Arkansas’ Hidden Treasure
Norfork is the second lake to be made on the White River system, following Lake Taneycomo, and its pre-Eisenhower construction gives it a unique position among the sister lakes. The area surrounding Norfork Lake is the property of the US Army Corps of Engineers, constructors of Norfork Dam. Strangely, this buffer of land is not marked by a certain distance but is actually based on elevation. This makes for a distance of completely undeveloped land that varies from a quarter to a half mile away from the lake’s shore. With this number based on elevation, the pristine shoreline is all natural and the only few structures are fine houses sitting high atop bluffs that look down upon the water below.
Though it has come to be a symbol of the area’s newfound prosperity, the lake was once quite controversial. In the late 1930’s, northern Arkansas was in a very impoverished state. The only recent construction was the building of Henderson Bridge across the Norfork River, which actually put several annoyed ferrying services out of business. Towns such as Mountain Home and the village of Henderson desperately looked forward to anything that could aid them and stop people from abandoning defaulting farms. The idea for a lake came about to bring work, flood control, recreation, and hydroelectric power to depression-weary north-central Arkansas. Today, the city of Mountain Home has prospered into a thriving populace of 11,000 people but several farms and the village of Henderson are now under the lake. Many residents were forced off their land and, though all controversy has long since dried away, lake basin residents were adamantly opposed to vacating their family farms and homes during the lake’s construction. But the lake brought renewed economic prosperity and completely changed the surrounding area into something new. Residents today are more than happy for the change.
Norfork Lake came about as a result of Arkansas state representative Clyde T. Ellis promising to build what he called a miniature Tennessee Valley Authority in northern Arkansas. He won the 1938 election on the promise of cheap hydroelectric power. Thus came the June, 1938 Flood Control Act authorizing construction of the Norfork Dam. The original purpose for the dam was to control the constant flooding of the Norfork River. Ironically, the majority of the land that had the most flooding was actually the land that became apart of the lake’s basin and was largely without use.
Originally, the dam was not to have power generators. With the rising threat of war, the War Department needed to make sure the ammunition plants in Arkansas had plenty of power. Thus, the dam’s construction came into fruition during the war years with plans for hydroelectric electricity generation. Construction went on a 24-hour work period attracting over 1200 men to the site with the handsome depression-era wage of 30 cents an hour. Men blasted, dug, picked, and poured concrete to raise the dam into the bedrock from the spring of 1941 until Norfork Dam’s completion in 1944.
The ancient mountains of the Ozarks, as residents know, are old enough that most of the topsoil is eroded away, leaving bare rock for water to run through. This combined with the fact that no other lakes empty into its river system, unlike Table Rock and Bull Shoals, makes Norfork Lake incredibly clear. It also makes water sports the number one activity. People travel from miles around to play on the incredibly clean, clear lake. Since the waters aren’t nearly as crowded as other lakes, skiers and wake boarders are very common. Personal watercraft enthusiasts love the broad expanse available to zip and zoom around in. Many people use the lake for these speedy sports on the calm waters but many simply like the natural landscape on its own, taking long cruises on pontoon boats with family. Sailboating is not terribly popular due to the lack of winds, though. The high, surrounding bluffs along the shoreline prevent much wind from reaching the lake. Instead, people prefer houseboats, being able to anchor in one of the hundreds of calm, secluded coves that are private and serene. Houseboaters spend days or weeks just parked out on the water.
The clear water isn’t just good for playing on; it’s great for diving into! Norfork Lake has a very active scuba and skin diving following. Divers from all over the central states come to experience both the crystal clear waters as well as the amazing dive sites. Norfork has the usual things such as sunken boats and vehicles, but is also home to a variety of other underwater finds. Jordan Marina is one of 9 marinas on Norfork Lake and has full service for divers, including a guidebook for dive spots. There are 30 different dive sites within 2 miles of Jordan Marina. Divers can swim through sunken caves amongst schools of fish, play on an underwater playground, and explore a variety of other finds. Jordan Marina has many events including an annual underwater treasure hunt. Every year over 100 divers search for hidden trinkets and their chance at some $5,000 worth of prizes.
Divers don’t just swim, though. They love to fish as well. Spear fishing is a thrill like no other and many come to Norfolk to experience it. The sport is illegal in Missouri lakes but not in Arkansas. In fact, spear fishing is illegal even on the Missouri side of the same lake. The allotted catch is ½ the angler rate and spear fishers cannot fish for any game fish, such as bass. Popular catches that are allowed are crappy and walleye, both abundant in the lake, as well as catfish. Every year Norfork Lake hosts a spear fishing tournament the first Saturday after the season opens on June 15th. After the winners are found, the contest ends with a freshly caught fish fry. Several marinas, including Jordan Marina, rent out scuba-diving gear as well as spear guns for spear fishing.
Traditional fishing on Norfork is something that visitors not used to the lake might find a bit challenging. The clear lake may be appealing to swimmers, but when you can see thirty feet into the water the fish can see you too! Because the lake isn’t murky, lower test line should be used so that the fish can’t see it. Spoons and other more natural-looking lures are encouraged. The key is to be patient and fish down deep. Unlike other lakes where you can simply drop a line and pull fish in, Norfolk requires a little more patience and skill. Locals will tell you, however, that if you give it a little time and try a variety of tactics, the fishing is just as good on Norfork as it is anywhere else. Norfork Lake boasts an abundant supply of bass, crappy, catfish of all types, and is great for walleye fishing. Ocean stripers are also being introduced to the lake, producing big catches for skilled anglers. Those who want to catch the big one should look into one of Norfork’s many fishing guide services.
The fishing that Norfork is really known for, however, is trout fishing. The lake area is home to a large trout hatchery where thousands of fish are raised from smaller than a penny to rod-snapping giants. Rainbow trout is especially popular and has become the fish Norfolk National Fish Hatchery is famous for raising year after year. The trout are not stocked in the lake, though there is a walleye and crappy hatchery that feeds Norfork Lake annually, but rather are released into the Norfork River. Anglers of all ages dawn their waders in parks along the banks for a fine day of fishing. In 1988, a fisherman on Norfork River caught what was then a world-record trout. Fishing is only allowed further down the river but close to the hatchery is a wonderful sight. Every year the trout come to spawn and have to pass through a 5-foot high, 60-foot wide waterfall. It takes about 15-18 jumps before the valiant trout can make it over the falls to spawn further up the river. Visitors can view this awe-inspiring event take place in the spring.
Mountain Home has certainly benefited from Norfolk Lake. The town has become known for its “twin lakes” position between Bull Shoals and Norfork Lake. Offering many restaurants, hotels, shopping, as well as two 18-hole golf courses, Mountain Home is at the center of outdoor activity in north-central Arkansas.
With the clearest water, untainted surroundings, and friendly family fun abounding, Norfork Lake is a secluded treasure that is just far enough away from civilization.
All images are the property of the accredited source and are used by permission. For more information about Norfork Lake please see the following sources.
Norfork Area Information:
Norfork Lake Chamber of Commerce:
Norfork Lake Chamber of Commerce
PO Box 177
Gamaliel, AR 72537
Army Corp of Engineers
Mountain Home Project Office
324 W. 7th Street
Mountain Home, AR 72653
Phone: (870) 425-2700
Mountain Home information and lodging:
Photos Courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers (Norfork Dam photo), 2Cooleys.com (Personal Watercraft and Rainbow Trout photos) and Jordan Marina (Beaches of Norfork and Underwater Arch photos)