Treasures of a River
I used to fish, a lot. I still would if opportunity would grace me. But alas, I am left with memories of jaunts in the past with pole in hand. I learned to fish and appreciate fishing in general from my best friend, Brad. He and I would take off early from work, load up the boat, and head to the lake. Which lake you may ask? Any lake just as long as it has fish. We would stay and fish till the "honey do's" pulled us back from bliss.
As time went by, two things happened. The time between reality and bliss grew greater, thus, muddying the memory's clarity. My buddy's fishing time often did not coincide with mine. His "honey do's" were on a different schedule. Also, I got interested in fly fishing. My interest like most of my hobbies consumed my modest funds and time. The aim was to tie my own flies and poppers and see if I attract the attention of the fish.
Now, tying one;s own lures does not save any money. In fact it is quite the opposite. Good thing I have a real job. But it does provide fish related activities in the hours that one cannot fish and lead to the actual act. I would spend hours on one fly, snipping a bit of hollow deer hair here and wrapping a bit of feather there. This was done with reverence and hopes that a fish would strike something I made. Just one strike would justify hours spent staring at a tiny hook with bird feathers and thread in hand. Therapy! These trappings ended up in boxes of "stuff" that I just cannot toss.
I was born and raised in NW Arkansas. Fishing the waters of Northern Arkansas is a real treat. When I was old enough to drive I hooked up with some friends that loved the outdoors. Some of you may actually read this. I will say that I miss those good times and even some of the bad. But most of all I miss the friends. Time can be cruel in many ways.
---Back the story---
I lived in Arkansas but had no idea what was there. Needless to say I do now. My friends introduced me to "The Natural State". The slogan had then recently been changed from the "Land of Opportunity". I actually had an "Arkansas, The Natural State" T-shirt. You know the one, tan shirt with the brown lettering and a green leaf. It was a badge proudly displayed. I wore it till it was sacred with holes.
My first camping trip was to the Buffalo River with a group of juveniles of which my friend was associated. I was old enough to drive and had access to my dad's pickup so I got to haul one of the canoes and much of the gear. It was a rough crowd, but very good kids. We floated from somewhere to somewhere. The bridge at Marshall sticks in my mind. There was an overnight stay on the banks of the river. There was a campfire, weenie roast, stories of large monsters that came out of the deep holes to scour the gravel shores, like the one where we were camped, looking for human flesh. Well, it worked for the kids. It rained on the second day. I had a blast.
Shortly after that, I was introduced to Bat Cave. No it is not a very original name but it is very descriptive. Bat Cave is also known as Salt Peter Cave or more correctly Cave Mountain Cave, also not very original and somewhat contradictory and repetitive. Those of you who are familiar with the area know this place. It used to be quite popular for several reasons, many of which I will not mention here. Cave Mountain Cave is upstream from Ponca. When approaching from Kingston, take a right and not left at the intersection of highways 21 and 43. Turn right at the dirt road where the highway crosses the Buffalo River. It is about a half mile up the hill. The road is very steep and curvy very passable. I have several stories about Cave Mountain Cave. I have spent days at a time wandering the tunnels but that also is another story.
Cave Mountain Cave led me to Lost Valley, which in turn lead me to Ponca and the low water bridge. That spot on earth reminded me of somewhere in the Rockies, the alpine like buildings, the low heartbeat of the water in the rapids, the harmony in the song in the scattered pines played by the wind, and the rugged landscape forming a story all its own. This is the spot I wish to tell you about. I don't presume to tell you what this place looks like because most of you familiar with the region would already know. Instead, this is the vision that I carry with me, bliss.
Oh, yes, this is about fishing. I picked up fly fishing in my short years in California. When I brought it back to Arkansas, I found that I was fishing by myself. There is a degree of freedom with this. Yes, it is different because the human interaction is not there but it also adds to the experience. You are free to go where ever and whenever you desire. If you tie flies, that desire comes more often. Yet still there is not enough time. I would sometime practice my skills out in the yard. However, much as I would like, the sexy the deer haired popper will not pull a bass from a street gutter or swimming pool no matter how many times I whip that rod back and forth. Only thing you will get are strange looks from your neighbors. "Hey, Martha, come see what that nut bar McKimmey is doing! That is funnier than Jimmy walking across the hot sand without shoes." Sigh!
The clarity of free water calls. I used to walk the streams of northern Arkansas looking like a lion tamer without the chair. I have lost much tackle, broken gear, suffered bodily harm. Why? So I could whip this little plug back and forth with the vain hope that some simple minded creature would think that a meal was at the other end of the line. It makes me wonder, who the simple minded creature really is. Though, the fish is right is one sense. There is a meal at one end of the line. It is just not his meal. It is mine.
In one of my trips I went to Ponca, alone, with no camera, dumbass. I left Fayetteville in the dark and headed east on Hwy 412, then Hwy 68. Traveled past Marble a ways then turned right on Hwy 21 South. I always enjoyed driving down Hwy 21. It runs along the Kings River Valley for several miles. It is gorgeous flat to rolling river valley that is mostly open pasture framed by low steep wooded hill slopes. I never had a chance to fish that portion of that river, but, downstream, yes, many times.
I poked my way through the Kingston downtown square and headed up the mountain toward Boxley. I always loved that road. It has some wonderful scenery. It also has some nice curves and steep slopes. It is great in a small agile car with a too much horsepower. Actually, I have never experienced the "too much horsepower". The road comes to an end at Hwy 43 in the Buffalo River Valley at Boxley, a little town that in nothing but a couple of ancient shacks. I took the left at the intersection of Hwy 21 and 43. Several years ago, taking the left led you to a dirt road that ran at the edge of the valley floor and the mountain. In the days of my youth when my vehicles had no air conditioning it was either sweat or eat dust. Now that stretch between Boxley and Ponca is paved that is no longer a problem. Though, the paved road has aided in the popularity of the area and the impact on Lost Valley. Somehow it is different in many respects.
The newer road follows in the tracks of the old road but diverts before the Lost Valley turnoff. A strange pull was telling me to take another left and visit the falls and cave. I resisted. That is another story for another time. By the time I reached the low water bridge at Ponca, it was at least an hour after sunrise. Dumbass, forgot the camera. But then I would have been even later had I not forgotten the camera.
As I parked the truck at the low water bridge on the Buffalo River, the sun still had not cleared the mountains. Despite the promise of the broiler setting of a midsummer�s day, it was a cool and damp morning. The birds were busy doing bird stuff and seemed happy as the songs of the mockingbirds, chickadees, and other such entertainment echoed off the hills. In the background was the heartbeat of the river from the shallow shoals just downstream of the low water bridge. My anticipation goaded me to get the gear unpacked and on my body. Still, a full grown man standing at the river�s edge could hardly contain himself to get into that water.
From the low water bridge the Buffalo River runs due north for over 1,000 ft where it hits a bluff and a slow hole. This was my first target. About another mile downstream is another set of rapids and a larger slow curving hole at the end of which the river cuts across the valley floor to the opposite side. It is at the end of a slow curve from NE to NW and Camp Ore. This was my second and final target. If all went as planned, the walk downstream was to be with the sun to my right and shaded by the steep mountain for most of the downstream trip. The upstream trip would be hot but there was plenty of water.
I donned the obligatory fishing vest, checked the pockets for the proper support items; pliers, nail clippers, extra tapered leaders, tippet line of various gages, knife (2), fly box, another fly box, yet another fly box, extra spool of sinking line, extra reel, extra spool for the extra reel, bag of mini plastic worms and hooks for the casting rod left in the car, car keys, water, and a snack. Oh, fishing license too. I am sure there was more. I have not worn that vest in over 10 years. I bet I could still do an inventory of what is in it now and come up long of this list.
I fitted the cowboy style straw hat on my head. It was great for keeping the sun off my head and letting the breeze through. It also went well with the "Arkansas-The Natural State" tee shirt, raggedy cutoffs and holey tennis shoes (proper drainage), not mention the long hair and beard.
With pole in hand, the image was complete.
I tied on my latest creation, a sorry excuse for a white deer haired popper with white feathers for a tail. It had a ring of red buck tail just behind the front edge of the popper. The red fur scattered back and down the sides through the white hollow fibered hair mimicking the look like an injured something or other. The wrap of the hollow fur was very tight. I had done a good job on keeping the front of the popper even and vertical and tapering back toward the business end of the hook. The tail feathers were positioned at a narrow angle protruding from the base of the tapered head. I was really proud of this one and was certain that I would be hauling in the fish of my dreams. I had tied many flies before this one and many since. Some are at home in a fly box ....in the fishing vest. I was anal enough to keep my creations separate from the ones I bought. Sadly, most of my creations are scattered to the 4 winds because I could not learn to tie them off properly. I have lots of bare hooks, most are used.
Most of the defrilling problem has to do with how I cast. I am always of afraid of the line hitting the ground behind me and snagging. One of the problems in fly fishing in Arkansas is not enough room. There are too many trees too close to the water and too much ground vegetation. One must learn to adjust one�s casting techniques to avoid making unnecessary sacrifices to the fishing gods. To avoid these obstacles, I have a tendency to come forward before the line is extended behind me. This keeps the hook off the ground. Then there is short pulling so the line extends at a steep upward angle rather than behind me, making the aim extremely difficult. Then there is the side cast which is actually very graceful and fun to do but don't try it with someone close to you. They may not want to be your friend any longer. There is the lasso technique where you run the pole in circles above your head. The down side is that you most likely will get a hook in you somewhere. Actually, none of these are accepted casting techniques but then I was never one for limiting myself to techniques. I have the scars to prove it. That is a story for another time.
The precious gems of the tied flies suffer much more. In some case I use a popper that is made of cork. These are the size of the nail on your little finger. My favorites are white with some red. The tail should also be white but black will do. Despite their size they are more difficult to cast. Poppers of this size, deer hair or cork, have much more aero drag and little weight to pull the leader on. �One must be more forceful with the casting motion as momentum is the only means to overcome the aero drag. Aggressively casting causes two things. As noted pulling the line forward too soon cause a whiplash effect which will snap the popper to the point of defeathering it, making it look like a bad hair day. The other is if letting the line extent too long where it will still whiplash too close to the ground smacking the popper on the rocks leaving only with hook and feathers. The remains of the cork are too small to be found. Obviously, the popper is now useless. Tying a new fly on is also time consuming, for me anyway.
Let's face it; fish do not sit in the middle of clear holes sunning themselves all day. Well maybe, but I have yet to see it in any species other that carp. The point here is that fish hide. They hide for different reasons, some to protect themselves others to feed. They don't hide in the middle of a nice calm hole. They find that log that is adorned with weighted fishing hooks that look like last year's contribution to the compost heap. They hide behind the rock that has just as many hooks as the log but also a nice shiny aluminum cap from all the canoes bottoming out. It makes the rocks look snazzy too. Best of all is the overhanging willow branches. It provides plenty of shade and small morsels that frequent such places. Point here is that a fisherman has to cast in any way he can to get the lure where the fish are. So here I am with my shiny new white and red deer hair popper. It seems almost a shame. Sigh.
OK, on with the story. I entered the water just downstream of the low water bridge from the left bank. There is a shallow shoal here that echoes softly in the valley. There is not much white water except near the larger rocks. I can see the bluff downstream. The sunlight is hitting the hilltop behind it, yet the river valley is still in a blue hazy shadow. The birds are flitting from one branch to the next. Some shoot across the river like scattering squirrels before a dog. Further downstream, other birds skimming the glassy surface occasionally tapping it causing the image of the bluff to undulate like a belly dancer beckoning "come hither, come hither". Oops, wrong story but the idea is the same.
I put my feet into valleys life blood. It is still warmer than the cool morning air. It washes over my toes and feet filling me with a soft comfort and warmth that is indescribable. The feeling ascends up my legs as I wade deeper. My upper body has goose bumps from the conflict. I run my left hand in a semi circle through the head waters of the shoal. The ripples fan out and reverberate off the shore. The minnows scatter in an ever expanding arc across the calm of the pool. Crawdads scoot away from the invading giant feet. Water bugs jerk around on four dimples with no problem in the world. As I walk toward the shoal the river shallows exposing my now wet legs. The goose bumps multiply. Shhhhhhh. It's time.
I move to the side of the shoal. The fly rod comes up pointing to the sky. I begin the slow metronome motion extending the outlay of line with each forward cast. Further. Further. Further. The distance is right. I let the line fall to the surface. The white and red jewel that is my creation falls slowly to the surface at the opposite bank of the shoal. It dings the surface sending ripples to the shore. It is still but only for a second. The current takes the body of the line and shoves it along dragging my creation slowly then quickly away from the opposite shore and downstream cutting a V across the surface of the water. Nothing happens, but that is OK. Bliss!
I gather the line in. I pull it back through the loops from which it was shot. It pools at my feet like the remnants of a spilled bowl of spaghetti. The current picks up a loop and begins to draw it downstream urging me to start the motion again. Pull back, forward, wait, back, wait, forward, wait, back, wait, over and over until the distance is reached. Down softly. Watch, wait, nothing. Bliss!
This is repeated countless times. No one is around. There is no sound that is not nature�s own save my heartbeat and my breath. I can hear them both. Bliss!
I begin to move, actively scanning the water and the bank looking for clues of what lies beneath. I pick up a foot, extend it half its normal tread. I place the toe on the bottom, the ball, the heel in a slow motion practiced for many years. Stalking, sneaking. Eyes are always on the surface, but mindful of the play of the morning. I move downstream and look for another target. Cast again, again and again. Bliss!
The rate of travel is extremely slow at this pace. But then again that is not the point, is it? Over an hour later I finally reach the first hole at the base of the bluff. The very bottom of the canyon is still in the morning gloom. The pool at the base of the bluff is glass smooth reflecting the sky and hills now in full sun like half of a Rorschach image. Swallows swoop and dive through the air approaching yet avoiding the river surface. The surface is smooth contrary to the acrobatics above. The only sound is the riffles in the distance and an occasional twitter or chirp. A nuthatch walks upside down along a tree branch emitting the constant "nag" voice that only they have. A chickadee fusses at me. Off in the distance a flock of blue jays announce the presents of a snake. Y'all just stay down there boys.
I cast in the rocks at the top of the pool. Forward, back forward, back, forward softly fall. SWAP. The water erupts in an explosion. I raise the tip of the rod quickly. Hook is set! AHHHHH, YES. My line tacks toward the middle of the river then down to the pool. I put pressure on the line to heft the weight. It is not a small mouth. It is a pumpkin seed, a sun perch, and not very big at that. I begin the process of landing anti-Moby, hoping that this was not going to be the only action of the day. I get the little fella at my feet. It is about 5 inches long and very fat for a perch. I reach down and grab it by the back. Why do I always do that? The spiny dorsal fin punctures my hand. Oh well. Fair is fair. I let the booger go. Bliss!
This process is repeated several times throughout the day. Catching perch can yield some decent pan fish. They have a tendency to cluster or so it seems so when you catch one there are usually several more of similar size. The problem is that sizes start around an inch. Inch perch are very common in these waters. There are a number of ways to keep them off your line. One, if you catch one there don't cast there again. Chances are if there are small fish there are not any bigger fish. Two, look for the hit. If it is a piddle of a splash don't set the hook. They will spit it out. Three, use barbless hooks unless you are fishing for meat. I have easily had 200 perch on the line in one day. It is great for teaching fly fishing and looking for habitat, but a drag if fishing for real.
I get to the slow pool. I look at it trying to visualize the nature of the hole. It is deep against the bluff? Are there rocks in the water at the base? It is worth a shot. I swap my creation for a something or other that sinks. Cast, against the bluff edge, far left. Freeze, wait, nothing. Jerk once, wait, jerk, wait, nothing. Cast again slightly right of last cast. Repeat the process till I have covered the space. I replace the sinking whatever for a white cork popper with red markings and a white hair tail. Cast left against the bluff. Jerk, stop, jerk, stop, jerk, stop, nothing. Cast right of the last cast. I continue casting creating an arc from my standing point. I move downstream to a new point and begin the arcing pattern again. It takes three different sequences like this to cover the hole. Time is passing quickly. I have been on the river for three hours now.
By the time I reach the outlet the sun is beaming against the bluff. Warm. The water from this hole exits into a small set of riffles to right at almost a right angle. I have seen this setup before and note that the base of the bluff at the end of the hole is a likely spot. I choose to offer the cork popper. Cast, it is a soft fall, popper striking the water before the tippet line. Swoop! I resist the urge to yank the living daylights out of the rod to set the hook. I raise the tip and lightly jerk. Keep tension! No slack! The fish moves a few feet to the left, upstream of the hit then it comes right at me. It is a spotted bass, not a small mouth. I quickly pull the line through the eyes of the rod trying to keep pace, piling it up at my feet. The fish sees me and freaks. It tries to move right downstream toward the pool outlet, but I am too close. The fish swings left back toward the bluff and away from me. I let him have the line once he turns away. He reaches the bluff and again turns to the left, upstream racing along the bluff. I follow him keeping the rod tip high and tension on the line. The fish is not very big and most likely not a keeper. I start pulling line back to me. The fish puts up little fight allowing me to tow it in. That is until it again sees me and tries to turn right downstream. But I have the tension on now. My catch is not going anywhere. Once I pull the bass to the shallow shore it stops fighting. The bass is about 12 inches, not bad for a spotted bass, not great but not bad. On a light fly rod rig the fish is Moby. The hook comes right out. The fish scoots off to the safety of the deeps against the bluff. Another day my friend! That made the entire trip worthwhile. BLISS!
Sitting on the gravel shore I gather myself and gear. Pause. The birds tend to business like nothing happened. The nuthatch is still "nag"ing away. The blue jays are after something else. I often wonder about blue jays and why they have so much time to harass other critters. The suns rays have slipped into the valley now. The dawn breeze has laid down giving way to the summer day. The temperature is coming up quickly. The river is still beating a timeless rhythm that calls so many to dance in its waters in their own way. The bugs begin their daily ritual forcing me to move. I have spent too much time getting to this point. But then again that is the point. Plans be damned. Bliss!
The water exits the pool to the southeast, flowing briefly over bedrock creating some very shallow riffles. The rocks are coated with golden and bronze algae. Bits of white chert showing show among the light brown bedrock. These riffles run but a short distance then turn back to the northeast marking the beginning of a long deep, slow reach. I skip this of riffles, anxious to get to the top of this hole as it is a potential spot. I work the top of this hole in the same manner as the pool against the bluff. It takes time. No fish.........bliss.
From here the river is a long slow hole too deep to wade and too muddy to want to. The right bank is steep and wooded. It cannot be easily traversed with a fly rod in hand. The left bank is also wooded but not as steep. I walk like a normal person downstream away from the shoreline. There is no way one could easily fly fish this hole because of the closeness of the trees. A canoe or inner tube would be the only method. These waters are not likely for small mouth bass.
By now the day has turned into a typical mid summer's day. The humidity is oppressive. It is strange for so early in the day. I stop occasionally to wet my head and shoulders. The waters are now cooler than the air of the day. Refreshing!
I have no idea what they are called but there is a host of buzzing insects. I hear then in mid and late summer in the grasses. It is one of the defining sounds of summer in Arkansas, like the cicadas in the trees on a warm early summer evening; or the peepers on the pond in early spring; the call of the crow in the early fall; and the crackle of the bare tree limbs in the winter wind. All are markers of the season....Bliss!
I never reached the second objective at Camp Ore. Sometime in mid to late morning I was diverted. I never wear a watch and the one I did carry in my vest was stopped. It is self winding. Since it stays in the fishing vest it is constantly wound down. I never remember to set it till I am already late. Anyway, sometime in morning I came upon a skunk. I don�t know too much about skunks except to steer clear especially if they are out during the day. I tried to divert to the left. That was uphill away from the river. Not wanting to get away from the river I started back down stream. I was still off the bank in the trees, hoping the hole above Camp Ore was worth the effort. The summer day was almost to broil now. The humidity was draining my strength.
I was nearly there. The hole was starting to shallow up in preparation for the next set of riffles. I busted brush to get there for a quick cool off. Once out of the tree canopy I noticed the tale tail signs of changing weather. There was a faint almost inaudible rumble. It could have been noise from the road up on the hill top. But no! The edge of the anvil head of the storm was showing its approach and its strength. The welcomed winds started walking through the trees. I was thankful for the reprieve, though, disappointed. This happens to me every time I go to the Buffalo River for a quiet fishing trip. I can go to the mines at Rush or the caves at Boxley and never get rained on. But when I get on the river it rains. So hoping the rabid skunk had wandered elsewhere I turned my back on my goal that was nearly in sight.
The problem with being in this river valley is that you cannot see much of the sky. The steep hill slopes and bluffs dominate the view leaving only a small portion of sky to view. Though large sounds may carry up and down the river valley one often cannot tell what or where they are. Most storm clouds are not visible until the storm is upon you. There is far less reaction time in the valley. It can make for an exciting exit though. Fortunately that was not the case here. The thunder was still a ways away but plain as day.
I begin my trek back up the river sticking to the woods and staying as close to the river as possible. After I had cleared the wooded shores, I fished as I walked using my grand creation of a white and red deer hair popper. I had many perch go after it but no small mouth. I was fairly disappointed. I swapped for the white cork popper with a black hair tail. Still many perch hits but no bass. By the time the thunder started in earnest, I had made it back to the dog leg and the shallow riffles leading back to the first target. The thunder had a short percussive sound like explosions in the distance. There was no trailing rumble and it did not roll across the sky. The storm was coming at me. No time to waste.
Wait! I remembered that I had not fished the shallow riffle coming out of the first target so now was the time. I decided to put my jewel back on the line. As I noted earlier, this stretch is short and shallow over bedrock with gold and bronze algae. You could not canoe this area that time of year, the water was too low. This means that I had to sneak up on the riffle. I started casting short distances as the wind was coming up. I can't remember precisely which part of the riffle it was, maybe the first small pool below the bluff? I cast into a small pool and boom! A small fish hit my creation. The trip was an instant success! ......BLISS!
There was almost no fight to the fish. The fight to land the small mouth was nonexistent. It was only about 8 inches and the small pool did not provide any room to flee. I got it to shore being careful not to get too close to the water's edge. I unhooked the fish and let it go.....again too small. I gathered my line and begin the casting ritual again trying to keep the line low out of the wind. Not so much luck with that. I used the wind to push the popper from pool to pool. SWAP! Yet another small mouth about the same size as its brethren, and about the same amount of fight. Again, I turned this one loose, gathered the line and begin another cast. Let fly, wait. I put the brakes on the next cast. It was heading for the trees at the winds instance. SWAP! Again there was a hit but from a different pool. Again, it was the same sized fish with very little fight. This struck me as odd because small mouth bass are pound for pound the fieriest fighters. Still Bliss!
But that is not the strangest part. The markings of the fish were incredible. These were the most beautiful fish I had ever caught. They were obviously small mouth bass. The pattern on their sides gave that away. But they were completely milky white on the underbelly to halfway up their sides changing to a speckled GOLD color before progressing to the golden green at the dorsal fin. The sides had the vertical bars like any other small mouth but they were mottled GOLD speckled with green and black backed against the milky white in between the bars. It made for a very beautiful fish. I was amazed. I have never seen any like that before nor since.
Dumbass, you forgot the camera.
The storm began to insist that I move. I would have loved to further investigate these wonderful fish, but sanity and self preservation drove me on. I decided not follow my tracks back along the river, as I would have to wade. I chose to go up the hill to the Buffalo River Trail and walk the half mile or so back to the low water bridge. I broke down the rod and proceeded up the hill. All the birds had already moved off or taken shelter. The only sounds were the creaking of wood against wood and the hiss of the ever quickening wind in the trees.....and thunder My pace quickened.
I arrived at the bridge just as the rain started. The lightning was a bit more than I wanted to witness, particularly when crossing an open area where I was the tallest object. I got to the truck and shucked the vest. I pulled the seat of the truck forward to stash the gear. There, behind the seat, in a bag, on the floor, was my camera. Dumbass!
The drive home was uneventful, if you can call navigating in a driving rain, with high winds and copious amounts of lightning and thunder uneventful. I ascended the mountain leading out of Boxley heading to Kingston, questioning what it was about me, fishing on the Buffalo River...alone, and thunderstorms. Just my luck I guess. Then I thought about those unique fish I had caught and not for last time.
I have always wondered if I had stumbled on a variant of the species or if their coloring was due to the rock and algae in that riffle because their coloring did match the rock. My memory may be hazy but I seem to remember that that was the only place in that area with bedrock of that color and mottling. As the river completes its turn, it goes back to gravel then mud and the base coloring changes. Could this be the answer?
So, you tell me. What was the treasure from the river?
It vwas the fact that I was there. Bliss!