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  • July 25th, 2012

Cold, Cold Water Fishing


            It is 105 degrees today and has been above 90 for long enough to qualify as Hell on Earth, so I figured a piece I wrote after a frosty fishing trip might make sweaty folks appreciate their condition a tad more.

            But probably not.  Anyone for a wine cooler?

By Joel M. Vance      

            “What was that splash?” Spence Turner asked.  “Was that a fish rising?”

            “That was one of my fingers falling off,” I said.  Wind gusted downriver with no more bite than a Doberman pinscher guard dog with an attitude.  This was Arkansas, the sunny South, where waitresses ask, “Y’all want food with your grits?” and “Ain’t it hot out today, though?”

            No it wasn’t.  It was cold enough to freeze the longjohns off an Inuit.  We were trout fishing on the Little Red River, home of the world record brown trout and repository of four trout species: brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat.  The South?  Ain’t no trouts in the South, man.

            Well, there are, on quite a few streams.  The Little Red River is one of those Southern meandering warm water streams that the Corps of Engineers found on a day when it had too much concrete.  Greers Ferry Dam was the last public dedication John F. Kennedy made before he flew to Dallas–October, 1963.

            When the Little Red headwaters vanished beneath Greers Ferry Lake, what had been smallmouth bass country suddenly turned troutish.  Yankee fish invaded Arkansas. 

            You find honey ‘n ‘lasses trout where there is a dam that spills cold water or, less frequently, you find them where there’s a huge spring that spits cold water, but mostly you simply don’t find them.

            Sometimes when you find them you don’t find them.  “This pool last month was so thick with fish you couldn’t see the bottom,” said our guide, Bo Vining.  Of course guides always say stuff like that, but Southern guides are prone to tell the truth (grits, gravy and collard greens make them forthright.

            It is a Southern law that all guides are named either Bo or Billy Bob.  I looked over the side of the boat and saw the bottom, lots of it with no fish to obscure my view.

            “You should have been here last month,” said Bo, repeating something I didn’t want to hear.

            My fingers were those of the Neanderthals they dig out of icebergs, except the Neanderthals didn’t get frozen on purpose.

            Later that day I invaded the local WalMart for a pair of longjohns, preferably about three inches thick.  “If we have any they’re over there,” the clerk said, pointing.  I started pawing through the underwear, all shirts.  Then I finally found one bottom, the last one in Arkansas.  It was marked “XXX” and I didn’t know if that meant it was hot pink and edible or if it was large.

            It was, I found out, not only large, but large enough to host the Super Bowl.  Spence didn’t quit laughing for an hour.

            The resulting outflow from the foot of the dam is icy cold and for 30 miles it stays cold enough for trout to thrive.  In the wintertime, the whole area can stay cold enough for trout but unbearable for anglers.

            Billy Lindsey, whose folks founded Lindsey’s Resort a year after the dam dedication, figures that he has a year-round fishery going and he’s right…if during January he is visited only by Aleuts.

            The fishing is good; the weather can be enough to cause meteorologists to barf their cookies.  Billy does his best to ameliorate the discomfort.  His cabins heat to 80 degrees or more–I know because I had the thermostat cranked up to Beyond Hot.

            And he offers a feed to visiting dignitaries (I sneaked in under the tape when everyone had his or her face half-buried in Willingham’s Memphis Barbecue) that would make Julia Child moan like a dog with its paw caught in a corn sheller.

            Ray and Alta Pruett represent Willingham and they sacrificed a pig in a pagan ceremony that made me want to dance naked under the stars–well, considering the cold, maybe dance in a fur parka with a hood.  The Little Piggie went to the smoker in the Pruett trailer where it turned a golden tan over several hours and appeared on a sideboard with a smile and a flavor that would make angels consider sin if sin was overdosing on barbecue.

            “So, how’d you do today?”  The response is, depending on success, “We wiped ’em out” if you caught a ton or “Well, it was slow, but we did all right” if you caught two 12- inch stockers.

            At mid afternoon I was still waiting for the stockers; else I’d have had to mumble some lie about, “Lost a big one…”

            Then my strike indicator twitched and I reacted about one month late, came up empty.  It’s hard to react quickly when your extremities are five degrees colder than Robert Falcon Scott (who froze to death at the South Pole).

            Oh, I caught a few trout–foot-long stockers that would have taken anything that looked like food: worms, corn, salmon eggs, Big Macs (well, okay, not Big Macs).  The nice thing about the Little Red is that you don’t need to feel guilty about keeping trout to eat. They are stocked to be caught and eaten.  They are extremely dumb fish that it’s a mercy to catch before they do damage to themselves out of sheer dumbity. 

            Of course they are a tad smarter than I am.

            But I was first in line when the pig came to rest on the sideboard.  “You got to dig right in with your fingers,” said the Pig Roaster.  I flexed my fingers, warmed in the 80-degree heat of Rainbow Lodge, and I said, “Stand back–this might get messy.”


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