The following article is from the November 2017 issue of AY Magazine, a sister publication of Arkansas Money & Politics.
By Steve Bowman
Clint Gaston sat at his grandfather’s desk for a year, mulling over all he had taught him, before he ever touched any of his belongings.
After Jim Gaston, owner of Gaston’s White River Resort and a giant of Arkansas Tourism, passed away, it left a void within the Arkansas outdoors community that many thought would be impossible to fill.
The seat behind Jim Gaston’s spacious desk was empty, a seat that had built one of the state’s hallmark resorts with trout fishing as its mainstay, along with extras that appealed to families and sportsmen across the United States.
Clint Gaston, 28, now sits there, after a lifetime of following in his grandfather’s footsteps. As a child, his first job was to pick up trash — primarily cigarette butts from the resort grounds.
Behind Gaston’s desk, the White River is moving, winding its way through the Ozarks like a big, green snake. The morning layer of fog is hovering over the water like icing on a cake.
Cool water almost always creates a blanket of fog that starts forming at dusk and carries through to mid-morning. During the solar eclipse, it started forming at midday as the moon passed in front of the sun, but as the planets regained their solitary positions, it quickly burned off.
The fog provides an eerie look, but it offers the feeling of fishing in air-conditioning. While the rest of the region is sweltering in 90-degree temperatures, those on the upper White River are comfortably casting in a light jacket.
The calming effect of a flowing river is undeniable, made even more serene with blue herons sailing quietly through the veil of fog.
The peacefulness of the scene has been bringing people to Gaston’s for decades. Add in world-class trout fishing with all the amenities and you have one of the wonders of Arkansas.
The abnormally wet spring and summer of 2017 has kept the White River high and rolling, but the fishing has remained pleasant.
Working their way through the fog are dozens of boats, most simply drifting while dragging a small weight and an earthworm, waiting for their path to cross one of the rainbow, brown or brook trout in the river.
That’s the laid-back style many anglers enjoy as they soak in the scenery.
That morning, Clint Gaston would take a post from a woman’s Facebook page and add it to the Gaston’s Resort page. It simply said, “My kind of fishing. Someone else baits, casts and touches the fish. I just reel them in.”
There are hardcore anglers, too. They hit the river early, pulling and jerking an artificial lure in the folds of the current, hoping to entice a bite from one of the big brown trout this river is known to produce.
Others stand in drift boats, fluidly whipping a fly line in bows and casts to the shore, hoping for the perfect placement in an eddy close to the bank for a trout waiting for breakfast.
You can make it as challenging or as easy as you want. Guides like Frank Saksa, one of Gaston’s best, know every inch of the river bottom from their years of fishing in a variety of water levels. They pay attention to where fish go on different levels and quickly adapt.
The fish are eager to bite as well. Swift river currents require energy, but they also provide a consistent shifting of food and environment, where the fish always seem to be biting.
There are men, women and children floating about, all of whom, from the novice to the expert, are catching fish. This is what brings people to the White River.
It’s places like Gaston’s, though, that keep them coming back with their family in tow.
When the day is done, trout can be taken to the restaurant, where, despite its designation as one of the top restaurants in the state, walking through the front door with cleaned, fresh fish hardly bats an eye.
The environment of constant service is what Clint Gaston grew up in, becoming a guide at the age of 17, then a pseudo manager. He became Jim Gaston’s right-hand man, taking on more responsibilities along the way. Each morning the young Gaston would greet his grandfather at his desk, where they would visit over coffee and lay out the plans for the day.
“It was a lifetime,’’ Clint Gaston says as he sits in the big chair, his voice trailing off. “Kind of in a way his entire life was spent sculpting me and putting little bugs in my ear about things that would matter one day.”
“One thing I really noticed, though, was after he had passed, I thought back to some of the things and some of our conversations. It was almost like he knew it was coming. The things he was telling me, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But then long afterwards, it was like he knew. This is what needed to be done. It kind of helped ease my mind whenever I made some changes.”
And thanks to that tutelage, Gaston’s Resort, which led the way as a premier fishing destination for the last five decades, continues to lead. In some ways the transition is eerily similar to when Jim Gaston took over the resort from his father decades ago.
Al Gaston bought the resort, consisting of a boat dock, six cottages and a few acres in 1958. Not long after, Jim Gaston, at 22, inherited it. He joked many times that he inherited “six cabins and boats and a lot of debt.”
But he was the perfect man to make things work. Following his credo, “simply make the world a better place however I can,” Jim Gaston transformed the rustic resort. He built it into a nationally recognized destination for trout fishing with 79 cabins, 70 boats, a 3,200-feet airstrip, tennis courts, restaurant, private club, 125-seat conference center, gift shop, playground, swimming pool, game room and two nature trails.
Clint Gaston, without the debt and humble beginnings, is carrying on the Gaston tradition. To answer the growing demand and popularity of cycling, he is adding a bike path in the area. He has upgraded the restaurant to a legitimate five-star culinary experience with the addition of Chef Rick Gollinger. Patrons can enjoy swordfish, grilled shark, beef bourguignon and still get a club sandwich.
All that comes with the backdrop of one of the world’s most-storied trout streams, where fishing is as good as it has ever been.
It’s been two years since Jim Gaston passed, and some things are mostly the same, with others changing for the better.
“The first year, I didn’t change anything in there,’’ says Clint, speaking of his grandfather’s office. “Because for one, I thought, let me get this under my belt for a year. Find out things I need and things I don’t need. Things that he had that are completely useless and he just kept for whatever reason; whether he just threw it over there to get it out of the way. And so that first year I didn’t touch anything, I didn’t move anything.”
“Then I went through every bit of that office, just looking for leads. I felt like an investigator just looking for little gold nuggets, things to help me run the place. It was kind of comical because each day I would spend a little bit of my day going through a new drawer. Looking at every little thing that was in there.”
For the young Gaston he felt like his grandfather had left him a puzzle to put back together. The exercise became a “huge history lesson,” and he discovered things that went back to the early 60s.
“I was finding things and learning things that I didn’t necessarily know about at the time. And so now I’m slowly making it into my office, moving some things around, putting some of my own things up and finally making it my own. It’s nice because that first year, there were days I would just sit in there. I would just soak it in. I would just sit there and think. I felt like he was in there with me.”
By the end of the year, Clint Gaston had boiled down everything he had learned from his grandfather. In summation it was simple: “Buckle down, get it done. And then if you need help, ask the right person for that help.”
That’s how you follow the simplest of credos to make the world a better place, however you can. While things have changed, much of what Gaston’s stood for in this state remains the same.