Frozen Smiles: Trout Fishin' in the Little Red River
Sitting on Arkansas’ Little Red River in January requires the constitution of a polar bear. The icy Ozark Mountains air creeps into your bones like arthritis. Your toes and fingers throb. Your nose and ears get numb. Your bones ache. Thinsulate and goose down hardly help.
As I look downstream, however, I see 24 anglers in six boats. Upstream, there are more. They look like victims of the guillotine because their winter coats are pulled high above their ears for warmth. I cannot see their faces. I know, nevertheless, most of them are smiling.
They smile because they see the bald eagles I am watching—a chocolate-colored juvenile and an ivory-headed adult sitting side-by-side in a bone-white sycamore on the river’s edge. They smile because a third flock of buffleheads just flew by, barely skimming the surface of the crystalline water. They smile because 23 wild turkeys are scratching for acorns on a nearby hillside.
Arkansas’ Little Red River offers world-class trout fishing in a setting of unparalleled beauty. (Keith Sutton photo)
Most of all, they smile because the trout are biting. On the Little Red, the trout are always biting—cold or no cold.
“Are you gonna daydream or catch that fish?” Buddy Pate asks as he thumps me on the ear. The ear shatters into frozen shards, or so it seems.
“Buddy!” I react. “Why don’t you just stick a hot poker in my eye? It wouldn’t hurt half as bad.”
“Shut up and reel, fat boy, before you lose that fish.”
I reel. The trout fights. I see it deep in the malachite waters, flashing like a new silver dollar flipped in the air. The water temperature hovers barely above freezing, but the trout seems immune.
“Must be full of antifreeze,” says Glynn Harris, a Ruston, Louisiana, outdoor writer who has joined Buddy, Jim Spencer and me for our annual winter funfest. “Otherwise it’d be nothin’ but a frozen fish stick.”
Glynn has made the January sojourn to north-central Arkansas’ Little Red for a half dozen years or so. Jim was with me on my first trip 20 years ago and nearly every trip since then.
Buddy has been guiding on and off here since Methuselah was a baby. No one knows the river better. And ear thumpings aside, when I visit the Little Red, there’s no one with whom I’d rather fish.
The 1-pound rainbow comes to the surface and puts on an acrobatics show that warms us all. When finally it yields, I pull it alongside the boat and pass my rod to Buddy. “Hold it, will you? I want a photo.”
Exposed silver crystals on a strip of film can never capture the true beauty of the aptly named rainbow trout. And Little Red rainbows are more beautiful than most. The purity of the Ozark water adds extra sparkle to these already glistening jewels.
“God never made anything prettier than that,” Buddy says as he turns the trout to reflect the sunlight. The fish’s scales glimmer like a million tiny gemstones—a mantle of emeralds inlaid with flecks of gold and a ribbon of rose-colored diamonds.
Buddy Pate shows off a Little Red rainbow caught on a January fishing trip with the author. (Keith Sutton photo)
I capture my photos. The trout goes free. In the two hours that follow, my friends and I catch dozens more, including some cutthroats, brookies and browns. The cold hardly seems noticeable now, but we still have frozen smiles.
While we fish, my wife relaxes in a Jacuzzi in front of the glowing fireplace in our cabin at Lindsey’s Rainbow Resort. My friends call her “Saint” Theresa. (“She must be a saint to live with you.”) Today, with no phone ringing, no job responsibilities to worry about and a good book to read, she feels like a goddess.
Theresa thinks of “Cloud Nine” as her cabin. We’ve made it our home-away-from-home for nine years, enjoying its quiet beauty and comfort for three days each January. This rustic cedar cottage offers an unobstructed view of the scenic river just below. From the porch swing, we’ve watched otters playing, eagles fishing, goldeneyes diving and raccoons stealing trout from the livewells of boats. We’ve sat inside, warm and cozy, while snow blanketed the mountainsides. When we’re here, we always find peace.
In the vicinity of nearby Heber Springs, there are flea markets, fly-fishing shops and antique stores to prowl, trails to hike, wonderful restaurants, beautiful parks and intriguing historic sites. At the Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery, you can see thousands of trout ready to be stocked in the river, including some as long as your legs. We enjoy all these things, but most of all, we enjoy the people. The folks of Cleburne County, Arkansas are the world’s friendliest, and that, more than anything, keeps us coming back.
Most visitors to the area are trout-fishing enthusiasts on a pilgrimage to sacred water. Never mind that the Little Red lacks the true backcountry essence of say the Yellowstone or the Madison. Don't worry that's it's in the South and not the West. Try to forget that most anglers passing by in the long green johnboats are casting corn and marshmallows instead of hand-tied flies. These things don't matter because this Ozark stream is one of America's best trout rivers in terms of the number and size of fish it produces.
Rip Collins of Heber Springs cemented the river’s reputation in May 1992 when he landed a mammoth 40-pound, 4-ounce, world-record brown trout here. Suddenly, anglers everywhere knew what a few anglers had been saying all along—that the Little Red River sits near the top of the list of the world's great trout streams.
Howard “Rip” Collins caught this former world-record brown trout in the Little Red in 1992. It weighed a whopping 40 pounds, 4 ounces. (Photo courtesy of Gregg Patterson)
But the Little Red’s fame was not built on that single fish. On a good day here, it’s not unusual to catch 30 or more 9- to 12-inch rainbows, cutthroats and brook trout—stockers from federal hatcheries that eagerly strike any enticement, from corn and salmon eggs to crankbaits and spoons. Some grow considerably larger, as Collins’ record proves.
There are wild fish, too—big bruiser brown trout, sleek and magnificent, that spawn on tumbling river shoals each fall. And there are fish for fly fishers, long lean trout gone feral after years of freedom, trout that will wolfishly inhale an olive midge or pheasant-tail nymph if it is presented just so at just the right spot at just the right time, trout that offer more challenge than your typical stocker. They're here, and there are lots of them.
Most visitors quickly learn, however, that the trout are just a few tiles in this incredible Ozark Mountains mosaic. The Little Red has much more to offer than just fishing. Southern charm. Abundant wildlife. Magnificent scenery. Friendly people. When you return to the Little Red for your second visit, and third and fourth, these things, as much as the world-class trout fishing, will draw you back.
As we pass Cloud Nine on our way back to the dock, Theresa waves from the porch swing. “What are you grinning about?” she asks when I arrive at the cabin. “I figured you’d be frozen.”
“I am,” I answer. “But I caught some pretty nice trout. I saw two eagles and a big flock of wild turkeys. I spent the whole morning in a boat with three guys I count among my best friends. And I know there’s a fire inside and a hot Jacuzzi where I can thaw out. Why are you smiling so big?”
“I just like it here,” she says. “I wish we could stay forever.”
An eagle soared past as we started inside. I swear there was a smile on its face, too.
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