Catch a Rainbow!
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
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
Cotter Trout Dock
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.
for larger image.
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
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
Jim Owen, an early mayor of
Branson, ran a guide service on the White and
was an early booster of both the White and
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
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.
is Burl Cox's cousin. Burl had his earliest
guiding experience with Hurst's Fishing Service
on May 16, 1950, as a teenager.
Click image for larger.
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
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
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
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.B. Hughs, the brother and
brother-in-law of Bill Queen, 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.
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.
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,
history was written by Judy Epperson.
Cotter Trout Dock
321 Big Spring Pkwy
Ron and Debbie Gamble
P.O. Box 96
Cotter, Arkansas 72626