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
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
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.
Click 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 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
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.
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 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
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
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
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
The guides got so good at drag fishing that they literally almost fished
themselves out of business. The White River was nearly out of
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.
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,
This history was written by Judy Epperson - former owner (with husband Ken) of Cotter Trout Dock. Great job!
Ron and Debbie
P.O. Box 96