How volunteers changed the future of trout in Arkansas rivers

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Guide Brock Dixon releases a 21-inch Bonneville cutthroat into the Norfork River after angler's Sean Paquin's catch.
Guide Brock Dixon releases a 21-inch Bonneville cutthroat into the Norfork River after angler's Sean Paquin's catch.

— Dreams are coming true on two Arkansas tailwaters almost daily.

Fishermen are catching big Bonneville cutthroat trout. They are beautiful, strong vibrant fish hatched from the stream beds of the Norfork and White Rivers from eggs harvested in Wyoming.

Perhaps they aren't anything other than cutthroats to most of the anglers, but they are reasons to smile for those who participated in what many thought was a highly ambitious project five years ago on two of the famous Ozark tailwaters.

New Trout Strain Planted into the Norfork River

Conservation groups worked in July 2012 to introduce the Bonneville Cutthroat Trout into the Norfork River. (By Matt Jones)
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It's a bona fide success story that needs a happy ending with some new regulations to offer protection for the next step, a possible spawn of truly wild fish.

First, you need to know the background of what the fly fishing community thinks is another incredible story with fly fishing legend Dave Whitlock once again at the forefront.

Following Whitlock's scientific advice, Mountain Home resident T.L. Lauerman helped organize the project with the help of a throng of volunteers, mostly from Trout Unlimited chapters in Arkansas. There were also volunteers from five other states, from as far away as Wisconsin.

Wyoming Game & Fish Department harvested the eggs and sent them to the Norfork National Fish Hatchery. They were prepared and planted with the blessing of the Arkansas Game & Fish Department.

More than 50 volunteers worked in the stream – digging and sifting gravel to desired quality - to plant over 50,000 eggs four straight summers. There were four straight plantings in the Norfork River, two in the White River. There were two more plantings scheduled the last two years, but canceled because of bad luck.

There was actually a double planting in the Norfork in 2015 because the water levels were too high on the White. That meant a double batch in the Norfork. There won't be a planting this year because of high water. Last year's planting was canceled at the last minute after Wyoming officials discovered disease in a few of the hatchery fish which produced the eggs after they had been shipped to Arkansas.

Lauerman would like to give the two rivers one more planting in June 2018 to hit the goal of five years.

“Maybe we can continue it past that, but we didn't want to do anything less than five times,” Lauerman said. “By doing five, we've given it a good shot of getting enough mature fish in the rivers to see if they can survive and spawn.”

There is a growing suspicion that the desired end result of the spawn may have already happened, although the proof may not be seen for another year or two. The worry is that the regulations now allow for cutthroats over 16 inches to be kept. That's the mature fish that need to stay in the river to produce a spawn, something that may have happened in at least a small way.

“I think we've had a spawn,” said Kristopher Bouldin, a Norfork guide who participated in the egg planting.

“I saw the spawning beds this spring, exactly where the eggs were planted five years ago. That wouldn't be brown trout (spawning beds). Browns only spawn in the late fall. This was this past spring.”

Whether or not the spawn was effective isn't clear because the flood gates had to be opened at Norfork Dam later in the spring. But if those first mature Bonnevilles spawned, it's likely they will continue and it will grow as the next three hatches mature.

There are mature fish capable of spawning in the rivers now. The most serious evidence is in the Norfork where the catch rates have raised eyebrows and excitement from elite fly fishing guides. Lauerman receives texted photos of Bonneville cutts almost daily. He's gotten hundreds of photos. Of late, the fish are getting bigger.

There have been stunning catches. Rogers angler Sean Paquin caught a 21-inch Bonneville cutt on the Norfork fishing with Cotter guide Brock Dixon on May 26. That fish excited everyone.

That was right after another monster was caught by guide Nathanael Ferguson of Mountain Home. It was another Norfork fish, this time measuring 19 inches. Like the one caught in Dixon's boat, it was fat and fought like crazy.

“That's what I'm hearing, they fight hard, just like the wild browns we have in our fisheries,” Lauerman said. “That's the whole point with planting the eggs, you've got tough, wild fish raised from eggs and they spent their entire life in the river.”

There's nothing like the fight of a 25-inch brown trout in the Ozark tailwaters, unless it might be the wild Bonneville cutts now on the loose in those rivers.

“To be honest, I love to catch a 25-inch brown,” Lauerman said. “But I'm getting a bigger kick out of getting these pictures of the Bonneville cutthroats to my phone. It's huge to me.

“The next thing is to see if they spawn. It would complete the project.”

The idea that the Bonneville cutts could spawn is not a reach, but it's not a sure thing. Whitlock knows the science as well as anyone with eggs from hatchery fish.

“We are not sure about the genetics of these eggs,” he said. “We know they came from a hatchery. The evidence shows that if they are third generation hatchery, the female loses the ability to spawn. They don't know how to nest properly.

“So the hope is that these eggs were not from overly domesticated fish. If there are some that fit the correct genetics, then they will spawn. That will be a great thrill if that happens.

“I can tell you the feeling that I got years ago when it was apparent that the browns were returning to spawn in those spots where we planted eggs. It was incredible.”

Whitlock is famous for re-designing the egg boxes – the Vibert-Whitlock Egg System – that were used to plant the brown trout eggs in the White and Little Red Rivers in the 1970s. There were 10 years of plantings that took hold to produce what many think is the best wild brown trout fishery in the world.

“I think it is the best anywhere,” said Chad Johnson, who guides on the White and Norfork. “It's all because of Dave Whitlock. It's why I'm here.

“I think he's done it again with the Bonneville cutts and it brings into focus again what Dave did with the brown trout. I sure hope this is all about to happen again with the Bonneville cutts. That would give us another wild species of trout in our rivers.

“Think about this; Dave planted eggs in the White and the Little Red. That's the source of world record brown trout in the Norfork, White and Little Red. Just think about the other nearby tailwaters at Beaver and Taneycomo. No eggs were planted there, no world records.”

It's clear what Whitlock thinks about the latest egg planting project with the Bonneville cutts.

“It's a landmark project,” Whitlock said. “What's been done is really awesome. It was ambitious and required a lot of work and courage. It's been a monster success.

“I'm so tickled. What has been done is introduce a new wild trout to our north Arkansas trout fishery. It's going to impact thousands of people. I'm so proud of TL.”

Whitlock's expertise was key, but he was quick to point to the execution and organization of the others in the project, starting with Lauerman. It was a joint venture with Trout Unlimited's chapter in Mountain Home, the MidSouth Fly Fishers (Memphis) and with help from Arkansas Game & Fish, Wyoming Game & Fish and the Norfork National Fish Hatchery.

“Give TL the credit,” Whitlock said. “He won't like that, but it's 90 percent him. He's a wonderful, fine young man and has a fantastic future.”

Whitlock lives near Tahlequah, Okla., where he and wife Emily operate a fly fishing school and teach painting. Whitlock's fly fishing art is world renowned. He also writes for the top fly fishing magazines, including Trout, the official TU magazine. He lived near Mountain Home for three decades after resigning as a chemist to pursue fly fishing ventures.

The Bonneville cutthroat project has produced great excitement for many, including Whitlock. He joined Lauerman for a trip to the Norfork this spring. Catching a Bonneville cutthroat isn't a sure thing because wild fish aren't easy targets like those raised in a hatchery, but Whitlock had to try with all of the good reports.

“I don't get back (to Arkansas) much any more,” he said. “I had hopes of catching one and I did! I was tickled to death when I caught one. It was a great thrill. It's an experience I know others have felt who have helped in the project. It enriches your life.”

Dixon has had anglers catch massive trophy browns in his boat, one as long as 36.5 inches. Pictures of that fish have been in national fly fishing magazines. But he's just as proud of the 21-inch Bonneville cutt that was in his boat with first-time fly fisher Paquin.

"We didn't really know what we had at first because the water was off color," Dixon said. "But I knew it was a big deal when we got it in the boat. Sean didn't because he had never been fly fishing before. But that's the beauty of a fish like this, it provides a chance for education.

"We both got excited pretty quickly and when we ran into some other guides on the river and showed them the picture, Sean saw the shock that his catch produced and then he really got excited.

"I've had some big browns landed in my boat, but this was just as big a deal. There had been some nice Bonneville's caught, but it was the first over 20 that I have heard about.

"It's exciting to see the growth rate we are getting with these Bonnevilles. I had heard they grow fast and this is proof. I'm excited to see the future, another trophy wild fish like the browns we get now. We just need some protection from Arkansas Game & Fish."

Bouldin knows of Bonneville cutts being caught in the White, mostly below the confluence of the Norfork.

“There have been quite a few caught at Steamboat Shoals,” he said. “There are reports of some below Rim Shoals where they had a planting, in the Buffalo Shoals area. But mainly, we are catching them in the Norfork.

“I'd say my clients are catching them on one out of four trips. The chances of catching them is pretty good. It's becoming more frequent of late and we are catching good sized fish and smaller fish, too. Some days we catch three or four.

“You are getting the 10- and 12-inch fish and the bigger fish, 16 to 18 inches. So that to me would be representative of two different plantings, multiple years. That's the great news in the various sizes.

“As it is now, it's a huge deal. When my clients catch one of the Bonneville cutthroats, it's a big deal in my boat. It's a chance to educate them on how the fish got there and the importance of the project. That's happening with a lot of the guides I know. It's excitement throughout their boat. We get excited and our clients get excited.”

The spawn could be easy to confirm because of the two-year gap between egg plantings. That's about what it takes for the fish to mature from eggs and begin to show up in the catches of fisherman in the 8-inch range.

But even without a spawn, the organizers are beaming.

“It's far exceeded our expectations,” Lauerman said. “We had confidence that it would be successful, but it's been way better.

“There were a lot of naysayers when we talked about this project. There were naysayers back in the 1970s when Dave began the project with the boxes he designed to plant brown trout eggs in the White and the Little Red.

“The bulk of our brown trout population is because of the those plantings. People were skeptical then, but we've got a tremendous brown trout fishery now.

“We wanted to prove again that you can have a successful egg planting in our rivers. We needed a marker fish, something that would be easily recognizable. So that's why we went with the Bonneville cutthroat.”

The Bonneville cutts have much bigger spots and more sporadic than the Snake River fine spotted cutts. The differences are obvious and there has never been Bonneville cutts in any Arkansas river. It's the key to the project.

“Since there has never been a stocking in Arkansas of that species, there would be no way to deny that our egg planting was successful,” Lauerman said. “We wanted a five-year plan because some hatches are better than others.”

Lauerman said his group followed Whitlock's advice every step of the way in the process of planting the eggs. Whitlock was in the stream to supervise.

“As far as I'm concerned, Dave Whitlock is the most famous person in our industry,” Lauerman said. “He's the most talented fly fisher, the most famous personality, the most talented artist, the most talented fly tyer and by far the most famous conservationist.

“He's all of that and no one is close. The Whitlock-Vibert Box System is the key element to the plantings. He designed it and so he's the grand daddy of these fish. To have him part of our Trout Unlimited project is special.”

More and more people are recognizing the importance of the project. Trout Unlimited planned a feature on the project for its summer issue of Trout magazine, but the trip was canceled when the latest planting was canceled because of high water.

“I would probably guess that most of our fisherman don't understand the importance, but most of the fly fishers do know that this is a huge deal,” Lauerman said. “What we've done is add a species of trout to the Norfork and White Rivers. We now have five.”

The most common are the rainbows, mostly released from the Norfork National Fish Hatchery. The most famous trout in our rivers are the German browns, almost entirely with genetics from the original plantings that Whitlock supervised over a 10-year period beginning 40 years ago.

There was talk of trying to plant some tough strains of rainbow trout in the latest project, but it would be difficult to prove they had survived because of the many strains of rainbows already in the rivers.

“You can't easily identify a planted rainbow,” Lauerman said. “We talked about bringing in eggs of the Lahontan cutthroats from Pyramid Lake in Nevada. They get huge.

“But the biologists in Wyoming suggested a better idea was to go with Bonneville cutts. They thought they would do well in our rivers.

“They told us they have habits similar to brown trout in that they will feed off the sculpins in our river after they get bigger and should do as well as our browns.

“The other obvious reason, they would be a clear marker fish, easily recognized as different than our other trout species. We could follow the progress of the planting.”

Lauerman sees a movement among the guides working the rivers to protect the Bonneville cutts.

“We still need protective regulations in place from Arkansas Game & Fish,” he said. “But what we've seen is a really cool joint effort from the guides, both the fly fishers and the bait (guides). They are the ones on the river daily and were the first to notice the Bonnevilles showing up in their catches. We think many are releasing them.

“That mindset to conserve what we've done means a lot to all of us involved in the project. The guides know what has happened and are just as proud of the project.”

Catching a new species is the visible result. But some thought it was wonderful even before fish started showing up two years after the egg planting.

That fits Bill Thorne, who has served as president for Trout Unlimited chapters in Fayetteville and most recently in Mountain Home. He's the state representative to the TU National Leadership Council.

“From the TU perspective, any time you get boots in the river, it's a win-win for us,” Thorne said. “We had volunteers from five different states participate. From a member and chapter standpoint, it was a success from the start.

“Now that we see mature fish, I feel like a father. You talk to any of the over 50 volunteers we had in the river doing the work, planting the box as Dave Whitlock supervised, now that we have fish, they all feel like proud parents.”

There is one clear concern now that the fish are there: protection. Arkansas Game & Fish does have stronger regulations for cutthroats than for rainbows. Only two can be kept and they must be 16 inches. But it's the mature adults that need to be protected to achieve a spawn. Could a slot limit work, with bigger fish released?

“Obviously, that regulation was put in place for the fine spot cutthroats from the hatchery,” Thorne said. “So what we'd like to see done, change that to a zero-keep regulation for both the cutthroat species in our rivers.”

That might be tough to get from the Arkansas Game & Fish. It's a put-and-take fishery with a vast array of fishermen. The fly fishers are into conservation, but that's not the thought for many, including a big tourist industry of bait fishermen who support resorts on both rivers in the area.

Lauerman said he'd be pleased with a reduction to just one cutt per day, although perhaps with a much longer length. He'd propose something like the 24-inch minimum instituted on the Norfork and White four years ago, a change that has produced a big bump in huge browns.

“What I've seen is a huge change in the conservation mindset on these two rivers from the guides,” Lauerman said. “They would be for new regulations if this produces another great wild trout species on our rivers. We think we are on the verge of something incredible.”

Indeed, incredible is the word associated with the Bonneville cutthroat project.

“Yes, that's the feeling and something beyond that if we get a spawn,” Thorne said. “Right now, I'm a parent. Becoming a grandparent of these fish would be past incredible.”

Guide Brock Dixon holds a 21-inch Bonneville cutthroat caught by client Sean Pacquin on the Norfork River in the spring of 2017.

Guide Nathanael Ferguson caught this 19-inch Bonneville cutthroat on the Norfork tailwaters.

Guide Larry Babin holds a Bonneville cutthroat caught on the Norfork by client Brian Slack from Atlanta, Ga.

Bonneville cutthroat eggs hatch from a Vibert-Whitlock Box System on the Norfork.

This juvenile Bonneville cutthroat was caught in 2016 on the White River.

Clay Henry with a Bonneville cutthroat on the Norfork.

Becca Bouldin with her Bonneville cutthroat netted by her husband and guide Kristopher.

This Norfork Bonneville cutthroat was caught by Clay Henry in May.

This Bonneville cutthroat was caught on the Norfork in June.

Stream volunteers sift through gravel at the 2012 egg planting.

The preparation for the planting of the Vibert-Whitlock System Boxes was intense at the first planting on the Norfork.

This Norfork Bonneville cutthroat was caught in 2016.

This Bonneville cutthroat was caught in the spring of 2017 in Jordan Case's boat.


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