By Larry Dablemont
A couple of years ago Bull Shoals was at the highest lake level ever seen. As a result they released water in record amounts into the White River below the dam. That summer I fished with a friend and river-guide Jerry McCoy in the first mile of the White, the section that is a “catch and release” area.
You are required to turn back any trout in that trophy trout area and you have to use barbless single hooks only. In that area you can, however, keep any fish that is not a trout, and that spring, Jerry McCoy would get up close to the dam and catch walleye and crappie with the trout.
Until then, I had never caught anything out of the White River except trout. But since, I have wondered if perhaps those walleye might indeed be able to spawn in the river, and if the crappie couldn’t find sloughs and tributaries like the Buffalo and Crooked Creek, where they could spawn too. Of course, the water coming from the very bottom of Bull Shoals is too cold for any fish to spawn in but trout. Rainbows never have any spawn that is meaningful, but the brown trout do spawn successfully, something that surprised fisheries biologists from years back.
Brown trout grow to huge sizes in the White because no one keeps them, and there are some that are from 30 to 40 pounds in those miles and miles of the cold river between the dam and Mountain View, Arkansas, and even farther downstream. The brown trout spawn in mid-winter over the next two to three months until sometime in February.
I will write more about fishing for them in February, which is the month I visit the White River the most. Since I am not much on fishing in crowds, and no hunting seasons are going on, February is when I like to fish the White. The rainbows you catch there are stocked fish that seldom exceed 14 inches in length. But with light gear, if you think a 12- or 14-inch rainbow isn’t fun to catch, you need to get a light-weight spinning-reel and an ultralite rod and go try it.
In all my years of fishing on the White, I have not been well received as an outdoor writer by any of the resorts there but Gaston’s. And I love the place! Looking through thousands of newspaper columns I have written in the past 50 years, I came across one I wrote I wrote about fishing with one of Jim Gaston’s guides, decades back, there at Jim’s invitation. That was 40-some years ago, when I was writing weekly columns for the Arkansas Democrat and later the Arkansas Gazette.
During that time, I was the chief naturalist for the Arkansas State Park System. I only stayed in that position for a few years, but while I was there, Jim Gaston became a commissioner for the Parks Department. I was a young kid basically, when I met him, an ardent believer in preservation, not at all convinced that the historic White River should have ever been dammed.
Even though he owned one of the largest developments on the river, Jim thought a lot as I did, and he loved the Ozarks. When I began publishing my outdoor magazine 18 years ago, Jim Gaston was one of my biggest supporters, advertising with me when others along the White looked at it as a venture bound to fail. But I know that we added other Ozark advertisers just because of Jim’s confidence in the magazine, and his reputation across the Midwest.
Jim was an Ozarkian, and fascinated with photography of the region, its people, scenery and wildlife. For years he allowed me to use his photos free of charge in my magazine. Jim passed away a few years ago, and it was a great loss to the Ozarks and all of us who admired him so. His resort is still a thing of wonder as it is guided forward now by his grandson, Clint.
If you catch some trout on the White you can take them to the restaurant there looking out across the river and they will cook them for you. Pan-seared rainbow trout in that restaurant rivals any fish you have ever tasted. But that restaurant is a fascinating place because it is also a museum of the Ozarks from another time, filled with antique fishing paraphernalia, antique tools, bicycles, guns, photos and much more. Anyone who finds themselves in the Bull Shoals/White River area needs to see that museum. You can’t look at everything there on the first trip, but while you are there take a seat at a dining table, looking out across the water, and have some pan-seared trout.
I will be there sometime in early February staying at the resort and fishing for whatever I can catch, and when I do, I will write a column about it and tell you all the details. I may not catch one of those monster browns, but I’ll get a couple of good ones, fishing a suspending rogue as guide Frank Saksa taught me to do years ago. I always do.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.