Arkansas deserves to be world’s outdoors capital

One pillar at a time, Arkansas is gradually laying claim to the title of Outdoors capital of the world.

Stuttgart has long been the world’s duck hunting capital, and Cotter is the world’s trout fishing capital, but the Natural State’s resume is growing.

Bentonville is quietly molding itself into a full-service outdoor adventure destination that contains capital-worthy facets. Bentonville is a world-class extreme cycling destination, but the Bentonville Airport is also a hub for outdoor adventure in the nearby Ozark Mountains. Cyclists, kayakers, hikers and other backcountry adventurers can charter an airplane to carry them and their gear to remote airstrips and then bring them back. People come from all over the world to experience it.

We documented this development in April 2019 with a feature about Chad Cox, a Little Rock native who is now director of Summit Aviation in Bentonville.

Meanwhile, Helena-West Helena is quietly branding itself as the world’s capital for catfishing and river adventure. It started with John Ruskey, a Colorado native who — inspired by the writings of Mark Twain — immersed himself in the magic of the Mississippi River. Ruskey founded Quapaw Canoe Company in Helena-West Helena, offering guided canoe trips down the entire lower Mississippi River. Ruskey will take you from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico if you desire, camping on sandbars and eating meals under some of the starriest skies in North America.

It is a symbolic triumph. The Mississippi River was always fearsome. It was considered too dangerous to be a playground, but Ruskey works hard to recast the river’s image as something to be appreciated and enjoyed.

I and two of my children joined Ruskey for a short float on the Mississippi River a few years ago. The Mississippi was out of its banks and looked a mile wide. My kids and I took the trip in my 16-foot Buffalo canoe. The flow was so powerful, with so many cross currents and undercurrents, that it pulsed through the canoe’s hull. It felt as if we were riding a living, breathing organism.

It sucked the canoe toward the middle, far from the safety of land, and it resisted attempts to paddle back toward the bank. The river’s obstinance softened when I learned to surf the canoe back toward the bank one heaving swell at a time.

Meanwhile, Helena-West Helena Mayor Kevin Smith is expanding the city’s footprint by laying claim to the title of Catfishing Capital of the World. The city laid the foundation recently by hosting a major catfishing tournament in which one team caught a 112-pound catfish that took three hours to land.

That’s blue marlin and bluefin tuna territory. Or big sharks. To have an inland opportunity like that is truly world class.

Bill Dance, a bass fishing and outdoors TV pioneer, plays a major role in this campaign. According to Smith, Dance says that the section of the Mississippi River near Helena-West Helena supports an unnaturally large number of trophy-size catfish. Dance says it’s a place where they “like to hang out.”

One of my favorite fishing trips was a catfishing excursion on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Arkansas Post Canal with Tim Griffis of Lonoke. Griffis introduced me to hardcore catfishing in 2005 on the lower Arkansas River below Wilbur Mills Dam. As fun as that trip was, the Mississippi River trip captivated my imagination. Griffis and I exited the tame waters of the Arkansas Post canal into the broad, brawling Mississippi. On Mississippi’s side of the river was a giant sandbar that was so white in the summer sun that it hurt to look at it. Catching fish was secondary to merely being there.

No southern city is better positioned to be an outdoor capital than Little Rock. The Arkansas River is an untapped treasure, but John Burkhalter and Dean Kumpuris see its recreational potential. Both have devoted considerable time and financial resources to develop the Arkansas River recreationally.

The Ouachita National Forest is only about 30 minutes to the west. The Ouachita National Forest doesn’t get nearly the love it deserves, but in 2019 Rep. French Hill introduced legislation to add 640 acres to the Flatside Wilderness Area. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is also working to expand and enhance the fabulous Winona Wildlife Management Area. You can enter the Ouachita Trail at Pinnacle Mountain State Park and hike in near wilderness all the way to Talimena State Park in Oklahoma. As a whole, the Ouachitas also represent world-class opportunities.

No matter where you are in Arkansas, there’s a lot to love close to home.

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