Worthy White River offers trout year-round

Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com Fishing editor Ken Schultz also is a commentator for "BassCenter," which air Saturdays on ESPN2; look for his "Reel Speak" segment.

LAKEVIEW, Ark. — Not many people think about trout fishing in the winter, since trout are residents of cold water that are usually found in places that are cold in winter.

But if you've got a yen for some trout action in late fall or over the winter, one place that you can go — and not only be reasonably comfortable most of the time but stand a great chance at catching both numbers and size of fish — is the White River.

To the first-time visitor, the White is deceptive. It doesn't look like much of a trout stream.

When the water is low and you can see every boulder and pebble from a long distance away, you have to marvel at the fact that huge brown trout dwell in it and many have escaped capture for years in order to reach gargantuan proportions.

And when the meteorologist predicts a scorching mid-South summer day, a visitor cannot help but marvel at the fact that the river is densely shrouded in fog every morning and that a light jacket is needed to ward off the chill.

However, the White River, which was once a free-flowing smallmouth bass stream, is indeed premier trout water, although not in the sense of a storied Rocky Mountain river.

The docks and motorboats and fish-cleaning stations that line many portions of the White make that distinction very clear, not to mention the impoundments in between cold streams.

The perpetually cold-water (50 degrees) outflow of Bull Shoals, Table Rock, Norfolk Lakes and Lake Taneycomo, give trout the comfort level they need year-round. And their presence is sustained by aggressive fish stocking.

A good food source is provided by the slightly alkaline water, and the presence of many small cousins no doubt helps fuel big-fish growth. Once the big browns get a taste of juvenile rainbow trout meat, they're off an insect diet.

With little argument, the White River and its main tributaries are the most-frequent producers of really big river brown trout in North America.

Certainly some of the Great Lakes produce huge browns annually, but seldom do their tributaries.

The White River, and its 4-mile-long tributary, the North Fork, have yielded many brown trout in the 20- to 30-pound range, several to more than 30 pounds, a 40-pound, 4-ounce all-tackle world record in 1992 and a previous unofficial world record of 38 pounds, 9 ounces (not recognized as a record because a treble hook was used with bait). All these are in addition to previous and current line-class world records, two of which were 33 and 34 pounds.

It's estimated that 90 percent of the trout, however, are rainbows, and most of these are small, befitting what is primarily a hatchery-supported fishery. Some rainbows of larger size are caught, but the browns of all sizes are generally wary and more selective.

Most of the biggest browns succumb to a bait offering. Bait is very popular here, and may include marshmallows, cheese or salmon eggs; especially popular are processed baits, such as Power Bait. Worms and crickets also are favorites, as are wax worms in winter.

Fishing with small spinners, jigs and flies is less popular but certainly productive. In colder months, flyanglers can do very well, especially with nymphs and woolly buggers. Light lines and tippets are necessary because of the clarity of the water.

Some local anglers, accustomed to the flows and vagaries of the White, will wade and cast, especially when fishing with flies and lures. But most visitors fish out of long johnboats, either drifting or at anchor. To traverse shallow riffles, these are equipped with small outboard motors on a raised transom.

The best angling is usually in the upper reaches — in the North Fork River below the dam to its confluence with the White River — and on the White River, from the dam down to the town of Cotter.

This is a year-round fishery, with lots of small fish caught in the warmer months.

The November through March period, however, often produces some of the best catches of large trout.

Game-fish profile

Species: Trout, brown (Salmo trutta).

Other names: German brown, German trout, German brown trout, Loch Leven trout, European brown trout, English trout, brownie.

In general: The brown trout is the backbone of natural and hatchery-maintained trout fisheries on six continents, and is one of the world's premier sport fish, but it takes on many forms — river, lake and sea-run — in many diverse environments, and is varied in its appearance.

Identification: Brown trout get their common name from the typical olive-green, brown or golden-brown hue of their bodies. The belly is white or yellowish, and dark spots, sometimes encircled by a pale halo, are plentiful on the back and sides.

Spotting also can be found on the head and the fins along the back, and rusty-red spots also occur on the sides. There is a small adipose fin, sometimes with a reddish hue, ahead of the tail.

Size/age: Brown trout are a capable of growing to a maximum of 18 years, but most live no more than 12.

Technically the brown trout is one of the larger salmonids, although growth and maximum size are especially relative to the particular environment.

Most river and stream fish are only 9 to 14 inches in size, and found up to 4 or 5 pounds, rarely growing more than double that weight, although there are some notable exceptions. The White River in Arkansas has produced line-class world records, although most large brown trout come from big lakes.

Distribution: The brown trout is native to Europe and parts of Asia. It has been introduced into many suitable waters of the world, including Canada and, of course, the United States.

Food and feeding habits: Brown trout prefer cool, clear rivers and lakes with temperatures of 54 to 65 degrees. They can survive and thrive in waters from 65 to 75 degrees.

In rivers and streams they are wary and elusive fish that look for cover.

Life history and behavior: Brown trout spawn in the fall and early winter (October to February) in rivers or tributaries of lakes or large rivers. They return to the stream where they were born, choosing spawning sites that include spring-fed headwaters, the head of a riffle or the tail of a pool.

Brown trout mature in their third to fifth year and many become repeat spawners.

Apart from moving upstream to spawn, adults tend to stay at the same place in a river with very little movement to other stream areas.

In lakes, brown trout seek out levels of preferred temperature, and are deep during summer months and shallower in spring and fall when the water is cooler.

Food: Brown trout are carnivores and consume aquatic and terrestrial insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, fish, salamanders, and even tadpoles or frogs.

In small streams their diet may be largely insects; but in larger flows or where there is plenty of baitfish, it will also be assorted small fish.

For more fish species information, see Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia, available through www.kenschultz.com.