American Fly Fishing

Winter at Bull Shoals
By Matthew Dickerson

White River, AR

Boats full of anglers appear like ghosts out of the thick fog in the hour after dawn, and then disappear again. The thrum of an outboard announces some of them before they appear. Two or three dozen boats could be within a half mile, yet in the fog only one or two might be visible at a time. ALL PHOTOS BY MATTHEW DICKERSON AND PHIL BRODERSEN

Thick bone-chilling fog filled the valley, from the river all the way up the cedar-strewn bluffs, swallowing it whole like a 5-pound brown might swallow a bite of shad that had been sucked through the turbines from the lake above. Now and then, when our boat swung close to the shore, winter-barren sycamore branches materialized out of the fog like skeleton fingers clawing at the air, only to disappear a moment later. More often, another johnboat laden with two or more anglers appeared nearby, fading into view a few seconds after the fog-dampened roar of its outboard became audible over the wind and waves and our own motor’s thrum.

Later in the morning, when the sun burned through the fog, the temperature climbed from freezing up toward 60 and my stiff fingers thawed, while as many as two dozen boats were often visible at a given moment. The White River at Bull Shoals on February 1 is not for the faint of heart. Yet it is an outstanding fishery, one that can produce trophy brown trout, lots of fat rainbows (some reaching trophy size), an occasional cutthroat, and even a rare brook trout. And despite all the boat traffic on opening day, our expert guide, Frank Saksa, continued to find great lanes to drift through a long run before reengaging the motor and popping us up to the top again—rarely without at least one fish sampling our flies.