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What I Learned While Trout Fishing in Arkansas

Reflecting on my five days on the Spring River, I realize why I didn't write this story earlier: the fishing was only part of the joy of the trip.
What I Learned While Trout Fishing in Arkansas

Of course he had to be the one to do it, because that’s what guys whose names are saved in people’s phones as The Fish Whisperer do. They catch big fish. And not just big ones. No, they catch the biggest ones. And they hate to do it. They apologize for doing it. But, they just can’t help themselves.

On the fourth of a five-day trip to the Arkansas Spring River this past April, as the afternoon light dimmed with the four of us knee deep in the river, some yards apart, casting our fly rods in search of monsters to hook, The Fish Whisperer—birth name Derrick Douthat— wrestled him to the shore. The trip’s biggest trout: a fat 22-inch rainbow. It was exactly the kind of fish that would’ve appeared, with a little salt and lime juice, on our dinner plates, if we hadn’t sworn ourselves to the ethos of catch and release, the good fly fishers we were.

Derrick’s fish was two inches longer than the trip’s previous record, which I had held for roughly 27 hours. I know that because, when Derrick caught his trout, Jonathan rushed over, pulled out his measuring tape, then announced: “He’s got you beat, Jersey!” We stood there—Jonathan, Kohl, and I—looking at the man in the straw hat, the 53-year-old Zen master who wore prescription glasses, carried a wading staff, and fished a magical fly he named after himself. We never had a chance.

Mountains of Fish

It was my first fishing trip like this: four nights away from home with three other guys whose sole intention was to catch fish. Jonathan had been planning for months. He had fished the Spring River more than a dozen times when he still lived in Memphis. It was the place he fell in love with trout fishing. He hired the guide, Mark Crawford, the only fly fishing guide on the river, for the second and the third day of the trip. The first and fourth days and the fifth morning we planned to fish alone in the water just beside the cabin Mark had recommended we rent from a local he called Busch Kurt.*

When I told one of my co-workers, an Arkansas native, that I was going to fish the Spring River, he asked if I was really going there for the trout. Apparently, the river is better known by Arkansans for its topless summer boat parties—hosted by DJ Supermoon, a 50-year-old bikini-clad cowboy who lives in a mansion beside the river, is married to a woman half his age, and whose face adorns 75 percent of the sign that welcomes you to Mammoth Springs (population: 1,105), where we stayed.

On a Friday morning, the four of us piled into Kohl’s truck and rode the eight hours west from Knoxville to the river eating fast food, talking fly selection, and daydreaming about how many trout we’d catch—50, 60, maybe even 100 each over the course of the trip. Preposterous numbers for me; I’d only been fly fishing a little over a year, all thanks to Jonathan, my trout sensei. Over eight or nine trips to the Holston, Clinch, and Watauga rivers from July 2019 to May 2020, he showed me how to cast a fly rod, mend a line, and fight a fish I couldn’t just muscle in like a pond bass on a spinning rod. I was skunked each time. Twice, Jonathan, desperate to see me land a fish, did what my dad had done when I was a kid: hooked a fish then let me fight it until, inevitably, I messed something up and it broke me off.

Last June, Sensei Jon took a step back from the big boy rods and invited me to fish a small stream that flows into the Little River of the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s where he taught me to fish tenkara (translation: fancy Japanese cane pole) for small wild rainbow and brook trout.

Read the story I wrote for Tenkara Angler about finding peace on the water using this method

In a year of fishing mountain streams—at least once with each member of the Arkansas crew—I had two or three trips where I netted a dozen or more trout. Those were big numbers for me, still a novice in the trout game. But those fish were all under 10 inches. I had yet to hook into the kinds of monsters Jonathan swore inhabited the Spring River.

It only took 30 minutes after arriving at Busch Kurt’s cabin to get our lines in the water. I hooked the trip’s first rainbow in less than 10 casts. Things were off to a good start.

The first night, we fished until dark, each of us claiming a favorite part of the 200-yard section in front of the cabin. Then we returned to the cabin, packed tobacco pipes and cut cigars to smoke, and gorged ourselves on fat steaks Jonathan grilled on the fire pit.

Each morning, we woke up with the sun and got back out to catch more trout, fueled by beer, pretzels, candy, more beer, nuts, chips, some Gatorade, and beer. Each night, another of the group cooked a big meal. In between, whether with our guide, Mark—a local who grew up on the Spring River and is working with national conservation groups to turn it into a premier trout fishing destination, despite the obstacles in his way**—or alone learning from each other (though mostly from Derrick), we pulled in big numbers of fat, skinny, aged, mushy, pink, pale, feisty trout.

At the end of five days of fishing, we didn’t each break the hundred trout mark, as we had hoped. Derrick might’ve. Jonathan got close. Despite being bested by Derrick for the trip’s largest catch, I did manage a consolation prize—the trip's diversity and inclusion award for netting the most species of fish: creek chub, shiner, longear sunfish, rock bass, smallmouth, rainbow and brown trout. Take that, Fish Whisperer.

Band of Brothers

Before heading to Arkansas, I had planned to spend much of the trip taking notes and recording conversations on my iPhone for an essay I’d write and pitch to an outdoor magazine. On the morning of our float trip, Mark welcomed us to the ramshackle fly shop he and friends built by hand and told us what he had planned for the day: groundhogs for lunch, a boatload of trout, and, if we were lucky, even a Sasquatch sighting out there in the bush (the closest we got to that was another half-naked photo of DJ Supermoon on a big sign in front of his mansion). As he rowed us out to the first fishable section, and in between fishing spots, I asked him a lot of questions about his background and what led him to the river. I spoke his responses as notes into my phone.

It wasn’t long before I stopped.

I hadn’t gone to Arkansas to work. I went to get out of work, something which I’ve historically not been very good at doing.*** I went to spend time with friends. To meet Mark and his friends and hear their stories of life in a small river town. And, most importantly, I went to catch fish. This is the reason it’s taken me nearly four months to write anything about the trip down.

As much as I wanted to have something beautiful to share, the longer we were out on the water the more that urge to write something great and beautiful disappeared, as most things do when you’re fishing. When you’ve got a line in the water, to lose focus for even a second could result in a missed strike, a fish breaking you off from too much tension, a bad slip on the slick riverbottom that ends up with you fully submerged and 20 yards downstream. Focus is essential for catching fish.

But there’s also the solace of the thing. The cool water splashing against your waders. The vapor coming off the water like smoke. The bald eagles flying overhead to nest in a tree 30 yards above us. The sun rising and falling.

If I had to choose, though, I’d say, without hesitation, my favorite part of my time in Arkansas was the friendship. The brotherhood.

Moving into this middle stage of life—married with young children, a mortgage, car and student loan debt to pay down, a career I need to be growing to continue providing for my family—the opportunities I will have to spend days together with friends are whittling down. When Jonathan first suggested the Arkansas trip during one of our weekly fly tying nights in his workshop, I never thought I’d go. If it weren’t for Haley’s willingness to care for the baby alone for almost five days, and Jonathan taking lead over every aspect of the trip so that it wouldn’t been an obstacle for me, I would’ve been at home jealously looking at the pictures on Instagram of fish they’d caught while folding the laundry.

I don’t think it’s fair to call these types of trips an escape. Afterall, my life is good—damn good. It was more of a recharge. And we all need that: to spend time with close friends focused entirely on a thing that isn’t the thing that consumes all the other waning minutes of our lives.

By next April, I’ll have a second baby. Jonathan will have his first. Kohl, who runs a film company, will likely be off somewhere in the world with a camera in hand. The Fish Whisperer will be one year older, another year better, and still pulling monsters out of whatever stream, river, pond, ocean, glacial lake, or roadside puddle he's fishing. I don’t know if we’ll be back on the Spring River together then. I hope we will. And if we aren’t, at least I’ll have the memories of this first trip—even if they’re not published in some big-name magazine, but instead, just here, for me and you.

*Busch Kurt’s real name, of course, is not Busch Kurt. But he’s earned that title for his preference for that particular brand of beer. On the afternoon he welcomed us to his cabin, he showed up with a Busch in his hand, cracked a second one open, which he left full on the outdoor table, and drank a third while mowing the lawn. After I caught a smallmouth bass shortly after he arrived, he shouted that he had been stocking those for his guests (Mark later told us what Kurt was actually doing was catching smallmouth in the warmwater section then transporting them in his truck and tossing them in the water in front of the cabin). On the third night, Busch Kurt barged in around 8 p.m., while we were eating dinner, spilled his beer on the carpet, and said, after seeing the light on, that he wanted to come over to “shake hands and rub wieners” before we went to bed. I still need to confirm with my Arkansas buddy whether that’s a real saying around those parts or not.

**Mark grew up in Mammoth Springs and fished the river with his grandpa. He worked factory jobs until his first wife left him alone with his son, then just a toddler (Hunter is now a fellow guide working under his dad). Mark learned to tie flies as a way to relax. Eventually he got good enough to sell them to the few people who fished the river using fly rods. Eventually he picked up a fly rod himself, and from then on he’s become known around Memphis and eastern Arkansas for taking people out on the Spring River, traditionally a put-and-take fishery, to catch and release trout. People at Bass Pro Shop in Memphis, a two-hour drive from Mammoth Springs, give out his card (that’s how Jonathan found him years ago). Mark has sandpaper hands, a killer sense of humor, a conviction and a dream he is committed to make happen, and he makes you feel like a real friend while you’re on the boat together, even if you’re just there as part of a business transaction. That may be the sign of a good salesman. But it’s also the sign of a very decent human who, if he were ever walking down the streets of Manhattan in his full camo, might wind up on Humans of New York.

***If I chose to dwell on regrets, I’d focus on the period of my life from 2015 to 2017 when I was single, got paid more than I ever have before, and still rarely took a day off outside weekends or holidays. As the son of a laborer who doesn’t get paid for days he doesn’t show up, I’d internalized this idea that to not work is to be lazy. Obviously, that’s not true—especially for me, a white-collar worker with a pension and a 401k. I try not to imagine the collection of fly rods I’d have today.