Fish out of … Well, you know
To arrive on time in Cotter—about 16 miles south of the Missouri state line as the crow flies—I have to leave my Conway home pre-dawn. A wet moon (one I’ve often thought of as a Cheshire Cat moon) hangs in the sky for almost all of the two-and-a-half hours north, and thick fog hovers around Highway 62, obscuring almost all sight on both sides of the road. As I approach Cotter (population 953), the haze thickens to the point I can barely see 2 feet in front of the car. A sign flashes by, and I find myself on a bridge. What lies beneath would be a mystery to me if I didn’t know I was crossing the White River, the source of Cotter’s claim to fame: Trout Capital USA.
I can’t imagine how this day is going to go. My dad has made fun of me since I was a teenager when I wouldn’t bait my hook or touch any fish I caught. I have one photo from my youth, me smiling, 1980s perm game on-point, holding a fishing line with a minuscule bass dangling a good foot below my hand. Dad took the pic, and he’s the one who released the slimy critter back into whatever lake we were on. If he could see me now, he’d be wondering as much as I am how this city girl is going to survive in this outdoorsman’s paradise.
Poorly, I’m sure.
Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher, with its five brightly painted fish cutouts adorning the storefront, is located right on West Main Street in Cotter (though Main Street is basically “Main Street” in name only). When I walk into the shop, where the ceilings are as tall as a warehouse’s, I see lots of things I expect: fishing poles and puffy coats and ball caps with the Dally’s logo on them. But there’s a lot more here that I don’t have names for: tables piled with … stuff … and boats full of … stuff … and shelves stocked with … stuff. Luckily, a man with a salt-and-pepper beard walks up to me and rescues me from my befuddlement. “Are you Heather?” he asks with a smile and (oh, heaven help me) an Australian accent.
“I am,” I reply and shake his tanned, outstretched hand.
“I’m Steve,” he smiles back, and the accent transports me right out of small-town Arkansas.
Steve Dally doesn’t quite look the way I would expect a fly fisherman to look. Of course, my entire frame of reference for fly fishermen is Brad Pitt in 1992’s A River Runs Through It: khaki button-down shirt, suspenders holding up khaki pants, brown leather boots, and a floppy hat with flies hooked through the band. Steve, on the other hand, wears a blue plaid shirt (same style as Brad’s, but flashier) and the apparently standard-issue khakis, but his hat is camo, his shoes are flip-flops, and the only thing hooked on him is the gold hoop through his left ear.
“This is our little world,” he tells me, gesturing around his shop with a silver coffee thermos in one hand. “It’s a little odd, because all fly fishermen are odd.”
“Why is that?” I ask, hoping to expand my pathetically small knowledge base.
“Fly fishermen like to make things harder. Fishermen use things like sound, smell, sight to catch fish, while fly fishermen use sight alone. Fly fishermen are the ones at a party standing to the side, talking amongst themselves—between the Star Wars and Star Trek guys.”
Steve walks me to the tables by the front door and introduces me to Michael Schraeder, an import from New Braunfels, Texas. “You’ll meet a lot of imports today,” Steve tells me. “Cotter has become our home—the White River is our center.” Michael moved here with his wife and 16-year-old son, who’s also a fly fisherman. “They refer to Cotter as the trout capital of the world,” Michael says, “and it truly is.”
Steve shows me the mysterious contents of the tables that so confused me when I first walked in: flies upon flies upon flies. There are flies larger than a dollar bill, and there are flies so small he has to put one on my notepad because it’s almost too tiny to hand off without dropping. “It’s a little one like that you’ll be using when you catch a trout today.”
I almost laugh aloud at the notion that I will be catching a fish today, but I keep a straight face and just intone, “Uh-huh.”
“You don’t believe me?” he asks.
I don’t even hesitate. “Nope.”
“Remember this conversation when you catch a fish later,” he replies.
Another worker in the shop is Phil Wamock, a retired Arkansas State Police officer. Raised in Jonesboro, Phil used to come up to Cotter when he was in high school and college to “play.” And when it was time to retire, he knew exactly where he was headed. “I spend as much time on the river as possible,” he says of living in the area. “I even almost make enough working for Steve to pay for my fly fishing gear.”
Steve has nine guides taking people out on the river—and not one of them grew up in the area. Of the six folks working in the shop, only one is a native. “The attractions of this place bring people here and keep them here,” Steve explains. Then he smiles. “You’ll see.”
I can’t see. The fog on the White River hangs thick. Steve asks me if I have any sunglasses.
“I do,” I reply, pulling out my leopard-print Vans wayfarer knockoffs. “But I didn’t think I’d need them.”
“This’ll burn off,” Steve says confidently of the haze and laughs at my fashionable eyewear. “I tell my fishermen, You want to look good? Wear those to the biergarten. But get you some good polarized glasses—doesn’t matter what they look like—and keep those for fishing.”
I put the glasses on and look down; streaks of white gleam through a darker gray on the riverbed. “See the light color?” Steve asks. “That’s the limestone bottom. That’s how the river got its name.”
We embarked at Wildcat Shoals, 11 miles from the Bull Shoals Dam; the parking lot for river access was full of trucks and SUVs, even on a foggy day like today.
“Actually,” Steve adds, “you better check that. I’ve heard it’s named after the fog, too.”
It would be safe to say that Steve might just be prone to telling a fish story or two. On the way here, Steve told me he was “on a campaign to convince Americans that koalas aren’t that cute. I mean, do you want to cuddle with eucalyptus oil?” he asked. “And they’re bad-tempered. Australian possums are way nicer.”
“Why do you have so much experience with Australian animals?” I asked, wondering where he’d come up with this. “Are there just that many animals there? Or are you just the ultimate outdoorsman?”
“I grew up in a little beachside town in Tasmania, and I was always on the beach, always in the water. There’s an octopus this big—” he said, making a circle about the size of a half dollar with his thumb and index, finger “that’ll kill you! Survival of the fittest, man. Full-grown Australians are smarter, shaper, and better-looking …”
Now this smarter, fitter, better-looking man is motoring me down the White River. “It’s almost time for brown trout spawning, ” he tells me. “They’re putting their party clothes on. They actually change color! They become more intense—yellow and gold. We even get a lot up here with blue cheeks, orange bellies. They can actually change color according to their environment, like a chameleon.”
And it’s these trout that fuel the entire town—they’re what folks come from all over the United States to find, to catch, to celebrate. But me? My dad would laugh to know that I’m just here for the fun of it, to take it all in.
Along the river it’s generally 10 degrees cooler. Today, that makes for a brisk wind when we’re moving, and I have to zip up my jacket. But any cold I might feel becomes secondary to the beauty of the trees lining the riverbank, the dazzle of the sun as it does indeed begin to burn off the fog, the serenity of being rocked on the water with nature all around.
Then I see a heron.
“They’re known colloquially as … let me see if we can get him to do it.” Steve speeds the boat back up the river toward the bird. It takes off with impressively wide wings, squawking like crazy. “They’re known as pterodactyls,” Steve finishes, an accomplished smile on his face. Then he turns off the motor for a bit and begins to row. I hear the water trickling along rocks. I see vines hanging from trees. I close my eyes and breathe deep. “It’s relaxing,” he says. “Except for me. I’m the bastard rowing the boat.”
We laugh, and he starts the motor again, this time taking me near the left bank. “I’m trying to find the right tree,” he offers as explanation.
“They’re all the right tree,” I reply, marveling at the flora around us.
“No, no,” he says. “I’ve got a special tree for you.”
And then we see it. Sitting atop a leafless tree, with its white head glinting in the sun, dark feathers below shining as well, a bald eagle rests in its nest. “This is a winter breeding area,” Steve tells me. “This particular pair has produced chicks the last two years.”
We pass other guides in boats with other passengers. We pass men in chest waders standing in the river. We pass houses so large and fancy they have their own airplane hangers. The variety of things to be seen along both the river and the riverbank are topped only by the amazing sensation of speeding along the water. “I get a buzz that I get to spend more time in my boat every week than in my car,” Steve says, and after all I’ve felt, seen, and heard this morning, I can see where I’d feel that way too.
Steve has stopped the boat once or twice so that I can “fish.” He tied the fly on for me, knowing I had no idea how to do so. He told me how to pull the line from the fly fishing reel (which doesn’t have one of those handy cranks like the rods my dad always fished with), giving myself enough slack to really cast the fly far. He taught me how to wait until my rod was horizontal behind me so I could get the farthest cast. He’s told me how to mend, where I flick the rod in a circular motion to get my line back upstream from my bobber. And he told me when that bobber goes under, I have to pull the rod straight up until it bends, then use my left hand to pull in the line (again, no handy crank).
And I’ve pulled that rod straight up many times. Mostly because my hook has got caught on a rock. Or because I thought I saw the bobber go under. Or because I needed to move because I wasn’t catching anything. My dad would be so ashamed.
Now we’ve made it to the very bridge I couldn’t see under this morning. The fog is completely burned off. I have my polarized sunglasses on, and while I see the limestone the river is famous for, I sure don’t see any fish.
“They’re in there,” Steve tells me. “I can’t believe you haven’t caught one already.”
I can. There’s no way I’m catching a fish today! I’m the worst fisherperson ever. I won’t touch them, I don’t like the smell of them, I won’t even eat them in the fanciest of restaurants. Of course I haven’t caught a fish.
And then my bobber goes under.
And I pull my rod and it actually bends.
And I start reeling in with my left hand and I pull on the line and pull on it and pull on it until it happens: I have caught a fish. I am hollering and squealing and laughing and it’s the greatest most natural high I’ve felt in I don’t remember how long.
Steve pulls out a net and I drop the fish in. “I’m not going to touch that,” I tell him, and he, like my dad, laughs at me. But, ever the gentleman, Steve pulls the fish from the net and holds it up next to me and I take a picture with the three of us. “See that pink stripe down its side?” he asks, pointing down the body of the fish. “You caught yourself a rainbow trout. I told you you’d catch a fish today.”
Well, I declare. I caught myself a rainbow trout.
I’m still not going to touch it.
We land at Rim Shoals Resort after passing Round House Shoals, which is just down from Wildcat Shoals, which isn’t too far from Bull Shoals. Before I can even formulate the question, Steve tells me, “A shoal is where there’s a change in gradient, by the way.” It’s where the river gets shallow, and there’s a lot of those on the White River. “It’s not a case of if you’re going to hit a shallow on this river,” Steve says. “It’s a matter of when and how hard.”
But Steve navigates the boat onto his trailer with ease, a sure sign of the skilled river guide. And at Rim Shoals Resort, which offers lodging and cabins and catering for fishing groups, my skilled guide has one instruction for when I meet the resort owner: “If he offers you a hush puppy, you have to have one.”
Steve introduces me to Abe Blumthal, a native of the area who was gone to the edges of the country—South Florida, then San Francisco—for 15 years before returning home to run his retiring parents’ resort. “I absolutely love it here,” he says. “This used to be all crawdad ponds, and my parents leveled it and built the resort. We now have 12 cabins.”
In his simple white T-shirt and blue jeans, Abe looks like a model … which he used to be. As much as I’ve loved today, I still find it amazing that someone who’s lived such a bustling city life could settle for the slow pace of small-town northern Arkansas. But that’s exactly what Abe loves. “There’s no 60-cycle hum of the city. There’s not 7 million people climbing over each other for a cup of coffee every morning. It’s all concentrated and you know what you’re getting.” Abe smiles, his model eyes crinkling at the corners. “And there’s early retirement, so that’s a plus too. It’s a cool job. It’s a cool career.”
And Abe is a cool guy. But when he starts back to attend to his guests, he does not offer me a hush puppy. That fish, I’m afraid, has skipped my hook.
Steve was in his late twenties when he started fly fishing in Tasmania. His best friend introduced him to it. “It becomes almost a whole lifestyle,” he says. “People decorate their homes with it. It’s my only source of both entertainment and work.”
This time I know he’s not stringing me along because he takes me to Duane Hada’s Rivertown Gallery. Duane used to sell his art and run painting classes at Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher, but painting trout and landscapes (and teaching others to do the same) became such abundant work that he moved into his own space. With his salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, Duane could be Steve’s brother.
“This piece is headed to the Pere Marquette Lodge in Michigan,” Duane tells me, leading me to a glassed-in coffee table, where three taxidermied trout play amongst driftwood and grasses. I look around the gallery and see mounted taxidermied fish and countrysides with flowing water and a series of canvases with fireflies dancing in front of a dusky tree line. But my favorite, favorite thing that Duane paints is close-ups of trout scales; so close, in fact, that the brilliant colors and distinctive shapes look like the lovers’ robes in Gustav Klimt’s famous work of art, The Kiss.
I further recognize the centrality of trout to life in Cotter when we go to K.T.’s Smokehouse BBQ & Catering, and I see a wooden trout decorating a windowsill. I’m always a tad skeptical about barbecue joints—the best barbecue I ever had was smoked in my good friend David Green’s backyard and I’ve yet to find anyone who could best him—but a fish in the windowsill makes me doubly so. I mean, barbecue trout? I’m delighted with Steve for trying to find me one of my favorite meals, but my hopes are low.
“What’s good?” I ask the lady behind the counter.
“The ribs are real good,” she replies. “And the potato salad.”
Happily, I don’t see any barbecue fish on the menu, and I order the potato salad right away. But I’m a sausage fan, so that’s what I get instead of the recommended ribs. When she delivers my meal to the table, the sausage is at least a foot long, sitting on a buttered bun, and I have to admit it looks glorious. I cut a slice, put it in my mouth, and my tastebuds dance. It’s delicious. And the potato salad? She wasn’t kidding. Nobody will ever top ol’ David Green, I know in my bones, but I have to admit this food feels an awful lot like home.
Beside the Norfork National Fish Hatchery is a little sprig of water called Dry Run Creek. It has a walking path next to it—some of it is boardwalk-style, some of it is foot-trodden. Dry Run Creek is reserved especially for fishers under the age of 16. When Steve and I walk up, there are two or three different families fishing, even before school is out on this weekday afternoon. I put on Steve’s polarized glasses and I can see why: There are trout everywhere. One near the boardwalk, two or three where water gushes over rocks, a huge one right behind a log. It is the most fish I’ve ever seen outside of an aquarium in my entire life.
Just down the path, a father and son are fishing with one of Steve’s guides. Eric Heslop brought his son Wilson all the way from Tuscaloosa because this is how Wilson wanted to celebrate his 12th birthday: trout fishing in Arkansas. “He didn’t want a party with friends,” Eric tells me of Wilson.
Those plans were endangered a bit when Wilson broke his foot a couple of months ago, but there was no way he was changing his mind. Here he stands now, on the edge of a creek, fishing … in a walking cast. They’ve been here about two or three hours, and Wilson’s been keeping track of his catches. He pulls one in right as I walk up—it’s Number 17. Wilson is way more skilled than I am, but I did catch one whole fish. “Want to see my fish?” I ask him. “It’s tiny.”
I show him the selfie I took with Steve and the rainbow trout, and without hesitation Wilson says, “That’s a nice fish. It’s pretty.” I can’t get over how much I started the day feeling like a fish out of water, and everyone—from Steve to Phil to Wilson from Tuscaloosa—has made me feel absolutely welcome and included in their world. I proudly text my dad the picture of me with my trout.
As Steve and I head back toward his truck, two older ladies have come for the view. “Do you see that big one down there by the log?” I ask. One of them shakes her head. I hand her Steve’s sunglasses and point to the center of the creek. She pulls the glasses up and down, up and down. “It’s amazing,” she says. And I agree.