The White River in Cotter, Ark., sits in the middle of nowhere, like much of Arkansas, insulated from the outside world by a lack of highway exits, and a gaggle of one-light towns seemingly centered on the Dollar General. But the lack of access is easily overlooked once you get there.
Everything in the town seems to be painted in the colors of trout as if its college football team’s mascot was the Leroy’s. Trying to find the ramp requires wandering aimlessly for only a couple of minutes until you spot one of the hundreds of 20-foot endemic Ozark long boats and follow it to the closest access. It’s truly a utopian trout-based community (without any of the weird sex stuff that usually goes along with those things). It’s as if that secret beach in that movie was a river in Arkansas and it wasn’t really a secret.
Arkansas lies in one of those gray areas of the South, out on the fringes. The people all seem Southern, but every once in a while you’re jarred at the sight of a cowboy on a horse at a stop sign. Nothing quite makes sense in the Ozarks. The boats are too long, there’s more overalls than Gore-Tex, and there are giant brown trout that eat hoppers that don’t reside in the Rockies. If you are the type of person who has to order the egg rolls from Jack in the Box just because they so obviously don’t belong, then hopper fishing in Arkansas might just be your weird jam.
In a place where 20-inch fish are spit upon like lepers, you hear hopper fishing and your mind starts dreaming of lazy western days where 25 feet of line buys you every fish in the river, throwing itself at the fly on those magical days. Your mind would be wrong. Casts and leaders are long and takes are more often slurped than exploded on. The hardest part of the whole deal is not pulling the hopper out of the gaping maw of the beast, when a period of no activity instantly turns into bedlam. In this situation, it pays to dull the senses a hair if you know what I mean. Slow is fast, and fast is game over. The trophies you catch will be earned by whatever skills you bring to the table. The trophies you lose will be your buddies’ fault as you are an infallible trophy brown trout catching machine with the magical forces of Arkansas running through your veins.
After a few days of this and more specimens to hand than a human brain can handle, your mind is forced to re-evaluate everything: How bad could it be to work at Wal-Mart? Twenty-foot boats aren’t that bad to row. Is educating my children more important than these brown trout? Really? This is when you know it’s time to leave, lest you get sucked into the easy rhythm of Ozark hospitality and over-sized trout, and find yourself 40 years down the road penniless with a Cheshire grin ear to ear.
I always leave Arkansas with an undeniable, unshakable sense of, “Holy shit, did that just happen?” There are very few places that can inspire 15 hours of bliss on the way home. Arkansas is a fever dream—a fever dream of hopper-eating brown trout.
I’d like to thank Matt Stinnett at White River Fly Anglers and Matt Milner of Rising River Guide Service for the invite to fish hoppers and for the best cabin hookup on the White. You know who you are, Gilly’s Cabin (https://www.gillyswhiteriver.com), You can check them out here (https://whiteriverflyanglers.com) and here (https://www.risingriverguides.com), respectively. Also we’d be remiss in not thanking the fellas at Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher for filling in a few days for us, even though I rowed.