White River Hawg

The big fish in the White River below Bull Shoals are likely to be brown trout, but there are some big rainbows, too. A good one saved the day on what started out to be a turkey hunt.

The plan was to turkey hunt on the ridges between Norfork and Calico Rock. But somewhere along the way Friday, a fly fishing trip broke out.

There was turkey hunting. Just no gobblers. After following three ridges along the White River in beautiful North Arkansas not far from Mountain Home, Wayne Reed shrugged his shoulders and said, “No birds. Tough season. Oh, well.”

Reed is the best turkey hunter I know. I was interested in watching his action, listening to him call. It reminded me that he's also one of the best hunters I know period. We've had some great duck hunts, too.

It was just the second turkey hunt for me. The second was just like the first, no shots fired. When I went with Jeremiah Gage 15 years ago on Whiting Mountain near Cass, Ark., there was a gobbler working. It produced chills. It disappeared in the dogwoods just a few yards out of range.

Wayne's efforts were in vain last week. He said it's been a tough season, even for him. He bid me farewell about 8 a.m. It happens early in turkey hunting, or doesn't happen at all.

I thought the weekend was going to be spent on the flea market trail with the wife since fly fishing seemed out of the question. I am a wade fisherman and the lakes are high, meaning high generation and nothing for me.

But there was a call from another buddy, Cotter resident Bill Pettit. A visiting guide from Fraser, Colo., Bob Wegerer, was out for a drift in his dory. Would I like to fill a seat for the float to Rim Shoals? They were already past Roundhouse Shoals, so I had to park on the highway and walk down the bank to hop in the boat.

Wegerer was just testing his rowing muscles after a long winter off and visiting relatives in Lakeview. Pettit had the bow and I gladly took the back seat.

The flows were high with lots of trash in the water. I still insisted on drifting size 18 midges, pushing the limit with light tackle, including 6x tippet. Why? I just love tiny stuff, even if it wasn't probably recommended for slightly stained water.

So there I was fishing two midges, a root beer with a ruby dropper. The fishing was only slightly better than the turkey hunting as far as numbers. Catching three fish on a two-hour float isn't anything to write about.

But I'm writing about fishing today instead of spring football because of one fish, a glorious rainbow that qualifies as my first true monster from the White River. You'll catch some big browns because of the 24-inch minimum instituted two years ago. But the rainbows are harvested quickly since there are no regulations. A big rainbow on the White is 16 inches.

There had been one stocker rainbow, probably 12 inches, early in the float. I had taunted my spin fishing buddy in the bow that I'd wait on him to catch his first before landing my second. After 45 minutes, I told him I'd stop messing around.

I was joking, but just barely 60 seconds later after announcing my get-serious intentions, the big rainbow came out of some structure near the bank to eat my ruby midge. I was standing, with my legs locked into the casting brace, so I could see it well in 15 feet of water. Surely a fish this big was a brown? But, no, I saw the white of a long belly flash and then everyone in the boat saw white again after the first run.

I made a two-part announcement, but mostly a warning, “It's big and it's on 6x tippet. We will be lucky to land it.”

Bob is good with the oars and immediately worked double time to move the dory upstream against the heavy flows to chase the fish. A veteran guide with perfect strokes, he held the boat and helped me move the big rainbow into the middle of the big river.

There were two dashes, but nothing that Bob couldn't match. There was one dangerous point, with a big moss bed under us. The cagy rainbow dove straight to it, and under the downstream edge, out of sight.

Crap. It was the moment of truth, I thought. Bob was the truth. He let the boat pop downstream and the fish came free. Better yet, it came straight to the surface, in what seemed like a 15-foot deep section of the river.

Pettit had put up his spin rod and grabbed the long boat net. My new 10-foot, 5-weight Scott Radian fly rod did it's magic when I raised the tip high. I tightened a couple of notches on the drag on my Lamson reel and the fish came straight to Pettit. It was in the boat.

Yes, there are pictures of this rainbow estimated to be just over 24 inches. Pettit used his iPhone, but the pro in the boat pulled out a point and shoot with a flash. With perfect light, the vibrant colors of my best White River rainbow will be on display forever. The only thing left was to revive the majestic fish for someone else. Done. Bob offered a handshake as the big rainbow dove back to the bottom.

I can't wait to get in Wegerer's boat again, perhaps in his home waters, the grand North Platte in Colorado and Wyoming. Plans are in the works for a summer trip, when it's hot in Arkansas and cool on the Platte. I may even take Pettit along. He makes me look good and is handy with a net and a camera.

Some probably remember, he once filmed while I landed a 27-inch rainbow near Walden, Colo. There is no video this time, but that's OK on a day that was supposed to be a turkey hunt.

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