The stories of a Float-Fishing Guide
"What is that up there in the shoal ahead of us, Whiteside?" I hear something like that often as a float-fishig guide. Folks I take with me on the remote streams of the Ozarks want to learn all they can about the out-of-doors: but, I didn't expect to hear it from my good friend, Earl Whitted. Earl grew up 70 years ago on an southeast Arkansas dirt farm, has eaten near everything with fur, fins or feathers and can recognize a fly-speck on the horizon as a Mallard looking for a decoy spread. I glanced in the direction of his pointing finger and there in the weeds was something that looked human and a bit of a chill went up my spine! When you float fish and float hunt as much as I do you expect to be surprised on occasion, you just don't want this kind. We floated in slowly for a closer look, a little hesitant about learning the real answer. For a minute there, we were speechless. Then I snickered and Earl snorted just a little. After that, chaos broke out and we almost rolled the canoe, laughing.........Someone's X-rated, blow-up doll was missing and we'd found it! We were worse then a couple of teenagers, "She probably ran off and left him!"........, "Do you think we should leave her some sunscreen?" We joked because the situation turned out quite funny: who in the world would have expected to find such a thing in the middle of nowhere? There was a bit of relief in the tone of our voices though, along with the one-liners. After all, it could have just as easily been a tragedy to be found. That was exactly the case on a float trip I made alone a few years back. The day started out normally enough. I had decided to fish alone that day and had gone to a put-in point on a stream in mid Arkansas. As I was backing down to unload my pickup, with the canoe protruding out the back, a rear-tire fell into a hole and I felt the bow of my canoe hit the ground a bit too hard. Turned out, I had punctured the bottom of the canoe on a rock and the canoe was useless for the day's float trip. Resolved to fish anyway, I drove to a friend's hoiuse, borrowed his canoe, and returned to the same put-in about an hour later. As I stopped and opened the truck door to investigate for more rocks, I heard a woman's blood-curdling screams. Her screaming was intense and continuous........beyond description! The hair on my neck stood out. She was down under a bridge, out of sight and I could make no judgement about the situation, nor the harm being inflicted. What I could hear though told me it was BAD! Not knowing what to expect, I moved to where I could see to the water's edge and there, lying face-down in the water, was a huge man in the final stages of drowning, past struggling. Behind him on the bank, stood the screaming woman, too panic-stricken to act or to speak. Not another soul was in sight. Realizing I might be too late, I hurdled forward toward the river, grabbed the man at the back of the collar, and heaved until I had his head out on the gravel. He wasn't breathing. Unable to turn his massive body, I began to put everything I had into his back to rhythmically force water out and air into his lungs. After what seemed like an hour and a bucket of water, his air passages cleared. In reality, it was less then a minute, until he began breathing on his own. As I watched him gain consciousness, he slowly began to ease himself forward, crawling from the water. I was talking to him, providing information he needed and also attempting to quiet the woman, still screaming to the heavens. Finally, she quieted down a little and I glanced up the river to see a Johnboat headed our way as fast as boat paddles could stroke. Later, I was to learn that this man and woman had been left at the bridge to bobber-fish from the bank. Neither could swim and they had made it clear that they had no desire to be in a boat, happy to just fish from the bank. That part of the family that could swim had all left in their boat for the upper end of the fishing hole, around a bend about a quarter mile away, and almost out of hearing........Much too far away to respond to an emergency. Upon the boat's arrival, with the situation secured, the story of what had happened began to unfold. Everything had gone fine for a while for the couple that could not swim. Those that were fishing from the boat had slowly disappeared around the bend and out of sight. Then, the large man got his hook hung on a root wad out in deeper water, just a few feet from the bank. In the attempt to wade in and to free the hook, the big man tripped, fell face-down and was literally unable to regain his footing. The woman watched helplessly, as he struggled. She could only scream. Moments later, I drove up with the canoe. The man finally recovered enough from his near-death experience to talk, and everyone had to tell their story. Fishing was over for the day. I'm not sure how many times they thanked me nor how many times I shook hands or hugged necks. In truth, I was thankful, too.............thankful that I was there exactly when I needed to be. Perhaps a minute or two later would have been too late. I've often thought about the providence of that day. I've wondered about the perfect timing, the rock in just the wrong (or right) place, my decision to borrow another man's canoe and to return to the same river access. I cannot back into a put-in for a float trip to this day without thinking of that day's events. I've still got that old, aluminum canoe, by the way, with a welding scar at the rock puncture. What a story it has...............a man's life spared because of it. I've come to expect the bazaar, along with the good when guiding. Back in the 70's, my wife and I made a float with two other couples on the Eleven Point river over a Fourth of July weekend. About lunch time, we could hear several people laughing and enjoying the cool, clear water up ahead. We assumed it was a large family group out for a picnic and a swim with the kids. Imagine our shock when around the bend were no less then 50 adults, in the water and on both banks, without a stitch of swimwear to be found. Turns out, it was a nudist colony that's long-since been run out of the country. What do you say in a situation like that as you float through? We did our best to act like we'd been floating past naked strangers all day........"Sure has been hot, hasn't it?", "How's the water today?" They responded just as naturally......"you folks are welcome to stop for lunch and a swim with us, we've got plenty of food and the water's great." "Have you been catching any fish?" We didn't stop for lunch! We floated on through admiring the scenery, everyone waving and smiling like we didn't notice a thing unusual. We were barely out of sight when one of my friends made an off-colored comment about worm fishing and, well, it was bedlam. We had to stop and get out of the canoes. That kind of laughter brings tears and belly aches. It's not like that every trip out on the water. Most float trips only have the normal surprises, like an unexpected Smallmouth bass where one's never been caught before. It's the main reason I'm out there in the first place, to get surprised on occasion by a deer or a flock of turkeys, or perhaps a bear. At the right times of the year there are eagles and ospreys and waterfowl and furbearers galore. There are birds singing and fish surfacing. It's not uncommon to find surprises along the river, but it is a rare event to be shocked by anything unless of course it's something of the human variety. That's the very reason I love the solitude of float fishing and float hunting, there aren't so many humans to come across. And, I certainly don't mind those that come along with me as they usually have some great stories to tell of their own.