When Steve Lopez talks about the trophy brown trout that live in the White River, he often relates a colorful story about a dream fish that escaped the hook years ago.
“For two or three years, I would spot this massive brown,” said Lopez, who guides out of Gaston’s White River Resort. “I would see her from a distance, but she wouldn’t let me get close.
“The second we made eye contact, she would just take off. I tried following her once, but she outran my boat until I just lost sight of her.
“I tried fishing some of the holes where I had spotted her, but we never could get her to bite. I would have loved to catch that fish. I’m guessing she weighed 30 pounds or more.”
It’s been eight years since Lopez spotted the legendary brown trout, and he no longer sees the fish. For all Lopez knows, it might have died of old age.
He doubts that anyone caught the fish. That would have been the kind of catch to brag about, and the news certainly would have spread quickly up and down the river in northern Arkansas.
So, Lopez continues his search for other monsters on the White, one of the nation’s best trophy brown trout rivers. Oh, he is busy most days just guiding customers to the abundant rainbows in the clear waters of the popular river. But when fishermen indicate a desire to catch a true trophy, he is more than willing to switch gears and go into extra-large mode.
“The average-size brown in here is 19 to 22 inches,” said Lopez, 38, who lives in Harrison, Ark. “It takes a fish 30 inches or over to get me excited.
“They’re in here, but you don’t come across them everyday. The older they get, the smarter they are. They get wary.
“I tell my customers that they go to college.”
Brown trout exceeding 30 pounds have been caught on the White, bringing national attention to the beautiful Arkansas river. Abundant rainbow trout, sticked regularly, also provide a powerful lure for fishermen.
At resorts such as Gaston’s, that translates to big business. Fishermen from across the nation travel to the Ozarks getaway. The resort even has a landing strip where small planes can fly in.
If fishermen just want some action and to catch fish for a shore lunch or a later dinner, the White can oblige. If they’re in search of a true trophy, the White also can please.
“About five years ago, one of my clients caught a 34-inch brown, which we guessed at about 12 pounds,” he said. “We just loosened the drag and let that fish fight.
“It took 30 minutes for him to get that brown in, but it was a lot of fun.”
Lopez’s Facebook page is filled with photos of his customers holding big browns that they later released. They key to Lopez’s success? Knowing what the brown trout are feeding on in certain conditions.
“Right now, the sculpin bite has been the best,” he said. “It depends on the conditions. If we’ve just had a heavy rain and it’s washing food into the water, I’ll go to night crawlers. Other times, I’ll use shrimp, minnows, other live bait, even jerkbaits.”
Regardless, Lopez is on the lookout for big browns. Even when he is drifting for rainbows with customers, he is peering into the clear water, looking for big browns.
That’s what he did on a recent weekday. As he and his customers drifted through a hole, he spotted several brown trout and knew he was in the right spot.
Moments later, one of those browns hit the night crawler that was bouncing across the bottom, and the fight was on.
The fisherman fought the brilliantly colored trout for a minute, then Lopez scooped it into a net.
The guide unhooked the fish, which he guessed at four pounds, then eased it back into the cold water. There were plenty more where that one came from.
But Lopez is realistic. He knows that he and his customers will catch many more rainbows than browns.
“Browns are a lot smarter than rainbows,” he said. “But you can catch them if you take time to learn their habits.
“You can learn their routes, where they’ll go under certain conditions. Then you just have to put in your time.”