from "our gang" to Green country flyfishers, 1960-1969

by Bob Cunningham


Not long ago I attended graveside services for a retired fellow worker and saw Elmer Leisure, one of the original gang with whom I fished the White River before the Green Country Flyfishers was even a glint in Dave Whitlock’s eyes.   I asked Elmer if he remembered whether it was in the late 50’ or early 60’s that we started fly fishing the White River.   Elmer pondered a few seconds and responded “Yes, it was. ” Now, Elmer is 90 years old and it could be expected that he didn’t try to remember the dates of those wonderful trips.


Elmer has quit fly fishing now, but he told me he had a new bass boat with a 250 hp motor which he uses on Lake Ouachita, in Arkansas. The way he described it everything must be automatic, but he didn’t tell me if it had an automatic lifter to get it out of the water.   He did say he ran it at 55 MPH last year but was afraid to go faster because of his eye sight.   I declined an invitation to join him at Shangri La Lodge on the lake next April. 

LATE '50s—EARLY '60s    Our Gang

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Elmer, Rex Schropp and Gene Lewis were in our original group from Bartlesville who started fly fishing the White River in Arkansas soon after Bull Shoals Dam was built.  

We fished woolly worms and streamers and caught many trout of substantial size. The larger ones would often run out all of our fly line and snap our 3X tippets.   We didn’t know about using backing on our lines.   But we figured it out about two or three years later when, in the water below the second island at Rim Shoals, I found a fly line with a broken tippet on one end and about 100 yards of multicolored casting line attached to the other.


The White River


The White River was a thing of beauty in those days. It had a rocky bottom which made it difficult to wade, and there were big boulders, sometimes breaking the surface in three to four feet of water, particularly where there were large limestone bluffs overlooking the water.   The river bed was much narrower then than now and it was difficult to get to the water’s edge to wade because of buck brush hanging out over it.  

We would often see a cork on a heavy white cotton cord with a wrap-around sinker and a hook tied to a limb of buck brush hanging out over the water, sometimes with a large trout thrashing on the hook.   The corks were of the type used to stopper gallon jugs so we did not get too nosy.   One day a johnboat came by and its big overalled and bewhiskered gentleman owner was putting trout into a gunny sack from a series of these lines.   He spoke and his conversation was friendly, so finally I asked him what he was going to do with all the trout. He explained they were not fit for human consumption so he was feeding them to his hogs.

Since then, many things have changed the structure of the river. We could once stand on the bank and fish the concrete abutment supporting the railroad trestle at Cotter without having to wade through the gravel channels that now stretch out before it.  

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These photos, taken in 2004 at the highway bridge adjacent to the railroad trestle at Cotter, Arkansas, illustrate the changes that have resulted from the combination of high flow from the dam and from gravel introduced into the river since the dam was built.


The once fine boulder-filled riffle in the bend below and opposite the Cotter Trout Dock is now covered with gravel for the most part. The Cotter Spring no longer has a rope swing so the kids can drop into it.   It is now too shallow.

Something has caused the spring to develop a second outlet. It flows underground for a short distance and then resurfaces to ripple through backwater towards the beautiful multi-spanned concrete bridge. Most of these changes are caused by heavy prolonged water flow from the dam, by dredging for docks, boat ramps, and by other manmade alterations.

When our gang first began to fish the river, there were many large coontail moss patches, some perhaps 50' long and 10' wide.   The individual strands were maybe 4" in diameter and as much as 8' long.   One could strip the end of a strand and find his palm cluttered with aquatic insects.   Even before one could find these clumps of moss he would often see the double rings on the surface of the water made by trout midging over and behind them.

Today, if we are lucky, we might find the stubs of the moss above the root systems where they had once flourished in the White River.


Rim Shoals


In the early days, it was difficult to wade across the White River at Rim Shoals because of the large boulders at the top.   The shoals themselves were very tricky.   There was a pool near the top and in the middle which dropped off suddenly. One time we invited Max McLeod, the local National Supply representative, to go fishing at the Shoals with us.   When we got there, he had his fly rod, reel, line and leader but the parts were not put together.   I spent an hour of good fishing time rigging him up.

There were many places in Rim Shoals and other sections of the river as well that displayed upturned limestone with deep crevices. Although I had warned Max that sometimes one step in the wrong direction could get him wet, it wasn’t long before Max disappeared except for his hat, floating on the water.   Now Max was short and fat and when we pulled him out he was a load to handle with his waders full of water. We helped wring out his clothes, set him on the far gravel bank in his shorts, and hung out his clothes to flap in the breeze.

Today shifting gravel has reduced the depth of these crevices, not only at the Shoals but all along the river.

Another specific example illustrates the effects of the heavy flow from the dam. We were fishing the upper Rim Shoals when we noticed several people diligently at work in the water just above the second island. Finally our curiosity got the best of us and we walked down the far bank to where the activity was taking place. We learned that the second island was being badly eroded from the water flows and that Jennie Smith, owner of the Rim Shoals Trout Dock, and some of her friends were trying to salvage the island. They were wedging sizeable flat rocks against each other in the riverbed at about a 45 degree angle immediately above the island to divert the water flow.   We pitched in and helped them.


The North Fork River


Like the White River, the North Fork River in the early days was also heavy with coontail moss.   The far side of the North Fork at McClellan’s Dock was just one huge bed of it.   It was at one of the early BIG ONE’s that Mr. Mac asked me if I would mind removing the moss which was accumulating on the three clevises on the cables which held the dock in place in the river. These accumulations were about 3' in diameter and rapidly increasing in size as the high water flowed down the river.   It was a bitterly cold morning and the rest of our gang were standing around a big fire on the high bank above the dock, drinking coffee and trying to keep warm.

There I was in my waders, hip deep in the fast-moving water with a pitchfork trying to remove the long strands of moss when I began to shake from the cold. Recognizing this as hypothermia I quickly wrapped my left arm around one of the 2 x 4’s that supported the roof of the dock and then clamped my left arm to my body with my right arm.   I hollered for Mr. Mac and he pulled me up on the dock. I got rid of my waders and clothes, dried off in the camper and crawled into bed. Later Dr. Hedges, a physician who lived in Little Rock and later became a member of GCF, examined me and stated that I did not need to be hospitalized.

When our gang fished the rivers of northern Arkansas, we would often visit a trout dock to buy a license, get a cup of coffee and a candy bar, and warm up. Occasionally a dock owner would ask us if we knew Dave Whitlock who also lived in Bartlesville. None of us knew him but we had read about and heard of his exploits on various trout waters.   


The Late 60’s: The Birth of the Green Country Flyfishers


Most of you probably do not remember the “car pool” days, but on a drive to work one day, Mickey Hall, a member of my car pool, asked to be included in my next trip.   He had a fly rod but no flies and I did not have enough flies for both of us. So on Saturday December 28, 1968, we went to Curtis Sporting Goods in Bartlesville in search of the fly tying material. Bill Beasley, the owner of the store, commented that the only person he knew in Bartlesville who might have the material we needed would be Dave Whitlock.

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Dave Whitlock in 1968

The Sparkle in Dave’s Eyes


With considerable reservation because of his prominence in the fly fishing world, I called Dave.   He told us he had heard of us and our exploits on the river and was actually planning to contact us. And, sure, he could spare what we needed to make Mickey's flies. Mickey and I went immediately to Dave’s home which was only 4 blocks from mine. With a sparkle in his eyes, Dave explained that he was a member of the Federation of Fly Fishermen. He said that he had spent considerable time with E. J. Strickland, FFF’s Treasurer, who had given him good advice in the strategy of club organization and operation.   As a result of Strickland’s advice and his own interest in fly fishing, Dave was eager to start a club in Bartlesville. When he also added that he fished with 6 other persons who worked with him at the Bureau of Mines who might want to join such a club, I mentioned that our gang had four regulars and a couple of “sometimers” who worked at Phillips and who might also be interested in getting together.

The Early Meetings 

The first organizational meeting of what later became the Green Country Flyfishers was held on January 18, 1969, at Dave’s home.   The Charter Members were Milt Blaustein, Bob Cunningham, Mickey Hall, Gene Lewis, Garvice Loucks, Bill Marshall, Ray McSpadden, Dave Strang, Dr. Paul Strong, Dave Whitlock and Dave Womble. Garvice Loucks was with Looboyles in Tulsa and Dr. Strong was a doctor there. Dave Womble had an engineering business in Oklahoma City.   Except for Dave Strang, who was the local Game Warden, the rest of us were employed in the Bartlesville area by Phillips Petroleum or the Bureau of Mines. Afterward, Gene, Mickey and I discussed how Dave made everyone feel like a real part of the action.

Insofar as we have been able to determine, the January 18, 1969, meeting was the second organized fly fishing club in the Mid-Continent area.

Dave kept our springs wound tight. We set our annual family dues at $5.00 and under Dave’s guidance, identified the goals and purposes of the Club, which are quoted in the following list:


   1. To create a brown trout fishery in Spring Creek, and improve existing trout fisheries in the Illinois River below Tenkiller Dam, and in Arkansas’s White River.

   2. To establish club projects for litter control and pollution in streams and public relations.

   3. To conduct fly casting and fly tying clinics, and

   4. To introduce our sport to all interested men, women and especially to the youth.


The second meeting was Saturday, February 15, 1969, at 1 pm in the Glass-Nelson Clinic Conference Room, 2020 Xanthus, Tulsa.   Donuts and coffee were served with the compliments of Dr. Paul Strong.   It was a cold, bleak, snowy day, but 46 persons attended.   It was at this meeting that the Club initiated a search for trout to stock in Oklahoma’s Spring Creek. Although we chose to delay a formal election of officers until we were better acquainted, we agreed that we needed a name for our club as soon as possible. I knew Charlie Cummings, who headed Northeast Oklahoma, Inc., the organization promoting the name “Green Country” for Northeastern Oklahoma in advertisements about recreational areas and tourism. I suggested that "Green Country Flyfishers" would be a good name for our club and quickly drew the assignment to get approval to use the name.


We Become The Green Country Flyfishers


The club’s third meeting was Saturday March 15, 1969, at 1 PM in the Glass-Nelson Clinic.   By the time of this meeting the enrolled membership was 38 persons. A nominating committee was appointed. The name “Green Country Flyfishers” had been approved by Northeast Oklahoma, Inc. and was adopted as the name of our club. The club joined the Federation of Fly Fishermen. The Federation at that time defined itself as a “loose knit organization of clubs and individuals”.   The State of Oklahoma gave approval to implant trout and/or trout eggs in Spring Creek.

It was exciting. We had an official name, we had joined the only organization which was devoted entirely to fly fishing and its betterment, and we knew that as soon as we could develop the resources we would introduce brown trout into Spring Creek. After the meeting, we had donuts and coffee and the chance to become better acquainted with each other. We exchanged fishing information, techniques, flies, and even ideas on how to improve our wading abilities by the application of Shoo Goo and indoor-outdoor carpeting to our boot soles. All the way home from Tulsa we reviewed what we had experienced and were eager to help develop the potentials of our club.

Note: Milt Blaustein, who is now 86 and a Charter Member and past president of GCF, called me on April 19, 2005, to tell me that he was moving to Nevada and would like to donate his fly tying materials and equipment to the GCF. He asked me if I would come and get them and while we were loading the stuff, I saw a pair of his waders complete with soles of well-worn indoor-outdoor carpeting. Maybe 35 years old?


The Main Man  


GCF's fourth meeting was April 26, 1969, at East Cross Methodist Church in Bartlesville. Officers elected were Dave Whitlock, President; VPs Garvice Loucks and Dr. Paul Strong; Secretary, Bill Marshall; Corresponding and Publicity Secretary, Paul Clark; and Treasurer, Ray McSpadden. Appointed as Program Chairmen were Milt Blaustein, Bill Howell and Alva Hickerson.   A Club Library was initiated with donated items. Enrolled membership had grown to 46 persons.   Dave Whitlock was appointed editor of the Flyline and Hazel Cunningham and Joan Whitlock were appointed publishers.

Dave Whitlock had also designed the club’s first logo, and it was approved unanimously and sent out for production.

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This original Green Country Flyfishers' patch features the Club's logo, designed in 1969 by Dave Whitlock.


Fund Raising


At this meeting it was disclosed that the cost of delivering 10,000 live brown trout 6" to 8" long from Getz Trout Farm in Colorado was $2,500.00. This was too rich for our budget.   But undaunted we began exploring other sources.


Two major fund raising strategies illustrate our fervent desire to acquire enough funds to somehow raise enough money to be able to see brown trout in our beloved Spring Creek.


A Fly of the Month program was initiated at a yearly cost of $7.50 per member. Each member could volunteer to make flies in a pattern of his choice, donating whatever hooks and other materials were needed. If the club approved his pattern and sample fly, he would tie a sufficient number of that fly to distribute one to each FOTM member, plus 10 extras for late comers. At that time, this amounted to a total of 35 flies. After the finished flies were approved, the tying instructions were prepared and reproduced and a fly was attached for distribution.


A second fund raising strategy came from Garvice Loucks, Manager of Looboyles, a popular Tulsa sporting goods shop, who suggested that we start marketing fly fishing materials under the GCF label through Looboyles.   This was done and a promotion was held at Looboyles.   Large groups of shoppers gathered to watch GCF members tie flies.   Don Hall volunteered to keep the sales counter stocked with materials.   Material costs were paid from the general fund and the proceeds deposited into it.  

An interesting sidelight illustrates one of the unexpected long-term side effects of the GCF’s fund raising efforts.   At our March 1, 2005 meeting our guest speaker was Richard Griffin, a member of the Northeastern Oklahoma Flyfishers, in bartlesville to promote our joining them and the Tulsa Flyfishers in sponsoring the annual Smallmouth Rendezvous & Fly Tying Extravaganza.   He spoke of attending that demonstration at Looboyle’s which encouraged him to develop the skill of fly tying.

BIG ONE I


GCF's next meeting was held at the Commercial Hotel, Cotter, Arkansas, July 12 and 13, 1969.  

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The commercial Hotel in cotter, arkansas, as it appeared in 2004 


The hope was to bring together with us all the people who had become members of GCF but who lived in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. It seemed odd to see so many people fly fishing in the White River, so we surmised that each one was someone we needed to know. And we were right. It was the first White River experience for many and we shared our scant knowledge freely and our fly supplies dwindled fast. The outing was called BIG ONE I. It was headlined by A. D. Nuckols, President of the Bull Shoals Lake and White River Association, who spoke to us Saturday evening after the dinner at the Commercial Hotel. About 30 members from Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas were there to hear him but many of the first timers opted to keep on fishing instead of attending the meeting.


Linking to the FFF

The August 1969 meeting was held at Braden Park with a small attendance.   At this meeting, it was announced that the FFF had elected GCF’s Dave Whitlock to be a Director of FFF in recognition of his membership, participation and attendance at their Conclaves. Through his affiliation, other club members also became interested in adding their optional individual memberships to the club's general membership in the FFF. Individual memberships at that time cost $5.00 per year for GCF members and included three issues each of the Flyfisher magazine and the FFF Bulletin. Also at this meeting our club emblems became available for $2.00 each. 

copyright©2007

R.M. Cunningham II

 

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