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The Best Fish of the SUMMER '14!

by Mick Spaulding

             It was the last Sunday of Zachary’s school’s summer vacation. He had just turned 12 years old and would be making the big move into middle school and the 6th grade. It had already been an extremely fun summer as I had multiple opportunities to spend quality time with him when I was home off the road from work. I am in sales and my territory is based on the Mid-Atlantic and East Coast locations so I am on the road on an average of 4 days a week. Since we live in Mountain Home, Arkansas, it means planes, trains, and automobiles every week for work. My family has always done a great job of making sure that our time to together be well-spent and this summer was no exception.

            Just a few weeks prior Zachary and I decided it was time for him to learn how to Hopper fish out of our Clackacraft Eddy drift boat. It had already proven to be a great success as young Zach had went out for 3 drifts with each resulting in a Brown Trout measuring at least 18 inches each time out. Needless to say, he had already developed a reputation around the fly shop as being very “fishy”.

           We had marked this final Sunday as our last opportunity to do a drift before the summer ended and he entered the 6th grade. Our friend, Paul Port, was going to fill the empty seat in the back of the drift boat. Paul works for the Arkansas Game & Fish and his focus is on the waters North Central Arkansas. We decided we would wait until after Church and give the bait guides an opportunity to get off the water giving us the river to ourselves. (The majority of all guided bait fishing trips begin around 8:00 a.m. and ended at 3:00 in the afternoon) Plus, the hopper bite was beginning to really heat up in the late afternoons and we were hoping to take advantage of that trend. We had to wait a little longer than normal on Paul to get his Sunday tasks competed, but we didn’t mind. We were enjoying hanging out at our cabin on Wildcat Shoals. I was tying up some hoppers for the drift and Bubba was watching one of his favorite DVD’s for the 50th time.

           It was about 3:30 when Paul arrived at the cabin and we immediately hit the road. We decided to do our own shuttle, so Paul followed me to the Cotter boat ramp to drop his vehicle. We then headed for our put in at the Wildcat Shoals boat ramp. We were all smiles when we saw the river guides and their clients were gone and we had the ramp all to ourselves. I went through the drift boat checklist ensuring I hadn’t forgotten anything and we put the drift boat in the water. All three of us were committed to fishing hoppers for the entire drift. As we were rigging up, I asked Zach what fly he would be fishing today. Without reservation he said, “The lucky black one”. On the previous 3 drifts Zach had fishing a size 6 black Fat Albert pattern he purchased at our local fly shop, Dallys Ozark Fly Fisher in Cotter, Arkansas. I couldn’t argue with his selection and his dedication to a fly that had given him such success. Zach grabbed his weapon of choice. It was a 9 foot, 6 weight, Temple Fork Outfitters BVK rod with a red Sage reel. It was a Christmas gift that earlier in the week he had named, The Crimson Slayer.

           I knew where the fish should be holding with the water generation being lower than 1 unit and the first spot was near the ramp where we just put in. It was a really good set up for fishing the water efficiently. Paul, who is an accomplished fly-caster, was in the back of the boat and casted farther from the boat. Zach, a 12 year old, is still working on his casting but had no problem presenting the fly 20-25 feet off of the front seat. So, we were covering two different lines of unfished water. As we drifted through our first spot we did not have any takers nor saw any fish. As I pushed down a bit, I focused on positioning the boat to give us the best shots above the shoal. It’s about a 100 yards long and we took our time to ensure we fished every inch. But with no luck and once again not seeing any fish I was beginning to wonder if we would repeat our successes the previous 2 weeks.

          The rocks and currents within the top of the shoal were exposed, so we pulled in our flies so I could maneuver safely through. Once we were through, I back rowed a bit to, once again, to ensure our casts would be in the zone we wanted. The fog was already moving over the white river due to the coolness of the water meeting the 95 degree heat. Once we were in position, I told Zach what we were trying to do. I explained the boat would be moving a little faster and he would have to alter his fishing to the existing speed his fly was traveling. So, he would have to cast more often in order to keep the fly in the zone and not to be controlled by current-created bends in his line. Once I felt he understood how the fish this water, I pulled up anchor and we were off.

            The first couple of casts we realized seeing the fly on the water was going to be a challenge. Zach laid a cast perfectly in the zone and said, “I’m having a hard time seeing the fly”. Sitting lower in the boat it was a better angle so I immediately looked to find his fly on the water. As soon as I saw the fly, a fish slurped it beneath the surface. I quickly said, “Set!” only to see Zach had already begun to raise his rod. Because of the current and our location in the river I decided to just drop anchor and see how he would perform landing the fish. I asked him if it was a good one and he said he couldn’t tell because of the current, but it sure felt heavy. In the back of the boat, Paul had reeled in his fly and was settling in to watch Zach land the fish. Then out of nowhere the brown trout breeched the water and Paul said, “WOW! That’s a good fish”. I immediately said, “Don’t jinx it man”. It was a huge fish there was no doubt about that. I immediately looked around to see if I should pull up anchor or move to an area that would increase our chances to land the fish. There wasn’t any. If Zach was going to land this monster, he was going to have to do it right where we were.

           Then out of the corner of my eye, the brown left the water again and it looked even bigger this time. As I was watching my son, I suddenly realized I was the only one who was panicked. Zach was cool as a cucumber, holding the rod tip high, directing the fish, spooling the fish perfectly, and gaining on the fish as she would allow. After a few minutes of fighting the fish, Zach said, “Dad, I can’t get the fish in”. The strength of the current, added with the weight of the fish, had created a no-win situation. I immediately grabbed the boat net and in the water I plunged. The water was an easy 2 ½ feet up my legs and moving with quite a bit of force.

           What started out as a lesson in casting a terrestrial out of a drift boat had evolved into asking my son to understand how to negotiate a fish to a downstream net. As soon as the brown saw me, she immediately ran up under the boat. Zach leaned forward, caught up with the slack on the reel, and raised his rod to the necessary angle to keep tension on the fish. After that hard run up current with Zach pulling against her, the big brown eased back downstream. Zach methodically moved the brown into my area and I swooped up the fish in the net. There was a tremendous sigh of relief as I also felt the adrenaline leaving my body. Looking down in the net it was easy to see the size and beauty of the fish. As I slowly maneuvered my way back toward the anchored boat, Zach was looking down at me and his prize. His eyes were as big as saucers and were only matched by Paul’s eyes in the back seat of the boat.

            As always, the health of the fish was the primary focus. It was clear that the fish was in great shape so the picture taking plan was a go. Zach already knew what the expectations were for taking photos, so it was quick and efficient. The brown taped out at 24 inches and was absolutely perfect. I quickly handed the net with the fish to Paul in the back seat for the release. It didn’t take much to get the fish to explode out of the net and swim up current healthy.

            Once the fish swam away, the celebration began. We all gauged the significance of a 6th grader casting a top water terrestrial, setting the hook with perfect timing, and landing a 2 foot brown trout on a fly rod. It was easily the largest trout I had ever seen landed on a hopper. High fives and congratulations went around for more than a few minutes. The pride and joy was present on Zach’s face for the remainder of the drift. Each person chimed in multiple times with a recount of some detail that happened within this experience. Everyone revisited the 12 year olds battle with the fish, the way the current was, how the fly hit the water, the acrobatic jumps, how well Zach did, but it always came back to the same comment, “That was the best fish all summer.”

Zach Spaulding's 24 " (taped) Brown Trout caught on a size 6 GrassHopper Pattern.