GLEN HEAVNER CAN THINK of a dozen ways to describe the Lower White River: the diamond of Arkansas, the land that time forgot, a state of mind, his favorite place on the planet.
“I used to drive 600 miles every day. Now as far as I go is the boat ramp,” says Glen, a retired trucker who lives half a mile from the dock where he and his dad, Larry, keep their twin johnboats. “Life slows down on the White River.”
The White flows fast and clear out of the Ozark Mountains, but by the time it winds into the Mississippi floodplain, past the Heavner home, and through the state’s legendary green timber duck holes, it’s wide and leisurely. If life here is slow, it begins to crawl when nearby WMAs hold back water ahead of duck season. Flagging river levels and oppressive heat make for tough trotlining, which requires a strong current to keep tension on the lines. But if anyone can catch catfish in such conditions, it’s the Heavners.
A trotline consists of one main heavy line or rope, with evenly spaced baited hooks that branch, or drop, from the main line. Like traplines, trotlines catch critters while you’re elsewhere. (In Arkansas, you must check trotlines every 48 hours, though most people can’t wait that long.) They aren’t legal in every state, but in much of the South they’re one of the oldest and most traditional ways to fish.
Just a few other locals still run trotlines for river cats. Glen sees them on the White sometimes, but he’s never had an opportunity to ask if they catch their own bait, as he does, or how they’ve been faring as the river and the times change.
“Trotlining is becoming less common,” Glen says, “but the people who still do it hold onto it dearly.”
Because even on the slowest days, the appeal of trotlining is obvious. As each drop line rises out of the murk to reveal an empty hook, anticipation gives way to disappointment, then returns in an instant as another drop emerges from the depths. It’s addictive. There’s always another hook, or line to run, or another evening to set baits and, maybe, catch a giant catfish. He may have embraced the laid-back river life, but even Glen has little patience for a rod and reel; he can’t stand waiting around for a bite.
The dock where the Heavners keep their boats. The bank, which used to extend beyond the dock, has eroded, causing more than one home to crumble into the river. The Heavners own the tan house (center) and estimate they have a year before it falls, too. Rory Doyle
The Heavners work hard to set trotlines, but they don’t rush or cut corners. “A high-octane young man,” Glen was forced to slow down after a brain injury in the Army. Determined to secure an honorable discharge rather than a medical discharge, he drove officers across Europe in the waning days of the Soviet Union. When he returned home to Arkansas, he drove 18-wheelers for Walmart. Hunting and fishing magazines kept him sane during 20 solitary years of long-haul trucking.
Glen safely navigated 3 million miles of America’s highways without a single accident, only to step on a patch of ice in 2017 and hit his head, exacerbating his brain injury and ending his career. A few years and heart attacks later (even his wife can’t quite keep track), Glen suffered a stroke while hunting from his climbing stand. He lost the feeling in his left side, his former strength, and much of his energy.
But Glen sees these challenges for their opportunities: early retirement has given him time for friends, family, and fishing. If he wakes up in the morning, it’s going to be a good day. If he gets to run trotlines with his dad, it’ll be even better.
“We catch ’em all the time,” says Glen, untying Larry’s boat as they prepare to run half a dozen trotlines in the August heat. “Why not today?”
Ferrying bait to the boats. Glen, 56, catches or traps all his own bait—green sunfish—and stores the fish in a homemade live well behind his home. Rory Doyle
A box containing a single premade trotline. In the weeks ahead of this outing, Glen constructed six new trotlines from 1,800-pound Mule Tape and drop lines. Railroad ties duct-taped along the main line help keep it tight to the mud and serve as handles for fighting fish. Each trotline is coiled into its own box or bucket for tangle-free deployment on the water. The final touch is the row of hooks, with one apiece for each drop line. Attention to detail—a legacy from Glen’s time in the Army—is the guiding principle in everything he does. Rory Doyle
Unspooling Mule Tape, the backbone of Glen’s trotlines. He ties one end of a short length to a tree, then fastens the other to his premade trotlines. Orange weights filled with 60 pounds of sand anchor each line to the riverbottom. Rory Doyle
Larry, 77, holds the tiller steady as Glen works a trotline. It’s possible to set trotlines solo, but it’s far easier if someone skilled runs the engine; one careless move can clothesline your buddy into the water. The Heaveners are a seamless team, never criticizing or cussing. Glen is “Son” and Larry is “Sir.” Rory Doyle
The Heavners and their neighbor, Malcom McIntosh, set a trotline in the middle of the White River. The ideal tree to tie off on is sturdy and somewhat isolated from other trees to avoid tangling lines. “We don’t use depthfinders or fish finders,” says Glen. “We’re old-fashioned.” Larry nods and adds, “We don’t try to impress people.” Rory Doyle
Glen ties a hook to a drop line. Each trotline (stretched across his lap and the boat) has eight or 10 drops, depending on its length. The hooks—a combination of 5/0s and 8/0s—are connected to swivels to keep fish from breaking off. Channel and blue cats like to thrash and roll in the water. Rory Doyle
Taking a breather and watching for deer after setting six trotlines in the heat. Normally Glen sets just one or two, but he wanted to increase the odds of catching cats during the high-temp, low-water days of late summer. Rory Doyle
Baiting hooks with green sunfish just before dark. Live bait is a must, says Glen, and the livelier, the better if you want to catch flatheads, since channel and blue cats eat dead bait. Trotlining is traditionally done at night—bait your hooks too early and the gar will steal them—but since his stroke, Glen avoids the river after dark to play it safe. “As the light fades,” Larry explains, “the gar slow down and the catfish take over.” Rory Doyle
Glen prepares to bait a hook from the bow. Despite the soggy work and the swarm of mosquitoes on his head, he’s in good spirits. Rory Doyle
Inside Glen’s office, an air-conditioned shed behind his home. The walls are crowded with awards and photos of friends and family: Larry in Vietnam, Glen on the Berlin wall, deer on meat poles, a log bench lined with squirrels. And catfish—lots of catfish. Rory Doyle
A few photos from the office. Larry hoists a big flathead (center); the two best flatheads he ever caught on the White weighed nearly 80 pounds, but cats in the 40- to 50-pound range are more common. Courtesy of Christy Heavner
Squeezing in a nap before returning to the river. Glen tires more easily than he used to, but setting so many trotlines is hard work for anyone. “Running them,” confesses Larry, “is the easiest part.” Rory Doyle
Glen lifts a trotline using a thrift-store 3-iron. “We like to keep things simple,” he says. The Heavners keep their lines close to the water and mark them only with the info required by Arkansas Game and Fish. They don’t use buoys or flagging tape, since they’ve had trouble with strangers running or even cutting their lines. Nor do they use GPS waypoints. They know the White River too well to bother. Rory Doyle
Checking a trotline for catfish at first light. “The best part of trotlining,” says Larry, “is feeling you’ve got something on the end of the line but not knowing what’s on there.” It can be difficult to tell if there’s a fish on until you run the entire line, hand over hand. If there’s a fish hooked, the line might not start jerking until it’s a few feet away. “Sometimes,” adds Glen, “you’ll have a big flathead laying down there dead asleep until he floats to the surface.” Rory Doyle
Hauling up a blue cat on the last hook. Although the Heavners target flatheads, they’re happy to catch any kind of catfish. On this trip, they were surprised to find freshwater drum at the end of three drops—something that puzzled Larry, who says he hasn’t seen them on a trotline in 20 years. Rory Doyle
Larry nets a blue cat as Glen muscles it to the surface. Rory Doyle
Glen hauls a keeper flathead out of the White. Chalk it up to luck or odds—this was the final hook of the 50 he had baited the evening before, and therefore the least likely to get robbed by gar—but the reward of finding a flathead on the last drop of the last line is particularly satisfying. Rory Doyle
A yellow cat hits the deck. The Heavners release most catfish: They like to put the big ones back since, as most catfishermen will tell you, they don’t taste as good. They’ll keep smaller, more palatable fish if someone is itching for a fish fry, but otherwise they put those back too. “I throw fish back,” Glen says with a grin. “I’m here to pull ’em up.” Rory Doyle
Making quick work of a blue cat. To clean catfish, Glen hangs them by their sturdy jaw and uses pliers to peel the skin toward the ground. Rory Doyle
Back at camp Larry fries catfish to serve alongside a breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits, and homemade gravy. He cooks the way the Heavners approach life on the White River: deliberately and unhurriedly, making sure to take it all in and get everything just right. Rory Doyle
A stretch of White River the Heavners know best. While the silver carp concern Larry, who says the invasive fish are impacting game fish, Glen seems less troubled by the carp, or the bank crumbling just yards from their breakfast table. “One side of the river is always eroding, and the other side is always building it back,” he says. “It’s ever-changing, and you just adjust to it as you go.” Rory Doyle
Glen and Larry (right) take in the sunset on the White River. Despite the slow catfish bite on this particular trip, the Heavners aren’t put out. Soon the weather will cool, the rain will come, and the river will rise. More fish will bite, and the Heavners will be there when they do. Rory Doyle
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