Ghosts of the Little Red River

Last updated on January 9th, 2024.

Scott Diel
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The colorful old timers are long gone, but the big trout remain. 

Forty pounds, four ounces. Forty and one-quarter inches. (18.26 kilos. 102 cm.) That was the weight on every fisherman’s lips when Rip Collins caught the IGFA world record brown trout in 1992, a record that held 17 years and made the Little Red River in Arkansas famous for monster brown trout

Big brown trout from the Little Red River
This is an average trout for the Little Red, the river which held the world record brown trout for 17 years.

What’s a tippet?

My first exposure to the Little Red came in 1995, when I had returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe. What they don’t tell you when you enter the Peace Corps: Most employers don’t view it as a career plus, so prepare for a period of unemployment when you get out. I was out of work 120 days, every single one of them spent fishing on the Little Red River. Never has being down and out felt so good.

I’d had a fly rod since I was a teen, a fiberglass telephone pole of a rod that I used mostly to catch carp. I could cast well enough, but knew nothing of the fine tippets and dry flies needed to catch rising trout. So I was a bit confused when an older gentleman shouted at me from high above me on the river bank: “How fine a tippet are you using?” 

Big brown trout from the Little Red River
In early summer the suckers spawn and big browns gather beneath them to eat their eggs. If it’s not a two-kilo sucker on the end of your line, then it might be a brown like this.

“Tippet?” I answered. “What’s that?” And that’s when he waved me up to his home. His name was Jimmy Phelps, and he said if it weren’t for his vertigo he’d be right down there with me. As a next-best gesture, he re-rigged my rod for me, explaining as he went, and then tied on a size-16 Adams tied in the gray hues of the local bugs.

He sent me back in the water and coached from above. “You’re casting into the wind, so pull your line as your fly lands.” “Yes, now you’ve got it, but a little slow on the take there.” In a mere 15 minutes, Mr. Phelps had seeded a lifetime trout addiction. I would fish the Little Red for the next 30 years, even if only a few times each year.

Fishing the Little Red River, Arkansas
The author wet wades in July. The water is 10 degrees C upriver year round, but warms up slightly on the downstream shoals.

Yes, Arkansas

When you think of big trout, it’s usually New Zealand or Argentina that come to mind. But Arkansas rivers are responsible for at least two brown trout world records. And Gaston’s resort on Arkansas’s White River has long been known as a favorite fishing destination of major league baseball players, perhaps due partly to its private airstrip. 

Montana may hold the fishing mystique, but every American kid of my generation knew the legendary TV fishermen like Harold Ensley, Bill Dance, and Virgil Ward hailed from states that bordered, more or less, Arkansas. It was perhaps the stigma of Deliverance that kept the South from the fishing glory the north enjoys.

Fly fisherman fishing the Little Red River in Arkansas
A fisherman casts in the pool below Greers Ferry Dam. The water nearest the dam is the coldest and holds the most variety of trout. A grand slam (brookie, cutt, rainbow, brown) is possible fishing below the dam.


It’s a shame, too, since Arkansas’s White River system has produced as many great personalities as it has big trout. Most fishermen have heard of Dave Whitlock. Many know of Davy Wotton and Jamie Rouse. 

Less famous were Jack Kirby who had a secret soft hackle that he kept in the band of his cowboy hat. Kirby was often seen in a float tube, downstream of his boat, the Dirt Dauber, which he could beckon by remotely hauling up the anchor. There was Jeff Hawthorne, always heard before seen, a non-stop storyteller-guide in a drift boat. There was my father who while not loud enough to be noticed, quietly measured water quality for Trout Unlimited for 30 years or so at his cabin on the Pangburn shoal. 

Fly fishing the Little Red River, Arkansas, USA
Jack Kirby and the Dirt Dauber. Kirby had a secret soft hackle the trout couldn’t resist. Little Red River Trout Fishing

Not all the personalities were necessarily positive. There was Cracker Bob, or at least that’s what we called him, who liked to stand on his dock and make racist remarks while dark-skinned fishermen (my guests) were on his shoal. 

Release of a big rainbow - little red river trout fishing, Arkansas
Rainbows aren’t able to spawn in the Little Red, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try. Here a fisherman releases a rainbow in spawn colors.

The Corps giveth, and taketh away

If it’s not racists or sodomite hillbillies that soil the image of southern American rivers, then it’s those who manage the dams: the US Army Corps of Engineers, who blame Congress for being unable to reach an agreement with the fishing community to have regular, wadable water. 

The Corps claims their congressional mandate is to manage for power and flood control, and they seem to suggest it would take an Act of Congress itself for the angler to rate consideration. “The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is not authorized to manage water in Greers Ferry Lake solely for downstream recreation,” writes Benny G. Rorie, Jr., on behalf of the Corps. “USACE only makes releases from the dam in accordance with the water control plan and cannot deviate from that plan if it adversely affects other authorized purposes.” To anglers, it seems altogether too easy to blame Congress, but there you have it. Entreaties by local business owners and fly clubs have been made for years with no results. 

Rip Collins died in 1997 and it’s reported they buried him in his waders, his fly rod at his side. Some say the old river went with him, but locals know the big browns are still there, perhaps even bigger than before. Climate change and heavy generation means it’s harder to plan a trip to the river and be sure you’ll be able to wade it. You’ve got to be lucky, which perhaps was always the main ingredient of a successful fishing trip.

Release of a big brown trout in the Little Red River, Arkansas
Fishing during the spawn (late October through December) gives you the chance at big browns. Some states don’t allow fishing during the spawn, but Arkansas does.