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Advanced White River Fly Fishing Techniques
Approaching “frog water” in search of trophy Ozark trout when the bite is tough
Fly fishermen by nature tend to dwell on their successes, as there really is little point in recounting the long and boring tales of tough days spent on the water. From an ego-only perspective, it does pay to concentrate on fishing efforts that utilize flies and techniques that have proven to be effective in the past, but in the long run, it is critical to also learn from fly fishing failures. This is how we are able to figure out solutions to complex trout fishing situations. Everyone’s personality is different, but those anglers who display humility and the desire to learn as much as possible are the ones who realize the most consistent and dramatic results.
As a guide and overall steward of the region, I try to stay positive (but honest) with respect to my Internet content, but in private, I work hard at figuring out what went wrong on a particular day, and I try to adjust in order to fix the problem. Giving myself a pat on the back will not help anyone catch more fish. There are undoubtedly times in the Ozarks when fishing can get really tough, and a river-wide shutdown in the bite will leave guides grasping for answers. When any number of outside and enigmatic variables causes the fishing to shut down, it is time to get into areas where you know your fly will be right in the face of a bunch of trout. Accomplishing this can be almost impossible when flows are at or near capacity, but a proven strategy I employ when it seems like I’ve tried everything to no avail is to seek out and concentrate on the many pieces of “frog water” found on the White River, Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo.
What is frog water?
There really isn’t an exact definition of frog water, but as far as I’m concerned, this term applies to any stretch of trapped, exceedingly slow or murky water. Frog water is usually found along the banks and it will often be in the shade. Depths range from a few inches to a few feet deep in these areas, and there is usually very in the little in the way of solid structure around – the bottom will often be a mix of sand, gravel, rock and mud. Obviously, frog water is not very appealing from a fishing standpoint and perhaps lack of pressure is one reason why fish congregate in these “ugly” sections of river.
Another reason that large fish will hold in frog water is that it is very easy for them to cruise and feed in this type of zone. Cloudy water makes smaller fish feel secure, so meaty meals are often easy for big trout to procure when visibility is compromised. There is no current for fish to fight in frog water, but I doubt that many of the river’s biggest fish live exclusively up on the “froggy flats” because of the lack of cover there. Rather, this water is used as a feeding station when wind chop, shade or other light-related structure develops and creates an optimal time to gorge. The most frog water will be found when the rivers are low, but there are also plenty of places with similar characteristics when flows are light to moderate. Fishing frog water is definitely a challenge, but when almost all conventional flies and techniques have been exhausted without much success, having this option available can save the day. Trout in the Ozarks will swim significant distances to feed, but when they are not active, they will hardly move at all. Getting a fly as close as possible to a bunch of fish is key when the bite dies off in all the normally productive spots.
There are many reasons that the overwhelming majority of fly anglers avoid frog water; it’s often tight, there’s no current and without structure, there is almost no way to visualize where the prime holding lies are. In reality, there are not really many holding lies in frog water, so it is important to take a cruising fish approach. This means fishing meticulously slow and keeping your fly right near the bottom.
There are pros and cons of both wading and fishing out of a boat when it comes to frog water. It can be very difficult to get into good casting position when on foot without spooking all the fish. When you get to a likely piece of water and there are fish visibly cruising, take a deep breath and observe for a few minutes from the bank. Then, preferably when a little wind chop hits the water, take a few steps off the bank to give yourself room to cast parallel to all of the trouble. If there are no casting issues behind where you are standing, make short presentations before even taking one step into the water. Fishing from the middle of the river and casting towards a froggy bank can work at times, but it takes a very thoughtful approach and lots of patience to pull it off while wading. Fishing out from the bank is a greater logistical challenge, but this method will usually produce the best results.
A drift boat allows both guides and fishermen to see fish in the frog zones because of the higher vantage point a vessel provides, but during lower water conditions, a massive, floating piece of fiberglass can scatter fish extremely quickly. Boats also allow for flexibility with respect to positioning, and a good strategy is to set up in spots where the sun is at everyone’s back. Start fishing the edges that are short of the “meat” of your frog hole, and then slowly make casts that get progressively closer to the bank. You can either drift or anchor, depending on conditions – an anchor becomes more appealing the when the water is fairly low and when the wind is up. Because the current doesn’t really push much in frog water, free-floating is only a good idea when it is very calm, or you will inadvertently drift over a lot of fish.
Standard low-water White River Basin nymph techniques are perfect for effectively fishing frog water. A weighted fly like a scud, sow bug or midge fished under an indicator will unusually do the trick, and it is important to let the fly sit out there as long as you can possibly stand it. It does take a lot of patience to fish this way, but it the trout are cruising and feeding steadily, it will often not take long before your nymph is seen by a fish. Another proven strategy for taking trout from frog water areas is to fish streamers. Sculpin patterns where the hook rides upward are a good choice because the fly will not get hung up when working it slowly along the bottom. Think of fishing frog water as fishing a murky lake. Dry flies and emergers are also worth exploring, but nymphs and streamers fished deliberately will produce the best results day in and day out.
A few frog water areas worth exploring
There are thousands of frog water spots worth exploring on the White River, Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo. Most of these areas are going to be located adjacent to the long, deep pools, and a good way to find fishy frog water is to slowly walk the banks. On Taneycomo, there is some frog water on the opposite side of the river from the hatchery – the best stretch is from the cable down to between outlet #1 and outlet #2. Another good froggy spot is from the boat ramp upstream to the Rocking Chair Hole on the State Park side. Plenty of frog water can also be found in the Point Royale section of the river downstream to Fall Creek along both banks. Some of the best frog water in the Ozarks is located behind the islands on upper Lake Taneycomo.
The White has too many froggy areas to mention them all, but a good place to start is in Bull Shoals State Park. Fish the opposite bank from the park itself and focus on the area across from Big Spring. Taking a boat down the river in low water is the best way to find the best frog water. Fishing the froggy stuff on the Norfork can really pay off, and the bank across from the Ackerman Access upstream to McClellen’s has some wonderful frog water that holds lots of nice browns.
In no way would I suggest that anyone come to the Ozarks with the intention of hitting some frog water right off the bat. Rather, knowing how to find the spots where fish hold and feed in shallow water opens up fresh options on days when the bite is tough. It never hurts to know as many techniques as possible, and when few people are having much success, the guys with some tricks up their sleeves are the ones most likely to stay productive during the worst of times. If you find yourself fishing low water on a day when the action is nonexistent, try finding some frog water along a slow bank. Not only will your chances of hooking up improve, but you will also give yourself a real shot of catching a trophy brown.