White River: The Arkansas Floater's Kit

by A. C. Haralson

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 Fayettevill-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 warmwater fishery into one of the nation's premier stretches of trout habitat. Today this cold-water section of the White River is among the state's major tourist destinations.

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.


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 river floaters. The bluffs, forests, and quiet pastures hold visitors' interest.

Nice flyrod trout from the upper White River.


The next "floatable" section of the White begins many miles downstream, right at the Bull Shoals Dam. Here, the river is considerably larger and, because of the hydro-power discharges within the lake, very cold -- just right, in fact, for rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout. 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 their success 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 "fishing" section.

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 up 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 bankfull and very swift. At normal operating levels, however, the stream's shoals and pools provide an ideal combination for a memorable 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.

Access Points

Launch sites for the White are too numerous to list. The 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.

Bassin' at Bull Shoals.


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 and more than 90 percent of them are caught each year by anglers who come here from all corners of the globe.

Brown trout? Well, let the figures speak for themselves. In 1972, Gordon Lackey landed a monster brown weighing 31 lbs. 8ozs. This stood as the North American record until fellow guide Leon Waggoner landed a 33 1/2 lb. giant in 1977, now just mere ounces under the world record brown. Missouri angler Tony Salamon landed a 30 lb. 8 oz. 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 rainbows don't approach North American record size, the river still boasts the 19 lb. 1 oz. 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 browns. 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. Flyfishing is extremely popular on the White 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 hp motor.

The North Fork of the White from Norfork Dam to the White has produced two record rainbows 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 Piney Creek. Fishing is good for channel catfish and rock bass, and in lake headwaters, white bass, hybrid stripers and walleyes are important sportfishes.

EServices Available

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 Corps of Engineers facilities on Bull Shoals Lake.

Publisher's note: To see what's where topographic maps help. While you can buy individual "quads" for limited areas you might consider the new, and up to date CD-ROMs that might cover 200 or more quads. These let you examine large areas in great detail to turn up new spots to fish, and they allow you to then print only the areas you want. Even better they work with GPS systems as well

Other Information

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.