Vol. IX, No. 3, 1996


Resorts and Resorting on Bull Shoals

by Robert Flanders



"They tried to get us expelled!" said Polly Cook, still indignant after more than forty years.

"Who?" I said.

"Some owners of motels and cabins up along the road. They said we had a monopoly, and they tried to get the Corps of Engineers to kick us out!"

"A monopoly? A monopoly of what? I don't get it."

"Bob, they were mad because our operation was down by the lake, and theirs wasn't. Of course, the government wouldn't let them get down below the 'take' line, so they mostly just built up along the ridge roads."

"It was both funny and sad," continued L. B. Cook. "We got the Corps of Engineers license to have our operation on government land because our bid of an annual rent was the highest bid. And we had to put in a boat dock, modern facilities for at least twenty overnight guests, plus a restaurant, at our own expense--and do it all within twelve months of the beginning of the lease on July 1, 1952."

"We had to give the government four percent of our annual gross income from this operation too," said Polly. "And pay school tax to the Gainesville District, plus city taxes to Theodosia, despite the fact that we owned no land here--just the buildings and equipment.''

I was being ushered into the complex and confusing world of licensed resorts on Bull Shoals Lake, as well as that of the vast majority--resorts not on the lake.

When the lake filled in 1952, the Corps of Engineers put up twelve locations within their shoreline property for license bids. Different locations had different requirements stipulated for licensees to fulfill. All had to build marinas. Some were required to operate cafes or restaurants. A few had to build overnight accommodations. Each licensee operated his business adjacent to a Corps-operated "park," typically consisting of campground with R-V pads, rest-rooms and showers, boat launch ramp, and swimming area. The licensee won the license with the highest per year rent bid, plus a contract to provide the stipulated services and abide by Corps regulations and limitations. Whether or not the licensee made or lost money was his business, his problem.

Jim Gaston, proprietor of Gaston's Trout Resort for 34 years, defined "resort" for me: "A motel is just a place to sleep for one night, at least for non-business travellers. A resort is a base of operations for a vacation, offering motel amenities, but much more. Most resorts on Bull Shoals offer some housekeeping units, as well as keeping boats, guides, and all the other necessities for fishing. Many offer swimming pools, tennis, game rooms, lodges, even golf."

Marina at Pontiac, a Corps-licensed resort on the Little North Fork arm.

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"Vacationing here at the lake has changed over the years," said Polly Cook. "You would be amazed at how many people spend their holidays here and never go near the lake."

"I am amazed," I said. "If they don't go near the lake, why do they come here?"

"Well, it's tied to the lake," said L. B. Cook. "They want to be near the lake. They want to be able to see it, to look at it, be near it. Of course, if they want a boat, we have boats, motors, fishing guides, advice on fishing, whatever."

"Are those things not available at the motels and cottages up on the road," I asked?

"Yes," he said, "everything but the lake. Mostly they're not close to the lake. The Corps 'take' is too high. Private land is all above the government 'take'; and on this lake, that's not very close to the water."

Here is the crux of the matter: Bull Shoals was designed primarily to be a flood control reservoir. Its storage capacity is vast, greater than Table Rock and Beaver combined. This is not only because Bull Shoals is "bigger" than the other lakes; it is because of how it is bigger. The rise in water level allowable at Beaver is ten feet between normal conservation pool level and maximum flood pool level. At Table Rock the maximum rise is 16 feet. On Bull Shoals it is an astonishing 41 feet. The Corps owns all the land to just above maximum flood pool level (695 feet above mean sea level). The normal or conservation pool level--where we see the lake most of the time--is between 652 feet and 654 feet, a vertical difference of 41 to 43 feet. Measured along a sloping shoreline, the distance can be hundreds of yards. Though every non-licensed lake resort may locate one boat slip for each guest room in an approved dock, the resort facilities themselves can never be on Corps land. Thus they are never "on the lake." Given the rugged shore line, distance from the water, minimal road system, and consequent lack of other infrastructure elements, Bull Shoals resorts have remained almost entirely family proprietorships, which tend to change owners frequently. There are no Tan-Taras, no Big Cedars, no Chateaus-on-the-Lake at Bull Shoals. Even on nearby Lake Norfork, fifteen minutes out of Mountain Home on a wide straight US highway 62. is a high-rise hotel that looks like airport hostelries near Lambert Field. St. Louis. or KCI at Kansas City. But none such on Bull Shoals, at least not yet. Even those with the most guest rooms are low-rise and "homey." It's a Bull Shoals kind of look.

Fishing is still the main lake draw. But that is changing, too. My barber, a native of Ozark County, Missouri, told me, "Why, when that lake first went in down there, you couldn't drop any kind of old bait over the boat without some little old bass would grab it. But it's not that way anymore." I've heard the same thing over and over--still good, even great at times but not like it was in the early years.

Other changes in fishing: Catch-and-release is growing in popularity. Once considered effete by serious fishermen, catch-and-release is now common. "How many fish can a family eat?" is a comment often heard. Cleaning, icing, transporting, freezing, deciding to eat fish instead of meat, may be more than some fishermen want to face year after year. One wonders how many too-old fish have been jettisoned from family freezers over the years. In the trout waters down stream from Bull Shoals Dam, sportsmen are challenged to release trophy fish, assured that guides will verify the catch by certificates attesting the size of any trophy specimen returned to the water.

In the Corps of Engineers park at Pontiac.

Trout fishermen and guide on low water near Gaston's White River Resort. Note high set of motor to protect propeller.

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Perhaps the greatest innovation in the fishing regime is tournament fishing. The big tournaments with the hundred thousand dollar first prizes are well known. Less well known are the many small club tournaments, analogous to golf or bowling tournaments. They may involve forty or fifty entrants, have entry fees within range of non-professionals, with modest prizes, or simply a trophy or some merchandise. Bill Cook at Theodosia offers a $500 savings bond as first prize for the annual spring tournament out of his marina. "If held to maturity, it's worth $1000," he says. "They like it. Most of them put the bonds in their grandchildren's college savings, or something similar. It's a good investment for us."

But tournaments change the lake while they are in progress. The two hundred horse engines drive big bass boats up to seventy miles per hour. Speed is essential to win. A set period is allowed, and time cannot be wasted in getting from one fishing hole to another. The thunder of big engines, with the rooster tails and wakes they throw up, ends the old quietude.

The tournaments are controversial among resort owners. Some say they are good for business. Others complain that the tourney players spend little money, are rude, are bad tippers, and are ruining the lake. Whatever the case, tournaments are growing in popularity.

The great striped bass are gone. A hybrid of the ocean fish, they were stocked into the lake when it was new, and grew to enormous size in a relatively short period. Many stripers above forty pounds were taken. But they ate trout; and it was feared that they threatened that most valuable species, so stocking stripers was discontinued. They seldom reproduce in fresh water, so they inevitably disappeared, fished out or died of old age.

"Resorting" at Bull Shoals is changing in other ways. "When I was a boy," said Jim Gaston, "a vacation was a middle class luxury. That's how we thought about it. It was an extra, beyond the mortgage and the car payments and the savings account. Now people have changed the priorities around. The vacation is a necessity. People are going on holiday every year, no matter what. The number is increasing, ever increasing. But," Gaston continues, "resort customers must be cultivated. Competition is fierce. There are more places, and more kinds of places, for vacationers to go than was dreamed of when Bull Shoals Lake was built. I believe resorts of absentee owners cannot survive here. Hired managers cannot, or will not, provide the service, the personal touch, that causes customers to return year after year. That's the only reason my business has survived and grown in the 34 years I've been here."

Gaston is doubtless right. I noticed that the big high-rise hotel on Norfork Lake, built by a national chain, has a new--local--owner.

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"The Theodosia Marina and RV Park"

A Corps Licensed Resort

Located at the US 160 bridge over the Little North Fork arm of the lake at Theodosia, Ozark County, Missouri, this is the largest licensed resort on Bull Shoals. It is also the only one still operated by the original licensee. Actually, the operator-owners are a four-generation family. L. B. and Polly Cook came in 1952 when son Bill was eleven. Now 54, Bill and wife Nadine are the principal managers. Their sons, in their thirties, work here full time. The eldest of the fourth generation is 14.

In addition to a sizable motel and year-round, full-service restaurant, the Cooks have a swimming pool, lodge, laundromat and shower house, and an R-V park with a hundred pads, all with full utility hookups.

The marina is backed up by a full-service boat repair barn, a large building with offices, parts department, and capability to repair and even rebuild boat engines. The R-V park is nearly filled with year-round tenants, i.e. R-V trailers brought by owners and left permanently, to be used at their leisure.


Mailboxes along the road to Promise Land [sic].

"The Waterfront Resort"

A Private Resort Above the Corps "Take"

The Waterfront Resort is on the Howard Creek arm of Bull Shoals, not far from the dam. The setting, however, offers a secluded view, and the authentic "sense" of this lake: a sere, rocky shoreline, little apparent shore development in sight and, at least when I was there, little activity on the water.

I noticed the sign on the highway; and, thinking "waterfront resort" something of an oxymoron, I went to investigate. To my surprise, not far down the gently sloping bank below the building was the shore, with a little boat dock. "Probably a surveyor's error," I was later told at the Office of the Resident Engineer in Mountain Home. Whatever, this establishment was about as close to the water as a private lake resort is likely to get.

The place has been owned and operated by Sandy Smakal and her husband for twelve years now. Because so many regular customers have decided to buy permanent homes hereabouts, Mr. Smakel decided to go into the real estate business on the side. Do the Smakals ever get away? "It's far worse than milking cows," laughed Sandy. "For us, a vacation is a couple of days with no guests. We just sit and watch the lake." The rapid rise and fall of the water level requires constant vigilance. The dock must be pulled in with a rise, and pushed back out with a fall. (Marina owners have typically installed tall steel guide poles to which their floating docks are fastened with rings, permitting them to ride up and down freely without lateral movement. Floating gangways to shore can then be lengthened or shortened as required.)

The Waterfront Resort has eight units, all housekeeping. A three-day minimum stay is required; but most customers stay longer. The same families return year after year, at the same time. Mrs. Smakal keeps pictures of her guests, which she posts when they are in residence. She showed me one of an eight-year-old boy, then another of the same boy at age 14. In each he was holding a fish of appropriate size. "It's a family place," said Sandy Smakal. "If guests act inappropriately for the ambience we maintain, we ask them not to return. But that doesn't happen often."

The Waterfront is not fancy. There isn't a lot of land between the road and the Corps "take," so the effect is a bit crowded and jumbled. But it's obviously clean and carefully managed, surely typical of scores of similar places around the lake.



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"GASTON'S WHITE RIVER RESORT"

Below Bull Shoals Dam on the River

The bed of the old White River below the dam is in effect a flume for the dam's tail race. The cold water that flows through the penstocks to the electric generators comes from far below the surface, and remains about a constant 55 degrees F. This is ideal temperature for trout. So the stretch of water below the dam is lined with trout fishing resorts.

Gaston's was the first, and is today the biggest, with the most comprehensive services. It is three miles down stream from the dam. Accommodations, 74 in number, are in multiple room units, single and duplex cabins, a lodge with ten rooms, each with bath, and a large house designed for the use of multiple family groups. Many have fireplaces and kitchens. All rooms are along the river bank, and offer spectacular views of the river and the hills beyond.

The restaurant is large and handsome, a glass pavilion built out over the water. Overhead hangs Jim Gaston's distinctive collection of historic bicycles, outboard motors, and other old machinery. Food and service are excellent.

A 3200-foot grassy airstrip fronts the complex; and a two mile nature trail developed by Gaston meanders down the river below the resort. The landscaping is manicured; the ambience is park-like.

The central activity, though, is trout fishing--rainbow, cutthroat, and German brown. The river (read dam tailrace) rises and falls suddenly, as much as ten feet or more, with correspondingly swift current. The reason is sudden rises in the demand for electricity, causing the penstocks to be opened with a corresponding flood of water. So fishing can be--and usually is---exciting. Boat jockey-guides are preferred by many patrons.

Jim Gaston has operated the resort since 1962. His father A1 bought twenty acres of river bank here in 1958. Today the acreage is more than 300. Jim has become a leader and something of a legend in the worlds of resorts, trout fishing, and Arkansas tourism. Gaston's is a unique place with a loyal clientele.

Gaston's White River Resort, restaurant pavilion. End of boat dock at left. Picture taken about 9 a.m., when dam generators were turned off and water was at extreme low level. Note high water marks on piers.

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