Norfork Is Different But Not Difficult - If You Are Prepared!
If you are a tournament fisherman coming to fish Norfork Lake for the first time, here are some helpful hints. First, be prepared to learn new fishing tactics! I have fished all over the world and had to learn anew when I moved here to buy and operate Blackburn's Resort on Norfork Lake.
My first tendency was to fish with my very successful shallow, green water with structure techniques I'd used so many other places. However, Norfork Lake has little structure. It is also deep. In fact, it is as deep as 200 feet in spots. On the main lake bluffs, you can go from the shoreline to 100 ft. deep in just a few feet.
After several weeks of catching nothing, I had to blame the lake for holding no fish. I hated to admit that I was a failure at lake fishing. To solve my dilemma, I called Darrel Binks of Bink's Guide Service and booked several days of fishing with him for all different species of fish.
Darrel held the reputation of being the man who could catch fish, so I fished with him both day and night on several occasions. I learned the local ways of catching fish, which I should have done in the first place. After that, and with ten more years of practice, I now catch Norfork fish on a regular basis. Here is my intense 3-part program I developed to keep me in the fish.
First, I fish the lake almost every day, primarily as weather and time allow. I have several local friends who also fish for unreasonable amounts of time. I fish with them on a regular basis, and we all share pointers and strategies.
Second, I scuba dive all summer long to literally hunt down the fish. As the weather patterns change, as the water temperature changes, and as dissolved oxygen content levels change, the fish move, and I follow them. Sometimes I have to swim around quite a bit, but I find them. The scuba effort has taught me a great deal about where the fish go for any given condition. One of the biggest surprises is that for any given condition they might have two or three different reactions, of which each sends them in a different direction.
Third, after exploring underwater extensively, I selected choice locations in which I have created my own underwater fish covers. I've got quite a few guests who come to the resort for some serious fishing, and I don't want to let them down. Of course, such an excuse allows me to get out and fish a great deal. This is important customer research you see!
Now, except for the location of my secret brush piles, I'll share with you what I have learned in this crazy process. It has been well worth it as the lake does hold some impressive fish, which are tough to catch. If you want to prove your true skill as a bass angler, catching Norfork's larger fish will do it. These fish eat well, are picky, and they have a lot of room to roam.
I've seen a lot of tournament fishing here. No doubt about it, the winners are either locals who have fished the lake extensively, or those who pre-fish the lake in advance with a trip or two with a good local guide. It also helps to purchase a map from Fishing Hot Spots which shows some 55 good fishing spots on Norfork Lake. The map also has several good fishing tips for each spot. Trouble is, everyone knows about this map so these spots see a lot of action. Pre-fishing allows you the time you need to scout out similar spots that have less fishing pressure.
As you will see below, this is a big lake with an unusual amount of shoreline. That is both good and bad. A lot of shoreline means you'll need more time to scout and pre-fish. It also means you'll stand a higher chance of finding low pressure fishing hot spots. It can be a lot of work (interpret as fun) and boat gas, but then not so many fishermen do it. If you do, you'll stand a much better chance of catching a winning bunch of fish. On Norfork, pre-fishing usually delivers the winning skill.
Norfork Lake Structure
Norfork Lake has some 30,000 acres of surface area. It is a flooded river channel with some 300 miles of shoreline. It runs about 20 miles long from southern Missouri at Tecumseh to the dam near the town of Norfork, Arkansas. You can see across the lake at all points. There are many creek arms, coves, inlets, and main lake points. From tournament launch points, you can get to most of the remote fishing areas in 30 minutes or less.
Norfork Dam was built in the mid 1940's by clearing and damming the valley and drainage system of the North Fork of the White River. Typical Ozark karst geology, this river channel was flat bottom land on one side, and high secondary limestone bluff on the other. Steep hillsides fill in between flat bottom lands and the bluffs. At one time there were farm settlements on the bottom lands. Before flooding the valley the Corps had to move several buildings, and even a cemetery. Except for the bottom lands, this was steep rugged country, now all under water.
With all the trees cut and removed, the only structure is rocks of various size. The first 100 feet or so of the underwater banks are mostly chunk rock mixed with ledges and big boulders. Gravel flats are somewhat common. Where creeks flow into the lake water tends to be shallow with mud bottoms. In the spring these mud flats heat up faster than the rest of the lake.
Over all, Norfork is structure poor, which can make it a tough lake to fish. Fortunately, I learned that I could create my own structure. For the last few years I have obtained a permit from the Corps of Engineers to put brush piles in the lake. I sink cedar trees and other woody tree parts in areas I know the fish inhabit. After I create a brush pile cover, I scuba dive into it to see how the fish like it. Some piles prove to be better than others. Knowing where these brush piles are is a great advantage to tournament fishing. I share locations with my resort guests who are serious about fishing.
The Arkansas Department of Game and Fish has also worked hard creating fish cover. They've built some impressive underwater tree piles with many some 300 feet long. These covers are clearly marked by blue and white fish signs on nearby trees. Trouble is, they've been there for at least ten years, and everyone knows where they are. God bless the Corps for letting me make my own brush piles!
I took up scuba diving so I could know exactly where the fish are, not where electronics say they are, but where I can see them. Most of the year Norfork water is quite clear. Heavy rains wash down the hillsides bringing silt which colors the water for short periods, but I usually can see well underwater most of the scuba season. In the summer I go scuba diving almost every day. I have spent countless hours over the last several years exploring all along Norfork's underwater topography. In addition to being a lot of relaxing fun, I've also learned a lot about fish habits.
No doubt about it, there ARE a lot of nice bass, walleye, stripers, and crappie in Norfork. And they eat well. Crayfish are everywhere. Lizards constantly fall in the water from all the shoreline rocks. Creeks, large and small, drain into the lake washing in night crawlers, worms, grubs, salamanders, you name it. Shad of all sizes are everywhere in the lake.
Teaming up with a good guide, creating habitat, and knowing where the fish are at all times of year by diving, gives me a great advantage. Owning Blackburn's Resort allows me to go fishing everyday to get practice and try out new baits and fishing techniques. It never hurts to have an advantage to share with one's customers, so I keep at it.
Times To Fish
To me, tournament fishing is very difficult because they usually start when I quit in the morning, and they quit when I start in the evening. Early morning, early evening, and late night fishing is better than right after sunrise and mid day, especially in the summer and fall. But obviously if you are fishing a tournament, you can't fish these hours. That is yet another reason to pre-fish for a few days if you can.
Other Tournament Considerations
Norfork Lake approaches 200 ft. in depth and creates some problems for tournament anglers, especially in the late summer and fall. The heat makes fish go deep and migrate towards places where the dissolved oxygen is highest, which is not an issue in the winter and spring.
In August water surface temperatures approach 90 degrees and the thermocline may drop as low as 35 feet. I have caught stripers, walleye and bass as deep as 100 feet.
In order to catch fish this deep you must obviously get your bait or lure down to them. There are several ways to do this with natural baits, but when you are limited to artificial bait, there are only a few effective methods. Spooning and drop-shotting are the best methods.
Your real key to tournament success will be getting on the spots with the highest dissolved oxygen content. Unfortunately, these change on a regular basis. Your best bet is working with the best guides and local fishermen. Any tournament fisherman will need to find these hot spots while pre-fishing or he or she will have trouble catching big fish. It is impossible to predict water temperature and dissolved oxygen content. Keeping up with those changes is what I do.
About every two weeks, or as conditions change, I post my Norfork Lake fishing report. My report gets some 30,000 visits a year and I get a lot of email about it. I wish I had time to answer them all, but if I did, I wouldn't have time to fish as much (now how is that for an excuse!). And if I did not fish as much, I would not be able to help as much. Yes, all this fishing and diving and brush pile building takes a lot of time, but it is worth it. How do I measure the returns? Well, of course, I love it. Yet the real reward I get is all the smiles I see on my fishing resort guests.
Wishing you the best tournament success,
Blackburn's Resort on Norfork Lake