The North Fork of the White River is Missouri’s answer to western trout fishing. Spencer Turner once said that to me. Spence, as his friends called him, was the state trout biologist for the Department of Conservation. He was more than that though. Spence was a living legend of genius disaster. An enormous success mired by momentary lapses of dysfunction and hilarity.
Spence built it, and we have come. He is now remembered as the Godfather of Missouri’s wild trout, and no place in the state showcases his successes better than the North Fork. Missourians have come to know the North Fork as our trout river. Sure, other Missouri rivers have trout. The Current, Eleven Point, Niangua and Meramec are exceptional trout fisheries, but the North Fork. The North Fork is special. She’s a cover model.
The majesty of Missouri’s natural resources never ceases to amaze me. Each time I feel I have found the most beautiful place in the state, I round another bend in the road, hit another stretch of river or stand upon another towering vista, and declare to have, this time, truly found the pinnacle of Missouri’s bliss. Yet I know, soon, another mesmerizing sight will eclipse all others.
The North Fork of the White River is a gem. Tucked away deep in the Missouri Ozark Mountains, surrounded by lands where our bear population is restoring itself, is this fast flowing trout river offering the perfect getaway-from-it-all backcountry fishing destination. The North Fork is ideal for a family fishing adventures, or a few buddies looking for an escape.
The North Fork flows for 67 miles across Douglas and Ozark counties before emptying into Northfork Reservoir near Tecumseh. It is heavily spring fed and has long stretches of riffles and even some class II whitewater. Smallmouth bass, goggle-eye and sunfish can be caught throughout the river. The lower 12 miles of the North Fork are trophy trout sections.
The North Fork’s Blue Ribbon Trout Area extends from Rainbow Spring to Patrick Bridge Access. There are a good number of rainbow trout in this stretch, with many falling in the 10-14 inch range. The Red Ribbon Trout Area extends from Patrick Bridge to Norfork Lake. This is where anglers can expect to encounter the river’s famed bruiser browns. Fish over 20 inches are a real trophy, so I hope if you are fortunate enough to land one, you’ll capture the moment with a photograph and then quickly release the fish so another angler may know your same excitement.
Since the North Fork is so far south and located a great distance from any large population base, it remains rather less crowded than some of the more northern float rivers in Missouri. Don’t mistake less crowded for not crowded. The North Fork does have its floaters, but it’s not the Huzzah.
Access to the river is fairly limited, as it flows through a remote region. There are MDC maintained accesses at Hebron, Blair Bridge, and Patrick Bridge. Sunburst Ranch, Twin Bridges and River of Life Farm also operate private access points.
One day, while wade fishing at Blair Bridge and filming a portion of the documentary Spencer Turner: A Life Well Cast, an interesting cast of Missouri conservationists wiped up the trout in a clutch situation. Famed writer, Jim Low; modern day mountain man, Ron Kruger; Trout Unlimited president, John Wenzlick; and Rehan Nana and myself from the Conservation Federation of Missouri had two professional film makers on the river with us to capture the bounty of what Spence started for all to see. And luckily, we didn’t disappoint.
The fishing was incredible. All fly fishing. Many big browns caught. I spent four years fishing my way around Montana. I lived in Billings, but traveled for work. Name a river out there and I’ve fished it, along with some of its tributaries. I’ll put the North Fork in the category of some of the greats running though your mind right now. Yes, it compares to the Madison, the Boulder and the Stillwater.
The folks who fish the North Fork have to want it. Shuttles, guides and good dinners are not around every bend. You better bring your own wine, and you’re not getting a pizza unless it comes from a gas station freezer. A trip to the North Fork is an adventure. That’s want you want, right. You want to try something new. Experience a place that leaves you shaking your head thinking, I can’t believe how amazing this river is.
See you down the trail…