Matt Dickerson: Vermonters and trout in Arkansas
It’s opening day of Vermont’s trout season. I’m driving along a winding road on my way to the river, eager to get my line wet. I’m pondering what flies to start with. I’m going to be fishing mostly with tiny red midge nymphs in a size #20 or #22, with a strike indicator and plenty of weight to bounce the flies along the bottom. But I’m also contemplating starting with something a bit bigger, like maybe a black wooly bugger with heavy brass dumbbell eyes. I will be fishing a river with world-record class brown trout, along with stocked rainbow trout, brook trout. And cutthroat trout, too.
Anglers from all over the Northeast have arrived in Middlebury for the seventh annual Otter Creek Classic fly-fishing tournament. I, however, am not one of them. As the mention of cutthroat trout and world record brown trout suggests, I’m not even in Vermont. Unfortunately some of the conferences important to my research and writing take place in April, often during opening weekend, thus frequently preventing me not only from entering the OCC, but from fishing in Vermont altogether.
But it’s not always all bad. This year one of those events was in the Ozarks of southern Missouri just a short drive from the famous Bull Shoals dam and tail-water on the White River. So when the conference ended on Saturday afternoon, I threw my travel rod and gear into my rental car and headed south across the boundary line to one of seven states I had never been in, to spend a day and a half fishing.
It was almost 15 years ago that the seeds were planted for a fishing trip to the Razorback State. When Bud Todd — a long-time Ripton resident, and one-time owner of the Chipman Inn — moved to Arkansas, he continued to read the Addison Independent and keep abreast of the doings up in his former neck of the woods. Knowing my passion for fishing and the outdoors, he also started sending me clippings and stories about the fishing down in Arkansas, with a standing invitation to come visit him if ever I found myself lured by those stories.
So there I was driving the meandering roads along the ridgelines of the Ozarks. The landscape there is almost the opposite of Vermont. Up here we live and drive down in the valleys, while the mountains jutting out of the ground are the rugged and wild places we go to recreate. In the Ozarks of Arkansas and southern Missouri it is on the tame hilltops that people live and farm, while the river bottoms carved out of those hills are the wild and rugged places they go to recreate. And to fish.
I wind through a series of small towns with names and three-digit populations posted on green highways signs. One sign reads “Pyatt, Population 432.” Twenty yards ahead a sign points to the left with the words “Business District.” I wonder, how does a town with population of 432 have a business district?
But I don’t have time to ponder this for long, because I soon arrive at the massive Bull Shoals Dam. A steep road carves its way down one bluff. I follow it, and eventually find a small dirt parking lot just below the dam. I feel tiny. The dam — the fifth largest in the world when it was built — is over 250 feet high and 2,200 feet wide. Here at the outlet, the White River is a whole lot wider than anything I’d be fishing in the OCC. I won’t be able to cast to more than a small fraction of the nearby shore.
I pull on my waders and head down a trail to the catch-and-release stretch of water that runs for several hundred yards below the dam. I have decided on the wooly bugger to start with, and I begin to work a deep pool behind a riff next to shore. Twenty minutes into my visit I hook my first fish. I play it for a minute in the swift current before it spits the hook. But five minutes later I hook my second, and this one I bring into my net where I gently remove the hook, take a quick photo, and then release it. It is an 11-inch fish, about the size, and with the pale look, of a recently stocked rainbow trout in the New Haven River. Nothing impressive. But it is my first ever Arkansas trout. I’m happy with it.
I fish another half an hour with no more strikes, so I switch to my tiny red midge nymph: a much better fly for a cold river flowing out of a bottom release dam in the early spring. I get no more action near the shore, so I cast out to a run of deeper water at the very edge of my range. With my fly out in the swifter current, I have to mend the line just right to get a natural drift. But I succeed and land a much fatter rainbow trout, about 16 inches and with a beautiful golden hue, bright red characteristic “rainbow” strip, and a red gill plate that suggests the fish has steelhead in its ancestry.
Over my seven or so hours of fishing between Saturday afternoon and Sunday, working a hundred yards up and down both sides of the river, I hook six and land four trout in total, all rainbows. Up north in Vermont, working in more difficult conditions, after a day and half with no action, Tom Getz finally hooks four and lands three fish in order to win the amateur division of the seventh OCC. Dave Konopke takes first place in the Pro division. They win very nice rods. I don’t have nearly the competition. I don’t see anybody else wading the river — just one or two boats motor up to the dam and then drifts back down past me now and then. I don’t win anything with my fish either, except the right to say that I have now caught trout in 27 states.
When the day is done, I drive 40 minutes down the road and find Bud’s house. Bud has just turned 90, and isn’t very mobile anymore, but he is happy to have me visit — in part because I have brought a pizza with me. After we eat, he brings out his guitar and a banjo-tar, and we each pull out our harmonicas. We play music and sing together for a while, and talk about Vermont, and Arkansas, and the fishing in both states, and people and places we both know. Then the cribbage board comes out. I take a good lead coming into home stretch, but with the game on the line he suddenly comes up with a 20-point hand and shoots past me for the victory.
He misses Vermont, but not the winters. He invites me back to visit some time — especially if I can bring my wife with me. To entice me, he suggests other places I might fish. I hope I can take him up on it. Also wondering what state number 28 will be.
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