The lake was just a child. In 1955, its dam was near. Its 49,000 acres of water lapped around the standing timber and new rocky shoreline in the Ouachita Mountains. And, for a while, that environment would make a young Lake Ouachita one of the premier bass lakes in the United States.
It was then, in the golden post-war heyday of baby boomers that Hal Barnes lucked out in a drawing, and founded one of the only resorts on the wilderness-encased lake. And it was then, now over 60 years ago, that a young Bill Barnes followed his father’s footsteps to the shores of Lake Ouachita.
“We started with 12 rooms and 100 aluminum boats,” a humble Barnes says. “People would line up near the ramp before dawn to rent one. They’d carry their outboard motors and gas tanks in the trunk, and I’d run up and haul them onto the boats to get them ready to fish.”
Now, Barnes is the purveyor of 90 lodging units from cabins to condos that each hold two to three bedrooms. It’s a sprawling Ozark Empire that was born on the coattails of fishing. Barnes’ 450-acre Mountain Harbor Resort houses over 1,300 storage slips, three swimming pools, the world’s only floating Subway sandwich shop (located inside of the tackle store and marina), and at least one warehouse brimming with military vehicles dating from World War II through the Cold War. (The on-site Montgomery County Military Museum is free of charge and open by appointment.)
But through the good times and bad, through 11 U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, Barnes says the fishermen have never left his family’s business. “Today, they’re 20-30 percent of all of our business,” Barnes adds. “And they’re always our best bad weather customers. You always get the pleasure boaters when it’s nice, the people on pontoons and PWC’s, but the fishermen come for tournaments, even when it’s raining in the middle of winter.”
It was here, in the pool at Mountain Harbor, that the first Rebel crankbaits were tested in the early 60s—as Barnes tells it, after George Perrin spied the then-transformational, wooden Rapala lures that Hal Barnes rented from their marina. “We used to rent those Rapala’s for $5 a day when they came out,” recalls Barnes. “One day, George Perrin, who was close to my dad, came in and said, ‘You know? I can make this out of plastic.’ A few weeks, later, I stood at the window of our lodge watching George cast that lure for hours, adjusting it with pliers and a pocket knife. He did that with several prototypes.”
And it was here, at Mountain Harbor, where the inaugural Bassmaster Classic Champion, Bobby Murray, chose to host the the very first Bass Fishing Institute in 1975. “Ray Scott had this idea to hold a class to teach people how to fish,” adds Barnes. “So he brought in Billy and Bobby Murray. They set up shop in one of our buildings and started teaching people how to fish out here on the lake.”
By the end of its run in 1984, over 30,000 anglers had attended a Bass Fishing Institute class, earning the group recognition by the National University Continuing Education Association. And in 2015, Billy Murray resurrected the institute in the same building where it all began—under the same watchful lodge on the shores of Lake Ouachita.
Over time, the fishing at Ouachita evolved. As the lake’s standing timber succumbed to time, it seeded its Top 10 ranking to other reservoirs and waterways in Texas, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. The old crankbaits of the past still work, but current Mountain Harbor guides like Mike Wurm, Jerry Bean and Chris Darby rely on a steady diet of Kalin’s worms, or on new techniques like spybaiting. And they credit the lake’s diversity for keeping anglers coming in eager and leaving happy throughout the year.
“There are so many species out here that you can’t go wrong,” says 10-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Mike Wurm. “If the spotted bass and largemouth aren’t on, you can go to stripers. If they aren’t on, you’ve got walleye and crappie.”
It’s a recipe for success that hasn’t changed much since 1955. It’s kept the Barnes family in business for over 60 years, and it’s left a lasting legacy on an entire industry—all from the sleepy shores of a secluded, Ozark lake.