Frank Saksa backed the johnboat out of the slip at Gaston's White River Resort and pointed it upstream. It was the first of several boats to pull away from the dock on a sunny and cool March morning.
Frank Saksa backed the johnboat out of the slip at Gaston’s White River Resort and pointed it upstream. It was the first of several boats to pull away from the dock on a sunny and cool March morning.
I joined Saksa for Gaston’s annual media outing, which brings together outdoor writers from across the Southeast to enjoy the venerable resort’s hospitality and the Bull Shoals area’s outstanding fishing.
With two hydropower units generating electricity at Bull Shoals Dam, Saksa’s plan called for a quick run to the dam to fish the catch-and-release area above Bull Shoals White River State Park. Threadfin shad had been washing through the dam’s turbines in recent days, and rainbow trout and brown trout had been availing themselves of the easy meal.
“Four or five (hydropower) units would be even better,” Saksa said, “but two’s better than nothing.”
When temperatures drop into the bone-chilling range each winter, threadfin shad in Bull Shoals Lake succumb to the cold water temperatures and flush through the dam’s turbines during times of hydropower generation. Untold numbers of the silvery baitfish pour into the tailwater in the piscine version of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
When the shad are thick, it’s the very definition of a feeding frenzy, and trout fishermen flock to the White River in droves.
Unfortunately, this year wasn’t exactly a boom year for the shad bite below Bull Shoals Dam. The exceptionally mild winter meant relatively few baitfish washed through the turbines this year. But after guiding anglers on the White River for more than three decades, Saksa knew there was still a chance to capitalize on the trout’s instincts and habits. Because the fish are somewhat conditioned to the annual occurrence, even the presence of a few dying shad could trigger the fish to bite shad-imitating lures.
Saksa was betting on it, and it paid off on his first cast.
The veteran guide cast out a white marabou jig and let it sink for three or four seconds. As the bait fluttered toward the riverbed, he popped the tip of his medium-action spinning rod and then let the bait drop again. Saksa hadn’t retrieved the lure halfway back to the boat before a rainbow trout seized it and zipped away.
With the current washing over the first set of shoals below the dam, the fish seemed bigger than it was. But there was nothing shameful about the 15-inch rainbow that Saksa gently played to the side of the boat.
“First cast,” he said. “Not bad.”
When it comes to trout fishing in Arkansas, few spectacles rival the annual shad bite below Bull Shoals Dam. Sometimes the trout are so thick in the catch-and-release area that it’s like watching feeding time at an aquarium. You can actually see the fish swirling and attacking in the clear water.
The trout’s instinct is so strong that they’ll often react to water surges long after the shad have ceased washing through the dam. I witnessed such a spectacle in April 2001 when the Southwest Power Administration, which operates the hydropower function of the dam, started generating electricity one spring afternoon following several weeks of extremely low water. Although no shad actually came through the turbines, several friends and I tied on white streamer flies and caught dozens of massive rainbows and browns in less than an hour.
That scene didn’t play out on the trip with Saksa earlier this month, but with two hydropower units making electricity at the dam, there was just enough water to keep things interesting.
The white marabou jig continued to produce fish, and Saksa changed up the presentation by tying a brown jig on another rod. He periodically cast a silver jerkbait that also tricked several fish.
Although we caught several better-than-average rainbow trout, the biggest reward was the steady supply of big brown trout that engulfed our lures. For every rainbow, we caught two chunky browns. All ranged from 16 to 22 inches in length.
Saksa attributed the glut of brown trout to the high-water years the state experienced in 2007 and 2008, when extended periods of high water gave the fish abundant habitat to grow and thrive.
“The river is just full of browns like this,” Saksa said, holding up a 20-inch brown for a photograph. “You can go up and down the river and catch fish like this all day long.”
He wasn’t boasting. Over the next two hours, we caught several more browns in the same size range. As the wind picked up and hastened our departure for a shore lunch, Saksa capped the day with a long but skinny brown trout that measured 22 inches.
“See how skinny this fish is?” Saksa said. “This is a female that will weigh 7 or 8 pounds when she fills out.”
Maybe that’ll happen in time for next year’s media outing at Gaston’s.
Editor’s note: To see the results of this fishing trip and learn more about White River trout fishing, tune in to “Talkin’ Outdoors at the Corner Café” at 9 a.m. today on KARZ, channel 42, or 11 tonight on KARK, channel 4.