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|Juice and Joy|
Of bassboats and guides, both tour and fishing, make thy choice, and worthy the winning.
“He’s throwing them dogs,” Vernon concludes. “That’s what he’s at. Washing his scent.” Earlier we saw a few Walker hounds sniffing through the may-apples without supervision. Vern says they swim over to islands to hunt on their own. We’d rousted a yearling whitetail from its hidden bed of bramble and blackberry at the water’s edge. It ambled up a hill where dogwood petals floated through late March woods charged with the grand gold of nature’s first green. The little deer, like the rabbit we watch now and the hounds it lackadaisically eluded, seemed involved in some perfunctory Edenic venery utterly lacking in urgency.
I’ve never seen a rabbit in water, though of course I know they, like all natural creatures, can swim. The passing bunny manages at least as well as a yappy dog, quiet as a cat, ears back, nub tail raised coquettishly to keep dry. At first we mistook it for an otter, dragging a subtle V through the spatter-painted pine pollen on the skin of the slough. I doubt the rabbit could drown its scent to more committed hounds. By fall the entire company—hare, hart, and hounds—will quicken the chase, but in this early Arkansas spring the woods are peacefully involved in quiescent new beginnings.
Originally drawn to the Ouachita (wash-she-ta) Mountains for the area’s natural beauty—its refreshing absence of billboards, its scenic rivers and grand lakes, including the 49,000-acre Lake Ouachita—I needed a break from gourmet meals and gallery receptions. Staci, my resplendent and sympathetic tour coordinator, scheduled a fishing guide who took sick, calling Vernon Neighbors to rescue me from a red-carpet tour of a springwater bottling company.
Gratefully, I sink into the bucket seat of Vern’s bass boat, sponging sunshine and rigging the multi-piece fly rod I packed into my luggage. Vernon knows what it is, but since his first commission in 1947 he’s never had one aboard. “You set that thing aside, I can put you on some fish,” he counsels. “I got plenty of tackle.”
Rigged spinning rods and baitcasters line the bow beside the trolling motor. Vern plunders the white plastic bag of last-minute tackle I picked up at Wal-Mart along with my three-day license. The only item he’ll sanction is a crappy jig I’d thought to sling, if all else fails, into the stippled pewter shades of baitfish I’ve seen from the sixth-floor balcony of the Clarion, where I’m garrisoned for a press trip of travel writers. The tour has been tightly organized, rich and demanding. Bill Clinton’s historic boyhood home, Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a Mecca of civilized leisure, an arts community with resorts, gourmet restaurants, film and music festivals, health spas, golf courses, a hippodrome, and a wealth of pleasantly attractive places I’ve been trying to circumnavigate so I can go fishing.
Hernando de Soto, after stumbling upon the Mississippi River, was in 1541 the first European to visit “the Valley of Vapors,” where warring Indian tribes buried tomahawks and puffed calumets for sufficient truce to steep in the healthful waters. Generating from rain percolating 8,000 feet into the earth, the heated water seeps through cracks and faults leaching minerals from Earth’s bones to resurface at the base of Hot Springs Mountain 4,000 years later in thermal springs pulsing a million gallons of hot artesian water every day.
In 1832, Andrew Jackson, notorious enemy to Indians, made Hot Springs the first Federal Reservation, and during Prohibition, Al Capone, as infamous as Jackson and de Soto for homicide, engaged gangland rivals in mutual cease-fires for peaceable soaks. Lucky Luciano was arrested here, ending his frequent pilgrimages to treat venereal diseases. Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson gambled where Jack Dempsey, John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, and Joe Lewis relaxed. Frank and Jesse James robbed a train just outside of town. The Army/Navy Hospital at the south end of Bathhouse Row administered water therapy to wounded WWII soldiers and sailors. Hot Springs justly enjoys a reputation as a temporary retreat of violent factions, a solace for the wounded, infirm, and exhausted in a country’s busy history of endemic strife and perennial war.
This boat’s old like me,” Vernon apologizes, “but she’ll get us yonder and back, Sixty-two is all she’ll do.”
“What’s the rush?” For the last five years, I had cruised the Caribbean, reducing sail when my cutter approached 10 knots. The fastest boat I’ve ever owned was a Thompson lapstreak with a Johnson Golden Javelin 35. During the middle decade of the 20th century, I tormented fishermen at 32 mph when I was 15 and Vernon was 35. Now I despise fast boats, with their screaming engines and jaunty roostertails.
Vern punches the throttle. The boat squats, bow pointing first to heaven then planing off, lifting haunches to scat across the glassy lake, flushing wild ducks and then passing them. I reach for a seat belt where there isn’t one. Tears stream over flapping jowls into tormented ears. Maniacal eyes behind Vern’s thick spectacles squint into the headwind, white hair trailing like an egret crest. “Damn, Vernon, how fast we going?”
Like most guides, Vernon assumes clients want to catch the most fish as fast as possible. In his arithmetic, we left the hotel dock late and were already in the red, and I spend the first hour trying to calm him down. We buzz from one hope to another like late bees before a cold snap, until we see fish pushing up shad in a bottleneck between wider sections of Lake Hamilton. Vernon cuts the engine. We glide into range.
I tie on the crappy jig and heave a high overhand like a first serve at Wimbledon. The lure’s trajectory hesitates at the neutral peak between momentum and gravity, tailing fly line into the shadow of shoaling fish. Vernon boats a largemouth and a Kentucky bass before I can strip in and sling again. My next cast, a double-hauled Herculean haymaker, nails the jig head smartly into the back of my skull with a report like a .22 short—PAP!
“Ow! Dad-dammit!” I drop to my knees on the carpet. Vern, inspired by blasphemy and genuflection, tells me about his church, Mt. Olive Nondenominational, where he’s the oldest deacon.
“I got to go with something lighter,” I interrupt, rubbing the knot on my scalp. I try a white popper, and provoke a strike or two before the feeding fish sink too deep. Vern puts a hybrid and another largemouth in the box.
“Let’s just find a pretty place and fish the shore for pre-spawn bluegills and bigmouth bass,” I suggest. “Just take it easy, enjoy the springtime.”
“This whole lake’s pretty,” Vernon says, as indeed it is: a civilized, comfortable beauty inhabited by wealthy human beings. Eager to please, he turns his ball cap around, and we squall off again like a scalded cat past monumental boathouses and funereal lawns chalked by feral geese a long way from Canada. I stomp my own hat beneath both feet, bracing against velocities that water my vision and suck slobber from my mouth. We yaw around a sharp turn into a quiet cove of deadheads and overhangs. Vernon kills the Evinrude and we slide in close to the wooded island where we’ll find dogs, deer, and a rabbit dallying in pre-Lapsarian harmony, where Vern and I will settle into the comfortable friendship of two senior citizens fishing
together on a perfect spring day in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.
A late March storm has dumped rainwater on central Arkansas, charging the hesitant hills with the verdant juice and joy of spring. It’s unusual and a little haunting to fish with somebody two decades older than I am, a first since my father died. I listen to an abbreviated story of Vern’s life in rural Arkansas, predictably fraught with poverty, hardship, booze, and disappointment. He grew up during tough times on the Ouachita River. He lost a child, buried the second wife he’d married after catching the first in adultery, and adopted children who went to jail. To land a job as a machinist, he inflated his four years of schooling to 10 and became a production supervisor of more educated men, who eventually exercised their own brand of white-collar mendacity to filch his pension, but Vernon doesn’t linger on Fortune’s outrageous slings and arrows, and I won’t either.
Now he’s happily married to his son’s mother-in-law, a complicated connection even by Arkansas standards. He courted his wife of 18 years on weekends from Texas after he started drawing Social Security, driving nearly a thousand miles round-trip to take her to church. One evening a foreign voice spoke through his mouth. “We ought to get married,” he shocked himself by saying.
“Aw right then,” she replied.
Driving home, he panicked over the notion of rushing into a third matrimony to a woman he’d known for barely 40 years. He quickly proposed a lengthy engagement, then came to trust the alien voice that had issued through his own mouth, reckoning the match made by the Lord’s steady hand, and this—except for an undaunted willingness to hurl our brittle bones at fiendish velocities—constitutes my only glimpse into the nature of his faith. His ready conversation is seasoned with frequent mention of church activities without a hint of theology, no speculations or conclusions outlining the tenets of his faith, no system of rewards and punishment or prospects of immortality. It’s as though the specifics of Vern’s faith go without saying. He invites me to Wednesday church supper, a temptation eclipsed by a scheduled visit to Bathhouse Row, where Indians and gangsters—before being driven to Oklahoma or arrested by the Feds, set aside fatal agendas to partake of thermal waters.
Amid placid coos of mated mourning doves, I indulge the whimsy of paradisiacal waters brooded by Mother Earth, her juice rising like Eden’s fountain of four rivers, placating natural adversity in a garden of respite from war, feud, and venery.
Vernon has promised Staci he’d have me back at the hotel dock by 11:30 for lunch at Quapaw Bath House. At 11:25 we are at least five miles away. I’m flipping a mayfly in March to lethargic sunfish, knowing absolutely I should fish a Woolly Bugger, watching the dry fly float with thistledown on provocative wrinkles, anticipating the sip of bedding fishes where a rabbit rinses its scent to elude perfunctory hounds, and lazy yearlings amble up banks beneath snowy dogwood blossoms and rashes of redbud.
I keep quiet about the time. If I can blame a missed tour on Vernon, maybe I can hook back up with him for the afternoon, haul over to the Ouachita River of Vern’s invested youth, chunk flies to walleyes and smallmouth bass in whitewater riffles, or just drift on the bosom of a scenic river with a new world crawling by.
Vern releases our fish from the live well into the cove, holding back a bass. “I got a neighbor eats them,” he reasons. The big Evinrude erupts. We turn our caps around and catapult as if launched by a slingshot to the dock, where the stately Staci awaits with itinerary and van. The wind has picked up, a chop rattling beneath the hydroplaning hull. “Four minutes!” Vern declares as we approach the Clarion. He kills the engine. The backwash pushes us in.
“What luck, you two?” Staci, in sundress and sandals, hails us with a smile warm as spring sunshine. Self-consciously raking my nails across my disheveled skull, I finger wisdom’s latest lump on a thin scalp. As Vern crawls forward to tie us off, I venture one final oxymoronic and impotent gesture of hope: “We wore a hole in the water pulling them out,” I testify. “Climb in and hang on; we’ll take you where they’re thick as fire ants and lions lie with lambs.”
“Some other time,” she declines brightly. Staci has a delightful capacity of feigning temptation, when in fact she’d rather go in for a root canal than scoot off with two old farts in a vintage boat at velocities that would righteously wreck her hair. “Promises to keep,” she reminds me. “We’ve just time to scrub you up for lunch.”
I crab along the dock on bandy legs, taking down the rod. A quick 30 years ago I’d have followed this gorgeous girl gleefully to a Chamber reception or on a pale horse through concentric chambers of Hell, but today I yearn only to stay on a clean lake in Arkansas with an energetic guide old enough to be my dead father, swapping gourmet fare for the thermos of coffee and cookies Vern carries to tame his diabetes. I want to drone among early flowers with fumbling bees, to recall bright waters and dream of eternal springtime forever budding and fish waters that sink to the depths of Mother Earth to purify and return. For a precious moment, I want to leave pretty girls on land, anticipating reunions on distant shores with my father, casting milksop and honeycomb into lakes of swimming rabbits where indolent hounds trail placid deer. I want to lay down pen and books and study with Vernon the ways of fishes, releasing our catch into wobbling reflections of renewable green.
Hunkered down in hiatus from a Caribbean misadventure, O. Vic occupies a 1972 Airstream on the backyard riverbank of his family home in Georgia.