Travel: Huntin', shootin' and, most of all, fishin'

Forget Arkansas' famous son; it's the fish that pull in the crowds. Kevin Pilley learns a little patience and a lot of jargon
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The Independent Travel
IN BILL CLINTON's home state, the best-selling T-shirt is "The Best Way To A Man's Heart Is Thru His Fly". In Arkansas, fish have always been more popular than politicians. Fish are the real celebrities in the Ozark Mountains.

In relation to its size, Arkansas sells more fishing permits than anywhere else in the world. It sells 25,000 every year. Two-thirds of the people who live there are regular fishermen compared with the national state average of a third. Arkansas boasts more trout-fishermen than any other American state. This is perhaps because it has more trout than anywhere else.

Rural communities with names like "Horseshoe Bend", "Moccasin Gap", "Hemmed- In Hollow" and "Falling Water Falls" rely on trout fishing for their livelihood. The small town of Cotter is the self-proclaimed "Trout Capital of the World", and the North Fork River once held the world record of 38lb 9oz. This was beaten in 1992 by Howard "Rip" Collins who caught a 40lb-4oz brown from Little Red River "down the road apiece" in Hebe Springs.

Arkansas (from the Native American for "downstream people") holds 25 other line-class world records. A 53lb striped bass was caught there in 1987. In 1991, a 19lb- 1oz rainbow was caught on the White, while 22lb 11oz is the record for a wall-eye. The best large-mouth bass was 16lb 4oz. These records are hardly surprising since Arkansas, although it is only 260 miles long by 270 miles wide, has more than 10,000 miles of streams and 500,000 acres of lakes. It also has "The Great White" which flows down from Missouri for 720 miles and is generally considered the king of all America's trout rivers. Trout put Arkansas on the map long before Bill Clinton.

"Our mountains aren't high but our valleys are deep," says Dick Gaston, who runs America's most famous trout fishing resort at Lakeview near the Arkansas-Missouri border. The 300-acre "Gaston's" resort has 65 guides, 60 boats, a private air strip and 70 riverside cottages. You can step outside your door and you're beside the best trout river in the States. Around every bend of the Ozark trout tail-water system you'll find more fishermen and fly-tying schools than anywhere on the planet. You can't call yourself a trout fisherman until you have fished the White.

"We get everyone from world champions and Fly-Fishing Hall of Famers to city slickers and Jed Clampett lookalikes," says Jim, a former stunt pilot who took over the business from his father. "A week with us and we guarantee you'll have enough fishing stories and trout fishing tips to last you two lifetimes."

In Ozark, the fishing season is all-year-round. Winters probably provide the best opportunity to catch bigger fish. Brown- trout spawning runs on the Greers Ferry and Table Rock tail-waters begin in October and last until December. The most popular tackle combination is a 5-6ft rod matched with a spinning reel loaded with a 4lb or 6lb test line. The rod should have a medium to ultralight action. "Something with some whip as well as some backbone," is the local recommendation. Favoured lures include "Meps" spinner, "Little Cleo" spooners and "Countdown" rapalas.

"Khaki, polarised sunglasses and a really comfy deep deckchair are musts too," joked my guide, Bobby Knight, as we left the dock and headed out into the Ozark fog to "wet a line" in the famous White. All Ozark float trips are in a 20ft fibreglass flat-bottomed johnboat. You sit in a deckchair and jig away. A round trip usually takes in about 12 miles of ripples and pockets, gravel bars, undercut banks and archetypal Nowheresville rural American backwoods scenery. The locals call the Arkansas sky "God's wallpaper". Ruby-throated humming-birds, Wappati deer, chipmunks, Canadian geese and eagles are a common sight amidst the cedars and redbud holly. (The chef at Gaston's has a couple of pet skunks.)

"The advantage to jigging is the fish seldom swallow the lure," explained Knight, as we made our way upstream to Bull Shoals Dam. Knight gave up his job as a car restorer in Kansas to enjoy the country life of the Ozarks. "The first time you come to Arkansas you can't believe how pretty it is. The second time, you bring your furniture. If you like fiddling with flies, Arkansas is the place."

Our lines kinked out into the early morning fog. "Nylon nets are a no- no. They scrape a fish's skin surface. Hereabouts, we don't like to see any dawdling. A floundering fish is a hateful sight. A spin-reel with a sensitive drag is vital. Your line must be new and non-fluorescent. Then all you do is sit back, watch and wait. Drift-fishing is de luxe relaxation."

The challenge of fishing the White is that, although it is well stocked (34 trout over 13lb were caught in one year), its water-level fluctuations and current speeds are infamous, depending on when the dam is open or closed. The dam controls water temperature as well as current speed. In the same day you can have masterclasses in the art of high and low-water fishing, as well as learning the techniques required for both cold and warm-water fishing. Says Knight: "Sometimes she is way too slow for nymph. Simple hackle patterns like partridge and quill, as well as sowbug, are good on dead drift. You have to float when she's high. But when she moves, she moves!"

"I've seen guys burrowing in the mossbeds for soft-shell crayfish. Some like to use a syringe to pump air into a nightcrawler when she's feeling low. More Junkers are caught on nightcrawlers than anything else. I know old-timers, too, who still use worm and marshmallow and they never go to bed hungry!"

Knight continued to blind me with science. "I favour a sculpin on a No. 6 long-shank hook. The line is looped around the tail and held in place by a half-hitch. I like to cross-stream cast with a big bend in the line and let the line flow past me. I don't use a strike indicator. It casts too much of a shadow."

In April and May, Gaston's hosts fishing schools. There are also bamboo- rod making schools. A highly respected local instructor is Troy Lackey who, in 1972, set an Arkansas and North American record for a 31lb-8oz brown. "'Never measure a fish. It is an act which deprives memory of creativity!' is one of Troy's favourite soundbites," said Knight as we watched the White head by.

The catch-release programme ensures quality fishing down the length of the White. In 1994, 1,103 brown trout were caught and released. The largest was 20lb 2oz. The largest rainbow reported was 8lb. To qualify for his coveted Ozark "Catch & Release" hatpins, an angler must certify his catch with an Association member. "Usually his guide and drinking buddy for the day!" Knight explained as we waited for our first bite. And then waited a little bit more. After three hours, we had thrown back more fish than we had kept. We came back up-river with six "pan-sized beauts". "They taste even better if they are yours," my guide assured me as we washed and gutted our catch at the quayside station.

We met Troy in the bar. "What makes the White such a great trout stream is her fickleness!" he told me through his huge beard. "Sometimes she can be docile. Sometimes she can get all fired up and swollen with pride. But she is always gentle with beginners. We start them off with corns and worms. Maybe salmon eggs on an eight. We know places where there are so many fish that you have to herd them rather than fish them!"

Gaston's has a limit of six fish per person per day. There are no size limits on rainbow. German-brown and cut-throat must be 16 inches. Further south, the lakes of Quachita, DeGray and Hamilton are popular for crappie, Kentucky bass and striper. Buffalo National River is a bass river. A full-day float trip on the North Fork and White costs around $175 (pounds 110) excluding tip, licence and trout stamp. Cabins in the Ozark cost around $50. The area is full of bait-and-tackle shops like The Woodsman's in Norfork and Dale Fulton's Blue Ribbon Flies in Mountain Home. They will organise lodging and guided or non-guided fly-fishing trips on the day.

Gaston's costs $90 for a twin double bed/bathroom de luxe cabin with fire, porch and barbecue pit. It has tennis courts, restaurant and bar where the local legends and trout spin-doctors like to congregate. Gaston's is a national as well as a "downhome" institution.

"A little way aways" (about half an hour in Mountain Home) is the headquarters of Waspi Fly Inc. Run by the Schmuecker family, it is the largest wholesaler of fly-tying materials in the world. The warehouse is full of prime dry- fly Indian rooster necks, wooly bugger marabou (turkey body-hair), ringneck pheasant skins, bucktail, kingfisher-blue neck hackle, claret goose shoulders, Chartreuse deer belly-hair, olive elk body-hair, dark dun possum and Hungarian partridge. If you want a fly-tying lesson, Dave Whitlock lives nearby and welcomes "company". He is famous, I was told, for his mayfly-substitute fox squirrel nymph and hopper.

Before William Jefferson Blyth Clinton, who was born in Hope in the south of the state, Arkansas was routinely written off as a hick, hillbilly, "Deliverance Country" state. It was famous for only two things: producing the world's largest watermelon and producing more broiler chicken than any other state. The 42nd President of the United States gave it, temporarily at least, some respectability. But it is the rivers and woods which are the real pride and lasting joy of Arkansas people.

Gunslinging is another popular pastime in the Ozark Mountains of north- east Arkansas. White-tailed deer, turkey and duck are hunted throughout the year. The gun season is from October to November and there is also a "blackpowder season". A combined fishing and hunting licence costs $37.50.

Bobby Knight holds the state record for deer. He once stalked a 125lb buck for two months. "Huntin' and fishin' is what Arkansas is all about," he says. "It is a backwoodsmen state. Heck, we'll hunt anything. Most of us like to have the odd pot shot at a passing liberal. Here, we say what we mean and mean what we say. I can take you a million miles and a hundred years from Washington DC, the Grand Jury and Monica Lewinsky. I can take you to places where people still have tails."



Going fishing

For information about fishing in the Ozark Mountains, contact Gastons Rt 1, Box 176AA, Lakeview AR 72642 (tel: 001 870 431 5202).

Getting there

Kevin Pilley travelled with American Airlines (tel: 0345 789789) to Little Rock Dallas. Return flights between 1 November and 14 December cost from pounds 333.

Further information

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, 1 Capitol Mall, Little Rock AR 72201 (tel: 001 501 682 7777).