Guide Donald Cranor specializes in catching big brown trout on large shiner minnows.
Steam from a fresh, aromatic, much needed, first cup of coffee fogged my glasses as I took the first sip. I sat on the balcony of White River Trout Lodge at first light and enjoyed the mist rising from the world class trout fishery of the White River near Cotter, Arkansas. A squawking Great Blue Heron winged upriver, beckoning a good morning to the river world. I dreamed of my fly rod as trout dimpled the surface of the cold water just yards from where I sat.
Shaken from my revere by the drone of a boat motor humming upriver, I slurped another mouthful of java and watched as a Bald Eagle pitched from its perch far up on the bluff across the river.
A long, slender river boat turned into the bank just below the lodge. As soon as the motor silenced, a hefty young man shouted, "Is that you, Bill?" His exuberance so early in the morning assured me that I was about to enjoy a superb first-time fishing trip on the famed White River.
I met professional guide Donald Cranor halfway down the bank. He has made thousands of fishing trips on the White during his 27 years of guiding, but acted like this would be his first.
The White River transformed from a warm water stream to a cold water fishery when Bull Shoals Dam closed in 1951. Within a few short decades the White River had grabbed the attention of trout fishermen around the world. Catching huge brown trout became the stuff of many anglers' dreams, while others sought to catch lots of stocker rainbows. Donald Cranor has made a life of helping people do both.
All I had read about fly fishing for brown on the White River indicated that October was the best time to catch the big ones, because they make a spawning run and congregate in the deep holes below the dam.
"You're here at the worst time of year to catch big browns on a fly," Cranor offered right off the bat.
"All the literature says this is the best time," I countered.
A long, wide river boat with comfortable seats is a plus for long hours of trout fishing.
"The literature hasn't caught up with the weather." Cranor chuckled. "We have experienced high water in the fall for the last two years. Fly fishermen are having a tough time with the water conditions. So, I am going to show you some different cold weather, high water fishing techniques over the next two days."
We motored a couple of miles downriver and pulled up to a parking lot where we picked up veteran guide Jackie Stinnett. The two guides spent a few minutes catching up and jousting with one another as if they were performing a traditional ritual before starting a fishing trip. The day had promise of excitement.
Cranor collected the contents of a minnow trap he had set much earlier that morning. Large silver sided shiners flashed in the light as he lifted the trap from the cold water. "These babies will put us in the action," Cranor said.
We weren't out of sight of the boat ramp when Cranor slowed the boat and began rigging spinning rods. I silently wondered if this was the best place to fish. Cranor must have read my mind. "Our Game and Fish Commission stocks 1.3 million rainbow trout in the White River every year," he explained. "You can always catch a bunch of rainbows here."
Both guides rigged 6 1/2-foot spinning rods in less than a minute. I elected to photograph the two guides for a while as they fished. Stinnett's first bite came within two minutes. He missed, but allowed the dead minnow that he had threaded onto his hook, to continue to drift. "Rainbows will often come back to a drifting minnow," he said confidently. Seconds later he set the hook on the first rainbow of the day.
"Lots of my clients like to fish like this," Cranor explained . "It's an easy fishing method and everyone can catch lots of fish. It makes for a fun day for grownups and kids alike." He and Stinnett reeled in two more rainbows.
Cranor skillfully steered the boat upriver to drift the run again. I noticed several other guides on the river. "There are probably 200 guides on the White River," he stated. "Trout fishing is a great economic stimulus in this part of the country. Our conservation department does a great job with the fishery."
"There's a solid hit," says Cranor as he leans heavily on his rod, which bows in response. Flashes of yellow gleamed in the clear water. "Here's the first brown," he chuckled. It measured a respectable 17 inches. The colors shined like a brown and gold diamond.
| Jerking white marabou jigs is a very effective tactic for catching both brown and rainbow trout from the White River in Arkansas.
Big browns are illusive creatures and effective predators. Anglers often fish for them at night, especially when the spawn is occurring. Spawning fish spend more time on the redds at night. Fishermen find nests in the daytime and return at dark to cast to the waiting fish.
Cranor quietly pulled the boat into a stretch of fast water where part of the current broke to wash around a small island. He made an especially long cast to place his minnow on the left side of the point of the island. "There's a deep pocket just a few feet off of that bank," he pointed out. "Big browns often like to hide in such areas."
Cranor's experience on the river paid off quickly. He leaned back on his rod hard. "Feels like a good fish," he said calmly. A minute later he babbled, "It's a really good fish. Somebody get the net."
Brilliant yellow flashes danced through the water. I strained to see the bizarre looking fish, colored like a clown and with a hook jaw like an experienced junk yard dog.
Cranor and Stinnett worked together to get the big fish to the boat. They anxiously placed it on a ruler in the boat. "Twenty-five inches!" they exclaimed. A scale slid to an even six pounds. The toothy brown struck me as one of the grandest fish I had ever seen.
"Well, Bill, the pressure is off me now. It's time for you to fish." I happily agreed.
It felt very good to cast that first minnow into the cold, clear water of the White. Only a few minutes had passed before my first strike occurred. I missed, but connected when the colorful rainbow turned on the minnow drifting along the bottom and struck it again. During my career as superintendent of one of Missouri's trout parks, I had caught thousands of rainbows, but my first White River rainbow held special meaning for me. It felt good to become a part of the rich history of this fabled stream.
Big brown trout can be caught in March on the White River using big crankbaits such as a Rattlin' Rogue.
I quizzed Cranor about the rigging used for drifting minnows. He utilized a 3-foot leader with a 6-inch dropper line tipped with a bell sinker. "What's the secret of using this rig?" I asked. "No secret," he responded. "I was taught to do it that way," he laughed. "Actually," he continued in the next breath "A fish can pick the bait up and start off with it without feeling the immediate resistance of the weight."
We finished the afternoon well before sundown. Dozens of rainbows and browns had fallen for Cranor's simple but effective fishing techniques. Tomorrow would be another day on the White. Cranor would demonstrate another of his favorite trout fishing tactics.
Cranor picked me up at the same time and place the following morning. I could have spent the morning on the lodge balcony sipping coffee and watching the river.
Once up river, Cranor broke out a couple of light spinning rods adorned with white marabou jigs on the business end of the line. I encouraged him to begin fishing so that I could observe his techniques. His powerful arms enable him to fling the light jig far out into the river. The wind sang across the blade of his rod as he whipped it backwards. I immediately thought he had reacted to a powerful strike. "Snapping the rod makes the jig spurt to the top. Allowing a bit of slack then lets the jig flutter back towards the bottom. You have to be alert, because that is when the strike will come."
And come it did. Minutes into the trip, Cranor snapped his rod and hooked the first rainbow.
Dozens more trout fell to our jig jerking tactics over the next four hours. It proved to be relatively easy fishing. In fact, anyone could easily adjust to the fishing techniques Cranor had used over my two day visit. Once, again, however, Cranor stated that October did not provide the best jig fishing conditions. "March is the time to be here," he pointed out.
Cranor had helped me fulfill my mission - to capture a big, spawning, brown trout on film. I asked him to provide me one more clue in the puzzle of figuring out big, White River browns. "Watch the weather and try to fish on a cloudy day with a low pressure system," he offered with a grin.
As we closed the day I marveled at the beauty of this fabled White River. Clear water, towering bluffs, deep holes, solid rock shelves, gravel banks and colorful, flowing moss, I vowed to return soon. Perhaps I will pack my fly rod on my return. I envisioned my fly box. It would contain lots of scud, crayfish, sculpin and worm patterns. Too, I longed to chunk a big Rogue to awaiting brown leviathans which Cranor had described. Yet, another trip.
Every trout angler should visit the White River at least once in their lifetime. I you are in doubt about what flies to take, stop by the White River Fly Shop in your local Bass Pro Shop store and ask one of the helpful associates. More than likely, they, too have fished the White River.
IF YOU GO
Guide Donald Cranor
White River Trout Lodge