• Richard Murff

Casting Solo

Being a writer during the pandemic has given me about all the “Murff time” that I can stand. The only other figure in my library is a Kurt Vonnegut doll my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years ago. She gets me, but when I start talking to Kurt, it’s time to invent a trip to the grocery store. When I have traveled, it isn’t generally the sort of place that the wife is interested in seeing. I tried to sell her on the charms of Benghazi in the spring, but she likes the side of the Mediterranean that isn’t mined. Fair point, that.

Mrs. M is that much sought-after sort of Southern Belle who is equally enthusiastic about her grandmother’s stemware as she is about the outdoors. Or at least some of it. So, when I got it in my head that I wanted to learn to fly-fish, in majestic mountain streams and cold, clear tailwaters decidedly free from conflict-zone shenanigans, she was all in.

I’m subject to the enthusiasms of the amateur as much as the next guy, so getting a mentor to teach me the basics before I can screw up on my own is not a natural move for me. I like to just go in a sort it out and get beat eight ways from Sunday before I ask for help. Writers are always a sucker for a bulging library and mine is now groaning with titles like A River Runs Through It – which I understand is coming out with a revised version subtitled: You’ll Never Be Like This – as well as slick reference books from the good people at Orvis. David Coggins writes expertly on fly-fishing and, it’s an odd niche, Men’s fashion (I don’t suppose that it’s any weirder than writing about foreign affairs and happy hour). If you haven’t read his The Optimist go pick it up. At any rate, he advises that you will save yourself a lot of trouble by hiring a guide in the beginning. I could see the wisdom there, and Mrs. M just went ahead and booked one. So that was that.

Doubtless, it is solid advice, even if it hasn’t done me a great deal of good. The rub is that when you hire a guide, a) he’s a human and b) he is generally a he. I don’t think that fishing guides get a lot of attentive ladies in their line of work. Practically, one of two things will happen: Either the guide is a little older and devotes all his attention to flirting with the wife in a harmless, avuncular way. Or he’s a bit younger and devotes all his attention to her in a way that is less avuncular. Now Mrs. M. is a delight, so understand their position, but the fact remains that I’m in the back of the boat, ignored and hopelessly casting into trees, catching squirrels and losing flies by the hatband.

I’ll admit to being a skin-flint. Which is not a good condition for a fly-fisherman. My other job, more or less, is a farmer and neither day-job is a profession that instills confidence in a man’s regular cash flow. But I’m not that cheap. I’d already bought some expensive kit guaranteed to make me look tough rolling around in a riverbed. I do, however, draw the line at paying some folksy stranger $250 to flirt with my wife all morning while I attempt to apply my middle-aged white guy sense of rhythm to my casting.

So, I decreed that Mrs. M and I had reached a “learning plateau” and we where going to the Arkansas’ Little Red River to screw it up on our own. These are the beautiful tailwaters under the Greer’s Ferry dam. It’s main purpose is flood control, but it also generates hydro-electric power for the region. What this means for the fly-fisher is that most day -less so on the week-end – water is released from beneath the dam at a constant 550 and very well aeriated. This change in temperature did run off some native warm water species, like cottonmouths. I’m a fan of the natural order of things, but I can’t say that I’m sorry to see them go. The river is stocked with rainbow trout they take to the environment like, forgive me here, like fish to water. Two generations later you have one of the country’s best places to fly-fish. The brown trout spawn is from mid-October to November is a particularly good time to fish. which of course is the time Mrs. M and I have never managed to actually get out there. In lieu of any football greats from the area, the late Howard “Rip” Collins, who caught a 40 lbs trout here once, is the sports hero the locals like to gab about.

When dam releases that cold, clear water, it’s something to see. After getting to the cabin, at cocktail hour, we were sitting on some rocks that form a jetty out into the river. The scenery and the company were perfect until I heard myself saying, “Hey, what happened to that rock?”

I’d always heard that when fishing in tailwaters you need to beware of rising waters, because they rise fast. I always thought that this was exaggerated for effect, I mean, it is the sort of thing you’d expect from fishermen. Then the crags and fissures – once dry – were now running with water. I’m not trying to oversell it – this was no tidal wave or “will the levee hold” scenario, but the water was rising pretty damned fast. The wife and I beat a hasty retreat to the safety to the grassy bank.

That night, as a last-minute brush up on our skills, we watched the DVD of A River Runs Through It. I’d advise against this. It’s a swell movie, but you don’t want the wife thinking that a 20-year-old Brad Pitt is what a grown man looks like while casting a line. It’s just setting the poor girl up for disappointment.

So, you well may ask, what about the fish? The next morning, we waded out into the river and got proficient in surgeon’s knots, and swapping out things called woolly buggers with midges and hackles because… well hell if I know why it just seemed like the thing to do. What can I say, uninterrupted as we were by the actual catching anything, we practiced our casting for hours and it shows.

Yes, but, what about the fish?

Ah… the fish. I think they had a good laugh, too.