Finally, after years of investigation of Whitewater, here is the
inside story. There hasn't been a hint of it from special
prosecutor Ken Starr, nor from Rush Limbaugh, George Will,
Senator Alfonse D'Amato, William Safire, John McLaughlin,
Richard Mellon Scaife, the editorial board of The Wall Street
Journal or even James R. Stewart, author of Blood Sport.
Anyone who wants to catch the truly big Whitewater fish should
go to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas and start fishing the
White River for giant brown trout. Where have the media been?
It's not the economy, stupid! It's a world-record brown trout,
you dumb Beltway Insiders. And as for those yuppie anglers
prattling on about big browns in New Zealand, Tasmania,
Argentina, Chile, Scotland or Sweden, forget it, kids. Think of
the White River system, down home in Hillary and Bill's
Whitewater country, home of the biggest brown trout on the planet.
Anglers on the White River and its tributaries have caught seven
browns weighing more than 30 pounds each, and folks have
reported seeing 50-pound fish. In 1988, Mike Manley, of North
Little Rock, caught a 38-pound nine-ounce brown trout in the
tributary North Fork River, near where it enters the White. It
was the biggest brown ever caught anywhere, but the
International Game Fish Association refused to recognize it as
the world record because Manley used a baited treble hook. (The
IGFA does not recognize any record fish caught with a
three-pronged hook, whether it is baited or not.)
On May 9, 1992, Howard (Rip) Collins of Heber Springs, Ark., a
retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, caught a 40-pound
four-ounce brown trout in the Little Red River, another
tributary of the White, and that time the IGFA recognized the
fish as the world record. It beat the previous record of 37
pounds seven ounces, set in Sweden in 1991. As Collins told me
after I fished the White with no such success, luck was
certainly with him on that record day.
Collins, ordinarily a fly-fisherman, caught the trout on the
only rod he happened to take along when he took his boat out to
test its engine. It was an ultralight 4 1/2-foot spinning rod
with a four-pound-test line, and the trout went for a 1/32-ounce
olive-green marabou jig. Miraculously Collins landed the fish in
only 18 minutes. He told me he expected his record to be broken
because he had seen bigger trout in the river.
The productivity of the White River system is the result of a
combination of the forces of nature and human tinkering.
According to Steve Wright of Fayetteville, Ark., author and
publisher of Ozark Trout Tales: A Fishing Guide for the White
River System, geology has a lot to do with the local bounty of
fish. "There's an old saying in the Ozarks," Wright says. "'Our
mountains ain't so high, but our valleys sure are deep.' The
Ozarks weren't mountains, but basically a limestone plateau that
The minerals dissolved in limestone rivers and streams produce a
lush growth of submerged vegetation that serves as a supermarket
for an abundance of life, such as a prodigious number of
crustaceans--sow bugs, scuds (so-called freshwater shrimp) and
crayfish--that can really put flesh on fish. In just one square
yard of the main stem of the White River below Bull Shoals Dam,
Wright noted in his book, a guide named Fox Statler counted
7,000 sow bugs and 500 scuds. In contrast, a freestone stream
with granite rocks and boulders and/or beds of shale or slate
has nowhere near such numbers of crustaceans, and it can lack
sufficient alkalinity, or buffering capacity, to offset the
effects of acid rain.
Beginning in 1941 and ending in 1964, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers built five dams on the White system, reaching up into
Missouri for flood control and power generation. The tailwater
flowing from the dams now averages 39[degrees] in the winter and
61 [degrees] in the summer. The change in the average year-round
temperature ended the smallmouth bass fishery on the White, one
of the best in the nation, but that temperature proved ideal for
brown and rainbow trout, newcomers to the region.
The latest available figures are from the spring of 1996, when
biologists in the trout program of the Arkansas Game and Fish
Commission produced their latest report on the numbers and size
of trout in the White River, from Bull Shoals Dam downstream to
Wildcat Shoals. This 11-mile stretch averaged 3,125 rainbows and
1,636 browns per mile. Two thirds of the browns were of wild
(nonhatchery) origin, 33% were longer than 16 inches, and 5%
were longer than two feet. By all reports, fishing has improved
since then as the result of a catch-and-release program.
"The limit is now two brown trout a day, and 95% to 98% of all
browns are released," says Jim Gaston, owner of Gaston's White
River Resort in Lakeview, on the White River just below Bull
Shoals. Thanks to trout--the biggest brown caught at Gaston's
weighed 34 pounds six ounces--the resort has grown from six
cabins with fireplaces and six boats in 1958 to 74 cabins with
fireplaces, 72 boats, 35 guides, a convention center, a
two-mile-long nature trail and a 3,200-foot landing strip for
guests who fly in from all over the U.S. and Canada. Along with
its restaurant, the resort draws 115,000 visitors a year,
including such anglers as Paul Volcker, the former chairman of
the Federal Reserve, and Phil Donahue, who returned in May 1996
for the 13th time.
"Trout fishing in Arkansas now accounts for $185 million a
year," says Gaston, who last January was appointed a life member
of the state Commission on Parks and Tourism. "And with the
conservation tax just passed, within five years the stocking of
trout will be doubled."
Stocking of rainbows is necessary because they do not reproduce
in the White River system, probably as the result of the water
fluctuations caused by the on-and-off power generation, even
though they quickly adapt to the up-and-down water levels when
it comes to feeding. The water level fluctuates as much as six
feet, which may not sound that significant, but I fished the
White for two days, and I must say that I found the changing
levels irksome because they were unpredictable. If there is a
flaw in this artificial Eden, the changing levels may be it.
(Anyone who fishes the White system should wear a personal
flotation device, not only because of the yo-yo water levels but
also because of the danger of stepping into a hole hidden by the
Every year for the past three years, the Norfork National Fish
Hatchery, operated by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has
stocked 834,000 nine-inch rainbows in the White River system,
and as a result, says Dale Fulton, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies
shop in Mountain Home, "We're seeing a definite improvement.
We're starting to see quite a few in the three- to six-pound
range now, where they were virtually nonexistent for years."
Fulton, an Arkansas native, guided in Montana for 17 years,
mainly on the Madison River, but he prefers the year-round
season on the White. Recently he and a party fished off the
notorious Whitewater property, which is 25 miles downstream from
Bull Shoals and right by Crooked Creek. (Crooked Creek! How did
Safire miss that?) "The water was as high as it can get, and we
just fished in the afternoon," Fulton says. "We didn't catch any
big fish, only several browns of two to three pounds. Using
almost entirely shad patterns and the San Juan worm, we probably
caught about 25 fish."
With trout fishing like that, how could the Whitewater real
estate development have failed? And how come Jim McDougal and
the Clintons didn't run ads in Fly Fisherman, Fly Rod & Reel or
Trout? They probably would have sold every lot.
"Whitewater was actually a real good idea," Fulton says. "They
just did it too soon. It's only in the last six or eight years
that we're getting people from all over moving in, not just from
the North and Midwest."
Asked his opinion, Gaston said, "A beautiful piece of land, but
Whitewater didn't have the infrastructure, just a gravel road to
serve the property--that's why it failed. It's just a failed
real estate venture, and it's really been blown out of
proportion. It was just a bad business decision."
Anyway, the big question on the White is not about the Clintons
but about Rip Collins: When will his record be broken? "I hope
it lasts for a while, out of respect for him," says Gaston. "Rip
passed away early this year. He always said that he'd never be
caught dead in his Orvis waders because they leaked. But in his
casket he had on his waders, and he had his fly rod, and there
was a note that he had written that said, 'Well, I was caught
dead in my Orvis waders.'"
COLOR PHOTO: BUDDY MAYS/TRAVEL STOCK Bull Shoals Dam, constructed by the Corps of Engineers, turned the White River into trout heaven.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: NIGEL HOLMES The Whitewater project went belly-up despite the fact that the White River and its tributaries are hot fishing spots. [Map of Arkansas, and detail map of White River, Bull Shoals Dam and White Water development]