Cotter Trout Dock Sign

Established 1954
Catch a Rainbow!

History of Cotter Trout Dock

The White River is synonymous with float fishing. Ozark john-boats, run by guides with a bottomless barrel of jokes, tall tales and priceless fishing information, are the craft of the White.

No doubt, the first fisherman to float the White were Indians followed by the early white settlers. During those days there were 500 miles of the White to float from its origins in northwest Arkansas to its juncture with the Mississippi River. Then it was a lusty, brawling, big river in the spring, fed by run-off from the steep Ozark hills. In the summer it was quiet and smooth except for the whitewater of its many shoals.

The first dam on the White was finished in 1913 creating Lake Taneycomo near Branson, Missouri. The dam, tiny by today's standards, was the largest power dam in the country when it was built.
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We know outfitters were floating Missouri's streams in the early part of the century. One famous float was from Branson to Cotter, an eight-day trip of 150 miles.  There were no bridges (except the railroad bridge at Cotter) and almost no human dwellings along the way. Many called this the best smallmouth fishing in America.

Cotter Trout Dock was very fortunate to have John Underwood of Butler, Missouri as a customer. John has been floating the White since the early 1920's.  He has many tales and fond memories of these week-long floats. Since they couldn't pack fresh food and ice for these long trips, they depended on the few farms along the river to replenish their supplies. The farmers would put out signs along the river if they had eggs to sell--or chickens or fresh milk. Often, John tells us, a friendly farmer would send his children to mow and clean a campsite for the floaters.

Upon arrival in Cotter, John and his friends would spend a night or two at the Commercial Hotel waiting for the train which would carry the group and their boats back to Missouri.

Jim Owen, an early mayor of Branson, ran a guide service on the White and was an early booster of both the White and Branson. 

In the late 1930's, while he was a student in Missouri, Elmo Hurst started bringing his friends home to fish the White River from Cotter. Soon he realized that others in Missouri were charging for this service and he should too. So, in 1938, his two-boat operation became the first guide service in Cotter, Arkansas. For many years he had no competition, and for a while he ran 30-40 boats. He operated the business bearing his name for 30 years; Hurst Fishing Service.

Elmo hadn't quite forgiven the Corps of Engineers for building Bull Shoals Dam, but on any nice spring day you were likely to find him floating the Buffalo River. He was one of the great fishermen and sportsmen of Cotter.

Incidentally, Elmo is Burl Cox's cousin. Burl had his earliest guiding experience with Hurst's Fishing Service on May 16, 1950, as a teenager.
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In 1954, Raymond Miller bought the remains of the Jim Owen's camp and began the service bearing his name on the gravel bar where Cotter Trout Dock now sits.

Within less than two years, he pulled his dock across the river for a short time and then back to the Cotter side of the White River where Miller's Fishing Service was established until George Peters purchased the site and renamed it Roundhouse Shoals Trout Fishing.

When Raymond Miller left the gravel bar at Big Spring, a group of eight men began the fishing service known as Cotter Trout Dock. For the sake of history we will list the eight: Gordon Gilliand, Hal Freeman, Ted Williams, Elwood Daffron, Paul Magness, John Dethridge, Bob Fielding, and Steve Poynter.  The first six of these men were railroaders. Happy Blevins managed the dock for the group originally. Later, Gordon Gilliand took over the management.

After Bull Shoals Dam was completed and while the reservoir was being filled, very little generation took place at the dam, and the White River in Cotter continued as a bass fishing stream--albeit a shallow one. However, once Bull Shoals Dam began operating, trout were stocked in the tailwater, and "the rules of the game" changed.

Guides who had fished the White for years suddenly didn't know how to catch these new trout. It was a hard day's work to even come close to catching a limit of fish. Those trout just didn't bite the way the smallmouth did.

Old time guides Leland Hurst, Hardy Huddleson, and Perk Williams 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 new 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 suffered as they learned to trout fish. In the meantime, business flourished as more and more trout anglers arrived. More and more trout were stocked and a few more were caught--pure luck helped. With so many fish in the river they had to catch a few.

Then in 1956, our friends thought their careers as guides were ruined. A rainy spring brought on the need to lower Bull Shoals Lake.  The generators were opened and left open. As bass water, the White was only fished when low--as the Buffalo is now fished. As a trout fishery it was still fished only when low. The trip ended when the high water caught up with the boats in the afternoon. Now the guides were faced with months of high water.  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 a rather unsatisfactory solution.

At this point the story gets muddy. All the guides agree on the activities and the outcome but not on the names of the participants. Anyway, so the story goes, a guide whom we shall leave nameless, took off down the river while his customer still had his baited hook in the water. A fish was caught accidentally, so 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 and began to watch what he was doing and to imitate his unorthodox fishing methods.

Penicillin and drag fishing--both discovered by accident--both lifesavers. Without drag fishing, the White River fishing industry probably would have suffered an early death in 1956.

1956 was probably the best year for trout fishing on the White River. Remember--the guides had never really learned how to trout fish until then while trout continued to be stocked. Those early stockers had grown, and it was now possible to find live wells full of five and six pound rainbows.

The guides got so good at drag fishing that they literally almost fished themselves out of business.  The White River was nearly out of fish.

It was years before the fishery was in good shape again, but some valuable lessons were learned. Conservation became a big concern. Pressure brought increased stocking, limits were set, and the practice of catch-and-release was encouraged. To this day, the White River guides are protective of the fishery. Nothing angers them more than the mishandling of a fish or the fishery.

Cotter Trout Dock grew and prospered in the 1950's and acquired a national following of trout fishermen. In 1959 the group of eight decided to sell the business. Two viable offers were made to different owners on the same day. To decide who would buy the business, a coin was tossed. Elmo Hurst won the toss, bought the business and within two days resold it to the loser of the coin toss--Dick Ahrens. At this time, Cotter Trout Dock had thirteen boats and Claxton Collie was hired as Dock Manager.

Jim Lieb who owned White River Trout Dock near Bull Shoals Dam entered a short-lived partnership with Dick and for a two-year period the business was known as Cotter-Lieb Fishing Service.

During this period, Ray Queen and J.W. Hughes, the brother and brother-in-law (married to Peggy Queen, Daughter of Homer Queen) of Bill Queen, (Son of Homer Queen who also guided), were guiding.  When Bill came in from Kansas City to visit his home town relatives and friends, he was encouraged to stay and guide. Finally, in 1962 he moved back to Cotter and spent that year on the back of the commissary boat as a cook. The next year he took over as Dock Manager and also guided.

Dick Ahrens sold Cotter Trout Dock to Otto Jefferson and Leland Hurst in 1967. In 1969, Otto bought out his partner and became the sole owner. Over the next few years, Cotter Trout Dock increased to twenty boats--operating with an office on the dock itself in the beginning.

With Otto's failing health, Jimmy Jefferson came home to run the dock, and after Otto's death in 1977, Jim and Dru bought the dock and operated the business until Ken and Judy Epperson took over in May, 1988.  Ron and Debbie Gamble purchased the business in April of 2004.

Much has changed in the forty years of Cotter Trout Dock: several business names, several owners, hundreds of guides. Yet, many things have not changed. Each owner has had a love and reverence for the White River; each has wanted to share the experience of floating the White with the public only to the extent that the raw beauty of the experience isn't compromised. Fishing the White is a healing experience, a time for solitude with oneself, nature and select companions.

Progress isn't always good. What John Underwood enjoyed 70 years ago is still all we offer--the chance to float the White at leisure, camping on gravel bars and eating food cooked on a campfire. We think this is enough--it can't get any better.  Evidently, you, our customers, agree.

This history was written by Judy Epperson.

Cotter Trout Dock
321 Big Spring Pkwy POB 96
Cotter, AR  72626

Contact Us

Ron and Debbie Gamble


P.O. Box 96

Cotter, Arkansas 72626

Local: 870-435-6525

Toll Free: 800-447-7538