Or how to fall in love with a river and a rod.
Photography by Brock Dixon
TO ME, it’s invisible, but he can see it. With quick, steady fingers, he whirls the filament four, five, six times, threading it back through an equally invisible hole. He takes it between his thumbs and forefingers, brings it to his mouth, and with a quick nibble, it becomes two.
“I do a lot of knot-tying,” he says. “I probably swallow more fluorocarbon than I should.”
He is Brock Dixon, the man behind North Arkansas Troutfitters, and the knots he’s tying are connected to the end of my fly rod. I’m in his boat, and we’re in the middle of the White River, not far from Cotter. He’s the expert, I’m the novice, though I don’t know if “novice” is accurate enough.
“Make a cast to 12 o’clock. Just throw it behind you—therrre you go,” he says from his perch in the center of the boat. “See how it carries it out there? Be careful not to be too wristy—use that thumb … there you go. Think of that rod tip being an ice pick, and you’re in a room, and you want to stick that ice pick in the ceiling without scratching the ceiling. See how I’m poking it? Kinda sticking it in the ceiling?”
It’s quiet and still, and the river’s ours alone. As I cast behind me, I can hear the whooosh of the fly line accelerating.
“That’s it,” he says. “You’ve got it. Real compact. Real simple. People over-complicate fly-fishing. It’s easy—way easier than regular fishing.”
“Yeah?” I think, still awkwardly wielding my imaginary ice pick.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s more natural.”
Brock’s a natural. Or at least that’s the way it seems. Truth is, he’s just a perfectionist. A Texas native, he taught himself to cast a line on the banks of the Illinois River between classes at the University of Arkansas. Once he mastered that, he wanted a boat. Then he wanted to guide. Then he started his guiding business. These days, the 29-year-old’s booked pretty much full time. This is his desk—I think of the boat we’re sitting in. This river is his office.
Casting learned, we move upstream. He’s killed the motor, and as he rows and the oars make their Styrofoam-y, record-scratchy creaks, I ask him where his clients come from.
“All over, really,” he says, mentioning places such as Dallas, Oklahoma City, New York, Wisconsin. “The White River is really famous for really big brown trout. There’s nowhere else in the country that grows brown trout like we do in a river. There’s such a biodiversity here. They stock over a million rainbow trout here every year—that’s a lot of food for brown trout.” Something to his left catches his eye. “Hey, watch that indicator. If it ticks or makes a move like it went under, set the hook just like a back cast.”
I’m trying to watch, but there’s just so much else to see. The sun’s glinting off the water, the river rocks are tumbling, the …
“Yip! Yip! Oup, there he is!” Brock says, breaking my reverie. “OK, so, just strip that line in just like that, keep that rod tip high, you want a nice bend in the rod … just like that, turn your rod a bit, direct him in here …”
I’m bending, stripping the line, leading him (or her?) in, and I’m not sure, but he feels like The Big One. It’s me versus him, or are we working together? In a flash, he’s in the net. Turns out he’s … tiny. But he’s beautiful. Rainbow trout is a fitting name.
“There he is!” Brock says, high-fiving me. “First fish on a fly rod!”
We make a pit stop at Gaston’s White River Resort. Brock shows me the resort’s air strip and hangar, the prim cabins, the restaurant where the walls are positively smothered in clippings from fishing publications. It’s only then, much as I’ve heard tell, that I realize the renown that surrounds this sport in the state, that’s elevated this river to world-class status.
Back in the boat, cruising to find a cove where we can have the picnic Brock’s stashed away for us in his Yeti, I sit in the front seat, whipped by a fresh wind. The river’s wide, much wider than I’d anticipated, and the breeze has chopped up the water’s sapphire-blue surface. Towering blufflines hem us in on both banks, and every few hundred feet, you can spy the pitch of a roof atop the ridge. High above us, a pair of wintering bald eagles circle, and blue herons—so many I’ve lost count—perch on their stickly legs near the shore. Not far downstream, I spot what, at first, seems to be yet another heron, but as we approach, it turns out to be a wader-sporting fly fisher waist-high in the drink, casting a line. The scale of it all startles me. He seems so small. I feel so small.
It’s a feeling I could get used to.