“Are you going to fish the White River?” Tell any fly fisher you are headed to Arkansas and you will immediately hear all about floating a nymph under a bobber to monster brown trout down that river. Yawn. Sounds like watching an amateur golf tournament on TV. Sure, there will be some memorable shots, but overall it will be what you expected, and you’ll flip the channel while scratching an annoying itch in your belly button before downing another beer.
The thing is, Arkansas is a treasure, especially if you ditch the Instagram and dip your toes into the other beautiful rivers in the northwest corner of the Natural State. Yes, I had read all about the famed White River but luck would have it, I wasn’t really within striking distance of that boring old trout stream. Arkansas, to me, was where one could be challenged by beefy smallmouth bass chasing a middle-finger sized streamer in crystal clear water while buzzards circled over towering limestone cliffs, and banjos dueled in a distant holler. I wasn’t far off.
The massive jet black carrion-eating turkey vultures did soar ominously through the suffocating humidity, but banjos, nary a one. The thing about places this far off the beaten path is you just can’t get a feel of it until you pull into a remote gas station after thirteen soul crushing hours in the car and breath in the bubbly cashier calling you “honey”.
Granted, there were some homesteads along the road which could have been mistaken or likely doubled as junk yards complete with ugly dogs, an ugly house, and ugly kids. Some even flew a shredded Rebel flag, putting on full display a level of lily white ignorance I gladly don’t witness in the middle of a blue city out west.
Otherwise this part of Arkansas is undeniably beautiful. Every shade of green and vastly uninhabited, with quaint general stores selling local pottery, honey, jelly, and beer by some of the sweetest, friendliest folks you will meet. People here use the word “neat” to describe everything from hiking trails to gift shops and even other people. “Yeah, Barbara down the road there owns a neat little handmade soap shop. Been making soap for forty years. She’s a neat lady.”
Vacations involving the opportunity to fish are a bit like camping trips. I start doing way too much research, get a little jittery, and tie way too many streamers. But a vacation with my dad? I hadn’t done that in over 20 years. The last trip I remember taking with my old man was the day after I graduated high school. It was a haul-ass trip to Yellowstone where we camped for a few nights, saw Old Faithful, and came home exhausted.
It wasn’t completely uneventful. I rode most of the way in a 6’X2′ sleeper mounted with baling wire to the tool box, complete with a duct taped passage through the back window of the old Dodge into the cab. We slept in a spur maker’s yard in Jackson Hole, WY one night in a tiny tent which I was forced to exit in the middle of the night due to Dad’s chainsaw snoring. Uncomfortably sleeping in an unkept yard in an old sleeping bag, I was not so gently woken up at 3 a.m. when a cold mountain rain began spitting on my face. Eventually I ended up back in the pickup just before sunup, angry and tired. We bathed with naked Europeans in a remote hot spring, saw some bison, and when the Dodge blew the transmission in Cheyenne, I slept in my first, but not my last Super 8 Motel.
There were many years in fact when you could say Dad and I didn’t much get along for various reasons (besides the snoring) which I later came to terms with after realizing life is, in fact, short. I realized how similar our interests were after being away on my own for a few years and I quit blaming him for my own self-absorbed adolescent confusions. A trip to the Ozarks and a new non-western wilderness was an exciting concept for both of us, and our families.
Arkansas hadn’t been on my radar but when I looked at the photos of the river we were staying next to I noticed the absence of rod tubes on the vehicles in the parking lots and I got hopeful. In Colorado, every other Subaru and 4Runner has one jutting off the roof like an erection, for trout. But it looked like Buffalo National River was more of a playground for canoers and kayakers and maybe just a handful of fisherfolks. Which meant I should definitely tie some more streamers.
From the Colorado plains to the Ozark Mountain range, the scenery and humidity changes dramatically, yet both were welcome after seeing Kansas for too many hours. Once we finally got settled in our cabin, we made our way to a put-in on the river that was nearly empty as it was mid June, and the water was low, so nobody was floating. We all pretty much dove in to cool off but with discipline I rigged up first.
In typical fashion, Dad and I fished separately, not even thinking about it, the distance between us going unnoticed. Through my years of angling I’ve recognized when I approach water with rod in hand, everything and everyone disappears. I find myself casting flies alone, look up and wonder where everyone else has gone, and how far away is the truck?
As Dad waded into the river, he quickly vanished upstream, eyes focused on the stones in the riverbed, hunting artifacts. I’ve seen him do this a million times. When we’d go arrowhead hunting back when I was a kid he’d step out of the truck and wouldn’t look up for six hours. He would methodically pace a farm field sometimes stopping to wipe the dirt from a chunk of flint, analyzing it, stuffing it in his pocket, followed by more pacing. Arms behind his back, one hand grasping the wrist of the other, hunched over with eyes darting over the freshly tilled soil. Much like myself on a river. Cast, retrieve, two steps, cast, retrieve, on repeat like a skipping record. Then I look up and it’s dark, and I’m alone, frustrated at the impatience of the sun.
When we finally came back together later in the afternoon to make sure the kids hadn’t drowned, he said he’d caught some fish that he’d never seen before on his spinning rig, one being a rock bass. And that’s how we seem to fish “together”. Same river on the same day, not knowing what the hell the other is doing. I had a feeling one or more of his pockets was also full of interesting rocks.
There were hikes to incredible vistas and waterfalls, stories from years past, and great food washed down with cold beers. The last day was decidedly a river day and we enjoyed the cool water until thoroughly pruned. Before heading back to the cabin and whiskey and fireflies and family, I clipped off the white streamer that had produced a few chubby smallmouth and a rock bass with its wild red eyes, and dug into my warm water fly box for the smallest bass popper I had and tied it to the 5x tippet in the shadows of the limestone cliffs. Knowing this would be my last few casts in this magically foreign landscape, I let out line and allowed the popper to float in my wake, and I turned my gaze upwards for the first time in hours.
Dark shadowy green canopies of the hardwoods I could scarcely identify clung to the rolling hills like a biker’s thick beard. Only a few songbirds flitted among the branches then vanished into the darkness of the canopies before I could identify them. Three hundred foot tall sheer limestone cliffs at the river bend rose vertically with black and grey water stains streaming their cheeks like prom night mascara.
A light breeze came off the crystal clear water hitting my cheeks and reminded me that I was a fisherman, and not some casual observer. While boundless beauty surrounded me, there was also hundreds of long-ear sunfish waiting for me below the film, so unlikely in this place with their magic mushroom trip patterns and iridescent Texas sunset colors splashed across their tiny scales.
I set the little green popper skyward and laid it down in the silvery reflection of a long slow moving pool about the size of a football field. The charging wake, splash, and hookset delivered instant adrenaline to my brain and immediately balanced the scales of what fly fishing is to me and what arrowhead hunting is to Dad. A fully immersive environmental and spiritual experience; as long as you look up now and again.