Trip Report: Big Brown Trout On The White River

Frank Saska still gets inquisitive looks when folks see the jerkbaits tied to his lines, but not nearly as many as he once did. A long-time trout guide on Arkansas' White River, Saska helped pioneer the idea of casting them to get the attention of jumbo brown trout in the tailwater behind Bull Shoals Dam. Today the tactic is fairly well known, and when the turbines are turning during the spring, jerking and pausing big plugs is a common way to hook up with oversized brown trout. My 10-year-old son Nathaniel and I recently spent a few days throwing jerkbaits with Saska. The first thing we learned was that water level matters. One way to measure this is to ccount the number of turbines running. Standard wisdom says that if three or four turbines are turning (the dam has eight), conditions are right for jerkbait fishing. In Saska's mind, though, the more water the better. Really high water severely limits the places fish can feed efficiently, and that makes them very predictable. Boat positioning is more challenging in such conditions, and casts must be precise when the water is really ripping, but that's when Saska often locks horns with his biggest browns. He likes big suspending baits and fishes them with erratic jerks and long pauses that keep the bait in the strike zone. The fish in this picture slammed a Smithwick Rogue that Saska hadn't moved for three or four seconds. He had gotten the bait 6 or 7 feet down with a couple hard jerks and was letting it dead drift over a break.Jeff Samsel
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First we had to get to the river. This took 12 hours by car. We got there in the dark, had dinner, then couldn't resist walking down to the river for a few casts. Since big browns are largely nocturnal, we figured our chances were good. When my plug met this stick I was certain the show had begun already.Jeff Samsel
No dainty dry flies on this trip. As brown trout mature, they largely abandon insects and turn to crawfish, sculpins, minnows and other large menu items - including small trout. Three- and 4-inch jerkbaits suggest a serious meal to hefty brown trout, and when the water is running hard, causing the fish to feed aggressively, jerkbaits are pretty tough to top for fun or productivity. Most fish hit on the pause, knocking every bit of slack out of the line.Jeff Samsel
We met Saska the next morning just upstream of Gaston's Resort, where we spent the night. The first brown trout of the morning hit an XCalibur Stick Bait two twitches from the bank. It's not at all uncommon to catch several browns in this size range while searching for a "big one" on the White River. A huge volume of quality habitat, very abundant food, and special regulations that help the fish reach large sizes make this a world-class trophy brown trout fishery.Jeff Samsel
Here's a closeup of the lure. We had good success with it every time the light was low during our two days on the river.Jeff Samsel
Saska took this photo the day before we arrived and on our first day out made sure we fished the area - which produced the biggest brown of the trip. Regular stocking sites, which are scattered throughout the 100-mile-long Bull Shoals tailwater, rank among of the very best places to catch really big trout, according to Saska. Equipped with giant mouths, male browns over 5 or 6 pounds have no problems feeding on a small stockers, and little rainbows are like candy to the truly gigantic fish.Jeff Samsel
Beyond keeping the biggest browns fat and happy, stocked rainbows are also fun to catch, and a surprising number will attack jerkbaits that seem too large for them to eat. Catching rainbows - or at least getting hits from them - provides a clue that you're working your bait right, according to Saska. The best cadence -- the length of the jerk and the length of the pause -- can vary daily, and the rainbows and browns typically favor the same presentations. One major difference is that a rainbow will follow a bait and hit it close to the boat. Browns will sometimes follow lures, but if they don't grab them right away they'll almost always turn away without feeding.Jeff Samsel
Throwing jerkbaits for brown trout calls for a very active approach, targeting shoreline cover with most casts and staying attentive at all times. It's important to mix up presentation - not falling into a rut with jerks and pauses - and to take note of what you were doing any time fish hit. Some days it really doesn't matter. More often, the fish want it a certain way.Jeff Samsel
While not all streams yield the quality of trout that the White does on a regular basis, anglers in many areas could substantially increase their chances of catching larger trout by spending time working lures that imitate substantial food items. It may take a fish or two on the line to gain the necessary confidence to stick with a jerkbait, but once that confidence has been instilled, watch out!Jeff Samsel
You can learn a lot about fish by watching other fishermen. They gravitate toward comfort - fires on cold days and shade on hot days - and congregate around food sources. Fish are the same way. And if you watch fishermen closely, you'll likely notice that the big boys don't waste a lot of plate space on salad greens. Remember that when you're picking lures.Jeff Samsel
Saska changes jerkbaits regularly any time the bite has waned even a little, especially if conditions have changed. The sun breaking out or the water level going up or down even a little can drastically alter the fish's preferences regarding colors, profiles, and running depths.Jeff Samsel
Virtually all brown trout caught from the White River are released. Keeper size is 24 inches, which is about a 6 pounds on average, but most of the real trophies get put back anyway. Most anglers who want a mount opt to measure and photograph the fish so that they can get a reproduction made.Jeff Samsel
Saska, who fishes mostly with artificial lures, added oars to his johnboat so he could maintain control of his drift line, speed, and angle. The White is a large trout river, and the fish orient very specific ways to cover and structure, according to water levels. Whether Saska's clients are dredging nymphs through runs along the edges of gravel bars, drifting trout worms with bottom-bouncing rigs, or casting big jerkbaits to shoreline targets, boat positioning remains critical.Jeff Samsel
We got our best (highest) water in the morning, and by afternoon it would begin fall. On lower water, I found my best success with an XCalibur Twitch Bait, which is an inch shorter than most of the baits that we used. Along with stretching the brown trout bite a little longer, the slightly smaller offering produced more stocker-size rainbows in between browns.Jeff Samsel
On high water, Saska maximizes his window of opportunity by "hotspotting" - hitting very specific banks or gravel bars that browns use at specific water levels and then running to the next one. If a bank produces, he might drift it two or three times before making a move. When the water is a little lower and the fish spread out more, he'll basically drift the river, switching banks to make sure baits stay over the most productive water.Jeff Samsel
It's the dream of everyone who fishes an Arkansas tailwater. A replica of the world record brown trout - the 40-pound, 4-ounce giant that H. "Rip" Collins pulled from the Little Red River in 1992 - is displayed in the visitor's center that rests on a bluff overlooking Bull Shoals Dam and the upper end of its legendary tailwater on the White River. Are there world record fish swimming in the White and the Little Red? Probably. Why not find out for yourself?Jeff Samsel

If you're looking to catch a giant brown trout in the White River, leave the little spinners at home. In this tailwater, it's all about big lures and serious boat handling. Jeff Samsel reports on learning the ropes of this late winter fishery.

And if you want to test your might against some White River browns, whether with big plugs, bait or flies, visit gastons.com or call (870) 431-5202