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The White River:
A Natural Gift from the Ozarks

By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Fly Fishing The White River
Beginning as a trickle in a rocky ravine deep in the Arkansas Ozarks, the famous White River slowly gains strength from thousands of natural springs and mountain creeks as it rushes northwest, briefly touches southern Missouri, then descends southward across the eastern Arkansas Delta to join the mighty Mississippi.

The million-acre Ozark National Forest gives birth to several important Arkansas streams, but the White is queen of all. It has served as a transportation lifeline and playground since the days when French fur trappers ventured into the area over two centuries ago.

Streams bearing names like War Eagle, Buffalo, Crooked Creek, Kings, North Fork, Little Red, Black and others contribute to the upper White as it meanders beneath towering limestone bluffs and along grassy meadows. The remains of log cabins and long-abandoned grist mills are reminders of another age when the Ozarks were among the most isolated hills in North America.

Early pioneers nudged their flatboats, loaded with all their worldly goods, up the White to establish farms among the rich valleys and prairies. Steamboats followed, pushing river commerce from the Mississippi to the Missouri state line. By 1905, trains were steaming along the river's banks from Batesville to Cotter.

Commercial use of the river during the last century did no harm to the pristine White. It continued to serve as a recreational haven for residents and visitors alike. Smallmouth bass fishing was legendary and monster catfish were common. Just prior to World War II, professional outfitters and fishing guides started appearing on the river.

The forties and fifties brought the greatest changes ever witnessed in the Ozarks. Under provisions of the federal Flood Control Act of 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Norfork and Bull Shoals dams in Arkansas and Table Rock in Missouri. Almost overnight, the middle section of the river was forever changed from a lazy tepid stream to a more predictable flow of cold water.

Congress authorized the Norfork National Fish Hatchery in 1955 to help offset the fishery losses in the area. It was completed in 1957, and one of the state's most successful industries was soon underway. Trout marinas and resorts sprouted up at almost every access between Bull Shoals and Guion. Johnboat float trips were reinvented for the White and have become its trademark.

Beaver Lake, on the upper extremes of the river, and Greers Ferry Lake, on the Little Red River tributary (completed in the 1960s) are the newest Corps of Engineers reservoirs in the White River basin. Both are noted for great fishing, lake recreation and unique resort communities.

The big lakes, built to harness the powerful White, have been a sparkplug for Ozark recreation. Combined, they hold 200,000 surface acres of fresh water, more than enough to provide water enthusiasts with a special place for whatever their sport may be. Bull Shoals, largest in the system with 45,500 acres, has a shoreline of almost 1,000 miles. Norfork, twenty miles to the east, is smaller at 22,000 acres, but very able at serving visitors. Ozark lakes boast fine bass fishing, crappie action, walleye and catfish. Recreational boating, sailing, scuba diving and other water sports are also enjoyed.

Trout action can be found in the tailwaters of each of the massive concrete dams. Flyfishing is popular below each, but johnboats are still the preferred mode of travel along the deeper stretches of the rivers. Norfork and Bull Shoals dams combine to provide the greatest stretch of cold trout water, some 125 miles downstream to Guion. The tiny Izard County community offers the last trout dock on the upper White.

For years the state trout records were nailed in the tailwaters of Bull Shoals and Norfork dams. Rainbows neared the 20-pound mark, cutthroats topped nine-pounds and a world-record 38-pound, nine-ounce brown was taken just below Norfork Dam in 1988. The White River achieved its crown, but the best was yet to come.

To the south, in the Ozark foothills, the newer 40,000-acre Greers Ferry Lake had been gearing its tailwaters for a place in fishing history. Its first state record was a rainbow in 1968, but on May 9, 1992, it was a big brown that stole the headlines. The late "Rip" Collins of Heber Springs set a new world record with a 40-pound, four-ounce brown trout from the Little Red, the last major highland tributary of the White.

Arkansas incubates its own record-setting catches. Millions of trout are produced at the Norfork, Spring River and Greers Ferry hatcheries. And, warmwater hatcheries are scattered across the state to produce all varieties of bass, catfish, walleye and numerous species of panfish.

The Buffalo National Scenic River, perhaps the most famous tributary of the White, cuts a 150-mile path through some of the most scenic territory in mid-America before joining the larger White, downstream from Cotter. Towering limestone bluffs, great whitewater canoeing and natural wilderness are among the wonders of this free-flowing stream. Highways and bridges offer glimpses of the Buffalo, but the best way to experience its beauty is by canoe or raft. Outfitters are plentiful in nearby towns; and Buffalo Point, north of Marshall, provides camping, rustic cabins, trails and other facilities under the auspices of the National Park Service. Tyler Bend Recreation Area, just off U.S. 65, offers camping facilities and a visitors center.

At Batesville, the White River begins a slower pace as it winds in snake-like fashion another 300 miles across the Delta to the Mississippi. Catfish has been king of the lower White for centuries, but other species are also plentiful for the taking. Old river cut-offs and backwaters provide bass and crappie action. The lower White is also excellent duck hunting territory; the final stretch of the river is preserved as a federal wildlife refuge, covering 155,000 acres.

Conservation is vital for the protection of the Ozarks' natural resources. Visitors are joining residents in promoting ecotourism, or unobtrusive visitation to natural areas, so that future generations will also have an opportunity to enjoy Arkansas at its best.

A prime example of federal preservation can be found near Mountain View, where the U.S. Forest Service offers guided tours of Blanchard Springs Caverns. Ranked among the most beautiful limestone caverns in North America, Blanchard Springs remains a "living" cave thanks to extraordinary planning and design more than 25 years ago. Massive rooms, million-year-old formations and excellent facilities (including elevators to the cavern floor) make Blanchard Springs Caverns a favorite of visitors.

And, the caverns also have a river connection. Sylamore Creek emerges from the caverns and winds for several miles through the national forest before entering the White, north of Mountain View. A popular hiking trail follows the stream much of the way.

Today, White River is still being discovered by visitors wanting to experience a wealth of natural beauty and outdoor fun. It offers world-class fishing, major recreational lakes, federal and state parks, canoe streams, spectacular limestone caverns, award-winning hiking trails, miles of unspoiled highland forests and plenty of affordable accommodations.


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