To a casual reader of maps, the White River appears mostly, well, indecisive. It flows
west in its headwaters region before turning north in the Fayetteville-Springdale area. On
toward Eureka Springs, the river bends back to the east, then wanders up through southern
Missouri before reentering Arkansas and angling to the southeast past Cotter, Calico Rock,
and Batesville. At Newport, the stream makes an abrupt turn to the south and flows some
257 miles in that direction before joining up with the Mississippi River.
In this 720-mile journey, the White undergoes several transformations. It begins as a
small, mountain stream (complete with rapids), and ends up as a broad, meandering waterway
serving the barge and towboat industry. In between, the river's flow is interrupted
by at least eight dams, six in Arkansas and two more in Missouri. The largest of
these - Bull Shoals - is responsible for converting what had been a warm-water
fishery into one of the nation's premier stretches of trout habitat, making White River fly fishing a popular activity. Today this
cold-water section of the White River is among the state's major tourist
But the White River is more than an attraction for outdoor recreation-types. As it
passes through or alongside nearly a fourth (18) of Arkansas's 75 counties, it exerts
a steady though sometimes subtle influence on a vast portion of the state.
SECTION DESCRIBED: Entire length of 720 miles, with emphasis on
headwaters region and rainbow and brown trout fishing section.
The first 31 miles of the White River are similar to the beginning stretches of other
Ozark streams--fast and furious in the wet months, and comparatively calm the rest of
the year. In this upper stretch above the first impoundment--Lake Sequoyah--the
stream offers a series of pools and shoals with overhanging trees, tight turns, and gravel
bottoms. While Arkansas 16 is seldom more than a quarter of a mile away, it goes virtually
unnoticed by floaters. The bluffs, forests, and quiet pastures hold visitors'
The next "floatable" section of the White begins many miles downstream, right
at the base of Bull Shoals Dam. Here the river is considerably larger and, because of the
hydropower discharges from deep within the lake, very cold--just right, in fact, for
rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout fishing. Each year thousands of people try their luck with
these fish, and numerous guide services, outfitters, trout docks, and resorts have been
established to help out. Also contributing to the success of White River fly fishing is the Arkansas Game and Fish
Commission which annually stocks great quantities of trout into the stream. Many of these
are caught fairly soon after their release, but others manage to hide out year after year,
getting bigger all the time. Some get exceptionally large, like the 19-pound, 1-ounce
rainbow or the 33-pound, 8-ounce brown trout which are discussed in the
But trout are only one part of the White River picture. There's the scenery
itself, featuring some of the best bluffs in all of the Ozarks. Others remember the river
by the thin layer of fog suspended delicately above the stream each morning around
sunrise. And not to be overlooked are the famous "shore lunches" on handy gravel
bars, cooked on the spot by experienced outfitters.
The trout section of the river stretches all the way to Guion, or a distance of about
90 miles. Flowing into the White along the route are two superb smallmouth
streams--Crooked Creek and the Buffalo River--and another fine trout
stream--the North Fork River. The latter offers a scenic six-mile float between
Norfork Dam and the town of Norfork.
There are numerous ways to get to know the White. One extreme--and the choice of
thousands of vacationers every year--is to hire a guide and a johnboat, relax in a
deck chair, and head for a fishing hole. Another extreme is to emulate the annual Boy
Scout pilgrimage by putting a canoe in at Bull Shoals State Park and paddling like crazy
all the way to Batesville--a distance of 120 miles.
No matter how they get on the river, visitors need to remember that the stream is
subject to sudden fluctuations because of power generation at the dam. When all the
turbines are in operation, the White River can become bank-full and very swift. At normal
operating levels, however, the stream's shoals and pools provide an ideal combination
for a memorable White River fly fishing or float fishing trip.
The White's upper reaches are strictly seasonal, with the late October through
April/May period traditionally the best time for float trips. Below Bull Shoals Dam, the
White River is a year-round float stream, with some of the best fishing reported during
the winter months.
Launch sites for the White are too numerous to list. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has
constructed many access points downstream from Bull Shoals, and the Arkansas State Parks
Division has a handy launch ramp at Bull Shoals State Park. In addition, many of the
resorts along the river have developed launching areas for their guests.
People have been commenting on the beauty of the White River since at least 1819 when
explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft said of the stream: "It unites a current which
possesses the purity of crystal, with a smooth and gentle flow, and the most imposing,
diversified, and delightful scenery.....Our canoe often seemed as if suspended in the air,
such is the remarkable transparency of the water."
Today's visitors will not be in quite the wilderness that Schoolcraft experienced,
but there's still plenty of good scenery--towering bluffs, wildflowers, thickly
forested hillsides, and lots of wildlife.
The upper White River with its assortment of bass (smallmouth, largemouth, rock, and
Kentucky), catfish (channel, blue, and flathead), and sunfish should satisfy nearly any
angler. Spinnerbaits, crawfish imitators, and skirted jigs (with pork tails) are
recommended, along with minnows, crawfish, and other natural baits.
Below Bull Shoals Dam, the White River takes on an entirely different character. Here
it is one of the most famous float fishing streams in the world. And with good reason.
Probably more rainbow trout are caught here each year than in any other trout stream in
America. The Game and Fish Commission stocks hundreds of thousands of rainbows in the
White annually, and more than 90 percent of them are caught each year by anglers who come
here from all corners of the globe.
What about Brown trout fishing? Well, let the figures speak for themselves. In 1972, Gordon Lackey landed
a monster brown weighing 31-pounds, 8-ounces. This stood as the North American brown trout fishing record
until fellow guide Leon Waggoner landed a 33-pound, 8-ounce giant in 1977, now just mere
ounces under the world record brown trout. Missouri angler Tony Salamon landed a 30-pound,
8-ounce leviathan in 1986 that set a new world line-class record for 6-pound-test line.
Very few browns grow that large, of course. But frankly, 5-10 pounders are common, and
anglers have a good chance of landing an 11-20 pound trophy. And, yes, a few 20-pound-plus
monsters are usually corralled each year.
Although White River rainbow trout don't approach North American record size, the river
still boasts the 19-pound, 1-ounce Arkansas state record. Ten-pound fish are considered
large, but there are plenty of real thoroughbreds in the 2-6 pound class.
As an added bonus, White River anglers can also find cutthroat and brook trout in these
fine waters. Cutthroats were first stocked in 1983, but the river has already produced
9-pound-plus fish. Brook trout are a rare catch, but they have reached up to four pounds
in the North Fork of the White.
Bull Shoals to Cotter is the stretch best known for trophy brown trout fishing. Many are taken on
live crayfish or sculpins, but a variety of other live baits and artificials can also be
employed successfully, especially at night since brown trout are nocturnal feeders.
White River flyfishing is extremely popular during low water periods, but most anglers
opt for the standard White River rig--a 16 to 20-foot johnboat equipped with a 10-20
The North Fork of the White from Norfork Dam to the White has produced two record
rainbow trout and the state record brook trout. The Crooked Creek and Buffalo River junctions
are also good lunker trout holes. Smallmouth bass fishing is good at the mouths of feeder
streams, including the mouths of Sylamore Creek, Buffalo River, Rocky Bayou and Big Piney Creek. Fishing is good for channel catfish and rock bass, and in lake headwaters, white
bass, hybrid stripers and walleyes are important sportfish.
For the upper reaches, the cities of Fayetteville and West Fork can supply most needs
of floaters and fishermen. The nearest campground is at Devil's Den State Park
located west of Winslow on Arkansas 74.
Visitors to the trout-fishing section of the White River can choose from numerous
resorts and guide services. Many are located around Cotter, a city which modestly bills
itself "Trout Capital of the World." Public campgrounds are found along the
river at Bull Shoals State Park and at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilities on Bull Shoals Lake.
The Norfork National Fish Hatchery, located near the base of Norfork Dam, is an
interesting stop for area visitors. So is the Wolf House, an historic cabin located in
Norfork at the confluence of the White River and its North Fork.
Many, many miles downstream is another point of interest--the White River National Wildlife Refuge. This 113,000-acre tract is the home for waterfowl, songbirds, deer, and
one of Arkansas's largest black bear concentrations.
Finally, the reader should be advised that the lower White River is well known for its
catfish. Restaurants in DeValls Bluff, Des Arc, and other river towns have taken full
advantage of this resource and can serve some of the best food to be had anywhere.