You'd Better Like Fishing

By Joel M. Vance, Humor Editor

As Tommy Due and his wife waltzed slowly around the restaurant at Sportsman's, it occurred to me that there are few places in America where such a thing could be happening. Here was a guitar player from north Louisiana and a fiddler from northern Iowa, playing "The Missouri Waltz" while a fishing guide on the White River of Arkansas danced dreamily with his wife. That effectively summed up the polyglot charm of north Arkansas, where country music nestles cheek-by-bristly jowl with some of the finest fishing in north America. Not just fishing for the omnipresent largemouth bass, but also for trophy trout unmatched anywhere.

The Arkansas Ozarks are not for the upwardly-mobile. You have to have a down-home sense of fun. Fine wine is likely to have a screw top and if you mention Itzak Perlman being a violinist, they'll ask you if he has a good version of the "Orange Blossom Special."

Bull Shoals is budget-retirement, leaning heavily to mobile home parks, and what seems a disproportionate number of funeral homes. That reflects the advanced age of the citizens. Most have names like Madge and Harold, and they wear caps bearing the icons of Bass Pro Shop and Ranger Boats. Despite the funeral homes, people don't come here to die; they come to fish.

"You'd better enjoy fishing," a dock owner told me. "There ain't anything else to do." Not totally true.

Everyone enjoys fishing.

PHOTO: JOEL M. VANCE

We proved that in the restaurant at Ted and Dana Rush's Sportsman's fishing lodge on the White River, below Bull Shoals Dam. You can enjoy or participate in home-grown music.

Bull Shoals Dam closed in 1953, the first of the White River impoundments. The lake did and still does offer superb largemouth bass fishing--in fact, bass fishing of all kinds. Five Missouri and three Arkansas state bass records have come out of Bull Shoals, including largemouth, Kentucky, smallmouth, white and striped.

Obviously, an angler based near Bull Shoals Dam has the best of all possible worlds above or below the dam. Add to that the proximity of the Buffalo National Scenic Riverway, with fine smallmouth bass fishing and incomparable Ozark scenery, plus nearly six miles of exceptional float or wade trout fishing on the North Fork River below Norfork Dam, or about 20 miles of trout water on the North Fork in Missouri above the lake, and there's more than enough opportunity year-round for any vacationing angler.

On a somewhat higher level than our amateur wailing at Sportsman's is the ongoing love affair with country/folk/bluegrass music at Mountain View, AR, a few miles southeast of Bull Shoals. It is here that Jimmie Driftwood, the folk singer who wrote "The Tennessee Stud" and "The Battle of New Orleans," holds forth as the goodwill ambassador of the Ozarks. In his concerts nationwide, Driftwood invites the audience to stop by his home if they're ever in the Mountain View area. He isn't kidding. Of course, most don't, but the genial folk singer, who plays a home-made guitar partly fashioned from a fencepost, is typical of the friendly people of this part of the world.

The Ozark Folk Center, an Arkansas State Park, is open from April through December and there are many special events (in 1986, a tribute to the late, seminal country guitar player Merle Travis, and workshops on hammered dulcimer--even a blacksmith workshop). For information, call the Center at 501-269-3851, or write Ozark Folk Center, Box 500, Mountain View, AR 72560.

Real country music is endemic in north Arkansas, and on a summer Saturday night, Mountain View turns into a gigantic pickin' parlor. Anybody of any skill level on any country instrument can find kindred spirits with whom to share a melody or two.

Closer to the north Arkansas fishing is Mountain Home, a fairly substantial community with most of the amenities for those who suffer withdrawal pangs when separated from cable television and fast food chains. Nearest major cities are Springfield, MO, (about 120 miles); and Little Rock, AR (about 160 miles). All else bears names like Yellville, Peel, Old Joe, and Three Brothers-- not communities where you're likely to see the Jet Set at play.

A three-day Arkansas fishing permit is $5 and a trout stamp is another $5. Sportsman's rates and services are typical of the many trout resorts on the White River. Eight miles downstream from Bull Shoals, it offers cabins, a guest restaurant, and guided trips on the White. It also is typical in that Ted and Dana Rush, who own it, are dedicated to making the trout fishery even better than it is. That includes membership in a dock owner's group that urges voluntary release of big trout.

The White River of Arkansas today is choked by dams, bloated by lakes for most of its length. They pile one on the other, Beaver, Table Rock, Bull Shoals...and then there is 100 miles of trout fishing that already has coughed up a world record brown and probably will again.

While you're not likely to catch a world record, you don't need to be an expert, even a very good angler, to catch a limit of passable rainbow trout from 10 to 20 inches every time you fish the White. It's a rare river that can offer an angler a limit catch every time.

Even the youngsters enjoy fishing.

PHOTO: JOEL M. VANCE

Rainbows are the meat fish, browns the trophy. The White also has a growing cutthroat trout fishery. Cutthroat are a Western trout that has adapted to the White. They're as easy, if not a bit easier to catch than rainbows--which makes them the easiest trout of all for anglers to fool.

Sportsman's offers five different "plans," which are combinations of lodging, a float, and food. Plan "C" falls in the middle, so adjust accordingly (or write Sportsman's, Route A, Box 115, Flippin, AR 72634). Plan "C" offers two nights' lodging, a float with a shore lunch, all meals, all bait, sinkers and leader, for $144 per person. 

"Three days is just about perfect," says Dana Rush. "On an overnighter, you just get into the spirit of the trip and it's over. And on a five-day trip, you'd all better be congenial."

The three-day trip is $445 per person, which includes arrival night in the resort cabins, breakfast in the cafe, then three days on the river with all meals, bait, tips to guides and cooks, taxes, and a trout stamp and fishing license--in other words, everything but the angler's personal gear.

As the anglers drift downstream fishing, a commissary boat goes on ahead and when the fishing day is over, the camp is completely pitched, wall tents with cots, campfire chairs, and sensational food. Good ol' boys, contrary to television where they mainly destroy automobiles, know how to fish and they know how to cook--steaks, chops, pancakes, fish, hush puppies, whatever.

The noon shore lunch deserves special mention, for it is a special experience. If you're cholesterol conscious, you'll freak out just watching the shore cooks fix the noon meal. They begin with an enormous skillet into which they dump a couple of pounds of bacon. Fried crisp, this becomes the aperitif. Tommy Due makes hush puppies that would turn Aunt Jemima green with envy. He spoons them into the sizzling bacon grease and turns them once, and they emerge golden and crisp. Next, the remaining grease cooks American fries and onions with just the right amount of salt (a lot) and pepper.

Finally, the cooks dump enough lard-- none of your wimpy low- fat, no-cholesterol cooking oils--into the skillet and when it is smoking hot, they carefully lay the morning's catch of trout, rolled in cornmeal, one by one, in the skillet. There is no need for dessert. For counters, either of calories or blood pressure points, I wouldn't recommend it as a steady diet, but for a bust-out, no-holds-barred camp meal, it is the best I've ever eaten...and eaten...and eaten. 

Guides expect and should get a generous tip--probably $25 a day. After all, they cook a stupendous lunch, tell stories (some of which are true) and most important, help you catch fish. You can fish the White without a guide, but if you're not a superb angler, you won't catch many. Native know-how is real.

You also can rent a boat and guide by the day for the White or Buffalo Rivers, or Crooked Creek (a superb trophy smallmouth bass stream). It's expensive for one person--up to $162 a day--but less so for two people. A third option is overnight camp trips at about $150 a day per person.

Rental boats.

PHOTO: JOEL M. VANCE

The Eastwold family at Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock offers floats on the White River, but also offers houseboat rental on Bull Shoals Lake. Depending on the size of the houseboat, it'll cost just over $100 to almost $200 a day to rent. The boats are completely equipped, including a shower with hot water. You can figure out just about any combination of services and trips you want.

On a late-summer trip, six couples of us swam, fished, hiked the hills around the lake, loafed, played music, read, sunbathed, ate and caught mammoth crawdads for hors d'oeuvres. We towed a bass boat and slung a canoe on the rear deck and both were used for side trips. During hunting season, the Eastwolds rent boats to deer and waterfowl hunters.

Contact Bull Shoals Landing, Inc., Box 348, Bull Shoals, AR 72619, or call 501-445- 4424 or 4166.

Maybe John Eastwold summed up the ambiance of north Arkansas better than anyone when he said, "Anytime we see a lady come down the dock wearing high heels, we know we're in trouble." It's laid-back country and while you don't need to know how to flatpick a guitar, at least you should enjoy hearing someone else do it. And remember not to wear high heels. Especially the men....

Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer ($15 softcover), Confessions of an Outdoor Maladroit ($22 hardcover); and a book on tape collection of short stories read by the author, Billy Barnstorm, The Birch Lake Bomber ($17), autographed and postpaid from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City, MO 65102.