Streams Were My First Love
Mom talked to me about love as a teenager, but it was mainly about......well, you know........girls. Back then, talking about the opposite sex with mom just involved a lot of squirming on my half of the conversation. Though I was certainly listening, the "inside" part of me just couldn't get out in the form of words. I was too bashful to ask real questions. To my amazement she would know what I was thinking anyway and would just keep talking. She was always right on cue about everything I needed to know, too! Mothers, I've learned, are like that. I can hear mom now, "you'll just know when you're in love.....when it happens". Naturally, she was right about that, too. My feelings for streams must have been love at first sight though. I've got an old black and white photo that mom took when I was in diapers. There I am on the old home place, standing in the middle of flat creek, and throwing rocks. Moving water still requires a closer look and a lot of intimacy on my part! It doesn't matter if it's a farm branch with pot-holes where the cows drink or a river big enough for a shoal-runner. To me, each one is as seductive as a perfumed letter. About two hundred creeks and rivers across these hills are old friends now. I have memories from source to mouth on most of them and could bore you for hours on the details of each. I can not cross a bridge to this day without looking at the water below and more often then not I'll pull down at an access, speculate on the fishing conditions and skip a rock or two. The way I see it, I could never spend too much time out there on creeks and rivers. Some in my family would argue with my opinion on that one, and have. Before a float trip is over for the day I will be day-dreaming about the next one. It's always been that way. That's what love can do to a person and as I recall, Mom mentioned that, too! We didn't have a boat when I was a youngster, but folks would often leave an old, flat-bottom half-tied to a root at the Sandgate eddy where Little Black River coursed through on the old farm. I took it as an open invitation to go fishing. Summer afternoons were spent drowning worms and grasshoppers around rocks and logs for goggleye and shade perch. Food for the table was my excuse, but the real reason was I just couldn't help it, I had to get out there. The first time I hooked a big smallmouth was in that eddy and it was a life changing experience. It was a struggle in which I didn't have a chance! There was a quick flash of bronze from somewhere out of the depths, the lure was struck with the kick of a mule, and the line snapped like sewing thread. I just stood there, belly-button deep in lily pads, inspired. I didn't catch that smallmouth, but smallmouth bass had caught me. I've been after them with passion ever since. Nothing represents the best about our streams more then a smallmouth bass. In bass circles, they are the broncs. Take my word for it, you've not been bass fishing yet, if you haven't been on an Ozark float trip after smallmouth. The very heart of my love for streams though are the memories. There's that camping trip on a little creek in the middle of nowhere in 1995 with my son when he was only nine. He's wearing dad's ball cap, has a grin from ear to ear and is trying to lift a stringer of fish for a picture. I got one! Then, there's the night spent sleeping under canoes with old friends on a trip, poorly planned. The tale's an epic now and must be told with renewed embellishment at each gathering. Then too, there's the trip on a hot day in July when I landed the two 18-inch smallmouth, one on each treble, or the float in January where we lost count on bald eagles, or the trip in a fog bank when we slipped under a big flock of turkey gawking from their roost. Each are golden memories for me and I could go on and on. My anticipation about the view around the bend in the river is much like this, I know another memory is potentially there. I'm not as selfish about my love for streams now. There was a time when everything I knew was kept close to the vest. I didn't want to share my love fearing it would be lost. I've matured some. Mom said it would be that way, "love will be different with time, but better". I've been guiding for a few years now and seeing the revelation on people's faces is a gift in and of itself. It's helped me to see much anew that had become common place. Surprising a great blue heron from the water's edge from less then 30 feet away is, after all, a big deal even if you've seen it a thousand times. And too, my personal relationship is still there. It's what I'm looking for most, to be one on one with the water. I cherish the solitude. It's the time when I can be closest to those feelings held with deep respect, to reflect about the Indian and his quest for the night's meal; or the trapper, alone with his pelts, stacked for the long voyage down river. It's on these adventures that my eyes see the flick of a tail more keenly and my ear's can discern "squirrel-not deer" at the scuff of leaves nearby. The paddle becomes one with the arc of the canoe's bow, peace moves through to touch my soul and the stress meter finally reaches the silent mode. Perhaps then, the most important part is that streams are about the only thing left that remains wild and free. I like that. Too much about our world today seems tainted beyond recognition or "improved" move for the convenience of my laziness then for the benefit of the resource itself. Some things should just be left alone. Something added, only diminishes and anything removed is lost forever. And so it is, with our remaining Ozark streams. Don't get me wrong, I do respect the faults of "the good old days". An unfortunate aspect of a river's wildness is that a river can change in an hour's time from a placid refuge for the heart and soul to a raging torrent powerful enough to move massive trees as if they are no more then toothpicks. It's been this merciless strength that has been the undoing of some of our finest Ozark streams. The need for controls has been understandable. A few winters back in December of 1982 a wall of rain crossed the hills of northern Arkansas and everything that could, moved to higher ground. That which didn't move, suffered. In the aftermath, an old timer came down to the river's edge near my home on Arkansas' Big Piney and we talked of floods and destruction. Mr. Lee gazed off into the distance and waved his arm across the view, "Boy, ya shoulda seen the flood of '27! It covered this valley from hillside to hillside and everything around was underwater. Ol' man Ragsdale, what owned the farm, lost most 'ah his cattle in that flood!" I paused for a moment, not feeling quite as old, and reflected on the devastation and the impact upon families in other valleys. That's a good bit of reflecting because I know many of the river valleys from Fort Smith to St. Louis like brothers. And too, I've read some about the devastation in that year. Yes, the call for controls would have been urgent. Drastic measures were demanded! Legislators were to act expediently or face replacement at the next election. Should we not have learned though, valuable lessons about the cost of our freedoms and true price of our natural resources? Is it wise of us to build homes or to invest expensively within a few feet of a wild river that has the potential to rise 30 feet in 24 hours? Is it prudent to demand reimbursement for our losses or to cause the death of a stream as if the forces of Nature alone are accountable? Too soon we forget our past, for we will surely see more "100 year" floods. Those of us that can see and understand these valuable lessons and those who hold our natural treasures in high regard, must speak up! Stand and fight as the smallmouth fights, not with emotionalism nor as an extremist -- but for the river's freedom and for a way of life that has been provided by the wisdom of our Creator. We must temper the "fix it now" approach. Man can not create a new stream, we can only choose to use the ones which are left, wisely and with respect or we will choose to destroy those that are wild and free, forever. I could not speak for myself as a child about love, but Mom could. I was blessed because she spoke well. Neither can our streams and their treasured resources speak.....but, now together we must all speak for them.