Trophy Trout, Midnight Trains and Barking Beagles: Remembering Brainard’s Bend Resort on the White River

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Many years before the improved boat ramp and parking lot were built at Rim Shoals Public Access on the White River, a fun and now-forgotten resort for anglers was located there along the shore in the early 1990s, called Brainard’s Bend. If you didn’t mind camping near the railroad tracks – and bolting awake when the midnight train blew its whistle as it rolled through the valley mere feet from your tent – the small resort was the perfect place for budget anglers.

Besides cabins and camping along the river’s famous catch-and-release area, the best thing about Brainard’s Bend was its pod of truly massive trout found daily waiting for handfuls of dog food tossed from shore. The owner, a Little Rock native named Jerry Brainard, who’d always dreamt of building a small resort on the White River, attached a bucket of dog food on a tree by the water’s edge. Several times a day he announced it was “time to feed the fish,” he’d reach into the bucket and toss a heaping handful of dog food onto the water. Like giant rainbow-colored Koi, the trout swarmed and fought for each morsel of brown, barrel-shaped dog food that hit the surface.

Naturally, my angling buddy, Kyle Faulkner, and I were obsessed with those huge trout. Despite trying every fly in the box, from Griffith’s gnats to ant imitations, streamers to wet flies, and any tiny fly that even came close to the dog food shape, no fish would strike. Hour after hour, we flailed the water hoping to catch one of the big fish in the pod, without success. If it wasn’t dog food, those smart trout weren’t fooled into biting. They were not just big fish in the normal 18- to 20-inch range often caught on the White River in the 21st century. The pod trout at Brainard’s Bend were true trophies, including brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout measured in multiple feet, not just inches.

Frustrated but undaunted, we sat at a nearby picnic table and pondered the best method to trick those trout. That’s when we met Old Red. He was nearly toothless, with gray wisps poking out under his ball cap, and wore overalls like most older Arkies instead of fancy fishing wear sported by many visitors. Old Red lived alone in a small camp trailer parked nearby, and was happy to entertain anglers who would listen to his tales while he puffed cigarettes and drank canned beer.

“We used to have a little beagle named Big Spud,” Old Red declared between drags on his cig. “But we had to get rid of him on account of him keepin’ us upus at night.” We tried to stifle laughter, but it wasn’t easy.

Living on the White River in his little camper, and watching the water rise and fall with the seasons, Old Red was more familiar with the trout pod than anyone. Old Red taught us that the big fish eat guts from trout cleaned on shore, especially at night when those fish felt safest to move around. In fact, most of today’s Arkansas record trout are so-called “Dock Monsters,” fish that got big from eating guts and flesh from trout processed by anglers who toss trout remains into the river, especially near boat docks. Like watery beggars, those fish lurk in the shadows waiting for guts, then slowing slink from their hiding places to feast and grow larger by the day.

Strangely, those gut-eating trophy trout also were willing to eat tiny dog food pellets tossed each day at Brainard’s Bend. Maybe it was the same instinct that drives a 30-inch brown trout to forget its carnivore ways, and feast instead on delicate mayfly spinners or tiny sow bugs. Or perhaps those big fish hadn’t forgotten their hatchery upbringing, where brown pellets of specially designed trout food are the mainstay diet from the moment they hatch until they are released into the river as 6- to 12-inch fish.

Next, Old Red taught us that the big fish also hug the shoreline when the water is high. Unlike other big fish, trout of all stripes hate the swift current that the ever-changing White River brings. When the water comes up, Old Red explained, the fish move to the shoreline where the current is not as strong and it takes less effort to swim. That important lesson might seem obvious to seasoned anglers, but we were greenhorns and needed the instruction. Nearly 30 years later, that knowledge has brought many good trout to hand through the years when water levels are too high for safe wading. In fact, the biggest cutthroat trout I’ve ever caught was at Brainard’s Bend during very high water with Old Red looking on approvingly. I used a home-tied, rust-colored size 16 bead-head nymph, with just the leader dangling in the water, to hook a handsome 24-inch, four and a half pound cutthroat trout. That fish was my first caught from the giant trout pod, but not the last.

Energized by our time with Old Red, we returned home to Fayetteville, Ark., three hours away, and eagerly planned our next fishing trip at Brainard’s Bend with dreams of trophy trout swimming in our heads. Since the pod trout were too smart to take a conventional fly pattern, and focused almost entirely on eating the dog food pellets tossed from shore, we tried to imitate the food preferred by those big fish. We tied several flies before we got a near-perfect match for that strange hatch. The dead-ringer fly was crafted from spun deer hair on a size 18 dry fly hook, and trimmed to approximate the dog food pellet shape. We tied a dozen dog food flies each and were prepared to test our creations on those picky pod fish.

When the day finally came when we could scrape enough money together to buy gas for the long drive in my old Volkswagen van, as well as new leaders and tippet that were always in short supply, like our funds, it was mid-January with daytime temperatures in the mid-20s. When we arrived at Brainard’s Bend, we found that Old Red had found a warmer place to stay than his camp trailer and was nowhere to be found. The river level was perfect for wading, with no water generation from Bull Shoals Dam 24 miles upstream to spoil the fun. Ice clung to the colorful gravel shoreline where river met land, and every cast caused more ice to form on the eyelets of our fly fishing rods.

Luckily, the trout pod was hungry. There were no other anglers braving the winter weather, and even Jerry Brainard, the resort owner, was focused on chores other than feeding the trout from the handy dog food bucket. To ensure interest in our dog food imitation flies, we tossed a handful of dry pellets onto the still water and watched amazed as dozens of huge trout appeared from nowhere, like a herd of magician’s rabbits, to eat the food.

Our first casts were unsuccessful. There were too many real dog food pellets floating on the surface for the ever-picky trout to bother eating our deer hair imitations. Suddenly, the water boiled and my fly rod bent. A handsome five-pound brown trout took my fly and made a hard run when it realized it found a hook instead of a tasty dog food tidbit. Despite the brief, furious fight, the fish surrendered quickly and was ready for a photograph. Sadly, the pictures we took in those pre-cellphone days were with inexpensive, disposable film cameras, and the photos were unimpressive. The pictures showed happy anglers with large fish, but didn’t capture their true size and our accomplishment with 5 weight fly rods and light tippet. Today, I would only use an 8 weight fly rod and heavy tippet to ensure the fish were caught and released as quickly as possible. Still, we snapped pictures and released the fish safely into the water.

As the real dog food pellets grew fewer, those big fish were more willing to take our flies. In a short time, both Kyle and myself held many fine trophy trout, including brown, cutthroat and rainbows. Some fish pushed 30 inches and more than 5 pounds, but we had no scales to measure our catches, and enjoyed releasing the massive fish as much as we liked fooling them into taking our dog food flies.

Today, Brainard’s Bend on the White River is a mere memory. More than 25 years later, the train still rolls past blowing its midnight whistle, but Old Red’s humble camp trailer is gone, replaced by rental cabins for more affluent anglers. And Big Spud the beagle has long since stopped barking and keeping everyone “upus at night.” A new sign for Rim Shoals Resort is all that remains to mark the spot, where once a pod of pellet eating trophy trout tempted eager anglers into tying dog food flies from deer hair.

You And Me, Cassidy…

Even cat-loving fly anglers love their fishing dogs. My favorite fishing buddy was Cassidy, a lab-mix blonde heartbreaker I picked up as a six-week-old puppy from an Indiana farm in 1990. We spent the next 12 years rambling from fishing holes and mountain tops, sea shores and forests. She is the only dog I know who got her paws wet on both the Pacific and Atlantic ocean beaches. The photo of her in the snow was taken on the southeast slopes of Mount Rainier in 1990. The bottom photo is Cassidy on the Big Thompson River in Colorado, 1994.

Like all labs, Cassidy loved to swim, especially when I waded into the river to catch fish. She either sat on the shore, whining and howling like she’d been abandoned at some dingy animal shelter, or she would swim to me, circling repeatedly until I waded back to shore and convinced her to wait while I fished. Her insistence and dedication were endearing, but did nothing to help me catch fish.

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Fly Fishers Need Low-Water Weekends

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Nearly all fly fishers on the White River system share the same hopeful mantra: Please bring low water.

Yet, since February the Corps of Engineers has pumped billions of gallons of water under Bull Shoals and Norfork dams to draw down the lake levels and prevent downstream flooding on the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Those rivers that look like gravel-strewn streams at low flows are raging, dangerous floodwaters at high flow levels.

As usual, the impact on fly fishing access has been significant. Without adequate access for wade fishing, fly anglers are stuck in boats flinging streamers, slinging big hoppers and flopping nymph rigs. While many fly fishers own boats or hire guides who do, others without water craft or extra money for guided trips simply avoid the White River entirely. That is a sad, unnecessary consequence of poor water management by the Corps of Engineers.

If the Corps needed to reduce water levels in Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes, they could accomplish that goal while providing weekly windows for low water angling access. For example, it takes nearly 48 hours to reduce Bull Shoals Lake by about 1 foot at 16,000 cubic feet per second outflow. That information is readily available on the Southwest Power Administration website.

Therefore, if the Corps reduced the flow each Saturday and Sunday from Bull Shoals Dam to provide wade fishing water, below 1,500 cubic feet per second outflow, the impact on the lake level reduction would clearly be minimal. Even in the worst flood scenarios, a one-foot lake level drop usually is insignificant. In years with terrible flooding, anglers understand the need to reduce the lake level for protecting life and property.

Such a common-sense approach to water management would achieve two goals. First, it would allow the Corps to continue reducing lake levels to prevent flooding. Second, anglers currently deterred by high water flows and no wade fishing access will flock to the White River to catch fish during low later weekends.

The current approach to lake level reduction must change for the billion-dollar trout fishing industry, especially fly fishing guides and outfitters, to continue growing into the 21st century.

Regulations Save Brown Trout

I wrote this article when I worked as a newspaper reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville, Ark., in 1999. The details have changed a bit, but the basics are correct. The big brown trout in the White River owe their entire existence to strict regulations that prevent overfishing and careless angling. Click the links below to read the article.

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Low Water Arrives With Spring

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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