Trout Fishing, State Park Grew Together

Arkansas’s seventh state park, Bull Shoals-White River, is located near Mountain Home on the scenic banks of one of the nation’s premier trout-fishing streams. This fisherman’s haven provides 105 campsites on or near the river, 2 rental RVs, 2 Rent-a-Camp sites, 2 pavilions, 2 playgrounds, a picnic area overlooking the lake, hiking and biking trails, and four modern bathhouses. The park also features a trout dock offering rental motorboats, canoes, and kayaks. Overlooking Bull Shoals Dam is one of the park’s newest additions, the James A. Gaston Visitor Center, which features an exhibit hall, John boat Theater, and an observation tower. For additional information, call (870) 445-3629, or visit ArkansasStateParks.com.


In the late 1950s, trout fishing was new to Arkansas. Recently built dams, like the one holding back waters at Bull Shoals, had -- for the first time -- created water in The Natural State cold enough to support fish native to northern streams.

When Bull Shoals Dam was completed in 1951, it was the fifth largest concrete structure in the nation and retained more than 45,000 surface acres of water. Naturally, the creation of the lake drastically changed the land but so did the cold waters that emerged from the massive dam. The ecology of the river was transformed from a warm-water, free-flowing stream to a cold-water stream. To replace the local warm-water fishery, the federal government agreed to stock the Norfork River [which was dammed, creating nearby Lake Norfork in 1945] and the White River with trout. This not only served as a supplement for local river fishermen, but also as an experiment to see if trout could survive in the cold tail waters.

Within a year or two, it became obvious the experiment would work. The trout were thriving. Almost immediately, the novelty of trout and the newly formed lakes began drawing outdoor enthusiasts to the area. Catering to the needs of these individuals were local businessmen such as Forrest Wood, who’d fished the White for smallmouth before the dam was constructed. Wood, who founded Ranger Boats based in Flippin, Arkansas, actually had a hand in constructing the dam. At the age of 18, he worked in demolition and excavation at the site for two years.

After the completion of the dam, Wood worked for a man providing guide services to visiting fishermen on the White River and Bull Shoals Lake. By the early ‘60s, Wood and his wife, Nina, had purchased several 20-foot john boats and started their own guide service on the lake and White River as well as on the Buffalo River and Crooked Creek.

Like today, the anglers who paid Wood caught an abundance of warm-water species in the lake, but it was the trout that gained national notoriety. "Oh it caught on," Wood said. "There were already people coming to the White River floating for smallmouth bass, and those customers kept coming to fish the lake for smallmouth bass. But some of them gradually shifted over to trout."

While the trout converted many old timers, cold-water fish hooked newcomers as well. "They learned about the trout because people like me would take outdoor writers trout fishing and they’d write about it and more people would come and fish," Wood said, adding that several television shows in the ‘60s also featured the river’s trout fishing.

Wood noted the positive impact that trout fishing has had on visitation to Bull Shoals-White River State Park. "The trout fishing is the life-blood of the tourism industry in north Arkansas. The warm water fishing is important, but it can’t hold a candle to the trout fishery because there are very few places where there is a cold-water fishery as good as the White River."

Bull Shoals-White River State Park now occupies 732 acres. Like many of the state’s other parks, the site was adopted into the system shortly after the creation of the lake. Before becoming a state park in 1955, the property was managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which now leases the land to the state.

Unlike other parks, though, the state inherited very little as far as facilities from the Corps. In 1955, the park consisted of a cleared field for camping and a single light pole to which campers could connect an extension cord to get power.

Most of the park’s major improvements were made during and after the mid-1970s, but recent years have seen some exciting additions. Some of these include the Gaston Wildflower Garden and the Ozark Mountain Bike Trail system. In 2006, the James A. Gaston Visitor Center was opened to the public, serving as a visitor center for the park as well as an educational center for area schools and organizations. In 2008, visitors will enjoy a newly constructed trout dock which will replace the dock that was built in the 1950’s.

Although the park today often serves those enjoying the lake, exploring nearby towns and shops, or using the site as a base camp for Ozark Mountain adventures, there’s still one thing no one should ever forget when visiting Bull Shoals-White River State Park … a fishing pole.

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