(Above) It may still look like winter on the shore, but the White River always looks ready to welcome anglers . (Below) Fishing companion Brandon Butler shows two things you can count on at Gaston’s: trout in a variety of sizes, and smiles to match. Jim Shepherd photo.
As we collected on the docks in twenty-eight degree weather Tuesday morning, I realized what had been missing. Spending a couple of freezing-cold mornings each year on the White River has become a highlight of every years’ outdoor experience. This year was no exception. It was cold, clear and awesome. With creaky knees, permanently cold fingers and toes and the irritating ability to windburn in a lightest breeze, cold weather isn’t something I enjoy – unless I’m doing something special.
Fishing the White River at Gaston’s qualifies.
That two-mile stretch of the White River has come to represent the very essence of fishing. I’ve never been on it with the same guide or fishing companion, and in weather that sometimes made me doubt my own sanity. ButI’ve never failed to catch fish or not wish for just a few more casts at the end of each visit.
Gaston’s Resort is a collection of pink (yes, pink-there’s a story behind the color) cottages of various sizes along the White River outside Lakeview, Arkansas.
It began in 1958 when Al Gaston purchased twenty acres with six ramshackle cottages along the river. Today, there are 80 or so very comfortable cottages scattered along two miles of the river, along with a 3200 foot airstrip, a restaurant with amazing views of the river, a private club, gift shop, tennis courts, swimming pool, duck pond, game room and nature trail spread out across more than 400 acres. For the last 40-plus years, the place has grown under the watchful eye of Jim Gaston. The next 40 years look to be on solid footing as well under fourth generation family member, Clint. In the meantime, Jim’s still there most days, visiting with guests, dropping by the shore lunches and taking eye-popping photographs of the area.
Tuesday morning, I hopped in the boat with guide Paul Jones for what I fully expected to be a morning of mixed results. After all, I hadn’t put a line in the water for months. Instead, I found out why his fellow guides consider Paul one of the go-to guides on the river. Only minutes after my first cast, I had two bites. Only one made it into the boat, but that wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. The second landed in the net, got a quick once-over from Jones and was pronounced “good eating.” We repeated that several times over the course of the morning.
Guide Paul Jones rigged the baits, landed the catch and dispensed pearls of wisdom: “if you hire a guide and then don’t listen to a him, you’re wasting your money.” As usual, Paul, you’re absolutely right. Jim Shepherd photo.
Brandon, meanwhile, didn’t have that volume of success. Instead, he caught a variety of browns in the seventeen-to twenty inch range. On the White you can starve catching those sizes: they’re catch-and-release, not batter-and-fry like mine. So while Brandon was busy catching the too-big to keepers, I helped make certain we had fish for the highlight of any Gaston’s trip: the Shore Lunch.
After a morning of fishing, you go ashore just downriver from the main resort. All sorts of good things are already cooking when you get there: fried potatoes, hush puppies, hot biscuits, baked beans, and a variety of cobblers designed to knock the most resolute dieter off the wagon. Then, while you’re wandering around visiting with friends and sharing stories, the guides take those small fish from the morning catch, clean them, and walk them only a few yards to a table where they’re battered with Jim Gaston’s semi-secret batter, then dropped into boiling hot peanut oil until they turn a crispy golden brown.
The shore lunch. A special finish to a morning’s fishing. Jim Shepherd photo.
Then, a group of friends- guides, staff and guests- dig in for a memorable meal. Instead of trying to coerce people to go fishing, we should take them to a shore lunch first.
It’s one of those memories that outlasts frozen fingers, wet boots and mornings where the big fish just didn’t cooperate. But, I’ve already landed my trophy. On another magical morning on the White River, almost directly in front of Gastons’ diners casually watching idiots fishing in sleet and freezing rain (that would be us) a big one finally get away. I
But it’s not my favorite memory of the White River, or Gastons. It seems I don’t have a most favorite memory there. That’s probably the highest praise I can offer. After all, a bad day fishing really does beat a good day in the office.