Images of frozen fingertips and iced-over rod holders run through my mind like the frames of an old-school movie projector as we snake our way over the historically high mighty Mississippi. Rain pelts the windshield so hard we have to slow almost to a stop, and I can’t help but feel like it’s me who is bringing the weather. It has been five years since the fateful frozen day when I fished the Norfork River in Arkansas, and still, a cold shiver runs down my back at the mere thought of returning. I don’t like cold, and I can’t remember being that cold -- on any day, on any river, ever. I try to imagine what it will be like this time. Five years ago, it was winter. Five years ago, there was a freak snowstorm. This time will be different, I tell myself.
I push the dueling banjo music from the recesses of my mind. As we approach the Arkansas border, the rain subsides, and the sun breaks through the departing clouds in long gold bands. It’s that time of year when the buds on the trees begin to burst into fresh green leaves. I roll down my window to the smell of newly tilled soil. I notice a hint of warm breeze as I drink in the humid air. Now, this is more like it, I tell myself.
Drift boat in tow, we land in Mountain Home, Arkansas at a place called Gene’s, just down from the Norfork Dam. Home for the next few days is a cute, honey-colored log cabin right on the riverbank of the Norfork River. It’s warm and inviting, the kind of place that feels like home from the moment you walk up the front steps. There are already shoes stacked nicely outside the front door. Friends from my days in Illinois and friends from my current life in Tennessee have landed here to fish for the monster trout that lurk below its banks. This is where my prior life collides with my present, I tell myself.
As I unpack, I realize I’ve again brought with me too much gear. Rods, reels, flies, and fly boxes galore litter my bed, the gear only intermittently punctuated by a few clothes. My addiction is represented atop the fish patterned quilt.
I have a problem, I tell myself.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m feeding my addiction, standing thigh-deep in the cold water of the Norfork with my friends. I hear the sound of moving water, look around at the faces of those who have traveled far to fish here, and think I’m the luckiest person alive. As the day ends, there are fish in the net, good food, and great conversation with friends old and new. This is heaven, I tell myself.
The next morning dawns bright and early, and I can feel the excitement and anxiety begin. I am lucky to fish often, and yet every time I step aboard a guide’s boat, I feel a sense of trepidation. I have expectations for my guide, and I know in return, my guide has the same of me. I’ve come here to throw big streamers on heavy sinking lines at big browns on the White River, and I have the privilege of fishing with the legendary Steve Dally, whose namesake is on the local fly shop in Cotter, Arkansas. Steve is the salty guide that you love from the moment you meet him. He’s king on this water and for good reason. He’s guided these waters for many years, and his knowledge is bar none. This is a tailwater, and the generators are on; a good sign for a streamer junkie like me. With the weather beautiful and warm, I feel my excitement bubble to the surface like champagne bubbles. It’s going to be a great day, I tell myself.
The conversation is lighthearted with Steve’s quick wit in rare form. He’s encouraging, an essential characteristic in a great guide. He is fast to point out where the fly needs to be and forgiving when at times it misses the mark. This is a manner of streamer fishing different than any I’ve done before. I consider myself well-versed as a streamer angler, and I’m more than comfortable throwing a fast sinking line, but today we’re fishing what I call the “Dally Method.” Streamer tight up against the shore or a cut out, then immediately push the rod tip straight down the side of the boat up to the reel seat, to get the fly down fast to where the big ones are waiting. It’s tough, manic, exhausting, and more fun than I have had streamer fishing before.
Strip hard and fast, expect to hook a monster, I tell myself.
His boat has a motor, so we are not left to the mercy of the current all day. This allows us to cover a lot of water. Steve knows the fish here as one knows his favorite dog. Because this river is vast and ever-changing, a seasoned guide is imperative, and I feel entirely safe in Steve’s competent hands as we bound from hole to hole in search of brown beasts. I’m reminded that even with the best guide, streamer fishing on the White can be maddening. Watching anglers around you fish nymphs off the bottom and catch cookie-cutter rainbows can play havoc with your soul. You have to be OK coming up empty-handed, knowing you gave it your best shot. I know this. It’s a commitment to the big ones, I tell myself.
Streamer fishing is active fishing, and I have to be on point with every cast in a river such as the White. The water today is a beautiful olive green and as clear as a newborn’s conscience. This only adds to the maddening of streamer fishing as I watch a big brown chase the fly and turn away. Bent on the nerves of pure adrenaline, I feel my excitement grow with every cast. I can’t mess this up, not for me or my guide, I tell myself.
I appreciate the warmth of the sun on my skin, but it’s the weather I’ve wished for that is the exact entity that keeps the fish at bay. The bright sun keeps them down in the morning hours, and as I sit down for a riverside lunch, snapshots of the morning run through my head. If I had only made a longer cast. If I had gotten the fly tighter to the bank. If I had stripped a little faster. For a brief moment, my commitment to big streamers falters. You are more than capable, I tell myself.
We pull away from the shore, and I take my position at the front of the boat. My physical hunger now quelled, I sense a different type of hunger emerge, and with it a renewed sense of purpose. I’ve heard the fabled stories of the browns lurking here. I have seen the photos of those that come from the deep dark below to chase articulated patterns. They are here. One will know my name. And like that, the clouds begin to move in like welcome new neighbors. Steve says that’s a good sign.
He’s right, I tell myself.
As the clouds pass over, it is as if Neptune himself speaks. The fish begin to move. Cast, push the rod straight down, feel the current against the rod, strip violently. And then, as if in slow motion, it happens. I feel the weight on my fly a split second before the hammering in my chest starts. Let the dance begin, I tell myself.
With each head shake, I’m reminded of the fine line drawn in the water between what lurks below and the tip of my rod. I long to see the partner I’m dancing with, as much as he wants to remain unseen. And then, he breaks the surface, and the masquerade is over. He is as beautiful as I imagined he would be. It isn’t until he’s in the net that I realize I’ve held my breath. Breathe, I tell myself.
Once in the net, Steve protects the fish like a loving father protects his child. He is kept safe and secure in the cold rushing water until the pick up for a quick photo. It is only once this beautiful creature is tucked back into his watery bed that I have time to think about what has happened. I had come to the White to fish for big browns. I had been tested and had somehow been found worthy.