Fly-fishing with Dacus
A city boy takes respite in the winding rivers and placid ponds of Tennessee - along the way he finds calm and comaraderie in friendship and fly-fishing.
Looking back it seems crazy how nice it was. Nearly every fishing trip of my life has seen rain, wind, fog or molten, scabrous sun. All part of nature's eternal conspiracy to deny me fish. The forecast in Memphis that week promised more of the same: 80% chance of precipitation. My pal Dacus and I prepared for the worst, stockpiling Bugles and gin and praying extra hard to Tlaloc the Rain God. As it turned out, Memphis couldn't have been nicer (thank you, Tlaloc). We fished and fished, marveling at our dumb luck, the sun crawling up one side of the sky and down the other without a thunderhead in sight. Bass and bream began to throw up small white flags in surrender. We gave no quarter, floating sneaky petes and wholly buggers and jerkbaits and tube jigs past their greedy, gaping mouths. Dacus, by a small miracle, even caught his first fish on a fly rod.
This was a bigger deal than it might seem. Dacus Thompson comes from Searcy, Arkansas, a stretch of farm and mining country two-hours west. A lifelong spin fisherman (think bass boats, treble hooks and other revulsions of the fly-fishing ethos), Dacus had become curious about the true gentleman's sport of fly-fishing. I'd agreed to an intensive matriculation, choosing the region around Memphis as our campus, as much for its fishing as for its prodigious culinary bounty (and also as an ideal spot to undo the psychic turmoil that goes with every day in New York City, where I'm a teacher).
If you sense a shadow here of the centuries-old conflict between a Yankee liberal elitist (me) converting a Southern boy (Dacus) to the fine rewards of civilization — you're not far off. It was that kind of trip in the guise of male bonding, two guys looking for a good place to fish.
Tennessee, and the South in general, is relatively uncharted in fly-fishing cartography, for the simple reason that old habits die hard. But that's starting to change. Mid-South Fly Fishers, based here, has 300 members, making it one of the largest fly-fishing clubs in the US. There are at least a half-dozen first-rate fishing waters within shooting distance of Memphis' Peabody Hotel, starting with Shelby Farms Park on the edge of town, with 16 fishable lakes, including Jones Pond, which is annually stocked with rainbow trout, and Patriot Lake, a marine condominium for red-ear sunfish, known as "shell crackers." Herb Parsons Lake, 30 miles east, holds ample bluegill (called "bream" in these parts), catfish and yellow bass. A half-an-hour north, Glen Springs Lake, near the town of Millington, has mutant crappie and bream. Pickwick Lake, two-hours east, is known for trophy smallmouth bass; Reelfoot Lake, due north, for largemouth bass; and to the south, Sardis and Enid Lakes, for slab crappie. Over the border in Arkansas, the Little Red and White Rivers hold abundant brown and rainbow trout. You get the idea — there were plenty of fish in these metaphorical seas. Why should spin-fishermen have all this to themselves?
Then of course there's Memphis's unparalleled consolidation of great restaurants: Gus's Fried Chicken, Arcade Restaurant, Central BBQ, Payne's, Jerry's Sno Cone, Las Tortugas, Huey's, Donald's. I could go on. I should also mention how deliciously temperate Memphis is, how you can stay slightly on the wrong side of sober for about nine bucks a day and how the ducks at the Peabody take the elevator down to the lobby fountain each morning to bathe, and then again at 5pm to prep for their duck evening out. (If Holden Caulfield ever needed an answer to where the ducks go in winter, I'd say here.) That, coupled with a sky raked wide like blue corduroy, goldfinches twittering away in huge elms and poplars and that big crooked river — Memphis and the promises of a bounty does the mind good.
Things began ignominiously for Dacus and I, however. We fished every square inch of Shelby Farms Park's 4,500 acres, landing just two measly largemouth and one bream, the latter probably the smallest fish of my life. We threw all we had at them: wooly buggers, white andchartreuse poppers, a rainbow assortment of sneaky petes, nymphs, terrestrials, streamers, and when I got really desperate, a giant frog pattern I'd picked up in Vermont. Nothing. Mostly I blamed Dacus. His learning curve was practically a circle. As I mended his tangled line, retrieved his errant casts and saved him from drowning (twice), he grew progressively more sullen. Dacus does sullen better than a two-year-old denied Spongebob Squarepants.
Fly-fishing, I gently explained, is about confronting chaos — relentless, impending chaos. New parameters of disorder are invented everyday in the sport. Lines never untangle themselves. The cast is itself a micro-culture of causal determinism; a recalcitrant back-cast that snags your midge in a chokecherry branch happens precisely because it couldn't have happened any other way. You're paying the terrible price of being alive. In simpler other words (for Dacus), fly-fishing is a metaphor for the messiness of daily life (which, ironically, we were supposed to leave behind for the week). So, you know, deal with it.
Dacus took it hard. To rub salt, the park's supervisor, Brian Wylie, let us know that the very lake we fished unsuccessfully for close to four hours — Beaver Lake — had recently produced a 14.3-pound largemouth, just four ounces shy of the state record. The state record.
"The fish will tell you what they want," he said. Well, what they told us is unprintable.
Emotional recuperation was taken at Earnestine & Hazel's, a creaky old bar on South Main that serves a "soul burger" with grilled onions and mayo. We followed that with about 47 Manhattans (can't leave home entirely behind) at the Peabody bar. A day that had begun with such promise was drowned, as always, in a tall glass of self-pity (on the rocks of course). And then Dacus threw up.
Sometimes, contrary to the natural order of things, and with a little perseverance and proper technique and a dash of manly bravado, the universe bends to one's will.
The following day, we cut across the Mississippi into Arkansas. Our plan had been to fish the Little Red River, not far from where Dacus grew up. In 1992, the then world record brown trout, 40-pounds, four ounces, was caught on the Little Red. A caddis hatch, which is basically a Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest for trout, was peaking on the Bull Shoals and Norfork tail-waters. Sadly, a timed release of spring runoff at the Greers Ferry Dam made fishing dicey, with water churning and spilling over the banks.
So we adjourned to a nearby pond, which, for complicated reasons, must remain anonymous. There was a stand of cypress in the shallows and a rim of white pine along the south end, and a live oak overhanging it all. You knew right away lots of fish were holding in that cold black oval. Dacus's dad, Bobby T, joined us. Bluebirds and red-winged blackbirds swooped overhead. Within five minutes, I caught a nice-size bream, maybe eight-inches, which shot like a marlin out of the water on my line. After releasing him, I caught another about the same size on the very next cast. Then, another a tad bigger. And another. And another.
Bobby T hollered "Woo-wee!" every time I got a strike. He caught a few bream himself, and a largemouth bass, on a Carolina rig.
Dacus trod the muddy bank, casting away. Finally, he hooked into something and yanked it to shore: a bream so tiny it was almost invisible. Still, it was his first fish on a fly rod — no mean achievement. I admit my eyes misted over. Standing in a pool of muck, Dacus patted the little fellow on the head and tossed him back. The little acorn becomes a mighty oak. Night came soaring down and we packed up our rods and went in search of beer to toast Dacus' triumph.
We spent our last day fishing at Herb Parsons Lake, outside of Memphis, with great success. By then, Dacus had gained some facility with a fly rod and caught his share of fish unassisted. His back-cast no longer snapped like a bullwhip. He amped up his line-speed a notch, increasing his range. The whole package was dramatically improved. A week gone from New York, I began to make sweeping declarations about life's undeniable livability. I even pledged to stop getting into shouting matches with shopkeepers (something of an inalienable right for a New Yorker). These are the kinds of self-improvement surprises that come from a glorious stretch of fishing. Tomorrow you may be utterly lost. Today you are thankful to be alive.
With the sun falling palely into the hills behind us, we drove back to Memphis for one last night, for one last audience with the Peabody mallards, and for one last sweet drop of fading warmth in Memphis before returning home to tell our stories.
LURE THEM IN
● The redear sunfish (or shellcrackers) in Patriot Lake like small insect patterns, midges and mayflies on the fly rod; for spinning rods try worms, crickets and grubs (don't waste your time with artificial lures, as shellcrackers typically don't take to them).
● To catch bream and largemouth bass on Boy Scout Lake, try white and chartreuse poppers and sneaky petes on the fly rod; a Carolina rig with a lizard works well on the spinning rod.
● At Chickasaw and Beaver Lakes, bass poppers on the fly rod and umbrella rigs with light-colored plastic lures (like Shad-A-Licious or Strike King) on the spinning rod are your best bet.
● When fishing for trout on the White River, try midges, wholly buggers, and soft hackles on the fly rod; Rooster Tails, spoons and shrimps on the spinning rod.
● To land crappie, smallmouth and largemouth bass at Herb Parsons Lake, first call ahead to hire a boat (901-861-5087), then concentrate on the shallows early and drop offs and channel bends later.
● Live bait is available at the local Herb Parsons Lake Store, but you'll do fine with wholly buggers on the fly rod and spinnerbaits, crank-baits and a Texas rig with a soft plastic worm on the spinning rod.
IF YOU GO...
WHERE TO SHOP: TOMMY BRONSON SPORTING GOODS: Open since 1926, this excellent fly-shop is stocked with great flies, gear and a knowledgeable staff who'll counsel you on what's biting and where. www.tommybronsonsportinggoods.com
BASS PRO SPORTS: The Memphis outlet is predictably enormous and has every lure imaginable. You will turn into a bass master simply by roaming the aisles. www.basspro.com
MID-SOUTH FLY FISHERS: This local club of 300+ enthusiasts offers monthly fly-tying classes for free, open to newbies and outsiders. www.msff.org
WHERE TO EAT: GUS'S FRIED CHICKEN: A one-room cinderblock shack located just south of downtown, Gus's long ago set the gold standard in fried chicken and their commitment to excellence hasn't waned. This is chicken done as God intended. 901-527-4877
THE ARCADE RESTAURANT: A longstanding Memphis tradition, the Arcade has elevated breakfast to new heights. Their biscuits and gravy are some of the best in the South. www.arcaderestaurant.com
CENTRAL BBQ: The lines at this lunchtime institution can be imposing, but they move quickly and it's worth the wait. The pork sandwich and slow-smoked hot wings are especially good. www.cbqmemphis.com
WHERE TO STAY: RIVER INN OF HARBOR TOWN: Located opposite the mighty Missis-sippi and a lovely riverside park, the River Inn is a welcome addition to the city's hotel scene. Its many perks include chocolate and port delivered nightly to your room and complimentary champagne in the lobby until midnight. www.riverinnmemphis.com
THE PEABODY: What the Peabody has lost in elegance over the years it has gained in charm. Despite the four stars, it's no longer about exclusivity — bus drivers and schoolteachers stay here — but refined middlebrow. The resident mallards still make their twice-daily march to the lobby fountain to frolic like sensible waterfowl, and the bar serves the best Manhattan in town. www.peabodymemphis.com