Note: This essay won first place in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s fishing story contest in June 2021.
Many years before the improved boat ramp and parking lot were built at Rim Shoals Public Access on the White River, a fun and now-forgotten resort for anglers was located there along the shore in the early 1990s, called Brainard’s Bend. If you didn’t mind camping near the railroad tracks – and bolting awake when the midnight train blew its whistle as it rolled through the valley mere feet from your tent – the small resort was the perfect place for budget anglers.
Besides cabins and camping along the river’s famous catch-and-release area, the best thing about Brainard’s Bend was its pod of truly massive trout found daily waiting for handfuls of dog food tossed from shore. The owner, a Little Rock native named Jerry Brainard, who’d always dreamt of building a small resort on the White River, attached a bucket of dog food on a tree by the water’s edge. Several times a day he announced it was “time to feed the fish,” he’d reach into the bucket and toss a heaping handful of dog food onto the water. Like giant rainbow-colored Koi, the trout swarmed and fought for each morsel of brown, barrel-shaped dog food that hit the surface.
Naturally, my angling buddy, Kyle Faulkner, and I were obsessed with those huge trout. Despite trying every fly in the box, from Griffith’s gnats to ant imitations, streamers to wet flies, and any tiny fly that even came close to the dog food shape, no fish would strike. Hour after hour, we flailed the water hoping to catch one of the big fish in the pod, without success. If it wasn’t dog food, those smart trout weren’t fooled into biting. They were not just big fish in the normal 18- to 20-inch range often caught on the White River in the 21st century. The pod trout at Brainard’s Bend were true trophies, including brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout measured in multiple feet, not just inches.
Frustrated but undaunted, we sat at a nearby picnic table and pondered the best method to trick those trout. That’s when we met Old Red. He was nearly toothless, with gray wisps poking out under his ball cap, and wore overalls like most older Arkies instead of fancy fishing wear sported by many visitors. Old Red lived alone in a small camp trailer parked nearby, and was happy to entertain anglers who would listen to his tales while he puffed cigarettes and drank canned beer.
“We used to have a little beagle named Big Spud,” Old Red declared between drags on his cig. “But we had to get rid of him on account of him keepin’ us upus at night.” We tried to stifle laughter, but it wasn’t easy.
Living on the White River in his little camper, and watching the water rise and fall with the seasons, Old Red was more familiar with the trout pod than anyone. Old Red taught us that the big fish eat guts from trout cleaned on shore, especially at night when those fish felt safest to move around. In fact, most of today’s Arkansas record trout are so-called “Dock Monsters,” fish that got big from eating guts and flesh from trout processed by anglers who toss trout remains into the river, especially near boat docks. Like watery beggars, those fish lurk in the shadows waiting for guts, then slowing slink from their hiding places to feast and grow larger by the day.
Strangely, those gut-eating trophy trout also were willing to eat tiny dog food pellets tossed each day at Brainard’s Bend. Maybe it was the same instinct that drives a 30-inch brown trout to forget its carnivore ways, and feast instead on delicate mayfly spinners or tiny sow bugs. Or perhaps those big fish hadn’t forgotten their hatchery upbringing, where brown pellets of specially designed trout food are the mainstay diet from the moment they hatch until they are released into the river as 6- to 12-inch fish.
Next, Old Red taught us that the big fish also hug the shoreline when the water is high. Unlike other big fish, trout of all stripes hate the swift current that the ever-changing White River brings. When the water comes up, Old Red explained, the fish move to the shoreline where the current is not as strong and it takes less effort to swim. That important lesson might seem obvious to seasoned anglers, but we were greenhorns and needed the instruction. Nearly 30 years later, that knowledge has brought many good trout to hand through the years when water levels are too high for safe wading. In fact, the biggest cutthroat trout I’ve ever caught was at Brainard’s Bend during very high water with Old Red looking on approvingly. I used a home-tied, rust-colored size 16 bead-head nymph, with just the leader dangling in the water, to hook a handsome 24-inch, four and a half pound cutthroat trout. That fish was my first caught from the giant trout pod, but not the last.
Energized by our time with Old Red, we returned home to Fayetteville, Ark., three hours away, and eagerly planned our next fishing trip at Brainard’s Bend with dreams of trophy trout swimming in our heads. Since the pod trout were too smart to take a conventional fly pattern, and focused almost entirely on eating the dog food pellets tossed from shore, we tried to imitate the food preferred by those big fish. We tied several flies before we got a near-perfect match for that strange hatch. The dead-ringer fly was crafted from spun deer hair on a size 18 dry fly hook, and trimmed to approximate the dog food pellet shape. We tied a dozen dog food flies each and were prepared to test our creations on those picky pod fish.
When the day finally came when we could scrape enough money together to buy gas for the long drive in my old Volkswagen van, as well as new leaders and tippet that were always in short supply, like our funds, it was mid-January with daytime temperatures in the mid-20s. When we arrived at Brainard’s Bend, we found that Old Red had found a warmer place to stay than his camp trailer and was nowhere to be found. The river level was perfect for wading, with no water generation from Bull Shoals Dam 24 miles upstream to spoil the fun. Ice clung to the colorful gravel shoreline where river met land, and every cast caused more ice to form on the eyelets of our fly fishing rods.
Luckily, the trout pod was hungry. There were no other anglers braving the winter weather, and even Jerry Brainard, the resort owner, was focused on chores other than feeding the trout from the handy dog food bucket. To ensure interest in our dog food imitation flies, we tossed a handful of dry pellets onto the still water and watched amazed as dozens of huge trout appeared from nowhere, like a herd of magician’s rabbits, to eat the food.
Our first casts were unsuccessful. There were too many real dog food pellets floating on the surface for the ever-picky trout to bother eating our deer hair imitations. Suddenly, the water boiled and my fly rod bent. A handsome five-pound brown trout took my fly and made a hard run when it realized it found a hook instead of a tasty dog food tidbit. Despite the brief, furious fight, the fish surrendered quickly and was ready for a photograph. Sadly, the pictures we took in those pre-cellphone days were with inexpensive, disposable film cameras, and the photos were unimpressive. The pictures showed happy anglers with large fish, but didn’t capture their true size and our accomplishment with 5 weight fly rods and light tippet. Today, I would only use an 8 weight fly rod and heavy tippet to ensure the fish were caught and released as quickly as possible. Still, we snapped pictures and released the fish safely into the water.
As the real dog food pellets grew fewer, those big fish were more willing to take our flies. In a short time, both Kyle and myself held many fine trophy trout, including brown, cutthroat and rainbows. Some fish pushed 30 inches and more than 5 pounds, but we had no scales to measure our catches, and enjoyed releasing the massive fish as much as we liked fooling them into taking our dog food flies.
Today, Brainard’s Bend on the White River is a mere memory. More than 25 years later, the train still rolls past blowing its midnight whistle, but Old Red’s humble camp trailer is gone, replaced by rental cabins for more affluent anglers. And Big Spud the beagle has long since stopped barking and keeping everyone “upus at night.” A new sign for Rim Shoals Resort is all that remains to mark the spot, where once a pod of pellet eating trophy trout tempted eager anglers into tying dog food flies from deer hair.