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The Arkansas travails
Clive Gammon
December 18, 1978
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
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December 18, 1978

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

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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.

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