On the Spring

Outside the Palace Drug Store on Main Street in downtown Mammoth Spring, Ark., Bill Parker leans into the back of his truck, reaches for a tackle bag and digs through a fly box. After filling himself with the Palace Tuesday lunch special (meatloaf), Parker is done for the day and will soon be on the road home to Kentucky.

First, however, a parting gift.

He shakes his  head. “It’s been slow. Really slow.” He means the fishing. The Spring River, which rises about a half mile from where we are standing from a spring that pumps out about 9 million gallons of 58 degree water per hour, is regularly stocked with rainbow and brown trout. Smallmouth bass and a few of their relatives are natives. The hatchery-bred rainbows are plentiful; the browns not quite so. There’s a rumor that the AG&FC stocks a few brook trout in the Spring but I’ve never seen one.

Parker has been fishing here for years and probably knows the river as well as anyone who has to drive to get here. His report is rather dismal. “I don’t know if it is this heat (90+ with sweltering humidity and full sun) or something else. But it was slow yesterday and slow this morning. The only fish I caught I caught on this thing that I tie. I call it the “ugly bug.”

An appropriate name. Tied on a No. 14 hook and tipped with a dull brass bead it is wrapped in paper bag colored brown thread with a splash of glitter; the body bulging. Orvis doesn’t sell anything that looks like this.

My history with Arkansas’ Spring River reaches back to my time as an undergraduate at Memphis State University (before it blossomed into the University of Memphis). I was introduced to this little stream by Tom Carlson, a friend and professor of American literature. He is also a fine fisherman. Had I been as attentive to Tom’s tutelage in class as a I was to his expertise on the river my writing career might have touched a higher plane.

The water is low, clear; the fish fickle and finicky. I’m at a walk-in area where a 400 yard stretch of the river is wadeable. The half dozen or so other fishermen within eyesight form a mixed bag: a couple of fly rodders are working the far bank. Upstream a couple of bait chunkers are floating corn in a tailout pool. At mid river a shirtless kid in water to his armpits and armed with a Zebco combo is flinging a crawfish crankbait as far as he can. So far he’s the only one I’ve seen catch a fish.

Apparently, though, there is some magic remaining in Bill’s ugly bug. I hook a rainbow on the second cast. It’s small fish but with enough color of indicate that it is not fresh from the hatchery. A few casts later I hook another but then my luck ends as suddenly as it began. The tippet snaps and the fish – momentarily stunned at its unexpected freedom – hovers at the surface then vanishes with a splash.

While prowling through my box for something similar to the ugly bug the kid with the Zebco yells, “Got another one!”

Good. Good for him.