Low Water Arrives With Spring


Equinox sunrise over Kapoho Tide Pools on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo taken in 2008, before the entire area was covered in lava and destroyed in 2018.


The Corps of Engineers ran water through the Bull Shoals Dam power turbines nearly non-stop from early January until March 26th, when the first few, fleeting hours of low-flow water dribbled through the breach.

Water flow often was near-maximum generation levels, 23,000 cubic feet per second sometimes, and even more! Norfork Dam even opened the spillway gates a full foot to relieve pressure from an unusually high winter water level behind the dam. The result was a raging river below Norfork Dam, unfishable and dangerous, even from a drift boat. When the Equinox arrived March 21st, the spillway gates were closed and Norfork was perfect for float fishing, but not wading. Now only one generator is running most days, and some low-flow wading water is available.

Last week, I enjoyed a fine day fishing with a friend and representative from the fly fishing industry, and even if catching was slow the fishing was great with little wind and bright spring sun. Lots of boats were on the water, including several fly fishing guides with clients, and mostly they buzzed up and down the river searching for trout in the high water. Of six other boats on the water, we saw only one fish caught and released all day. We fared no better, but big streamers on 15-foot, Type 6 sink tips and 8-weight rods brought one big hit and one nice fish fought but lost.

Even without fish in the boat, I saw two sights I’ve never seen on the Norfork River. First, I got to cast the newest fly rod offerings from R.L. Winston Rod Co. The 5-weight, 9-foot Pure fly rod was a mid-flexing beauty. It reminded me of the R.L. Winston BII-T rod I still own and fish, made in their Twin Bridges, Mt., workshop a decade ago. Winston fly rods are definitely built to last! Lightweight for all-day casting, sweet-colored green blanks that shine emerald in the sun and the ability to fling a tight loop in-close or at a distant riser.

The second Winston fly rod I flung was the opposite build: An 8-weight, 9-foot beast built for sloppy saltwater, big flies and bigger winds. Dubbed the Saltwater Air, the fly rod was naturally lightweight, but robust enough to effortlessly handle a bulky-headed fly line and 4-inch marabou streamer. The rod also shines emerald green, and would be perfect for either swinging for Pacific Coast steelhead or packing on the flight for tropical fishing escapes.

The second sight I’d never seen on the Norfork, or any other river in five decades, was a fully submerged boat motor attached to a transom! I have no idea how a motor and transom made it to the bottom of the river, but I’m sure there is a great (and possibly tragic) tale. Let’s hope the motor’s owner is safe and eventually able to recover their lost treasure.

In coming weeks, reduced lake levels will soon bring help on the way for fly fishers weary of near-flood stage rivers without wading and low flows. Both Norfork and Bull Shoals dams are nearly low enough to allow the corps to cease round-the-clock power generation. In fact, Norfork River flows temporarily fell over the weekend to low-flow levels, and the Bull Shoals Dam generated a paltry 700 cfs. for three hours before ramping back up to 17,000. So changes are coming, and barring heavy spring rains there will be good fishing in April and May.

Well folks ’round here got the fear of God; Everybody says, “Lordy Lord!”; Only one thing they fear more, that’s the Corps of Engineers!” – Mike West, songwriter


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