Hope Springs Eternal

Oct. 16, 2009

Part II
With the Norfork River and the White River blowing and roaring like magnificent, omnipotent deities, I spent my early mornings trying to catch trout.
   There were few river accesses available. Most of them, when the dams are not generating at full output, are nice gravel bars or shoals, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has created numerous public access points to the rivers. Almost none were available with the high water.
   Each morning, then, I’d drive down to Quarry Park, at the foot of Norfork Dam, and cast my fly rod for trout in water that was moving faster than I could see. I’d cast my line 50 feet upstream and in mere seconds it was taut in the flow downstream. I am a novice trout fisherman, at best, having only really caught lots of the lovely members of this piscatorial species in Montana under the tutelage of a guide. On the second day, though, I caught my one and only trout on the Norfork River.
   The line had rushed across my plane of vision, and the current pulled it straight out to my right. My fly, a tiny subsurface concoction known as a Zebra Midge in red, was likely waving helplessly in the flow, when the rainbow took it.
   I was so surprised I nearly missed setting the hook, but before I knew it, the trout leapt into the air and, in an iridescent splash of colors tribute to its name, the rainbow submerged again and fought for sanctuary. I brought him to hand, about a 14-incher, respectable enough for an amateur. I badly wanted a photograph, but as I was fumbling to get my camera out of my fishing vest, the trout suddenly writhed and slipped from my grip, back into the river, and was gone.
   I stood there for a time, remembering. What a beautiful creature. All variations of trout sport kaleidoscope colors, remarkable patterns and are soft to the touch. I see why the writers and the poets are so enamored of them.
   “I did not measure them, or guess their weight, take their photographs” Harry Middleton wrote. “I cannot recall what fly I took them on, except to say it was one they liked. But I can tell you where they hauled me. Back and forth and in and out of time. Even to the edges of the universe. Some trip. It always is.”
   Such is the lure of trout. Much as I love my warm water species, the bluegill and goggle-eye and bass, I do understand the lure of trout. They are sirens. Beacons.
   One more trout took my fly, again as it was swept downstream. The fish was a beast, and made a great leap then darted into the rocks lining the park, and snapped off at once. Ah, such is fishing.
   But those rivers were too much for me. Uncaged, they were terrifying. We spent a day searching for accesses that were not flooded, to no avail and finally headed east, to the Spring River.
   We passed through the small town of Mammoth Springs, and just had to stop for a moment to admire it. Those folks know how to work tourism, I can tell you. We would do wise to take lessons from them. Though not an overly pristine city, they had erected lampposts similar to ours but with more arms, along the main drag; there were historical markers on buildings, one describing an attempted bank robbery in the 1800s, with photos, there was a great little rest area in the middle of town with benches, restrooms and a small fountain. Quite nice.
   At Mammoth Springs State Park, nine million gallons of water an hour come from deep inside this rare and marvelous old earth to the surface, fall over a small hydroelectric dam – insignificant in comparison to the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams – to form the Spring River. There is a park there, and a basin where the nutrient-rich spring water collects before heading downstream.
   We drove down to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s public access point, and found several hundred yards of shaded, mown river frontage on the Spring. And, oh, what a river she was!
   The waters were clear, slightly emerald or aqua depending on the depth of its long, deep runs or its shallow riffles. It had more vegetation than I expected, thin and long, grasslike, doubled over in the flow, streaming as nymphlike hair. I donned waders to finally immerse myself in the flow of a cold, fast river. Suzie stayed bankside, casting into the current.
   I stepped into the Spring River, and the cold penetrated my waders, and I cherished it. The current was eager, the river teasingly trying to buckle my knees, take my legs out from under me. Like a child, it giggled gleefully at its game. I worked my way downstream through water that came to my waist and alternately no more than ankle deep. Here I caught one more rainbow trout, about nine inches, and as I was estimating its size I thought of Harry Middleton again:
   “That first trout was a moment of undistilled sensation – simple, honest joy, uncomplicated happiness, undiluted experience, a moment beyond intellect and explanation, a feeling sweeping through blood and bone and flesh like a sudden rush of wind. I was smiling and laughing…perhaps it was remembering, as the trout struck, that world before consciousness, that raw, wild, and ancient world, deep and complete, which included human beings, that world beyond the angst of embarrassing self-consciousness.”

   Downstream I went, but no more trout paid me more than a darting, fleeting kiss. None came to hand. But the Spring River invigorated and sustained me, and when I walked back upstream to find Suzie, I found she had caught a trout as well, and we celebrated in a sort of excited but quiet way, the way people do who have been saturated with wildness, with the freedom of a trout’s flanks pressing against their hands, the sudden release back into the river. Though I am almost completely a catch and release angler now, we had hoped to catch enough trout – two or three – to make a supper, for I had never tasted it, and we understood that the way of things allows the occasional use of the resources of the earth. Sometimes, at the cabins, we’d see bait fisherman return two, three times a day with stringers of dead or gasping trout, a dozen or more. It sickened me. As the Indians killed the buffalo and revered it at the same time, thanked it for its sacrifice, the herds propagated and flourished. It was only the long Enfields and the slaughtering by the buffalo hunters that brought their near extinction. So it is with trout: An occasional supper is harmless…repeated stringers of a dozen or more is slaughter. And a part of me wanted to do what my native forebears had always done: Consume the flesh, to become part of the prey, gain from its essence, in the cast of the trout, wild clarity, single-minded determination and the crisp, cutting edge of cold water. But it was not to be: Suzie caught one more, and that was all the trout we caught.
   We left the Spring River with the most incredible reluctance I’ve ever felt. Like…leaving a dearly loved one. Like death, the parting of mortality. The river only chuckled and bubbled laughter back at us: It had been here for millennia, would be here again if we ever returned.
   (Photos accompany these columns on my Web site at www.native-waters.com.)