In 1941, Life was one of the most respected magazines in the world. A cover story that year featured a float-fishing trip on the White River of Arkansas and Missouri. The 65-mile float took 10 days in 20-foot wooden boats. Those on the trip spent their nights camping on gravel bars, and their days catching smallmouth bass.
A.J. McClane's "New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia" once called the upper White River "the birthplace of commercial float fishing." Much of that smallmouth fishing came to an end after World War II with the construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of dams on the White and its tributaries. I wrote about that era in an article for this newspaper's Perspective section last Sunday.
In an article titled "Arkansas, Home of the Monster Browns," the website whiteriver.net notes: "Hundreds of miles of prime smallmouth bass habitat were destroyed, and some of the more popular float trips suddenly had dams and lakes stuck in the middle of them. But 168 miles of cold tailwater trout streams were created in their place. The result was a great trout experiment that produced two world record brown trout--a 38-pound, 9-ounce fish in 1988 from the Norfork tailwater, and a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout caught in 1992 in the Greers Ferry tailwater.
"Today, an angler can sample some of the old free-flowing Ozark streams with excellent smallmouth bass fishing and some of the new world-class trout fishing on Ozark tailwaters. Plus there's an abundance of warm-water fishing opportunities in the clear lakes created by these dams for everything from black bass to stripers to walleye. Through all this change in the Ozarks, one thing remained constant--the popularity of float fishing."
McClane explained it this way: "The leisurely pace of floating not only extends your range but permits you to be on the productive pools at key hours. For nocturnal gamefish like brown trout, walleye and largemouth bass, a gravel bar camp is at least half the secret in getting the most out of civilized streams."
Fly-fishing expert Dave Whitlock once wrote this about the Bull Shoals tailwater: "I've never seen water anywhere that has the richness of this water as far as the quality of the fish it grows and how fast it grows them."
Whitlock was a research chemist living in Bartlesville, Okla., when he discovered Arkansas' trout waters. He attracted attention for the state with a 1968 article in Field and Stream magazine that highlighted fly-fishing tactics for Arkansas. Whitlock moved to the Mountain Home area and started a fly-fishing school.
I've long contended that expanded outdoors opportunities are key to Arkansas retaining talented residents and attracting additional highly educated young people. Note how the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, with its courses and resort hotels, put Alabama on the map for a lot of people who never would have given that state a second thought. The trail was funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.
Arkansas' two largest public employee retirement systems--the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System--should establish an Arkansas Trout Trail by building world-class resorts on the White, North Fork, Spring and Little Red rivers.
The stocking of trout below dams releasing cold water was at first an experiment. It paid off in a big way for Arkansas.
"Fisheries biologists and administrators at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew that trout were ideal for stocking the frigid waters below each dam," says noted Arkansas outdoors writer Keith Sutton. "And while the loss of some fine smallmouth fisheries was the inevitable result of the dam building, the agencies implemented stocking and management programs that created places where anglers could catch trout to their heart's content, including some true monsters. ... The impact on the warm-water fisheries was devastating. But lemons can be made into lemonade, and out of the devastation rose a new commerce: Arkansas trout fishing."
In 1970, Bill Mathis, who once headed the AGFC's fisheries division, wrote: "The most immediate change was noted when the cold water from Bull Shoals and Norfork dams completely eliminated the warm-water fishery as far downstream as Lock & Dam No. 3 near Mountain View."
In 1951, the AGFC released 39,216 rainbow trout. The total was up to 72,113 trout by 1956. In 1957, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed its Norfork National Fish Hatchery just below the dam on the North Fork River.
"Rainbow trout from the Norfork hatchery thrived in the cold, food-rich environment and grew at such a phenomenal rate that soon the White and North Fork were being touted as the country's finest trophy-trout fisheries," Sutton writes.
Outdoors columnist Bill Apple wrote in the late 1950s: "The frigid waters pouring from these structures have created more than 100 miles of river perfect for trout. It's the only extensive stretch of trout water in the South and one which saves fishermen of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee from 500 to 1,000 miles of driving into the Rockies."
Arkansas was on the nation's trout-fishing map.
"With the damming and subsequent creation of trout tailwaters on the Little Red, upper White and Little Missouri rivers--as well as the realization that the cold, spring-fed waters of the Spring River could also support trout--the put-and-take rainbow trout fishery in Arkansas mushroomed into big business," Sutton writes.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.