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The Big One That Got Away
Robert H. Boyle
December 15, 1997
It's record trout, not the President, that arouses passions near Whitewater
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December 15, 1997

The Big One That Got Away

It's record trout, not the President, that arouses passions near Whitewater

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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�-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 got eroded."

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� in the winter and 61� 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.

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