I have a special fondness for rivers. Roaring rivers. Placid rivers. Clear rivers. Brown rivers. Canoe rivers. Johnboat rivers. Mountain rivers. Cypress rivers.
So it is with many of us who love the outdoors.
My own fondness, I believe, was born from a circumstance of location. I grew up in Cherry Valley, a small northeast Arkansas town situated in a landscape dominated by rivers. Three miles to the west, the L’Anguille River writhes across the Mississippi delta like its namesake, the eel. Continuing west, the traveler crosses Bayou de View at mile 16, the Cache River at mile 22 and the White River at mile 34.
To the east, two more rivers plough S-curves and figure-eights through the delta flatland. The St. Francis River slips through the countryside just nine miles from my home town. The Mississippi races past the Pyramid of Memphis, 50 miles away.
Fishing drew me to these waters from an early age. I was 10 when I caught my first catfish in the L’Anguille. A friend and I biked to a wooden bridge outside town for a full day of catfishing. There, with fresh-cut cane poles stuck in the cracks between the bridge timbers, we waited for the tell-tale tap, tap on our line that signaled a catfish below.
The catfishing wasn’t great, but there was a strange magic to it all – lying belly down on the sun-warmed bridge to snatch bullheads and channel cats from the sleepy current; watching wood ducks and herons trading through the timber in the gray light of dawn; smelling midday’s honeysuckle and the earthy aroma of the bottomlands; hearing owls praise the day for surrendering to night. I fell in love with the L’Anguille then and there, and over the next few years, I returned again and again to experience the river’s magic.
Looking back now, I know it was on that country bridge my love for rivers began.
My burgeoning fondness for rivers took me, naturally, downstream. The L’Anguille flows into the St. Francis, and the St. Francis into the Mississippi. My river wanderings followed a similar course.
When I turned 16, possession of a new driver’s license put my mom’s Ford Galaxy at my disposal for weekend fishing forays on the St. Francis. I had sampled the river’s bounty already, running trotlines for big blues and flatheads, and traveling by johnboat to remote backwaters to rod-and-reel for channel cats. But having my own transportation opened a new world of adventure. I could fish now every weekend, instead of waiting for invitations that might be months apart. I often camped with friends on the riverbank, fishing all night. The things I experienced during those excursions strengthened my love for rivers.
The Mississippi River also had become one of my frequent destinations. An uncle enjoyed fishing the river and river oxbows, and I often tagged along.
Mom would wake me at 3 a.m. so I could rendezvous with Uncle Guy. We would arrive in the dark and be fishing before daybreak. I remember mist hanging over the water like fog on Scottish moors, and the kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk of coots bobbing through the buckbrush. I recall the traditional vittles – potted meat, soda crackers and coffee – and the itchy rear I got from sitting too many hours on a too-hard boat seat. I recollect painted morning skies shrouding galleries of ancient cypress trees, and Uncle Guy’s coffee-can spittoon perched precariously beside him.
It’s the fishing, though, I remember most. Half a dozen cane poles jutted from both sides of the boat as Guy sculled us. He knew all the honeyholes, and before long one of the poles would flex and bob, and we’d pull a nice crappie or bluegill over the transom. There were times when three or four poles would bend at once, and Guy would fuss at me in a gravel-voiced whisper – “Get ‘em in, boy! Get ‘em in!” – lest a big fish elude us.
I learned from Uncle Guy the finer points of fishing. And I learned from him that a river can be haven – a quiet place, wild and beautiful, where one can escape the hustle and bustle of more civilized realms. Uncle Guy loved the river. And through him, my own love for rivers was nourished.
With my best friend Lewis, I discovered the charms of another river – the White – which I soon grew to love. At age 16, we bought backpacks and set out to explore the White River country high in the Ozarks. We stayed an entire week, swimming in icy creeks, exploring streamside bluffs, camping at night in a pup tent hardly big enough for both of us.
After that, most White River trips took us far south and east of the mountain trout waters. We hunted deer in the river bottoms and fished for panfish in river oxbows. There were catfishing nights on snow-white sandbars and squirrel hunts in groves of river-island sweet pecans.
One day we watched sky-darkening waves of mallards descending into the flooded White River bottoms, tens of thousands of them tumbling earthward like the pelting gusts of a spring thundershower. Other times, there were simpler thrills – bald eagles soaring overhead, meteor showers at night, the occasional big catfish caught and carried home so we could show it off at the pool hall.
It was never enough, though. No matter how often we visited the river, we always found an excuse to go back. We still do.
Since those first tentative excursions to the L’Anguille 48 years ago, I have fished rivers throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Tallapoosa in Alabama. The Columbia in Oregon. The Hudson in New York. The Snake in Wyoming. The Magaguadavic and Red in Canada. The Fuerte and Elota in Mexico. The Paragua and Caroni in Venezuela. The Branco, Negro and Amazon in Brazil. Dozens more.
These are not my rivers, however. The rivers I love most – the L’Anguille, the St. Francis, the White, the Mississippi and others – flow through the Natural State. For some people, these waters are nothing more than obstacles to be crossed. For me, they are trails to follow. They are threads woven through the fabric of my life. And now that I have six sons, they are something to share.
In 1996, three of my sons and I joined friends for a 60-mile float on the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. For four days, we fished, we swam and we explored. It was, for all of us, an unforgettable experience.
In 1998, my youngest son joined the same crew for another adventure on these magical rivers. In 1999, we did it again.
These trips began as short summer getaways, but they evolved into something much more meaningful. The more time we spent on the rivers, the more my sons came to treasure the beauty and wildness of these ancient waterways. They anxiously planned each trip, eagerly waiting the time when we could once again ride the current through the backwoods. I began to see in them reflections of my childhood, and could see that they, too, have developed what will certainly become a lifelong love of rivers.
On the last river trip with my boys, I went out when everyone was asleep and sat by the water. It felt good to lean back and enjoy the wilderness around me: a sweep of star-specked sky between walls of majestic hardwoods; sandbars scrubbed white by the moving waters; flowers and greenery cuffing the river. There were no sounds of civilization, only the low hiss of the breeze ruffling the trees and the calls of a barred owl hunting downstream.
I took my shoes off and soaked my feet in the water. The river tugged at my toes. It was as if the stream was alive, and I could feel its pulse.
Relaxing there, I pondered the many miles this water had traveled, the people it had touched, the animals and plants it had nourished, the mountain bluffs, cypress bottoms, farmlands, cities, fishing shanties and hunting camps it had coursed past, before reaching this point at the end of its long journey.
I thought about others like us who must have been drawn to the river that day. I thought, too, about the creatures – the ducks, bears, and deer, the water birds and raptors – and about the people who had come before us – explorers, voyageurs, boat captains, naturalists, pioneers, historians – all allured by the magic of the river.
I reflected on my own attraction to this river and other rivers I love. And I thought about my sons’ growing love for flowing waters.
Now they, too, have been charmed by a river mistress. And in them, I see hope for the future of these precious waters.
I slept well that night, knowing they were with me.
Editor’s Note: Keith Sutton is the author of “Pro Tactics Catfish.” To order an autographed copy of this 164-page, full-color book that’s full of fishing tips, visit www.catfishsutton.com.
Looking for fishing shows on Outdoor Channel during the months of October – December? “The Hunt for Big Fish” and “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” both air in the last quarter of the year. Check the schedule for updated air times.