Fishing for food and recreation has played a significant part in Arkansas’s history. Accounts of Hernando De Soto’s expedition mention Native Americans (possibly in northeastern Arkansas around the St. Francis River) having developed complex canals and marsh ponds for keeping fish to be caught later at a chief’s leisure. By the mid-1800s, early illustrations of Arkansas show anglers fishing from a bank with a rod and line (probably using a worm or minnow). In the 1920s and 1930s, as automobiles became more common, state parks and hatchery personnel discovered that fishermen did not hesitate to travel 200 miles or more to good fishing waters. Incidental newspaper reports began to appear about this time mentioning fly anglers traveling from Batesville (Independence County) upstream on the White River to fly-fish. By 1935, groups from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri also began gathering at the town of Norfork (Baxter County) to fly-fish the North Fork and Buffalo rivers for bass.
Fly-fishing equipment during the early decades of the twentieth century was limited at first to bamboo fly rods, silk lines, and gut leaders. Between the two world wars, a steel fly rod also became available. The Pflueger Company of Akron, Ohio, introduced its first Medalist fly reel in about 1931. It was not, however, until after World War II that plastic-coated fly lines and fiberglass rods began to be made. As people began to gain leisure time and had more expendable income, the appeal of fly-fishing started to grow. Bait casting involved heavy gear, and cane poles were limited in their reach. Spinning gear was not yet available. Anglers enjoyed casting to and playing fish on light tackle with a flexible fly rod. Locally tied artificial flies at first were in short supply and consisted mostly of traditional black, brown, or grizzly hackled wets or dries, bucktail streamers, and wooden popping bugs.
The Shakespeare Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, began to research manufacturing fiberglass rods in 1947. In 1965, it moved reel production to Fayetteville (Washington County), where it remained until 1982. Shakespeare acquired the Pflueger Company in 1966 and continued to produce the Medalist fly reel, one of the most popular fly reels in the country at the time. Graphite fly rods from a number of rod manufacturers began to appear by the mid-1970s, and they gained favor because of their lightweight and sensitive feel.
As construction of ponds, lakes, and reservoirs began to increase in Arkansas, more people began fly-fishing for bass and panfish. Lake anglers used fly-rods for pitching popping bugs to bluegill and bass in places like Lake Conway in Faulkner County, which produced large stringers of fish in the 1950s and 1960s. Many anglers, too, used bait with a fly rod for catfish and buffalo fish in rivers. Some anglers even discovered that bullfrogs would eat a small, dry fly landed in front of them.
By the late 1950s, however, the attention of fly-fishers was beginning to be drawn to the White River below Bull Shoals and Norfork dams where trout were being stocked as part of a mitigation program by a new federal hatchery at Norfork Dam. Reports of ten- and fifteen-pound rainbow and brown trout began to be circulated by people like Joe Brooks (1902–1972), America’s best-known angling writer at the time, and gained Arkansas national attention.
Another promoter of fly-fishing in Arkansas was Dave Whitlock, a research chemist living in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who went on to develop a career as a professional fly-tier and fly-fisherman. His 1968 destination article on the White River in Field and Stream highlighted fly-fishing tactics for the Arkansas tailwater and touted the year-round opportunities of the fishery. Whitlock moved to the Mountain Home (Baxter County) area, where he would later establish a fly-fishing school.
Mountain Home was also later the home of Wapsi Fly, Inc. Tom and Ann Schmuecker acquired the Wapsi Fly Company of Independence, Iowa, in 1973. The small company had gotten its start in 1945 on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River. An employee of a local poultry company had built the business into a ready source of flies, packaged materials, and bulk feathers such as rooster necks for fly-tiers. In 1978, the Schmueckers moved Wapsi to Mountain Home. As fly production became outsourced overseas, Wapsi concentrated on the materials business, becoming one of the largest fly material suppliers in the world.
By the 1970s, Federation of Fly Fishers clubs were gathering annually in Mountain Home for a fly-fishing conclave. Whitlock and members of two of these clubs (Green Country Fly Fishers and Arkansas Fly Fishers) received tacit approval from Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) to plant trout egg boxes in the White River below Bull Shoals Dam and the Little Red River below Greers Ferry Dam. These efforts proved successful in introducing wild strains of rainbow and brown trout into the tailwater fisheries. In 1992, Howard “Rip” Collins caught a forty-pound, four-ounce world-record brown trout in the Little Red tailwater on spinning gear. AGFC had not stocked catchable hatchery brown trout in this tailwater, so the fish is almost certain to have been naturally reproduced following the wild trout introduction efforts of the fly-fishing clubs. Arkansas held this record until 2009.
AGFC hired its first trout biologist in 1985 and began to expand its trout program to a number of tailwaters, streams, and lakes in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Its urban trout program, where trout are stocked in the winter months in local city ponds and lakes, is very popular. Conservation groups such as the Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited have used this program to launch introduction-to-fly-fishing programs. The groups have an important history of involvement with fishing in the state through education programs, supporting catch and release as a management tool, and habitat improvement efforts.
For additional information:
“Arkansas.” In McClane’s New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide. 2nd ed. Edited by A. J. McClane. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
Arkansas Fly Fishers. http://arkansasflyfishers.com/index.php (accessed February 7, 2022).
Brooks, Joe. Complete Guide to Fishing Across North America. New York: Outdoor Life, Harper and Row, 1966.
Moore, Ron. “Illinois River Offers Fishing Diversity, Solitary Angling.” The Morning News, November 23, 2001, p. 8B.
Mosby, Joe. “Small Baits, Lures Key to Summertime Fishing.” Rogers Morning News, July 22, 2010, p. 7A.
Putthoff, Flip. “Midsummer Day’s Dream: Fly Fishers Find Fast Action with Popping Bugs.” Rogers Morning News, September 2, 2010, p. 6A.
Whitlock, Dave. “Four Seasons River.” Field and Stream (May 1968): 70–71, 100, 102–104.
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