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Catching More Than Fish on the Arkansas River
By Steve Taylor

So, I am fly fishing at a boat ramp on the Arkansas River one morning before work, which in itself makes most of the bait-chunkers and spinnerbait-slinging bass fishermen think I am a little . . . eccentric. My corporate-casual uniform of khakis and a golf shirt with the company logo on it does not quite fit in.

    I am casting a yellow popping bug in front of a big weedbed near the shore not paying any mind to the other fellow there, who is heaving chicken livers, or some other kind of groceries, for catfish way out in the deep water. He walks over in heavy-soled work boots, faded jeans and rolled-up shirtsleeves. Like lots of folks, he says he "always wanted to learn how to work a fly rod, but I never took the time."

    Just wants to watch for a few minutes. I'm used to it, so I keep fishing.

    We talk a little. He says he is from Detroit. I think about the big cities I have seen, New York and Chicago, and decide that Little Rock's big enough for me. It has got this river, and a good piece of trout water an hour's drive away, and 50 miles out Highway 10 there are secret camping spots in the Ouachita National Forest where my buddies and I find deer and bear tracks along the creek below our tents.

    The man from Detroit is in his late 50s, maybe 60. Says he is a general contractor, taking a vacation to "rest my achin' back." I just turned 40 and work in front of a computer, which makes my back ache only when I do not remember to sit up straight. He is black, and I am white. He fishes with a Zebco 133 spincast reel on a Wal-Mart rod, and I use my whippy little 5-weight fly rod most of the time.

    Not much in common, I think, but he is friendly enough — especially for a guy from up North — so I keep talking and working that yellow popping bug.

    "You catchin' anything down there?," I say.

    "Yeah," he says. "I don't get to fish much back home, so I been here all night. Caught a few little catfish, but I let 'em go."

    I remember days when I saw the sun rise and set on the Little Red River as I squeezed every minute of fishing possible into a precious vacation day. Been a few years since I killed a fish to take home. I like to catch 'em for fun, too. A great blue heron squawks indignantly at our conversation and flaps to the far shore to try his luck in solitude.

    "What brings you to Little Rock?" I say, twitching the bug around a stump.

    "I'm taking' a few days off, visitin' my buddy. But he don't hardly fish," he says.

    "How can a fella live around all this and not fish?"

    My eyes follow the sweep of his arm as it indicates the acres of water, the trees, the chattering kingfishers and prowling great blue herons across the river. I feel a fresh appreciation for this everyday fishing spot through his eyes. A bass rips through the shallows, scattering nervous minnows.

    He goes on. "Water's so polluted, there's not many places like this to fish around Detroit. My wife, she thinks I'm crazy to stay out all night on this river bank just to catch a few fish and throw 'em back," he says, chuckling. "She just don't understand."

    I understand. "There's a lot more to fishing than just catchin' fish, huh?" I say, casting to the other side of the stump. I know a fish should be there and wait for the rings in the water to settle before giving the bug a good pop.

    Detroit smiles. "Man, it's about just bein' out here! You know, when I'm working, it's the daily grind, but I can come to a place like this, and it really relaxes me. I forget about my troubles for a little while."

    I look at him and nod. There is nothing to add. A big bluegill explodes under my popping bug just then, and I react too late, setting the hook only into the windless morning. We laugh and decide that fish everywhere — even the big-city fish in their polluted water — somehow know to strike when you're looking the other way.

    "That don't matter, does it?" Detroit says, still smiling. "Another one'll be along soon."

    I speak the tired old line, full of truth: "If you caught 'em every time, they'd call it catching instead of fishing." We laugh again.

    He walks back to his rod and bait bucket, vowing to "get me a fly rod and try that out." I wish him a good vacation and a safe trip home. It is time to go to work, so I put up my rod and get in the car, waving goodbye. Detroit waves back, and I see him heave another long cast in the rearview mirror.

    As I drive away, I think about the common threads that run through the lives of people who fish as an excuse to enjoy the outdoors, who daydream on river banks--and who do not really care that big bluegills always seem to strike when you are looking the other way. It is a rich way to spend part of your life, especially when what you catch is a new way of thinking about folks who are not so different from you, after all.
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