Like the sun, now below the thickness of trees blurring the canyon rim, Ben had snuck away. I spotted him, stock-still at the edge of the pool, an immense heron holding a fishing rod. I hadn’t gone looking for him; just took my camera for a walk. I snapped a few frames, shutterclicking code, a small act of larceny. It was my first time on the Buffalo River and the next day would be the last of the trip. Soon after finding him, I let the camera hang. Ben was quiet and still, watching the water.
Ben and his younger brother Gabe are Ozark brown trout. They barely speak with an Arkansas drawl; their parents came from parts north, but they were hatched and reared in the shaded creeks that feed the White River, splashing bare-footed, skinning knees on limestone. Their lineage was planted in the darkly wooded hills outside of Clarksville, Arkansas and, like the trout introduced below the dams, they grew and thrived.
Today the brothers make their living as guides on the White River, one of the most prolific trout rivers in the country. But trout, and the plugged up cold-water fisheries that support them, are not the brothers’ primary passion. They love the natives, the slow-growing smallmouth bass that cling to the margins of this ecosystem they once ruled.
I first came to northern Arkansas three years previous in search of big browns. Beyond trout, I found kindred anglers with eye-creases and hand callouses that matched my own, a landscape that felt older than the exuberant peaks of the West, gar, really good barbeque. I also heard rumblings about smallmouth. I love bass fishing, so when invited to return and float an undammed, wild river, specifically targeting them, I agreed.
The Buffalo River is a harbinger. It became America’s first national river on March 1, 1972. By 2014, another 207 rivers had been afforded similar status in 39 of the 50 states. Such a distinction is, supposedly, protection. We’re saving river systems—corridors of watery travel far older than our species—through legal documentation. We have stained sheets of processed wood with promises to not trap these rivers behind concrete barriers. The Buffalo was the first to be shielded by such ink.
Hubris and cynicism aside, the lowest 26 miles of its territory can reasonably be described as pristine. In three days, we didn’t float past a single structure except for those built by the river itself. We met two humans who were not in our party, a silent couple in a molded kayak trailing an American flag from the stern. Tires and worn beer cans have settled in the streambed but with such age and infrequency as to seem more like items of archeological interest than trash.
It was early spring, a season when various hungers stir, my favorite season to fish. Every promising sunken log or boulder pile showed life. Long-eared sunfish, better dressed for autumn than spring, zipped in angry flashes, often attacking lures that wouldn’t fit in their mouths.
The smallmouth were plentiful too, red eyes alight with lust and hunger. The spawn was mostly over and, it seemed, the spring flooding had subsided. Water temperatures edged into the 60s, and the fish were feeding, as everything edible began to move—crayfish molting, fry escaping shrinking marginal pools.
Steve Dally, (who runs Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher, the only fishing outfitter on the Buffalo) Ben and Gabe Levin, and Chad Johnson rowed the guide boats. We drifted through—giggles and stubble and beers by midday—casting under overhanging branches, poppers irritating the surface, false offerings in the festival of aquatic abundance.
We feasted as well. T-bones grilled over driftwood on gravel bar kitchens, washed down with boxes of red wine and finished with Dutch oven cobbler. Apple-pie moonshine beside a bonfire for dessert.
That last evening, I happened upon Ben standing beside a slough, a pool cut off from the main flow of the Buffalo by the gravel bar we were camped on. A week ago it had been part of the river.
“There’s a big fish in here,” he told me.
“See the dark brown spot?”
My eyes couldn’t cut the glare, but I stared at the place where he pointed, occasionally seeing ripples.
“She’s guarding a bed.”
He resumed casting as the shadows lengthened and retreated on the far side of the river. Every few casts there would be a boil of water as the bass chased Ben’s lure away from her progeny. She was protective, but not particularly aggressive, pushing and bumping with a closed mouth. Ben’s expression remained as still as his feet, casts rhythmically plopping into the motionless water and twitching over the dark tangle of brush, a bass nursery.
Eventually, inevitably, she ate. Arkansas smallmouth grow slowly: the average 12-incher is six years old. This fish was over 18 inches, the biggest we would see on the trip. She was a rare collusion of genetics, timing and fortune. Dark brown lines etched back from her eyes and bloomed on her gill-plates. Ben kneeled beside the stagnant pool where her fry twitched helplessly and cradled her in the water. We both understood his decision, and I did not envy him.
“That bed won’t make it.” He said. “The river’s dropping fast. It’ll be dry in a week, unless we get rain.”
He glanced at me and then looked back at the fish, flaring her gills in the silted backwater.
“She picked a bad place for her bed,” as if I understood this fickle fishery better than she.
“It was probably perfect when she built it. These fish don’t have much margin for error. If the spawners replace themselves, it’s a good year.”
The fish knew the water was retreating. Big fish rarely get trapped in side channels as river flows drop; they know when to leave. She was compelled to stay, one biological urge being stronger than another. Then we came along, thinking about dissolved oxygen levels and hungry raccoons prowling the shallows, thinking we might know better.
Ben hurried her over dry river stones and lowered her into a calm spot in the main river. He held her there for some time before releasing her into the bounty of spring and oxygenated water. Then we walked back to the pool and dug through the nest. Ben showed me smallmouth fry: they look like brown sperm, or tiny tadpoles. We sat with them while darkness fell. As we hiked back to camp, Ben told me the names of all the different trees in the forest.
We hit the confluence with the White River the next afternoon, artificially swollen, generating power. The rain started just after we trailered up drove away. Three days later, the Buffalo flowed at 20,000 cubic feet per second. It was 100 CFS during our float.
I talked to Ben about this recently. In all likelihood, his dilemma was a forgone conclusion.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing.”
That flood probably scoured the smallmouth nest. Maternal instinct is no match for ten feet of river rise. She would have been driven back to the river by a force greater than compassion, logic, intellect or love, the soft twigs and leaves of her nest snatched by current, her mini-tadpole offspring tumbling with them.
Conservation is not so different from religion.
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves . . .
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.”
Feature image via Tosh Brown.