There are unexplainable shadows on the White River that run through Missouri and Arkansas. Richie Hays, White River guide for Gaston’s Resort, is well aware of these shadows that few see. Some may even feel these apparitions that refuse to leave while others never believe they exist.
After 17 years of guiding, Hays lives and breathes the White River. He knows that the shadows are there and perhaps someday he will join them. I have spent many hours there and may someday be a shadow on the river too, joining a big crowd. Many shadows with unknown names and faces started the White River history centuries ago.
Men, women and children used the river for survival long before dams created this cold-water chute that now supports rainbow and brown trout survival. Native Americans fished and hunted this sacred place and likely thanked their God for this special place.
Eventually pioneers took over, no doubt still thanking God for nourishment and fresh water. These pioneers brought civilization to the region and by the 1920s, when a dollar was still worth a dollar, guides found they could be paid for a day’s fishing. Many are now likely shadows.
Early guides on the White River worked hard for their pay, between $2 and $10 a day. After cooking breakfast, most used long wooden jonboats to propel clients down the river in search of goggle-eye, green perch and bass. Then, after a long day of guiding, camp was set up with fresh fish, steak or chicken for dinner with potatoes and beans or whatever they decided to haul down river and grill over an open fire.
he knows that the shadows are there
and perhaps someday
he will join them.
Jim Owens, out of Branson, Missouri, and well into Arkansas, was likely the most famous guide on the river. The Jim Owen’s Boat Line started in 1935 and catered to thousands of sportsmen by the late 1940s for a rate of $2 a day that eventually ballooned up to $10, a fair amount that many were more than happy to pay.
His wooden jonboats were not equipped with a middle seat so fishermen could comfortably sit in director’s chairs and drink iced beverages. Owens even brought portable toilet seats for the more delicate anglers. Eventually he scored the highest paying clients. By the late 1940s he owned more than 40 jonboats with almost as many guides, likely several of the shadows that follow Hays up and down the river on every guide trip with Owens leading the group.
Many changes have occurred since the wooden jonboat days. The White River in Arkansas is a trout fishing mecca. This narrow chute of chilly water from the depths of Bull Shoals Lake was once a meandering warm-water stretch that moved flat boats of settlers and their possessions to a hard, often challenging life of settling in Arkansas’ Ozark hills. Many attached their small log homes to the boats to be reconstructed on arrival. Residents soon learned how to fish the White River waters for precious food.
Trains and roads eventually brought tourists from cities to sample the so-called simplistic Ozark life. Opportunistic men started guide services in wooden jonboats with push poles to take tourists down the river in search of goggle eye, various types of perch and bass, but this drastically changed.
Congress authorized construction of Bull Shoals Dam in 1941, but World War II delayed the project. The new contract was finally signed and construction started on July 9, 1947, and finished four years later at a cost of $76 million, plus $30 million for the power system. Water released from the Bull Shoals chutes eventually made the water too cold for most fish species, but perfect for trout.
Today the White River can boast of monster German brown trout and large numbers of rainbow trout. Bass, goggle eye and green perch may still be found on stretches miles away from the dams, but now White River guides mainly show clients how to catch trout. Chances are some of the earlier customers and guides before the dams are now shadows too.
“I love the history of guides on the river,” Hays says. “Some of the guides I worked with are gone; they just never had a feel for this river and only wanted a pay check. Many of the guides I work with now love the White River and will likely stay.”
Hays is a successful guide because of his patience with novice anglers, including women and children. In fact, many beginners insist on Hays as their guide on return trips and Gaston’s White River Resort makes that possible, even though the business has a successful staff of many guides that share their river secrets with co-workers, like a select society. This group of guides loves the river and will likely be shadows watching younger guides and clients many years from now.
Hays relies on experience when adapting to changes while finding trout for his clients. Problem is, the best fishing areas can quickly become unproductive. Sometimes trout feed in deep holes and then switch to feeding in shallow areas. How long the dam is releasing water and how much always determines feeding changes.
“You have to fish at least six years on the White River before you can consistently catch fish in any condition,” Hays says. “Every condition affects fish in a different way. You have to be aware of water being released and weather changes too. Fluctuating weather patterns determine how and on what the trout bite that day.”
But for me, watching Zane Wheeler and his buddies, Michael and Hunter Taylor, all under 10-years-old, having fun catching rainbows on the White River is a reminder why there are many shadows on the river—or maybe not shadows, but kindred spirits. Either way, most who discover this special place never want to leave and return whenever possible for the rest of their lives—or possibly forever.