Looking at God's Wallpaperby Steve Wright
There was no way to predict a sunny day in May 1990 would be one of the most interesting and significant days of my life. I was simply in search of a story for the “Ozark Outdoors” section of the Northwest Arkansas Times newspaper as I drove the 12 miles to Springdale (Ark.) Central Junior High School.
Twenty-one years later, on a cloudless Friday in October, I drove to Springdale to meet Ron Duncan, the same person I interviewed in 1990. But this time I made the now familiar drive to his house, where I put my fishing tackle in the 12-foot aluminum johnboat tied in the bed of his pickup truck. We were going on a float fishing trip on an Ozark stream - again.
I haven’t kept count, but our float trips together must number near 200 now. Duncan, born in 1952 in the small southwest Missouri town of Wheaton, and I, born in 1953 in the White River town of Batesville, Ark., are simply carrying on an Ozark tradition.
The tradition probably began about 10,000 years ago, when the first Native Americans lived near these Ozark streams, like White River, Buffalo River, Kings River, Crooked Creek and War Eagle Creek in Arkansas and White River, Current River, James River and Huzzah Creek in Missouri.
In more recent history, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco) and the Missouri Pacific Railway (MoPac) brought tourists to the Ozarks at the turn of the 20th century and sparked an interest in float fishing. The pace was leisurely, as guides paddled passengers in stable 20-plus-foot wooden johnboats, letting the stream current do most of the work; the smallmouth bass fishing was fantastic, with three-pounders being common; and the scenery was breathtaking.
“Looking at God’s wallpaper,” was how one man described an Ozark float trip.
In those days, a float trip included overnight camping on a gravel bar, and you could do it for just about as many consecutive days as you wanted. Branson, Mo., located on the White River by Lake Taneycomo, became the headquarters for float fishing. Built in 1913, the dam at Taneycomo was the only one on the White River then. Outfitters, like Jim Owen in Branson, had plenty of room to work - 125 miles of the James River and White River, from Galena to Branson, above Taneycomo Dam and another 250 miles of White River down to Cotter, Ark., below Taneycomo Dam.
One national publication printed the following account by a writer named Milt Bangs:
"We floated down the James River and into the White traversing one-hundred-and-twenty-five miles of river and ending but twenty-one miles from our starting point. At Galena, our party of four was equipped with two flat-bottomed skiffs, two guides, tent, cots, cooking gear, ice and provisions. Our party wanted bass fishing, and got it. A hundred bass, none under ten inches long, most weighing from one to three pounds and one weighing four, were landed on the five-day trip. All smaller bass were returned uncounted.”
On June 23, 1941, the cover story in Life magazine was entitled “Lazy Fishing.” It featured a Jim Owen outfitted trip, described as follows:
“A month ago, in long narrow flat-bottomed boats, seven people drifted 50 miles down winding streams in three days in the Missouri Ozarks. They were float-fishing, an established method of Ozark fishing which requires nothing of the fisherman but complete relaxation and a fishing license.”
On this day, Duncan and I were headed to War Eagle Creek in northwest Arkansas. It is one of our favorites. It begins in Arkansas’ Boston Mountains, which also spawn White River, Kings River, Buffalo River and Mulberry Creek. Picture a five-fingered grip of a baseball, with each digit representing a stream’s initial trickle off the hilltop, most in a northerly direction. War Eagle creek takes a northwest path for 59 miles before it joins White River in Beaver Lake, a 28,000-acre impoundment completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1966.
The Buffalo River is Arkansas’ best-known float stream. It’s renowned for its towering bluffs of “God’s wallpaper.” And it’s known for a battle between the Corps of Engineers and local conservationists over a proposed dam on the river. That fight ended in 1972 when the U.S. Congress designated the Buffalo as the country’s first National River.
“I like War Eagle Creek because it’s like a smaller Buffalo River,” Duncan said. “It’s more intimate. It’s just a beautiful stream.”
High bluffs, long gravel bars and clear water are the primary features of War Eagle Creek as it snakes its way through the Ozarks. Duncan and I have floated several sections of the creek. Our destination on this October day was Red Bluff, where rock layers of sandstone, limestone and dolomite are stacked like a ream of paper. Water has undercut the bluff to a degree that it provides a rain shelter, when needed, in this 180-degree turn in the creek.
While many enjoy canoeing these Ozark streams, Duncan gears up for serious fishing, hence the larger craft. It’s rigged with an electric trolling motor to maneuver down the still pools and back up, if good fishing warrants it, plus two paddles for navigating the riffles. We both carried five rods, combinations of spinning and baitcasting rigs, and a big tackle bag.
In the clear, mostly shallow water, you might think this was strictly a light-line, spinning tackle scenario. But with its connection to Beaver Lake, War Eagle Creek holds some surprisingly big bass. Duncan caught a seven-pound largemouth on one memorable trip. We’ve both caught a few in the five-pound range and smallmouths up to three pounds. Those are the highlights. The norm is plenty of 10- to 15-inch bass, mostly smallmouths, but largemouths and spots are common. There are usually a good number of rock bass, too, or, as they are called around here, goggle-eye.
Duncan is an accomplished bass fisherman. He owns a BassCat boat, qualified for the state B.A.S.S. Federation Championship six times and was a member of the 1995 B.A.S.S. Federation Arkansas Championship team.
In 1999 Duncan was invited to the Bassmaster Classic, where he was honored as the B.A.S.S. Man of the Year. This award had nothing to do with catching bass, which brings us back to the reason I went to see him at Springdale Central Junior High that first time.
In 1982, Duncan sponsored a “fishing club” at the school where he was employed, first as a civics teacher and later as a counselor. Duncan figured he could get tackle donated from area businesses (Wal-Mart is headquartered in nearby Bentonville.) and pass along his love of fishing and the outdoors. Soon it became the most popular activity club in the school, doubling in size almost every year.
One year, before the Springdale school system changed to a middle school model that included seventh grade, Duncan was facing an unmanageable number of 1,000 fishing club members. Many were lured by the idea of qualifying for the annual striped bass tournament, which was held on a school day and made possible by many local striper guides volunteering their time.
“It became the coolest thing in school to do,” Duncan said. “You got a day out of school to go fishing.”
To trim the numbers, Duncan established some qualifiers: you either had to pay $5 or write a paragraph about why you wanted to be in the club. That, combined with taking seventh-graders out of the junior high system, helped Duncan cut the club numbers down to the 400 to 600 range.
Fishing-related businesses, both near and far, exceeded Duncan’s expectations in their willingness to donate tackle. Since its inception, every Central Junior High Fishing Club member has been given a rod-and-reel combo.
And, more importantly, the monthly activity plans that Duncan created became a model for the national “Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs” program sponsored by the Future Fisherman Foundation.
In that first story I wrote about Duncan and the fishing club in 1990, I quoted a seventh-grader who had qualified for the striper tournament by improving his grades - dramatically.
“I had nothing under a B on my last report card,” he said. “Before I got into the fishing club I was making almost all Fs. I just wasn’t interested in anything else.”
Stories like that became common over the years. A now-successful adult once told me, with tears in his eyes, that the club had “literally saved my life,” as he was headed down a dark path before the club turned him around.
The club has turned out some good anglers as well as good citizens. FLW pro Greg Bohannan of Rogers, Ark., has won three tournaments and over $450,000 on the circuit, something he could barely dream about as a member of one of Duncan’s first fishing clubs. The club provided the spark for that dream.
“It started getting you focused on the opportunities that were in the outdoors,” Bohannan once told me.
In 2004, Duncan was one of three inductees in the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame. That prompted then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to state: “While from an outdoorsman’s point of view, it’s fair to say that Ron has probably taught more kids to fish than anyone in our state. It’s accurate to say that Ron has influenced as many lives as any teacher I know.”
In 2007, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe broke from the norm and named Duncan to a seven-year term on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Those appointments usually go to the wealthier and more politically influential Arkansans. One reason for that is AGFC commissioners hardly have time for a regular job with the travel and time demands.
Duncan had been telling me every year for the last five that he was going to retire from his counselor’s job at Springdale Central Junior High. He finally did it in 2009, after 36 years in the school system.
Duncan is a grandfather. His only child, a daughter, has two children, lives far away and visits occasionally. But his life, just like his former occupation, is filled with kids. He has a way with kids. He is able to quickly form an uncommon bond with teenagers - a group most adults have tried and failed with. Even in retirement, Duncan has kept the strings attached to his former students. He and his wife, Theresa, are season ticket holders at Northwest Arkansas Naturals baseball games, and there are almost always a couple of teenagers with them there.
I like to point out that since Duncan stands all of 5 feet, 6 inches tall, he can talk to kids on their level. (At 5-8, I “tower” over him.) And I frequently leave off the B when recounting Duncan’s B.A.S.S. Man of the Year award. Duncan can give it as well as he takes the ribbing. There’s been a lifetime’s worth of laughter in 21 years of float fishing together.
I still laugh out loud at the memory of a float we took on Indian Creek in Missouri several years ago. It was a blazing hot July day. We decided to cool off in a tree-shaded riffle. Duncan sat down in the shallow water, then shot up screaming, “Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh,” as he reached down the back of his shorts and pulled, of all things, a hellgrammite, an aquatic insect with a fierce set of pinchers, from between the cheeks of his rear end.
At the opposite end of the fun scale, there was the time we were floating the Illinois River west of Springdale one September, and we saw two large cottonmouths going through some kind of ritual as if they were Indian cobras responding to a snake charmer. In unison, they raised their heads up, six inches out of the water, then wrapped themselves together. They seemed oblivious to us as I snapped photos and Duncan pleaded with me to keep paddling. (A snake expert later told me those were two males in a territorial dispute.)
But every day has been memorable – big fish, small fish or few fish. (We’ve never been skunked.) There’s just something about floating down a stream - with a defined starting point and ending point, but nothing definite about the time it takes you to complete the trip – that leaves you in a frame of mind where all is right with the world. You don’t forget those.
This October day would rank near the top. We’ve had days of catching and releasing over 60 bass. I’ve got a file folder packed with notes from our floats, when I recorded the time, species and length of every fish we’ve caught. For example, on August 16, 2008, we caught 10 fish between 10 and 11 a.m. on Indian Creek. They ranged in size from a 14.5-inch smallmouth to an unmeasured goggle-eye, and all were caught on Arkie Crawlin’ Grubs, our favorite float stream lure for smallmouths. Our total that day was 24 fish from 9:43 a.m. until 1:50 p.m. The biggest was a 19-inch largemouth I caught on the last cast of the day.
I didn’t keep count this time. We weren’t on a typical float trip. Normally, we’d put in at a low-water bridge below what’s known as the Gar Hole and take out at War Eagle Mill, a still-working water-powered grist mill first-built in 1832. (Both Union and Confederate troops occupied the mill at times during the Civil War, when it ultimately became a war casualty and was burned to the ground, then rebuilt after the war.)
Red Bluff stands about mid-way through that six-mile stretch of War Eagle Creek. But its water level was too low to float without a lot of boat dragging. Duncan, who knows every gravel road in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, found a road into Red Bluff, and the landowner turned out to be an old friend, who let us put the boat it in at the deep, blue pool below the bluff.
In the next four hours, we caught somewhere between 35 and 40 fish. We pulled the boat upstream through a couple of shoals and walked downstream to a couple of holes, but mostly we fished from the boat below Red Bluff. We caught fish on everything from buzzbaits to crankbaits to our favorite Arkie Crawlin’ Grubs. But on this cloudless day, the bass seemed to be hugging the bottom of the deeper parts of the pool. A Texas-rigged green-pumpkin Zoom Trick Worm proved to be the best bait of the day.
The biggest fish we caught was a 14.5-inch smallmouth - nothing to get excited about on most days. But this wasn’t “most days.” This was our ceremonial fall float trip and, due to work conflicts, probably our last for several months. With the low water and last-minute plans, it couldn’t have been much better.
As I was getting ready to leave Springdale Central Junior High after interviewing Duncan on that May day in 1990, he asked me, “Do you like to float fish the streams around here?” After my eyes lit up and I said yes, Duncan said, “I’ll call you, and we’ll go sometime.”
It was August 6 when we finally got together the first time for a float trip. Duncan caught a 6.25-pound largemouth bass to cap that day on Illinois River.
We’ve been, as the kids say these days, “best friends