The Arkansas travails

It's not easy fishing, but if the weather is at all bearable and the generators at Bull Shoals are shut down, the White River yields giant trout the year round
December 18, 1978

The radio had predicted freezing rain before dawn. Meanwhile, plenty of the regular kind was lashing down on Dave Lowry's mobile home on the banks of the White River in northern Arkansas. But the filthiness of the weather was having no effect on Lowry's evangelical fervor.

"Listen, man," he was saying. "You go down that river when it's dead low, get your eye attuned, stand up in the John boat and just look. Soon you'll start seeing 'em. Like in Wildcat Shoals, schools of browns weighing from 10 to 20 pounds. Nothing under 10 pounds. And in schools, just like a small fish. And, glory, there's big rainbows out there, some of them nearly as big as the browns!"

All of his warming eloquence was badly needed last week. The two days' fishing we had put in had been hard and almost barren, just one hand's count of 12-inch rainbows, too young, stupid and recently stocked to know better. And not only had we to fight the wintery conditions, but we had also started out by hitting what Lowry, with almost audible capitals, called an Eight-Generator Day on the river.

A lot of things can spoil fishing; in our case it was last week's storm striking Kansas City, 325 miles away. Naturally, the citizens turned up the heat, forcing the Southwest Power Association to run all eight of its massive generators on the Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas to supply the sudden demand for energy. Which in turn meant pouring millions of gallons of water at temperatures ranging from 44° to 52° into the White River. Which meant a sudden rise of 12 feet in the water level. There is no way of fighting an Eight-Generator Day. All you have is the consolation of what must be a unique fishing alibi.

This is a very small consolation indeed when one has the chance to fish what is probably the best trout river in the U.S., better even than the famed streams of Montana and Michigan and Wyoming, a river that last year produced the nation's biggest stream-caught brown trout, a prodigious fish of 33 pounds, eight ounces. It's a great rainbow-trout river, too: you might have to go to New Zealand to find one comparable. The Cotter Bridge stretch, close to Dave Lowry's fishing camp at Rim Shoals, yielded a 19-pound rainbow last year. "Young fish," Lowry says. "Maybe only five or six years old. Just a little bitty head, thick heavy body."

Before the Bull Shoals Dam was built in 1954, the White River was renowned mostly for smallmouth bass. But the bass couldn't take the infusions of cold water, and they disappeared. To appease the angry anglers, the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, with federal help, built a hatchery and stocked the river with trout. And the trout took off. "Hell, man," Lowry says, "most people round here didn't even know what a trout was. Farmers went down there, filled gunny-sacks with fish, fed them to the hogs."

The comparison with New Zealand is apt, at least on a small scale. When the first white settlers arrived there, they found big rivers teeming with small fish. When trout were introduced, they waxed fat. Almost literally, all the trout had to do was browse on the bait fish. Which is what happened on the White. The river is extremely rich in food, full of snails, shrimp, crawfish and sculpin. As in New Zealand, all the trout had to do was open their mouths and inhale.

But they don't do that on an Eight-Generator Day. The water roars down at 12 mph and scatters the fish. About the only chance you have of catching a big one is by means of what the locals call "back dragging," barely stemming the current with the boat's outboard motor and allowing a deep-working lure to hang in the stream over likely spots. This is the way they sometimes fish for Atlantic salmon in the big rivers of Scotland and Norway. Over there they call it "harling."

On our first day out, after taking a couple of little rainbows on squirrel-hair nymphs out of rare pockets of calm water close to the banks, we had to fall back on harling which, in the absence of fish, is a form of slow torture, made worse in our case by an icy wind. No takers, and Lowry was growing a little desperate by afternoon.

It wasn't his fault, of course. You can't fight eight generators, and most of the year (the White is open for trout fishing the whole 12 months) you don't have to, because Kansas City and the other places the dam supplies with power have more predictable needs. Normally the power company runs a pattern, kicking on three generators a day for eight hours, and an angler has some idea of what's going on. But it was obvious that we weren't going to be that lucky.

As the wind took our ears off, it was no great consolation to be told that on a good day a competent fly-fisherman could take maybe 100 trout. Most of those would be stocked fish, rainbows of nine inches and upward, but there would be some good ones among them, certainly a sprinkling of three-pounders.

It is, in fact, arguable whether a naturally rich river like the White needs the kind of restocking program that the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission operates. From April until Labor Day, there are weekly stockings of rainbows at nearly every boat dock along the 92 miles of the White below the dam. But Dave Whitlock, a fly-fisherman of national reputation who lives on the river, believes that the White River is more than capable of regenerating its own natural stock of browns and rainbows, given more protection for the fish. At present, all methods of angling are legal, even bottom fishing with cheese and corn pellets, for which hatchery-reared fish are born suckers.

Whitlock wants a more regulated season, including a single-hook, artificial-only segment, and such methods as cheese dunking prohibited. He has proved his point that the river can regenerate itself from its own resources by the use of a modification of the Vibert box. (In the standard Vibert box, planted in the river, eyed trout ova are hatched out; in the Whitlock-Vibert model, there is a second compartment that acts as a nursery for tiny fry that are still carrying the egg sac.) Slowly but surely, Whitlock feels, the Fish and Game Commission is coming around to his way of thinking.

It has to be recognized, though, that on the White, fly-fishing is always going to be limited to when the water is down, unless one is prepared to use cumbersome high-density, fast-sinking lines. There is some dry-fly fishing—the White has a mayfly hatch—but most of the time fishermen use sub-surface flies, nymph and streamers.

It was to get some fly-fishing in that led Lowry to abandon the White River—still running high—on the second day of our trip, and turn to the Norfork, one of its tributaries. But we were fighting the weather again. The temperature was down to the low thirties. The thin, mean rain was on the verge of freezing. Again, it proved to be only the smallest and silliest rainbows that were willing to hang onto the fly. By nightfall, Lowry was more frustrated than ever. And all we had left was half a day.

So, as the rain drummed down on the last night, we had to psych ourselves up for a last shot at a big White River trout. Lowry had called in an ally, John Cox, who conceded that it would be a considerable task. "I fish most every day," said John, "and maybe meet one big fish a week. That's good odds anywhere for a trophy trout."

And on a big-trout river like the White, what would a trophy trout weigh? "Eight pounds if he's a rainbow," John said, "15 if he's a brown."

"Tell him about that White Hole up there," Lowry said.

"Oh, man," Cox said, "there's fish there you wouldn't believe. No rainbows. All full of browns. When they put stock fish in there, if you don't catch them stockers in a couple of days, you can forget about them. Browns just eat them up. I could show you a fish in that hole, he'd go 40 pounds."

"If they shut the water off early tonight," Lowry said hopefully, "it'll be pretty low up there at Wildcat Shoals. If that water's dead low, we'll get up there early. You haven't caught your big one yet, but you ain't gone home yet, either. Some of them fish in there, they're this doggone long and, hell, this thick." His hands described improbable dimensions.

It was improbable, but also gloriously true, that at seven the next morning Lowry would be tapping on my cabin window with the news that the generators had been shut down early, that the water at Wildcat Shoals would be just about right. Couldn't make it himself, but Cox would head up with me.

It was still raining, just this side of freezing, when we hauled the boat up to Wildcat, and wraiths of white mist were curling off the river. The air was colder than the water. But the stream itself was thin and clear, the gravel showing gold, the boulders gray and white on the bed. For half an hour we fished the water carefully, but no fish moved.

Then, as Cox held the boat against the moderate current, something stopped the yellow Matuka streamer on its way home—appropriately a New Zealand fly for a river that would be entirely at home in New Zealand. I saw the broad side of the fish flash silver as it shook its head. And then the line was running off the reel.

Ten minutes later, or thereabouts, it was in the net. Rainbow. Hen fish. When I went to unhook it, I found the fly had already fallen out. One second of slack line would have been enough to lose it. Eight pounds flat it went on Lowry's scales when we were back at the dock.

Maybe I should have released it, but I had worked hard and long for that fish. I called my wife at the airport and told her I was bringing her home a trout.

"Good, nice for breakfast," she said.

"Doggone," I heard myself saying, "this here's a White River trout. It's this long and, hell, this wide!"

Clearly, a big trout is not the only thing you can pick up in Arkansas.

PHOTOTrying his hand on the Norfork, a tributary of the White, the author caught only a few small rainbows.