A typical early morning mist was rising from the clear flow and a woodpecker drilled to his heart's content in the background as we gingerly stepped into guide Jerry Killebrew's boat at Cranor's White River Lodge several miles from Gassville.
More than the name inscribed alongside his red and white trout boat, Jerry's perpetually bare feet preceded his identity and reputation as among the most requested of the eight top-flight guides who work for Don Cranor's guide service at the popular and remarkably well-furnished lodge.
Jerry stays barefooted most of the time on the river and elsewhere. He even attended a funeral for a fellow guide that way not long ago. "I was born barefooted," he explained with a grin. "So it sorta come naturally to me, if ya know what I mean."
Having fished previously with Killebrew, I knew he was the ideal guide to make my adult children--Anna from Bartlett, Tenn., and Brandon from Fayetteville--feel fully at ease. He didn't disappoint.
As it would turn out, our getaway reunion at Cranor's proved to be better than we'd hoped by sharing it with the ever-upbeat Killebrew, whose wife Rhonda affectionately calls his litany of endless quips "Jerryisms." He was just what the doctor ordered for two memorable days after years of being apart.
One example of a Jerryism (after Anna reeled in a 12-inch rainbow): "That fella will surely make a nice crispy brown trout ... after he's fried."
I doubt any trout guide on the White (who all seem to know and admire the gregarious Jerry and his distinctive staccato laugh that ripples in waves over the water) understands the nuances of our state's world-renowned trout stream any better than him.
And over my years fishing three miles upstream at Gaston's White River Resort and now Cranor's, I've become familiar with a dozen guides, both excellent and, well, not so much.
Don Cranor has earned a justifiable reputation for methodically building a stable of eight well-qualified guides. "I had someone ask the other day if I've now managed to hire all the guides on the river. I told her nope, just the best ones."
He called Jerry one of the most requested Cranor guides because he's the perfect fit between skill at fishing the White and having an enjoyable personality his customers appreciate. "Some who guide are very good at fishing but not necessarily that good with people skills, while others are personable with relatively average fishing skills. Jerry's the ideal fit at both."
Other Jerryisms spread out over the day included: "They say fishermen never lie, but liars do fish." And referencing another guide who routinely relies on cans of corn to catch fish: "We like to call him the Kernel."
I'm fascinated by Killebrew and his energy level for reasons beyond his sense of humor and fishing skills. He drives a full hour from his second-generation, 100-year-old house near Gilbert on the Buffalo River to Cranor's, sometimes seven days a week, while somehow sandwiching in time to tend to his farm. He's done this for 34 years!
He's also one of the few--perhaps the only guide--on the White who regularly catches his own crawdads to use their tails as bait. And I've been amazed at his ability to notice even the slightest detail (as three of us are fishing) to detect the difference between a rod-tip bounce off the rocky bottom and a fish biting. He can even tell after all these decades if a bite is from a rainbow or one of the river's prized brownies. We caught both, releasing the browns and filleting the rainbows.
At one point I watched slack-jawed as Jerry rebaited Anna's hook while artfully netting the rainbow waiting on Brandon's line. I would have fallen in.
Killebrew meshes well with the White River guides I've written about in a column years back, "Heroes of the White River." He recalled the time he watched a 9-year-old girl who was kayaking, only be swept by the current beneath a dock. Plunging in without thinking to grab her arm just in time, Jerry said he pulled the girl to safety before she drowned.
During another trip, he and a customer were fishing during a storm when lightning struck a tree about 20 feet from their boat. It generated enough force to lift each of them out of the boat. "I can tell you my hair literally stood on end."
On another afternoon, an older couple from Georgia were in his boat. The woman was fixing a mixed drink when her husband accidentally dropped Jerry's $900 rod and reel overboard and impulsively dove in head first after it. "In a typical soft Southern Georgia drawl, his wife asked, 'Jerry, what the heck is he doing? He can't even swim.'" Admirably, he did somehow manage to save the rod and reel.
For a long while (until he got his new 25-horsepower motor) Jerry used a weaker yet relatively adequate 9.9-horsepower outboard on his guide trips. In strong currents the smaller motor often would leave him straining to eye the bank and make sure he was still moving. No more of that.
Anyone who believed guiding on this magnificent, icy-cold stream would be a simple, laid-back job clearly hasn't attempted it. It requires diligence, skill and experience on everything from knowing prime fishing spots, to which hidden paths to navigate through shallow shoals, watching over his clients' safety, keeping up with river levels, continually tying proper knots, and keeping a close eye on everyone's rods, reels and bait.
Jerry's also seen plenty of fisherfolk over three decades wind up floundering in the water from a simple misstep or overreaction. "It happens more than you'd think. I'm always aware of that possibility. This river can be dangerous without a doubt."
Asked how many times he'd been accidentally hooked by clients, he smiled and chuckled. "A lot!" He told of one afternoon where a female customer yanked her rod to retrieve a snagged bait after Jerry had warned against doing so because of how dangerous that could be.
"Well, wouldn't ya just know, her sinker and hook came flying lose, came flying back, and shattered my $400 sunglasses with the sinker while the hook dug into my nose. Then she yanked again and pulled the hook out of my nose. Yeah, it definitely hurt bad." He said having that much fun all at once effectively ended their day of fishing.
By the end of our trip, the three of us each had caught at least one brownie that we quickly returned to the depths, along with limits of rainbow that Jerry filleted and we froze for later.
Meanwhile, we had eaten our fill, caught that morning during a collective shore lunch where the guides and their customers gathered at noon to contribute to the pot of fried rainbows, accompanied by crispy french fries, hushpuppies and slaw.
That lunch and everything associated with the lodge and cabins (that can accommodate up to 25) was chaperoned by Cranor's amiable office manager Tim Chaney, a former U.S. Marine and 22-year member of the Mountain Home Fire Department.
As the afternoon sun dropped beneath surrounding tree branches, Anna, a retired Navy chief, and Brandon a former golf pro at the Fayetteville Country Club, competed with ol' Dad on the artificial putting green outside Cranor's Office where we continually laughed at ourselves and each other.
All in all, it was the reunion we'd hoped for and people like Killebrew, Chaney and Cranor made it happen in different, yet related, ways.
By my way of thinking, there was no finer place to reconnect with my grown children while enjoying an incredibly peaceful time to unwind and reflect on events in our lives since they entered this world.
It is a deeply enriching experience to be able to make time in such a serene and transcendent setting for a parent to recall life while sharing fond memories with their offspring after they are grown with children of their own.
And in all my years of fishing, I can honestly say this impressive lodge is the most well-equipped I've known, complete with washer and dryer, straw hats for the forgetful, comfortable beds. a modern kitchen filled with amenities and necessities and, of course, Jerry's crawdad tails.
Will we be back to my new favorite escape an hour's drive from home? Does a rainbow turn to golden brown when it's fried?
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet (even on the river) exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.