Thursday, September 29, 2011

The thing about water - part 6

      The thing about me. I have had two distinct periods in my life when the pull of catfishing the river has been very strong. The high, or low, times of the first period, when young blood coursed through my veins, I have already related. That period tapered off, and ended, many years ago. All the reasons are hard to put a finger on. As a young boy, we truly needed the wild game I brought in for food. It was that or salt pork, period. After I married, the need began to lessen, but I continued on providing for many years. Then, the pull for wild meat disappeared. I transferred attraction for wild places to wildlife photography, float trips, etc. Then, after I retired, I began to think more about my cat fishing days, and I missed them. I had not yet caught the big one. Three 25 pounders top it out. After much soul searching, I made a deal with my soul. I would not kill it, if it was not going to be used for bait or eaten. Many of my partners are amazed that I will not kill rough fish we catch; just put them back in to steal even more of my bait. And, I would concentrate on big fish. My personal taste for catfish has greatly diminished, so now I give most of what I catch to eager eaters, or save it for the church fish fry.
      I often, especially around my grandchildren, use the Indian habit of thanking the fish for giving its life for our food, before dressing it. I have been more successful in my second period, catching more weight, if not numbers, and I have not been skunked, so far. I went through the learning curve a lifetime ago, it seems.
      I started writing my stories about my second fishing period, then I realized they were all about me being clumsy, stumbling about, falling in the river, ruining one cell phone after another. Or, getting caught down river in a huge thunderstorm and hunkering down while it rains 2 inches, all because my outdoor senses are now dull. Or, about how my knees ached after a day in a small boat. Nobody wants to read that mess. I threw them away.
      The thing about me, though. I just keep going to the wild places until, eventually, a pretty good story comes along.
      The thing about Neal Nelson. He just keeps letting me tag along until a good story is created. Such was the case last April.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The thing about water - part 5

      I once worked for a summer for a plumbing outfit in Fayetteville. When they found out I was a good, hard worker, they stopped renting a backhoe. I became a human backhoe, at thirty dollars a week.
I told my working buddies of my frog hunting trips. One could float a five mile stretch of one of the pretty rivers around there and pick up as many big, fat, bullfrogs as a family could eat in a while, in those days. The loud, deep bellow of a large bullfrog is seldom heard on the river nowadays. Then, you could hear a dozen at a time. There is no sound quite like it.
One very large guy wanted to go with me. He was not a nice person, big, tough and rowdy, a bully even. I finally agreed. We placed my truck on the War Eagle River, drove five miles upriver, and put in my boat. As we sat around, waiting for it to get dark, we were joined by an old timer. Sensing my partner was a true green horn, never having been out on the river at night, he proceeded to tell a string of snake horror tales. After a few, my partner walked to his truck and got two rolls of duct tape. He proceeded to wrap one roll around the left leg, up to his hip. Then he did the right leg. I was beginning to have misgivings about this expedition at all. But we were there, committed. When it got dark, we headed down river.
      The thing about a river like this, in those days was, the old timer's stories were true. In the space of time that I see one moccasin on the Ouachita river, nowadays, I would see a hundred then. They are disappearing too. Too many people beating on their heads with a chunk. For every two frogs we saw, we saw one cottonmouth. After picking up a few frogs, and seeing several cottonmouths, (Those rivers were so clean, you needed no gig. Just ease up on them, keep the light in their eyes, look around to make sure he was not a target for a cottonmouth also, and pick it up.) my partner was shaking like a leaf. He had lost all his bluster. After another mile, he simply would not get out of the boat.
      The thing about pulling over a shoal was, with an empty boat, it was no problem, and pulling over shoals took up about half the time, anyway. But with an extra 280 pounds inside, it was man killing work. Not too good on the boat bottom, either. We were nearing halfway, over two miles to a truck. I could balk, and hope he wanted to get home badly enough to come around, or I could pull him the rest of the way. I bowed up and did it. The only other noteworthy experience on the last leg was, we went through a giant, new hatch of Mayfly nymphs. They were so thick, you could not inhale without taking in one or two, and when we did get through them, the bottom of the boat was an inch deep in Mayflies.
      The thing about the river at night was, it just does that to some people. I once had a big tough football coach in the front of my boat one night. I paddled the boat under a low hanging limb, and a roost of birds thundered out. He came totally unglued, ran to my end of the boat, jumped in my lap, and sunk the boat. Further down, a large beaver went against his naturally mild nature and just planted himself in the middle of a riffle, and made it plain he had no intentions of letting us pass. I had to get out of the boat and do battle with him with a paddle, while my partner hung in the back of the boat.
      It took two people, and two trucks, to do this right. I became more selective in my partners, and they became hard to find. I had to hunt less. I have only been bitten once by a cottonmouth in all my frog hunting days. We rushed to the hospital, then I felt a bit silly because it never swelled up or turned blue. I was so embarrassed that I wanted to see a little blue or swelling when the doc came in. All I could figure was, he had just used up his venom on a previous victim.
      Frog legs, properly cooked, are the best of wild eating. But they do move around in the skillet, if freshly cooked.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The thing about water- part 4

      The thing about water, is, some creatures can live both in, and near, the water. They normally breathe air with their lungs, and have to surface regularly when active. But in the winter, they can bury up in the mud on the bottom, get real still, and take in enough oxygen through their thin skins to live. Such is the bullfrog, which is in the process of disappearing from this earth as we speak. The numbers have dropped alarmingly during my lifetime.
      One time my friend Bob and I decided to try our hand at catching bullfrogs on the middle fork of the upper White River near Fayetteville. It had rained quite a bit, but it looked doable on the wide stretch of the river where we put in.
      The thing about water is, it can flow slowly in a wide eddy, even when up. When a narrow chute comes up, it can pick up the pace drastically. We were down half a mile before such a chute came up, far enough to be beyond the point of no return. We came around a bend, and our lights picked up a log, stretching all the way across, at water level. Too late. We hit it, the boat turned sideways, we took on water on the backside, and our boat was swamped, held tightly against the log in swift current. I looked down the river. Our gear was headed to Beaver Lake, accompanied by our lights, their beams swinging back and forth in the sky, like searchlights at an airport.
      We tied the boat to the log, (I don't know why, it was going nowhere anyway.) I floated downstream, gathering up what gear I could find. When I got back, Bob had salvaged what he could. He was now walking across the log, toward the bank, gear in hand. He had my large landing net in one hand, which should not have been in the boat at all on a frog hunt. Anyhow, Bob slipped slightly at mid stream, slowly sat down on the log, then ever so slowly was pulled off, and under, the log by the current. When he surfaced downstream, he yelled, “My glasses! I've lost my glasses!”
      You must understand. Bob's glasses looked like coke bottles, and he could not see a lick without them. And, they cost a pretty penny. Like me he was dirt poor. This was a big deal. I looked up. Bob's glasses were perfectly balanced on the rim of my landing net he held. “Hold very still, Bob!” I shouted. I swam over and grabbed them. We finally righted the boat, sloshed most of the water out, and continued on.
      We had never floated this section of that river in the daylight, a big mistake. We soon entered a stretch that was filled with logs from end to end. We had to swim, pulling the boat over, under, around and through. When the river merged with the main White river, it grew much wilder.
The thing about chill bumps. They start on your low back, slowly spreading up. They finally reach your forehead. Such was the case with me, as I sat listening, in the dark, listening to the wild rapids below, between us and my truck. It proved to be a long night, productive only in everlasting memories

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Post 40: The thing about water - Part 3

      The thing about running water is, if moving at a constant speed, it can be used to answer age-old questions about ourselves, the kind we think about regularly.
      Once I was floating with my brother-in-law, Delton, down the White river to the Mississippi, then on down to Arkansas city. We reached the mouth of the White about sundown, and camped on a sand bar. The mosquitoes were beyond the edge of comprehension.(This is a sidelight, not getting to the root of the question here, but it is worth saying, so bear with me.) In pioneer times, nobody could live long here, with Malaria running rampant. The grave yard at Napoleon, Arkansas, a town down there that no longer exists but was there in pioneer days, has lots of tombstones. Few died that were older than 26. Anyway, we set up our tent, sprayed the doorway down good with mosquito repellent, dashed in, zipped it up quick, then we spent the next hour picking them off, one at a time. Then we could sleep. Or, we would have, if it had not been for the buck deer, who resented our presence so much that he spent a good part of the night dashing up and down behind our tent, stomping and snorting. Anyway, now we can get to the scientific work. By morning, I was stopped up, tighter than a drum. I took a good, healthy dose of Castor oil, the most horrible tasting stuff God ever created, but one of the most effective. We then shoved off from the mouth of the White, and by the time we reached the mouth of the Arkansas, I was rushing ashore to the bushes.
      The thing about floating a major river is, you have lots of time to think. By the time we reached Arkansas City, I had finished my calculations: It is 6 miles, 31,680 feet, from one river mouth to the next. The Big Muddy was moving at approx. 6 MPH. The human digestive tract is 23 feet long. Using that raw data, that means Castor oil runs through the human body at a rate of .0007 MPH, something I had always wondered about.
      The thing about huge, standing bodies of water, like the gulf, is, it can be used to answer questions that can make one famous. Or would have, if I had just been born several hundred years earlier. Once I was sitting on the balcony of our condo in Gulf Shores, overlooking the Gulf. I noticed the level balcony railing showed the horizon well above it in the middle, but the horizon dropped below it at the far edges of my vision. Bingo! I was looking at the curvature of the earth. It was round, not flat at all! I got to thinking further. My area of vision must be about two degrees of the full three hundred sixty degrees in a circle. From where the horizon dropped on the left to where it disappeared on the right, following the horizon, the distance must be something like one hundred forty miles. Two degrees covers about 1/180th of a full circle. 180 x 140 miles gave me an earth circumference of 25,200 miles, a lucky estimate. Oh, if I could have just been born in 1400! But then, I guess, I would have been hard pressed to find a level condo balcony rail in 1400.
      Another sidelight – There is a chunk of Mississippi on the Arkansas side of the river down there, cut off when the river changed course. Not necessarily something for an Arkansan to be proud of, or even admit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Post 39: The thing about water - part 2

      Not all my memorable experiences at Wargo were life threatening. Once Sport and I were asleep in our tent, with only a very small hole in our almost zipped up doorway remaining. The thing about small holes, though, is that it sorta negates being enclosed in a tent in the first place. In the middle of the night, Sport roused me from my catfish dreams with an elbow in the ribs. “Pat,” he said, “We are not alone.” I switched on my light. The prettiest, most bushy tailed skunk I had ever seen was sitting in the middle of sport's sleeping bag! We quietly slid out that hole, in only our whitey-tighties, and waited, shivering. Fifteen minutes later the skunk strolled out and off, never having left his calling card.
      The thing about a family, chock full of pretty girls, is that sooner or later, a whole herd of son-in-laws will fill the old home place on holidays. Especially my mother-inlaw, Verla Mae Dunnahoe's house. She seldom spoke, but when she did, it was law. We were all there for Christmas.
      The thing about men, especially young men, is that they are chock full of testosterone. They are driven to seek excitement, in one or more of its forms, daily. It's a requirement of life.
We in-laws once were sitting around at the Dunnahoe farm, relaxing after a big Christmas dinner. Someone mentioned the river, and I woke up. I always slept through all those long discussions about farming. They bored me to death. “The river is really rolling, right now,” someone said. “Let's go see it,” someone else chimed in. “Why don't we take the boat?” We loaded up the boat and headed for the river.
      As I think about it, forty plus years removed, I realize only an irrational crave for excitement, or absolute insanity, could have brought about what happened that cold winter day.
      So, me and my in-laws loaded into the boat, and headed up river. The boat was far too small for that crowd. Not a life jacket in sight. Sport was the only one old enough to have better sense, but there was just no way, I mean no way, Sport would ever let himself be left out when a river adventure beckoned. Not even up to the day he died. The twenty horse motor pushed us up the rolling river. A rock levee extended well out into the river ahead. J. D. pushed the boat toward the levee end.
      The thing about rolling river water is, when it hits the end of a rock levee, a huge whirlpool can develop, sucking anything that enters down, down. J. D. steered around the end of the levee.. Suddenly we went down. Down into the heart of the whirlpool. All around us, even above our heads, was a tornado of water. Time to say our prayers. J. D. opened up the motor, full throttle. The motor strained. We whirled with the water. Ever so slowly, the motor pushed us toward the side of the whirlpool, then even more slowly, we climbed. As we finally pulled out, we were all ready to go back to that warm living room, ready to be bored for the rest of the day. Our appetite for excitement was sated, for that day.
      We once were camped, fishing, on the Arkansas river a mile below the last dam. The lines were producing well. We had 40 nice cats in J. D.'s brand new, custom made, metal fish box. The guys, Sport, J. D., and another in- law or two, wanted to go run the lines again at midnight. I chose to stay at the tent, well up on a sand bar, in my bag. The boat was overloaded anyway.
      The thing about loud horns, when fishing below a dam, is, sit up and pay attention. Well, this one sounded like a river boat over on the mighty Missisip', only a couple of miles away, I told myself as I dozed off. I was soon awakened by water sloshing at the tent. The dam had turned the water loose, and we had been warned. By the time I pulled the tent to higher ground, J. D.'s brand new fish box, and our forty nice cat, had disappeared. Finally, the guys in the boat struggled to shore, being pushed down river fast. The lines were now too deep to ever find that night, and the new box was never to be seen again. All we could do for the rest of that night, and until the current receded some the next day, was to keep pulling the tent to higher, and higher, ground.
Continued next post 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Post thirty eight: The Thing About Water

      The thing about water is – life, as we know it, is not possible without it. This just precludes any argument about water. But the thing about water, for me is, in more subtle ways, water has made possible so many things that makes life worthwhile. Like fishing. My pursuit of several animals that prowl below its surface, and near it, has held a lifelong fascination for me, pushing me to travel to the far corners of Arkansas, (wow!) and even beyond.
      The thing about catfish is, They reside in almost all significant bodies of water in Arkansas, but the concentration in the far southeast corner of Arkansas surpasses all. To my way of thinking, the entire delta, excluding the people I love who live there, is a bit bland. Until you get inside the river levees. Then it becomes transformed into one of the most wonderful places on earth. The concentration of almost all forms of water life, and wildlife in the surrounding forests, is great! They have been crowded out of the farmed portion of the Delta and concentrated into these long, crooked, stretches of natural perfection.
      The lure of these whiskered monsters of the deep in the river delta has brought about so many of the memorable occasions in my life, that I just have to tell you about some of them. Like my three very close approaches to death. All at Wargo. Wargo is simply one of many oxbow lakes off the lower Arkansas river.
      I once camped on a high bluff on Wargo. My partner in this adventure, as so often was the case in the old days, was Sport Dunnahoe, my father-in-law. I loved him like a father. He always had the boat ready when we got to Watson. An eighty foot tree, when we arrived, was leaning out over the water. Soon it would fall into the lake and disappear. Naturally, we moved our campsite well back away from it, just as a precaution. Our catfish lines were set and baited. We went to sleep. In the middle of the night, we awoke to an earthquake, or so we thought. We peeked out of the tent. The entire bluff, pulled by the falling tree, had caved off, leaving us, and our tent, perched on the very edge of the bluff. The entire tree had totally disappeared, buried under many tons of river sand.
      On another occasion, J.D. Dunnahoe, my brother-in-law, and I had just finished baiting our catfish lines on the far side of the lake, just at dark. A major thunderstorm hit as we started back across the lake in our small boat.
      The thing about water is, when pushed by heavy winds, rain, and lots of lightening and thunder, it can transform quickly into a place one does not wish to be. We made it across without incident. I dropped J. D. off to pick up the truck, then I turned into the teeth of the storm to head for the ramp.
      The thing about a small, light boat, which now had almost all the weight in the rear, was that the front end now sticks way up into the howling wind. I had just gotten started when a strong gust of wind picked up the boat, and I was airborne. Time slows down, up in the air. I had time to ask myself, “Why do I not have on the life vest?” and “Can I swim a lick with this rain gear on?” Then the wind dropped the boat back to the water, turned 180 degrees. I forgot about the ramp, and simply struggled for shore, and for survival.
      The thing about Wargo is, you have two choices. You can fish it and be cold, or you can fish it swarmed by an unbelievable number of mosquitoes. There is only a very small window between. I often chose the cold early spring.
      Camped alone, I struggled out of my tent one cold morning. My fire from the previous night was completely out, or so I thought. I picked up a gallon can of Coleman fuel, stood back, and sloshed a long stream on the remaining wood.
      The thing about fire is, it can come to life from a single small spark, instantly, and run up a long slosh instantly. I was left standing with a giant flamethrower in my hand, and I slung it. Far. I may not fish Wargo for a while, but when I do, I will be sure all my affairs are in order first.
Continued, next post.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My princess Barbara - Goodwill ambassador to the world

     Hello, dear readers, I'm very happy to be back in front of my computer, tickled to be sleeping in my very own bed, and relieved to be around people who are not all speaking those difficult languages. Fortunately, for us, almost all of them spoke passable English also.
      Wife Barbara and I just returned from driving around Sweden, Norway, and Denmark for 34 days. It was very high fun, but very difficult for an old dog like me, who picks up new tricks very slowly!
       When I drove around Southern Europe for a month a while back, my greying hair turned almost white, what I had left. I'm not kidding you. This time, I came home finding wrinkles in strange spots that I had not seen before. Driving in large cities without being able to read the signs, make sense of the maps, or without knowing the rules of the road was hard, and sometimes scary. Keep in mind that was not the natural habitat for an Arkansas Hillbilly, anyway!
       The most difficult thing was, not being wealthy and traveling on a shoestring as I told you before, those countries turned out to be very expensive, especially Norway. although it may be the most beautiful country we have seen. A hotel we pay $75 for in the US ran $250 up. Since our planned daily budget was $200, we had to be very creative. We also stayed in B&B's, guest houses, camping cabins, and hostels.
         My job was driving and carrying the bags, Barbara was in charge of ATM's, computers, and the like, all in strange languages, but where she really shines is in public relations.
         One night we were in a huge building that, I was told, was an "Old Folks Home" renovated into a Hostel. We were totally alone, not another LIVING soul in the building. I had already finished reading all the books I brought with me, so I started looking at Swedish books to take my mind off the strange noises coming up from the basement. I found a picture book about Princess Victoria, their Crown Princess. Hundreds of photos of her in different situations. I began to realize she was a lot like Barbara. Totally at ease in any social situation, perfectly posed in every photo, perfect make-up, clothes perfectly matching and wrinkle free. Just like Barbara. Knowing, as I did, that we were able to find a place where we could use a clothes washer only three times in thirty four days, that we washed clothes in our bathroom sink, dried them on a radiator or in the back half or our car while we traveled, I have no idea how she always looked so perfect, but she did.
       One of the most enjoyable things for me, in our wanderings, is watching her interact with the locals. Once, we were in a line of a dozen or so people waiting for a toilet. (Toilet is the only word that worked there. Ask about a restroom or bathroom brought only blank stares.)  Anyway, everyone was totally quiet. Not a word was said. Finally, Barbara stated, "You Swedish people sure are a quiet bunch." Immediately, everyone broke out laughing and talking, and before our turn for the toilet came, she had a dozen new friends who knew her well, and all about our travels there.
        Trying to place our order for Kabobs in a fast food place, where they do things very different than we do, she started asking people around her how you do this or that, and they all started helping. By the time she got our order, she was friends with everybody in the joint. Thinking of Hillary Clinton's book, I explained to them, "It takes a village to keep her going straight."
         I could go on and on, but you get the idea. She always keeps in mind that we may very well be the only Americans some of them ever talk to, and she uses her God-given ability to make friends instantly, and leaves a long line of smiling new friends behind her every day. How's that for a great good-will ambassador for America?
         By the way, Barbara is a great money manager. Though we haven't seen the final figures yet, It appears we are going to be right on budget, Thanks to eating out of a ton of grocery stores, where, of course, several women were quickly showing us the ropes and explaining what was what, and sleeping in as many camping cabins and hostels as hotels. Every room we slept in was amazingly clean. I could not have scraped up a thimble full of dirt in all of them. The people were very friendly, trusting, and helpful. I had heard before the trip that they may very well be the most civilized people in the world, and I now believe that. And, I have never seen so many tall, slender, truly blond and beautiful women in my life! Actually, of course, my favorite hair color is brown, like Barbara's.
     I will start my next story, "The thing about water," in a couple of days. I personally believe it is my best story. I hope you enjoy it. I'm glad to be back with ya'll, and back to the Ouachita Mountains!