Sports: Still Gone Fishing
Jim Gaston turned a life-long passion for fishing and love of nature into a successful career that has helped shape the tourism industry in Arkansas. As a young man of 20, he was thrust into a flailing family business and turned it into his dream resort.
Jim Gaston, owner of Gaston’s White River Resort
photography by Alex Kent and Ashlee Nobel
Gaston’s White River Resort is a picturesque, serene getaway perfect for fishermen, nature-lovers or those who just want to enjoy a relaxing weekend on the river. The White River is known throughout the world for its excellent trout fishing. Experienced and novice fishermen repeatedly pull trophy rainbow and brown trout from its icy waters, and there is no better way to enjoy fishing the White River than holed up in one of Gaston’s cottages in Lakeview, Ark., for the weekend.
The resort would not be what it is today — a major north Arkansas tourism draw that hosts more than 150,000 visitors annually — if not for owner and avid hobbyist, Jim Gaston. Gaston did his best to put Lakeview and Bull Shoals on the map after taking over the family business at the age of 20 when his father Al Gaston suddenly passed away.
“It never crossed my mind that this could be a failure,” Gaston said. “Looking back though, sometimes I marvel that I made it through some of the things I did. When you are that young you don’t think about failure, and I was too busy to think about it anyway, at that point it was more about survival.”
Gaston inherited the resort his father started in 1958, when he purchased 20 acres of White River frontage along with six small cottages and six fishing boats. “The finances were not good at all — honestly they were just horrible.”
Gaston took a conservative approach toward growing the family business. His rule was simple: never borrow more than half.
“Whatever amount of money we needed to build cottages, or the restaurant, or anything … I made sure I had 50 percent of the money I needed, and if I promised to pay it back in 10 years, I paid it back in five,” Gaston said.
Through the years, Gaston has worked hard to overcome the resort’s financial troubles as well as personal tragedies, including his only son’s suicide, to become the owner of one of the most successful resorts in the state … and a mentor to many.
The resort now stretches across more than 400 acres with two miles on the riverfront. The property is home to: 79 cottages, ranging in size from quaint with two double beds and a bathroom, to a luxurious and roomy two-story cottage with 10 private bedrooms; a 3,200-foot airstrip for easy access; more than 70 boats available for rental as well as a massive dock; a restaurant; private club; gift shop; tennis court; playground; swimming pool; duck pond; game room; and two nature trails complete with a wildlife refuge full of beautiful peacocks.
“If you left any one component of the resort out, the place wouldn’t make sense,” Gaston said. “The boat dock, the restaurant, the cottages, the airstrip — it’s like a shopping mall, which has to have an anchor; in our case that’s the White River.”
All these components come together to make for the perfect outdoor experience, whether you are a first time fisherman (as we were on our trip to Gaston’s) or a seasoned pro. At Gaston’s, there is enough to do to fill up an entire weekend from trout and fly fishing to nature walks and photography.
Gaston is an avid nature photographer; he’s captured thousands of beautiful images of plants, birds and wildlife. Some of his favorite subjects include local bald eagles and blue heron. He has always been passionate about his hobbies. He is a past pilot (he performed airplane acrobatics in air shows); an avid gun collector and target shooter; world traveler; history buff and, of course, fisherman.
“I take on everything in life with passion. I can’t think of anything I’m not interested in,” Gaston said. “It’s good in some ways, but it’s also kind of a curse. I just love life, totally.”
Gaston has used some of that passion for life to become a big player in Arkansas Tourism through the years. He was one of the influential leaders who helped make tourism a major industry in the state. “I have always been very interested in Parks and Tourism. Gov. Dale Bumpers appointed me to the commission in 1973, and I am now a lifetime member. When I started out, tourism had a very low profile, and my job was to convince people that it really was an industry, and that was a very big job.”
Gaston has now served 38 years on the Parks and Tourism commission, and considers his appointment one of the highlights of his career.
The resort brings more than 150,000 visitors to Lakeview each year, which is good for business, and makes for a huge job for Gaston. “Running the resort is sometimes like running a city, our annual budget is bigger than the whole city of Lakeview and Bull Shoals put together. It looks glamorous from the outside, but it’s a lot of work.”
At 70, Gaston is stepping back from his work at Gaston’s to see the world. He and wife Jill made a promise to start traveling more after a recent hospital stay for Gaston. “I had a big surgery on my leg, and I told Jill that if I made it out, we would start traveling and see some of the world.” Gaston’s surgery went well, and since then he and Jill have visited Ireland, Germany, China and Russia … but, for Gaston, nothing compares to the landscape and the cold water of the White River.
Gaston’s White River Resort
1777 River Road • Lakeview, AR
870-431-5202 • gastons.com