my wallet. There are a few bankside fishing access areas – Arkansas is a role model for providing public access to water, a lesson Louisiana could learn from – and with 1,600 fly fishermen in the area, they were shoulder-to-shoulder after 9 a.m. I can’t fish that way.
   Let me tell you, though, there were some mighty ticked off fishermen around, and if the Corps hadn’t locked their doors, I think a lynch mob would have presented itself to them. Many, many fly fishermen go to conclave every year in Mountain Home as it is the second southernmost trout waters available to Louisianians and our neighbors, next to the Little Red River and Little Missouri River, also formed by a dam on Greers Ferry Lake in central Arkansas.
   Plus the weather was not cooperative, with rain every other day. However, we made the best of the opportunity we were given.
   Sunday morning, Larry and I headed to Quarry Park, not a hundred yards from Norfork Dam. Here I got my first good look at the river: A wide, clear, green-tinted beast, the Norfork River threw itself southward with power that is humbling. I don’t know how many cubic feet per minute were coming out of the bottom of the dam, but I have never seen a river move so powerfully, like a limpid juggernaut. We fished anyway, and Larry managed to land a beautiful brown trout, but he’s fished these waters many times before and is more experienced than I, who caught zilch that morning. He and his wife had to leave around noon.

   There are allegedly more trout per acre in the White and the Norfork than anywhere else in the United States, but that snarling, leaping river made presenting a fly to them a nearly impossible proposition. Add to it the frequent rains, and I had my work cut out for me.
   As it happens, I found out that just before we arrived, and before daylong generation began, two fishermen had been caught by surprise by the rising water. They tell you, everywhere you go in this area, to watch for signs of rising water if you are wading, and if you see it happen, get out of the river at once, don’t go the “one more cast” route, don’t play around, get out of the river.
   It appears two fishermen missed the signs and were swept down the White River. Two other fishermen managed to wade in – at risk of their own lives – and snatch one out to safety. The second was saved by an older gentleman who grabbed him by the belt as he rushed past in the current and dragged him ashore. The rescuer suffered a heart attack in the process, but was saved by emergency personnel.
   But sit back, if you will, and for the next few columns I’ll tell you my adventures of pursuing trout in northern Arkansas, and some of the adventures we had along the way.