The Hunt for a Legendary White River Brown Trout

Opportunities to wet a line in the legendary White River do not come often, but when an invitation came my way, there was no hesitation in loading up my fishing gear and driving nearly 600 miles from my home in Atlanta to Lakeview, Ark. Fueling my excitement was the knowledge that the third largest brown trout ever to be caught in Arkansas, just came out of the White River a few weeks ago. The 37.5-inch “hog” tipped the scales at 38.7 pounds.

My headquarters for the week, Gaston’s White River Resort is ideally located on the banks of the White River, legendary for big brown trout. Al Gaston opened his resort in 1958 when he purchased 20 acres of White River frontage with six cabins and six boats. Today, Gaston’s White River Resort consists of over 400 acres with 79 cottages strung along a portion of its two miles of river frontage. Al Gaston’s son Jim runs the resort today and has done so for more than four decades. He and his staff have welcomed generations of families and made them one of their own. This is a place for hosting friends, clubs, families and groups of all sizes, with epic fishing thrown in.

Growing up on the White River, my fishing guide Roger Hicks knows it well. At 10 years old, he washed boats and has been guiding pretty much ever since–more than 33 years. Once on the water, he handed my fishing partner, Richard Simms, a Smithwick Rogue “blackback” jerk bait. He is an experienced angler being a fishing guide himself in Chattanooga, Tenn., and is interested in targeting brown trout this morning. Richard lost a big brown during his last visit to the White River and is aiming for a rematch.

Roger reminds us that brown trout feed at night and even if we are lucky enough to draw a bite, it is more likely that the big fish will get away, than be landed. We are lucky if we land one. So, I guess due to the low odds, I am targeting rainbow trout with a Berkley PowerBait combination of a yellow egg and a pink worm on a no. 6 hook with a sinker. Drifting this rig with my Carbon X, it doesn’t take long to bring a few rainbow trout to the boat. They are good-sized fish ranging from 12 to 16 inches.

As indicated by their bright coloring, many of these stocked ‘bows have been in the river for quite a while. All are great fun on the end of a line.

My partner Richard is also catching his share of rainbows. He switches to a “blueback” colored Rogue and soon hooks into and lands a beautiful 19-inch White River brown trout. That, I decide is the reason I came to fish the White River. Immediately I tell my guide that I would like to catch a big brown, even though with one being taken already, I know my odds are long. Roger ties a jerkbait to my line, and I am hopeful, but it’s not to be. I have a great day nonetheless, catching several more rainbows with a couple going in the livewell for lunch.

Lunch is not a cold sandwich in a brown paper bag, but a full-blown cookout of fresh fried trout, chicken, beans and potato salad. Meanwhile, dutch ovens are covered with hot coals as peach, apple and blackberry cobblers are baking for dessert. Gaston’s shore lunches are hearty meals for hungry anglers.

Day two of fishing begins with a thick fog and a light but steady rain that lasts all morning. The dark and wet conditions are not ideal for us anglers, but definitely what the trout prefer … especially the browns. Thankfully, I packed my frogg toggs rain gear and the guides are warm and dry in their Frabill suits.

I am fishing with a different guide today, Richie Hayes. He has about 20 years of experience under his belt, so I am guessing all totaled Gaston’s many fishing guides must have a couple centuries of experience of guiding on the White River. I am in good company with fishing partners Ron Wong of “Larry Rea Outdoors” and Jill Rohrbach with the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Again, we are asked if we want to catch a bunch of fish, meaning rainbow trout, or do we want to try for a big brown. Not a bad choice when you think about it. This is the place to bring families, children, beginner and experienced anglers who want to have their rod bent all day long. The three of us want a chance to hook into a big brown trout.

Photo: Richard Simms,
Photo: Richard Simms,

Jerk baits are the lure of choice this time of year for catching browns. By the second day, I have mastered the technique of casting and retrieving one. This rainy morning, it is a Lucky Craft Pointer that brings me success. My first fish is a beautiful brightly-colored 16-inch rainbow. It is too pretty of a fish to keep for lunch so we release it. Ron Wong is fishing the same lure and is catching numerous fish including a couple very nice brown trout. But, I am not to go without a brown trout. I cast to a shallow flat, about two to three feet deep and hook into a 20-incher! I am elated that it stays hooked until it is safely in the guide’s net and then carefully released after a few quick photos. That is to be my only brown for the day, but I catch several more rainbows before we call it quits.

The White River is a tailwater and its flow varies, depending on the need for power generated from Bull Shoals Dam. Generation and water levels are unpredictable and change from day to day and even hour to hour. The guides generally favor high and moving water for catching fish, especially browns. Falling water can make catching fish a real challenge, but once water levels drop to a steady level due to lack of generation, wade-fishermen can find great success. This is the ideal time for throwing a fly or a trout-patterned Rebel Tracdown Minnow using lightweight spinning gear. This was the daily pattern during my two days of fishing–high moving water in the mornings and low wadeable water during the afternoons.

Gastons’s White River Resort makes the perfect headquarters for fishing the White River whether you prefer to fish with a guide or on your own. The property contains an airstrip, conference center, tennis courts, nature trails, swimming pool and a game room. A restaurant overlooking the White serves up fine dining, and a cozy bar at the restaurant’s entrance is a preferred venue for multitudes of fish tales. A gift shop sells everything one may need or has perhaps forgotten including lures, fishing licenses, snacks and souvenirs. Nearly every square inch of the walls and ceilings are covered with nostalgic photos and collections of various antique items, including boat motors and replicas of monster brown trout.

Call or visit Gaston’s to book your accommodations, purchase a license or just chat about fishing. You can reach the helpful staff at (870) 431-5202. Be sure to stop in the lounge and meet Troy, their bartender. He maintains a detailed list in his phone of guests and their preferences, whether it’s a favorite drink, cottage or guide, and is happy to set up the perfect trip.