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Cotter on the White

by Rex Nelson | November 7, 2020 at 3:39 a.m.

Cotter is known these days as one of the top places in the country to fish for trout, but it was a product of the railroad. When the White River Railway came to Baxter County in north Arkansas, a town was born on the banks of the White River.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Cotter got its start in late 1902 when the Red Bud Realty Co., which was organized by White River Railway attorney Walker V. Powell and local citizens, leased land for the railway. About 40 acres were reserved for railroad use, including depots, a terminal yard and an engine facility. The city grew like other railroad-related boomtowns of the era. The post office was established on Jan. 26, 1903."

A newspaper began publication in December 1903, and a Baptist church was organized in March 1904. Early railroad workers lived in a tent city along the banks of the river after the division headquarters for the White River Railway moved to Cotter in 1905. Investors quickly built hotels, stores, a lumber company and even a button factory that punched out mussel shells from the White River.

The Great Flood of 1927 did substantial damage, and the Bank of Cotter failed during the Great Depression. Cotter had 1,098 residents in the 1950 census, but that had fallen to just 683 by 1960 as people left rural Arkansas for job opportunities in the Midwest and California. It took the growth of trout fishing to turn things around.

A history of Cotter Trout Dock by Judy Epperson outlines this period. Epperson wrote about John Underwood of Butler, Mo., who would float the White River in the 1920s, long before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the massive dams that now mark the White and its tributaries. One famous float for smallmouth bass fishermen was an eight-day trip from Branson to Cotter.

"There were no bridges except the railroad bridge at Cotter and almost no human dwellings along the way," Epperson wrote. "Many people called this the best smallmouth fishing in America. Since they couldn't pack fresh food and ice for these long trips, they depended on the few farms along the river to replenish supplies. Farmers would put out signs along the river if they had eggs to sell or chickens and fresh milk. Often a friendly farmer would send his children to mow and clean a campsite for floaters. Upon arrival in Cotter, Underwood and his friends would spend a night or two at the Commercial Hotel, waiting for the train that would carry the group and their boats back to Missouri."

Jim Owen, who had been mayor of Branson, ran a guide service on the river and made sure it was publicized in newspapers and magazines. In the late 1930s, a man named Elmo Hurst began bringing college friends to Cotter to fish. In 1938, his two-boat operation became the first guide service at Cotter. He operated the Hurst Fishing Service for three decades.

With the construction of Bull Shoals Dam on the White River and nearby Norfork Dam on the North Fork River, cold-water releases decimated the smallmouth population downriver that fishing guides had depended on to attract customers. President Harry S. Truman spoke at a dedication ceremony for both Norfork and Bull Shoals dams on July 2, 1952.

"Elmo hadn't quite forgiven the Corps for building Bull Shoals Dam, but on any nice spring day you were likely to find him floating the Buffalo River," Epperson wrote. "In 1954, Raymond Miller bought the remains of Jim Owen's camp and began the service bearing his name on the gravel bar where Cotter Trout Dock would later sit."

A group of eight men, six of whom worked for the railroad, would open Cotter Trout Dock.

"Once Bull Shoals Dam began operating, trout were stocked in the tailwater and the rules of the game changed," Epperson wrote. "Guides who had fished the White for years suddenly didn't know how to catch these trout. It was a hard day's work to even come close to catching a limit of fish. The trout didn't bite the way smallmouth did. Old-time guides would drop by Cotter Trout Dock occasionally to reminisce about the early days of trout fishing. The upper 132 miles of that Branson-Cotter float was under lake water, but a 100-mile stretch of trout water lay before them.

"The fishermen of America were anxious to try this new trout float fishing if the guides could just learn how to catch a trout. For two years, the guides struggled as they learned to fish for trout. In the meantime, business flourished as more and more trout anglers arrived. More trout were stocked, and a few more were caught. With so many fish in the river, they had to catch a few."

A rainy spring in 1956 created a need to lower Bull Shoals Lake. The gates were opened and stayed open.

"Guides were faced with months of high water," Epperson wrote. "Forced to somehow fish fast-moving water, they first tried tying up to the bank to fish and anchoring in sloughs and other relatively quiet waters. This was an unsatisfactory solution. A guide took off down the river one day while his customer still had his baited hook in the water. A fish was caught accidentally. They tried it again and caught another fish. Drag fishing was born.

"Guides are nothing if not observant. They took notice of this young guide coming in day after day with limits of fish while they only had one or two. They began to watch what he was doing and to imitate his unorthodox fishing methods."

By the late 1950s, trout fishing was beginning to take off in the Cotter area. It hasn't slowed down since.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at


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