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Conway Filmmaker Tells Story of Trout Tourism on the Little Red River


For documentary filmmaker and avid fly fisherman Dr. Benjamin Garner, the story of the Little Red River is a personal one. Touted as his “homecoming story,” “Arkansas Wild: The Story of Trout Tourism on the Little Red River,” examines scientific observations, management challenges and tourism impact surrounding the health and conservation challenges of the river.

Garner, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Central Arkansas, began the project two years ago. Although Arkansas has some of the best trout fishing in the country, brown trout on the Little Red River are growing a bit slower than they are elsewhere. Some of this is attributed to continuous environmental threats such as summer heat and drought.

“I grew up fishing on the Little Red River in Arkansas,” Garner said. “It was on this river that I discovered a love for water, fly fishing and trout. As I got older, I took it for granted, moved away, and then came to appreciate what I’d had growing up.”

It was when he moved back to Arkansas three years ago and began fishing on Arkansas’ trout waters again that he came up with the idea. “During this process, I reconnected with my friend Lowell Myers, a guide on the Little Red,” Garner said. “When he learned that I had been making documentaries, he got excited. Our initial conversations about the status of the river first put the idea in my head of doing a film on the Little Red.”

According to Garner, the Little Red is an internationally renowned trout stream that is home to a self-sustaining wild brown trout population and once produced a world-record catch, a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout attributed to Rip Collins in 1992. “The secret was out, and the destination was put on the map,” Garner said. “However, it is unclear whether the attention and tourism impact was positive for the river.”

“Arkansas Wild: The Story of Trout Tourism on the Little Red” features Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Ben Batten, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s biologist Steve Lochmann, fly-fishing guides Kati Rouse and Jamie Rouse, Lindsey White of Lindsey’s Resort, and more.

“Some of the main challenges on the Little Red today people in the film mentioned include poor water management, summer heat, sedimentation from new development and removing the vegetation off of the bank, lack of regulation with docks and anglers fishing for brown trout during the spawn,” Garner said.

This is Garner’s fourth documentary film to air on PBS, and he said he tries to add something new in terms of production each time. “This time, I got my drone pilot’s license so I could shoot aerial footage of the river,” he said. Although he has never used himself as a character in one of his films, this time, he found that “the aerial footage helps showcase the beauty of the river, and having myself as a character stitches together the narrative and also helps the audience make sense of all the different people I met along the way.”

Of course, during the process, he also learns a lot about the documentary subject itself.

“I think the thing that surprised me was how unique it is to have a completely wild brown trout population that is self-sustaining,” Garner said. “I hadn’t realized that even the scientists don’t fully understand why the Little Red has such a prolific brown trout population, whereas on the Norfork, Beaver and White tailwaters, they have to resort to stocked fish to keep the populations at appropriate levels. Even in other rivers across the U.S., they have to rely on stocking programs. So it’s pretty cool the browns on the Little Red, while they aren’t native to Arkansas, are truly ‘wild’ at this point. All the browns grew up from egg to fish on the river. That makes them tough to catch because they’ve lived their entire life on the river and can tell when a fly isn’t presented in a way that looks natural.”

Garner calls himself a one-man band who self-funded the film and did everything from filming and directing to music and editing.

“I’ve always loved photography, so the cinematography was a lot of fun — especially the drone shots,” he said. “I also like brainstorming and writing original music for the sections of the film.”

The film’s TV premiere was on Arkansas PBS on April 11. It was also screened on March 29 at Searcy’s Rialto Theater.

“One of the cool things is that I’ve learned how to distribute these documentaries at the national level,” Garner said. “In other words, this film is not just playing in Arkansas. It’s going all across the U.S. to PBS stations. It’s already aired or scheduled to air in Kansas City, Idaho, Montana and California, to name a few. Last time I distributed a film this way it aired in more than 30 states over 380 times. So I expect a similar or higher metric this time around.”

To watch online, audiences can rent the film through Garner’s website: https://www.benjaminrgarner.com/.

Garner said his hope is that people who view the film “will take one step towards conservation in whatever way makes sense for them. For most of us as individuals, that might mean being more careful with how we handle fish and get them back in the water or picking up trash when we fish. For legislators and representatives, that might mean taking steps to protect all of Arkansas’ natural resources. For tourism agencies, it also might mean putting policies in place that protect our rivers, lakes, and trails from the negative effects of over-tourism, which can harm the ecosystem.”

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April Fatula is student publications adviser and instructor in Harding University's Department of Communication. She lives in Searcy with her husband and three children and dreams alternately of being a travel writer and drinking her coffee while it's still hot.

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