The Ozarks: Good Fishing, Good Flies

by Mike Hogue

The Ozark Mountains remain one of fly fishing’s best-kept secrets. It is also home to an assortment of can’t-miss flies.

I’ve fished the Ozarks for many years. In my younger days, after my mother and father retired and moved south to Arkansas, I considered this to be my adopted fly fishing home. Over time I fished many of the region’s spring-fed creeks and rivers, tailwater rivers, lakes, warmwater mountain streams, and freestone rivers.

The Ozark Mountains cover three states, comprising Missouri, Arkansas, and Eastern Oklahoma. The Ozarks, which are close to major populations centers such as Memphis, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa, may be one of the most unique areas to fish in the world. It is possible, within the same day, to fish for tailwater trout, cast to coolwater smallmouth bass, and finish the evening by casting popping bugs to trophy largemouth bass in some of our country’s biggest lakes. Few regions offer this kind of diversity and unique fishing opportunities.

Because of the Ozark’s rich fly fishing heritage, a large number of fly tiers, guides, and fly shops have created effective patterns to catch the local fish. Most other tiers overlook these flies because many of the patterns are regional. And because some of the trophy tailwaters weren’t developed until the 1940s, fly fishing in the Ozarks, except for perhaps the White River, has not gotten the same national exposure that other regions have enjoyed. The Ozarks offer a wealth of fine fly fishing, and these local patterns have worked almost everywhere I have tried them.

Rather than tell you the stories of the flies here, I’ll save that for the pattern descriptions. Tie these flies and try them on your local waters; I am sure you will be pleased with the results. And the next time you travel through the Ozarks, pack your fly rod and a selection of these patterns; I can guarantee you will catch fish!

NearNuff Crayfish

Dave Whitlock developed the NearNuff Crayfish as a sculpin-crawdad pattern. Sculpins and small crawdads are found in the rich tailwaters of Arkansas’s White and Norfork Rivers. This fly accounted for many of the largest smallmouth bass and trout I have caught.

Hook: Tiemco TMC8089 or Mustad 3366, sizes 6 to 2.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Eyes: Medium dumbbell.
Claws: Olive, hot orange, or gold Matuka feathers such as Chickabou.
Body: Wapsi Crawdad Dub or Whitlock SLF dubbing—hot orange, olive, or gold.
Hackle: Strung variant saddle hackle—olive, hot orange, or golden Cree.
Antennae: Hot-dipped Sili Legs mixed with Krystal Flash—peacock, hot orange and pumpkin, or copper.

Mike’s Peacock-Backed Woolly Bugger

I became obsessed with Woolly Buggers and began searching for the perfect pattern. I tried nearly every color I could think of and eventually settled on this combination. I have a photo in my office of a trophy rainbow trout I caught in a hole called Nellie’s Apron near the junction of the White and Buffalo Rivers. The hole is called Nellie’s Apron for a woman who disappeared and was presumed drowned; they found only her apron. Well, I saw a large fish swimming near a drop-off along the edge, and cast this fly down and across the hole. That fish remains one of the largest trout I have ever caught.

Hook: Mustad 9672 or Daiichi 1720, sizes 12 to 6.
Head: Gold bead.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Bronze Flashabou and olive marabou.
Body: Olive and black variegated chenille.
Rib: Medium oval tinsel.
Hackle: Olive variegated saddle hackle.
Back: Six to 10 pieces of peacock herl.

Mike’s Spuddler

This pattern earned me my first trophy-release pin. This pattern was originally made by Dan Bailey’s, of Montana, but I changed it slightly and use it as a sculpin imitation.

Hook: Mustad 9674 or Daiichi 1750, sizes 8 to 4.
Thread: White or beige 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Yellow Antron folded over and combed out.
Body: Tan chenille.
Rib: Medium oval gold tinsel.
Underwing: Red fox squirrel tail.
Wing: Hen pheasant back feather.
Head: Gold antelope.


Tom Nixon developed the 56er. Tom was a native of Louisiana and wrote Tying Flies for Bass and Panfish. Tom lived near Rim Shoals, on the White River, for many years. He once said the reason he called this fly the 56er was because all Eastern fly fishers are 99.99 percent–pure fly fishers, but his pattern is only 56 percent–pure fly fishing. I’ve also heard it said that this fly worked only 56 percent of the time. In any case, this is a highly effective local favorite and is used as a small crawdad pattern.

Hook: Mustad 9671 or Daiichi 1710, sizes 10 to 6.
Thread: Black or gray 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Mallard flank fibers dyed wood duck yellow.
Belly: Yellow floss.
Body: Gray wool yarn.
Hackle: Grizzly.

Red Fox Squirrel Nymph Bead-Head/Soft-Hackle

This may be the most famous fly from the region. Dave Whitlock created this pattern using only one material—red fox squirrel fur. I add a bead and soft hen hackle, which improves its performance. Dave ties this pattern in many sizes and on several styles of hooks, and over time he added beads and soft-hackles. This single fly may have caught more fish for me than any other pattern.

Hook: Mustad 3906B or Daiichi 1710, sizes 16 to 12.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Bead: Gold bead.
Tail: Woodchuck or red fox squirrel guard hairs.
Body: Red fox squirrel belly fur or burnt orange Antron dubbing.
Collar: Red fox squirrel body fur spun as a collar.
Hackle: Mottled hen back or red grouse.

Zebra Midge

Ted Welling, of Lees Ferry, Arizona, is credited with developing the Zebra Midge, but it has since become one of the Ozark’s most popular tailwater patterns. In fact, it has become so popular that Wapsi Fly, of Mountain Home, Arkansas, now sells thousands of glass beads and numerous kits used for making this fly. It is usually tied on a size 18 hook with a clear bead, black body, and silver rib, but you can use other color combinations.

Hooks: Mustad C49S or Daiichi 1130, sizes 22 to 16.
Bead: Small or midge Killer Caddis Glass Bead—red, orange, clear, or rainbow.
Thread: Size 6/0 (140 denier) or 8/0 (70 denier)—red, black, olive, orange, or purple.
Body: Tying thread.
Rib: Fine Wapsi Ultra Wire—blue, red, orange, silver, or gold.

Mike Hogue, who lives in Upstate New York, is a regular contributor to this magazine. Mike is also the proprietor of Badger Creek Fly Tying. For more information about materials, patterns, and much more, go to his website, www.eflytyer.com.