A little White River History lesson

Hey, everyone! 

I love it when I run across stories about the history of the White River… it gets me to imaginin’ exactly what it was like when my dad was here many years ago; fishing this very area of the White River in the late 1950s & early 1960s. 

What’s even more cool, is the fact that it really hasn’t changed all that much… in many ways the Ozarks is just like it was those 60 years ago, more or less frozen in time.  And I hope we can keep it that way, too. 

But today, it takes some serious work to keep the area pristine and the rivers healthy.  One such organization is the UWRB — the Upper White River Basin Foundation.  This group of fine folks keeps an eye on all things relating to the rivers & entire watershed in this area. 

I thought y’all might be interested in what they do — their website is http://www.uwrb.org/.  When you get a chance, check them out!  They have a lot of great information there, and if you have ever had the urge to help protect our Ozark Waters, you definitely want to get in touch with these folks! 

Anyway, there was a great story about the history of the Ozarks & White River in particular I thought you would enjoy.  With their kind permission, I’m reprinting it below: 

Old Men of the Ozarks 

How Culture, Tradition, Great Waters and Good Fishing Created a Sportsmen’s Magnet  

John E. Moore, Jr. 

The deep blue hole in the James River reflected the grey limestone bluff towering overhead.  Below the bluff, a couple of feet from the bank, my little crawdad crank bait splashed gently into the water.  Its retrieve over the rocks below the surface was suddenly arrested by the sharp strike of a smallmouth bass.  As the fish dove for the sheltering rocks on the bottom, pressure on the taut line turned its head and it began a series of lunges and runs in a vain effort to free itself. 

After several minutes of play the bronzeback swam alongside the boat where I lifted the 18 inch beauty clear of the river.  After disengaging the hook and snapping a picture I slid the fish back into the stream where it swam slowly into deeper water, happy to be free. 

James River, limestone bluffs
Lime Bluffs along the James River, in the Ozarks


Small mouth bass & John E. Moore (author)
Small mouth bass & John E. Moore (author)


Down the larger watershed to its outflow below Bull Shoals Dam on another day, I stood in the bow of a john boat on the White River now unshackled from its restraining reservoirs upstream.  My line cast into the riffle at Rim Shoals suddenly tightened with a fish on the light tippet. 

Swimming briefly into the current, the trout turned and headed downstream as I palmed the reel applying as much pressure to the line as I dared.  Tiring after several runs, the chunky rainbow swam toward me as I reached for the net attached to my vest.  A quick dip revealed a two pound trout which was gently unhooked and released to be caught another day. 

These snapshots are representative of experiences I’ve had on rivers and streams of the region amorphously defined as the Ozarks.  Sometimes the catch is a smallmouth bass, as often a rock bass or “goggle eye,” and frequently a brown or rainbow trout in the region’s outstanding cold water fisheries. 

For some 60 years I’ve been fishing these waters, first with my grandfather who regaled me with stories of catching big catfish on the White River.  I grew up on the fishing and hunting lore of the Ozarks and have enjoyed firsthand friendships with some of the region’s legendary characters and know some of those now gone through stories still told. 

Bob Watts (Trout Diva's Daddy) fishing White River around 1955
Bob Watts (Trout Diva's Daddy) fishing White River around 1955


As a youngster in the 1950’s I fished the creeks and rivers during construction of the major reservoirs on the White River—Bull Shoals, Table Rock and Beaver in the early 60’s.  Although their construction shifted angling focus to the new lakes, float fishing the rivers and streams has continued to be both popular and productive and a legacy with a rich and storied history.  This story begins well over a century ago. 

Rainbow Arch Bridge, White River in Cotter, Arkansas
Rainbow Arch Bridge, White River in Cotter, Arkansas


From the first exploration of the Ozarks in the early 19th century, the rivers, springs and streams have defined the region which has its heart in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Characterized by rugged, wooded hills and free flowing streams running clear over gravel bottoms, the Ozarks was settled by Scotch-Irish whose distinctive cultural traditions colored the history and lifestyle of the region.  Fishing, hunting, fierce independence, conservative politics and fundamental religion have been historical traits of the region, now mellowed and homogenized by the larger culture, with remnants caricatured in Branson tourist attractions. 

Although the Ozarks is still largely rural with small communities like Easyville, Blue Eye, Morning Star and Windy City, the region includes dynamic cities like Springfield and Branson in Missouri and Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville in Arkansas.  Bentonville is the headquarters of Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods has its corporate offices in nearby Springdale.  Springfield, the region’s largest metropolis known as the “Queen City of the Ozarks,” is home to Bass Pro Shops and Tracker Marine. 

It was the outdoor tradition of the Ozarks, highlighted by fishing and hunting, which gave both inspiration and impetus to the founding of the Bass Pro enterprise in the early 1970’s.  The founder and owner of the now nationally famous sporting goods emporium, Johnny Morris, grew up in the Ozarks fishing and hunting with his dad and his uncle. 

Johnny’s dad, “John A.” to distinguish him from his son, “John L.,” observed when Johnny was in college that his son would probably “never amount to a damn thing because all he liked to do was fish.”  Johnny proved his father’s judgment wrong, much to John A.’s proud delight, as he grew a sporting goods juggernaut based on his passion for fishing and the outdoors. 

Morris’ Bass Pro Outdoor World stores in the Ozarks not only sell outdoor merchandise, but are also museums for pictures and memorabilia of the region’s outdoor heritage, a theme which has been adapted to the regional traditions of the company’s other stores around the country.  Johnny prizes the tradition of outdoor sports as much as anyone I’ve ever known and he is devoted to passing this tradition on to his customers and particularly to youngsters. 

A couple of hours away in Flippin, Arkansas near Bull Shoals Lake, this heritage prompted the founding of another outdoor icon.  The Ranger Boat Company, manufacturer of Ranger Bass Boats, was developed by local entrepreneur Forrest L. Wood. 

Forrest Wood in the Outdoor Sport Gallery
Forrest Wood in the Outdoor Sport Gallery


Wood grew up poor in the Ozarks and as a young man guided fishermen on the White River and Bull Shoals Lake in its early days. 

After building a few wooden boats, he began using fiberglass and having been a fishing guide, had a knack for incorporating features appealing to fishermen.  The development of these boats in the 1960’s coincided with interest in bass fishing tournaments around the country and the company’s reputation for quality propelled it to prominence among fishermen and competitors in the marine industry. 

Successful companies like Bass Pro and Ranger Boats have roots that run more than a century deep in the Ozarks.  As construction of railroads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries opened the region to outside visitors, float fishing the rivers became a magnet drawing anglers throughout the Midwest. 

The White River, the dominant watershed in the region and its major tributaries, the James, the Kings and War Eagle Rivers, were beautiful streams running clear along limestone bluffs.  The rivers inspired enterprising promoters like the late Jim Owen of Branson who developed successful businesses hosting fishermen for float trips on the James and White Rivers. 

While there were other float operators on the White River, it was Owen who became the most widely know publicist for floating and fishing the Ozarks.  As Mayor of Branson for ten years and disciple of the old scriptural admonition that “he who tooteth not his horn, the same shall not be tooted,” Owen regaled the media of the 1930’s and 1940’s with promotions about the beauty of the region and its outstanding fishing.  His Owen Boat Lines specialized in week floats from Galena on the lower James River down to Branson on the White River. 

The boats used to float the rivers were known as john boats, locally built craft which had evolved to provide a safe, reliable conveyance for floating and fishing the rivers.  A long, narrow, shallow draft boat usually made of native pine, the river john typically accommodated two fishermen with a guide paddling in the stern.  In place of seats, canvas folding chairs were used by fishermen as they cast to the most promising water. 

Old John Boat on the White River (photo by Trout Diva)
Old John Boat on the White River (photo by Trout Diva)


These time proven boats are still used, but aluminum has replaced wood and few are made to the narrow, twenty foot pattern followed by those hand built boats of earlier years.  Canoes are more commonly used today for floating and fishing.  In the White River below Bull Shoals Dam, however, modern fiberglass interpretations of the classic river john are still popular with guides and fishermen. 

One of the fishing veterans of the region, Charlie Campbell of Forsyth, Missouri continues today to prefer the john boat over the ubiquitous canoe for fishing rivers like the James.  Charlie, now 76, grew up on the rivers and lakes of the southern Missouri Ozarks and his legendary fishing success earned him, along with his entrepreneur friend Johnny Morris, a place in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.  Tall and lean of frame, Charlie is as gentle and soft spoken as he is passionate about fishing. 

A native of Ava, Missouri, Charlie built his first wooden john boat with his brother as a high school student.  After getting a degree from Drury College in Springfield, Charlie settled in Forsyth in 1957 as a teacher and coach in the local schools. 

His summers free, Campbell ran a guide service and recruited other teachers as guides for fishermen on three day floats on the Buffalo and James Rivers.  By that time the White River had been impounded by Bull Shoals Lake and Table Rock was nearing completion upstream.  The salary for guides was $15 per day, Charlie recalls. 

In 1973 Charlie left coaching and opened a marine shop in Branson where he met the young Johnny Morris who had Charlie rig out his boats with motors, trolling motors, fish finders and other gear for bass fishing.  Charlie knew what fishermen were looking for and he and Morris began talking about a bass boat package to be featured in the early Bass Pro catalogs. 

Charlie put the specifications together and contracted out the fabrication of the first Bass Tracker boats.  Including a 35 horsepower Johnson outboard,  trailer, trolling motor and depth finder, the original package sold through the catalog for $2995 complete, ready to be hitched to a customer’s pickup truck and driven to the nearest lake. 

Campbell continues to represent Bass Pro and with his wife Wanda, regularly fishes both the rivers and lakes of his native Ozarks.  Charlie and Wanda joined fishing buddy Jerry Mackey and me one August morning for a day’s float to fish the lower James River. 

Charlie and Wanda Campbell with JerryMackey
Charlie and Wanda Campbell with JerryMackey


 There were few others on the river that day and we took our time as we cast along the banks and into the deep holes for bass.  The contest for which boat could catch and release the most bass that day was nip and tuck, with Charlie and Wanda pulling ahead at our take out point with their tally 25 to Mackey’s and my 22. 

The James River and other tributaries of the upper White River continue to be warm water fisheries with bass the prized catch.  With construction of the big reservoirs, however, the upper White was largely lost, with new cold water fisheries below the dams the gain. 

The cold water discharged through hydroelectric turbines created ideal habitat for trout and stretches below each reservoir boast excellent fishing.  Stocked regularly with rainbow and brown trout from hatcheries operated by the conservation departments of Arkansas and Missouri, these cold water fisheries draw anglers from the region and far beyond. 


Charlie and Wanda Campbell with a double on smallmouth
Charlie and Wanda Campbell with a double on smallmouth


 The White River below Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas is arguably the best cold water fishery in the Ozarks and consistently ranked as one of the best in the country.  For more than 50 miles downstream from the dam the river runs free and cold. 

Stocked with trout after completion of Bull Shoals in 1952, a thriving new float fishing business emerged.  The communities of Mountain Home, Lakeview, Cotter and Bull Shoals grew and guides, outfitters and resorts found good business with anglers who came to pursue trophy trout. 

Gary Flippin, owner and operator of Rim Shoals Resort some 24 miles downstream from Bull Shoals dam is one of these White River entrepreneurs.  Flippin’s family came to Arkansas with statehood in 1836 and gave its name to Flippin, Arkansas, the home of Ranger Boats. 

Growing up in nearby Cotter, Flippin began guiding fishermen at age 14 for trout on the White River, and after an early career as a railroad engineer, he returned to his first love of fishing and guiding.  The fishing camp and resort he developed sits beside a blue ribbon section of the river set aside for trophy trout.  Fishing there is catch and release using barbless hooks, a practice followed by many fly fishermen on other parts of the river. 

The Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, and his family have a vacation house at Rim Shoals and are neighbors to Flippin, who says the governor gets down to fish as often as his job will permit.  Flippin observes that Governor Nixon is a fine fisherman and a dedicated conservationist. 

Brown trout are the big fish in the White River, with occasional lunkers of 8-10 pounds or more.  They reproduce naturally in the river, which doesn’t get above 65 degrees in the hottest months.  Rainbows make up the largest part of the stockings, and range from about 12 inches upward in size.  There are also cutthroat and brook trout in the river, but are not often caught. 

The lore and traditions associated with the rivers and lakes of the Ozarks continue today with excellent fishing for bass, trout and other game fish.  The “old men of the Ozarks,” a club I’m now eligible to join, has given color and substance to the region’s reputation for great waters and good fishing over the years.  The Ozarks’ economy today depends on its remarkable rivers, lakes and streams and attracts millions of visitors each year to enjoy these water resources and related attractions. 

The tradition of float fishing and the outdoors companies it spawned has given new dimensions to the lore of bygone years.  Anglers and other visitors will find a warm and cordial reception as they encounter the legacy of the old men of the Ozarks. 

{the End} 

Well, what do you think?  I really enjoyed that story, and I hope you did too…  once again, my thanks to the Upper White River Basin Foundation & John E. Moore for allowing me to reprint his great story. 

See you on the River, folks! 

Your White River Trout Diva
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