Anytime I meet a young fly fisher, one of the first things I ask them is if they have had the opportunity to fish Arkansas’ Dry Run Creek. If they have been themselves, they understand why I so eagerly ask. Meanwhile, I imagine that those who have never experienced this otherworldly fishery feel my pulse rise as I attempt to describe the outrageous fish that hold behind its rocks and riffles. Flowing into the North Fork of the White River just below the North Fork Dam, the tributary attracts trout—monster trout— into its shallow waters to feed and spawn. These are the kinds of trout that are classified as “donkeys,” “toads,” or your big fish lingo of choice. The North Fork Fish Hatchery is situated adjacent to the creek and dumps its fair share of stocked fish in as well. Best of all, the creek is specially regulated for kids under the age of 16 as well as individuals confined to wheelchairs, limiting fishing pressure and providing a world-class opportunity for these individuals.
One of my good buddies from grade school and Boy Scouts told me about his time fishing the creek with his dad and uncle. It instantly made its way to the top of my bucket list of places to fish. He explained to me that the big browns move up into the creek in the Fall as they get ready to spawn and showed me pictures of some of the biggest trout I had ever laid eyes on, colored bright orange with massive, hook shaped kypes. The White River holds the world record brown trout and is renowned for trophy fish that spend much of their lives in its deep holes sheltered from predators. When these fish move into shallow tributaries such as the Dry Run Creek, they are targetable by sight with nymphs, streamers, and egg patterns.
Mom joined me on my trip to Arkansas during the Fall of 2014. I was 15 at the time and eager to take the opportunity to fish the creek while I was still young enough to do so. We got connected through a friend to Steve Wilson, former Director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who invited us to stay with him and his wife Jo for a few days and fish. Steve picked us up from the airport and drove us through the Ozarks to their home. Being October, the leaves were popping with color. We walked in their front door to the enthusiastic pitter-patter of their 2 dogs and the homey smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies. Prior to arriving, mom and I joked that, for all we knew, we could be showing up to the house of axe murders hiding out in the remote hills of the Ozarks much like the popular Netflix series. From the moment we arrived, however, I felt as though we were family. As we got to know each other, Steve shared about his many engagements with conservation and pursuit of honoring Arkansas’ legacy as “the Natural State.” Having served as director of AGFC for 20 years, he saw the passage of legislation to open new hunting seasons, invest in new fisheries, and collect a one-eighth-cent general sales tax for Arkansas Conservation organizations. He certainly left his mark on the state as its longest tenured director, as well as on my life as an influential role model in conservation.
Moreover, Steve shared with me one of the most memorable days on the water of my life. We showed up to the stream on a brisk Saturday morning, fog rising through the tangled arms of oaks along the bank. At first, the water did not seem all that impressive as we walked down to the bank from the car, but as soon as we neared the edge, my eyes were opened. I would love to see a photo of my expression when I looked into the first pool and saw trout stacked together so thick that many had their backs out of the water trying to swim over top one another. These were not small fish, either. Hundreds of brown trout were in line below the spillway from the fish hatchery, the majority over 16 inches with dozens in the 20-inch class. I was simply amazed. It is difficult to fathom finding so many fish together and certainly challenging to adequately describe in writing. It was one of those “you have to see it to believe it” moments. For a while, I stood and watched as they swam over top of each other, squeezing into whatever free space they could find, finning the surface. I refused to cast knowing I would be much more likely to snag a fish before I ever got one to eat, but it was truly awesome to see.
We dropped down to a deeper section, and Steve recommended I throw a nymph rig with a pheasant tail and a worm. The fish abided. It didn’t take long to land our first Arkansas trout, a 17-inch cutbow with vibrant, cherry red sides. Throughout the morning, we caught our fair share of browns and rainbows, many around 20 inches. It was a trout fisherman’s playground. The fish were not always easy, but persistence in each hole usually paid off. After we had our fun with the nymph set up, I switched over to an egg and began sight fishing to specific trout. I had never targeted individual fish with a nymph, but because the fly was bright pink, it was easy to see them eat. Natural selection played to our favor as fish readily assault eggs of other trout. The big fish were especially willing to attack the egg pattern. I took a few shots at one fish that was undoubtedly over 30 inches—the first I had ever seen—but he was wise to the tactic. Still, even just getting to cast to a fish of a lifetime like that was an amazing feature of this fishery. Though I admire the regulations in place for the Dry Run Creek, I was sad to leave after a weekend of catching the biggest trout of my career knowing it would likely be my first and only opportunity to fish those waters.
I loved seeing the facilities along the stream to enable individuals with physical disabilities to fish. There are a series of platforms and walkways to make it more accessible to individuals fishing from wheelchairs. The day we fished, I saw several anglers using them with both fly and spin casting rods. Fly fishing, along with fishing generally, has the power to engage people of all walks of life and abilities with the outdoors, providing a level of accessibility to experience nature that is unparalleled by many other forms of recreation. I spoke to a few folks that day fishing from wheelchairs who were there with the same goal as me: to catch big trout on the fly. But I also spoke with anglers using these facilities who shared that that they simply enjoyed being near the creek and watching its tranquil flow, or found a therapeutic release in the art of casting, regardless of whether they ever had a fish on the end of their line. I love this about the sport, and especially admire this feature of the Dry Run Creek with its trophy opportunities protected for youth and those who may have more difficulty physically accessing other fisheries. It is a must-visit destination for those who are eligible and love trout!