Calvin Johnston of Olathe is an unlikely poster boy for Arkansas’ claim of national fame as a trophy trout state.
When he showed up to go trout fishing on the White River last February, he brought a bass rod and a reel spooled with 15-pound test line — hardly the kind of equipment trout fishermen typically use.
“I’m more of a bass fisherman,” Johnston said. “I had never fished seriously for trout. But my brother and his friends asked me to go with them, so I did.”
The first part of the day was hardly spectacular. Wading the river, Johnston only caught one small rainbow. After a break, he decided to go again but found that his waders were frozen. So he fished off the bank behind the Rainbow Drive Resort where the group was staying.
That’s where he caught a brown trout so big that the nation took notice. Using a Mepps Comet Mino, he landed a 38-pound, 7-ounce brown trout — the biggest ever recorded on the White River and the third-largest ever caught in Arkansas.
That catch merely fortified Arkansas’ reputation as one of the best trophy brown trout states in the nation. Well-known fisheries such as the White, the Little Red, the North Fork and the tailwaters below Beaver Lake have produced some eye-opening catches over the years.
▪ Howard “Rip” Collins set the Arkansas state record in 1992 when he landed a 40.4-pound brown trout. That fish stood as the world record for a while, but has since been broken.
▪ Mike Manley of North Little Rock, Ark., also made waves when he landed a 38.9-pound brown on the North Fork River in 1988.
▪ Fisheries biologists say there are still monstrous browns out there. “It’s not unusual for us to see fish in the 30- to 33-inch range when we’re sampling,” said Christy Graham, trout management supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
So how did Arkansas become such a comfortable home for big brown trout? Much of it has to do with an outstanding management program by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
As trout fishing gained popularity in the state, the fisheries division started an intensive brown trout program in 1985. Arkansas stocked browns raised at the Norfork National Fish Hatchery and the survival rate was impressive.
But some tinkering with the program brought even more success. In 2009, the Game and Fish Commission implemented restrictive regulations, establishing a 24-inch minimum size limit on brown trout in the Bull Shoals and Norfork tailwaters. And fisheries officials found that by cutting, not extending, the number of brown trout stocked could up the size of fish.
“There are less mouths to feed now,” Graham said.