The dry fly fishing had been slow. By late morning the air temperature had risen above 80, and trout were rising steadily all up and down the river. Unfortunately, they were rising for the tiny midges which hovered over the surface of the river like starlings over a cornfield, only smaller. Much smaller, in fact. They were too small for me to successfully imitate. Either that, or there were just so many of them that the probability of a trout taking my artificial midge in the midst of the swarm of real ones was too slim even with a good imitation.
A few small black caddis flies were hatching also, and an even smaller number of Isonychia mayflies. I was able to land a couple trout on elk hair caddis imitations. For the most part, however, the fish were ignoring my flies.
So I took off my dry fly and tied on a tiny imitation of a midge nymph – a size #22 black zebra midge small enough that a dozen of them would fit on my pinky fingernail with room to spare. I added a little extra weight to sink it to the bottom. And I began to drift the fly through the deep run up against the cliff face on the opposite side of the river. Within five minutes I’d landed two medium-sized rainbow trout and lost a third. When the action slowed, I switched to a red zebra midge and moved upstream to shallower and narrower run. On my fifth or sixth drift I hooked and landed the fattest rainbow trout of the trip: a torpedo so big I could barely see the tiny red fly on its lip.
Though I’ve spent several more days there at different times of year, that was my first time fishing Mountain Fork River, which flows through the Ouachita National Forest and Beaver Bend State Park in southeast Oklahoma. I was with my friend Phil, who had hired a guide for our first day. Jenny Mayrell-Wooduff of Fly Fish Beavers Bend did a great job showing us the river. (Update: Jenny and her husband Rob are no longer guiding in Oklahoma, but are now managing El Pescador Lodge & Villas on Ambergris Caye, Belize. It’s a tough life, but somebody has to do it.) In addition to the three stretches of water we fished with her, she pointed out several more spots we could fish on our own. Thanks to her knowledge of the river, and of the effective local flies and strategies, I landed about twenty fish that day with her—a mix of rainbows and browns.
This was about twenty times as many as I caught on my one previous trip fly fishIng in Oklahoma. I had not been impressed with the one other river I had fished in the state. But the Mountain Fork proved to be one of the nicest trout streams I have fished outside of Alaska. It is a tailwater fishery, meaning the stream comes out of a large dam on a deep reservoir. So the water comes out cold year round, even when the air is hot. Unlike most tailwaters I’ve fished, however, the hydro release is three miles downstream of a spillway that feeds that upper portion of the river. And so the huge oxbow that compromises upper portion of the fishery is not subject to the dramatic fluctuations of water level of many hydroelectric projects.
In fact—as we learned from Jenny and then explored over the following day and a half—the lower Mountain Fork has several excellent sections of trout water, with different regulations including two “red zones” that are artificial lure only, barbless hooks, and a very restricted creel limit. In practice it works as a catch-and-release section of water. These are the sorts of regulations that protect a blue ribbon fishery and make possible the top of fishing days we had. The river also has a wide variety of water types and a rich assortment of aquatic food. Over the course of two days, I caught fish on small nymphs, dry flies, traditional streamers, wooly buggers, and crayfish imitations. I sight-fished for large trout in shallow clear water, and also drifted flies through plunge pools for lunkers lurking in the deep.
Although there were numerous anglers in the red zone, it never felt too crowded. There were plenty of good spots to fish. In the late afternoon both days we drove several miles downriver to fish Section 3 and a stretch known as Presbyterian Falls. There we didn’t see another angler and had to ourselves a huge stretch of river in the midst of the Ouachita National Forest different from any place I’ve ever fished for trout.
The amazing two days of fly-fishing for trout in a beautiful forested river completely changed my impression of Oklahoma. Until the evening of the second day, that is, when a major thunderstorm with hail and tornado warnings swept through. Then my preconceived notions of Oklahoma were restored and I started thinking it was time to get back to Vermont.