Norfork Tailwater

Overview, Norfork Tailwater

Posted by Phil Lilley on September 6th, 2011
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by Gabe Cross

History, Norfork Tailwater

Norfork Dam was the first of five U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams built in the White River basin after World War II. Named for the nearby town of Norfork, this dam offers a short but productive cold release tailwater (4.8 miles).) The confluence of the Norfork and White rivers is approximately 44 river miles from Bull Shoals Dam on the White. The powerhouse at Norfork Dam has two 40-megawatt generators and releases range from 40 cubic feet per second (ideal for wading) to 6500 cubic feet per second when it’s at power crest. This is the least amount of flow out of any of the five dams during peak releases, and that makes it shallower and easier to fish when the water is high. That is also why this tailwater has a special place in the hearts of many fly fishermen.

Notoriety

Although many consider the fishing on the Norfork tailwater the best they’ve ever seen, the fact is that this trout stream used to be far more prolific. For many years very few people fished this obscure river, and the growth rates were amazing because of a rich and diverse food base. That obscurity ended in 1988 when a world-record brown trout was caught out of the Norfork.  Since then pressure has steadily increased on the river. Now it is a popular spot, and can often be crowded during peak times. The fishery has an amazing resiliency and the ability to produce trout stretching longer than 18 inches. The average fish is very respectable, and the beauty of the fish on the Norfork is hard to find anywhere else (this has to do with their primary food source of scuds.) But it does look like more restrictive regulations, if implemented, could bring back the heyday fishing of the past.

Food Base

The Norfork is loaded with a wide array of food sources. Scuds (freshwater shrimp) make up the bulk of the trout’s diet, but sow bugs and midges are also daily staples. Worms can be found all year, and the trout key in on this food source when the water is high. This right here is enough to have a great trout stream, but the Norfork has so much more — tons of minnows, crayfish, and sculpins. Then throw in the usual winter shad kill, and it’s easy to see why there is no trout stream with the potential of the Norfork anywhere else. The fish here can eat all they want whenever they want. There are also good insect hatches here during low water conditions. Sulphur mayflies, caddis, and crane flies come off all spring, summer and fall. Midges can be seen almost every day of the year, and there are even some blue-winged olives in the winter. This is a new stream from a geological perspective, so it is conceivable that new hatches will develop over time.

Structure

From Norfork Dam to McClellen’s is a lot of gravel with some significant rock and bank structure. For the most part there is little trouble in the middle of the river. McClellen’s to the Handicap Access has some gravel, but more flat rock and ledge rock, and this is pretty much the case up to the confluence.

Flows

Low water: 20-40 cubic feet per second
Power Crest (90mw): @6700 cubic feet per second

New Minimum Flows – See Article

Water temperatures

The coldest water is usually in the summer where I’ve seen it as low as 49 degrees by the dam. Because the lake is smaller than the others we sometimes lose cold water in the late summer when near constant generation literally “sucks” the cold water from the bottom of the lake. When this happens, temperatures can reach 60 degrees in the fall. The average temp is around 52 degrees.

Species of fish

Anglers on the Norfork can possibly catch brook trout up to 18 inches, (weighing about four pounds), brown trout up to  25 inches (it does happen), rainbows up to 22 inches, and cutthroats up to 18 inches. And there are definitely bigger ones out there than what I’ve mentioned.

Fish Stocking

Stockings are done on the Norfork weekly to daily depending on the seasonal demand. Trout are stocked by truck at Norfork Dam, McClellen’s, and its confluence with the White River.  Brook, brown, and cutthroat trout are often stocked once a year with rainbows making up the majority of fish stocked.

Unofficial Lake Records

Brown: 38 pounds by Huey Manley 1988
Brook: five pounds
Cutthroat: eight pounds
Rainbow: 17 pounds

Winter shad kill

No other Ozarks tailwater event gets local and visiting anglers more excited than the annual shad kill. This is when the dynamics of the water in the lakes causes millions of threadfin and gizzard shad (these are a forage fish that are usually silver or white) to congregate by the dam’s stock pens. The stock pens are the tubes that draw water into the generators. When power is generated, tons of the shad get sucked through the turbines, and they end up in the river. The harrowing ride usually leaves the shad crippled, and as they float along the surface they are easy prey for the river’s trout. In order for a shad kill to occur, the winter must have some cold periods, and there must be enough water in the lakes to allow for power generation. Shad are warmwater fish, so the shad often start coming through the dams when the warmest water in the lake is at the same level of water that is drawn for power.

Growth rates of the trout are amazing during this time, and it is also a great opportunity to catch a huge fish. When a food source becomes readily available, our trout will “key in,” and they soon learn to feed very opportunistically. During the shad kill, the fishing is usually excellent throughout the White as many of the river’s elusive browns begin feeding aggressively. Norfork can also be exciting during the shad kill, and it is fun because you don’t know what species the next fish might be. On some days you catch mainly brook trout, cutthroats, and browns on the Norfork.

Because a shad kill only occurs during high-water periods, the most effective way to fish at these times is from a boat. Much of the action occurs at or near the surface, and it can get pretty intense during the right conditions. If you are interested in a guide trip during the shad kill, please be sure to call early because guides are usually booked fast.  Although shad kills have begun as early as October and have lasted through May, usually the best months for taking advantage of this phenomenon are January, February, March, and April. March is usually the peak because spring rains can supply the fuel for extended high-water periods. Even after the shad stop coming through the generators, many big fish still recognize this food source and shad imitations will work during certain conditions throughout the summer.

State Record River Fish

The White River system holds several state records, and rightly so.  I only bolsters the fact that the White River is one of the best fisheries in the state, as well in the country.

Brown Trout – Rip Collins’s 40 pounds, four ounces, caught on the Little Red River on May 2, 1992
(Held the world record for over 15 years)
Cutthroat Trout – Scott Rudolph’s nine pounds, nine ounces, caught on the White River on October 6, 1985
Rainbow Trout – Jim Miller’s 19 pounds, one ounce, caught on the White River on March 14, 1981
Striped Bass – Jeff Fletcher’s 64 pounds, eight ounces, caught on the White River on April 28, 2000
Chain Pickerel – Ave Vogel’s seven pounds, 10 ounces,  caught on the Little Red River on January 6, 1979
Alligator Gar – John Stortz’s 240-pounds, caught on the White River on July 28, 2004

Water release, past releases and river levels can be obtained by calling for a recorded message at 870-431-5311.

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