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
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 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.
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
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
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
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 Gamble
P.O. Box 96
Cotter, Arkansas 72626