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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Catching hearts

by Mike Masterson | September 6, 2022 at 3:40 a.m.


Editor's note: Mike Masterson is taking the day off. The original version of this column was published July 28, 2009.

Jerry Dudley of Fayetteville was in the middle of catching a boatload of trout on the Norfork River with son J.D. and friend Jim Hall when the vision swept over him.

He could become a fisher of youth simply by handing them a rod and sitting beside them in a river boat. Thus was born Jerry's kid's ministry of fishing.

"I could bring kids over there and help them catch fish while God was catching their hearts," he recently told me with a smile.

For a while, Jerry took two boys at a time for a day on the river. The boat became a sanctuary where they would spend a full day talking, fishing, laughing and discussing matters of faith. As a product of the 1960s drug culture, Jerry had a strong witness to explain how he beat that scourge by discovering Christianity.

This grandfather of five soon realized that he could rent some more boats, find Christian men to operate them, and multiply his fishing ministry. He continued fishing with boys on the Norfork River for a few years before expanding onto the nearby White River.

"We would rent eight boats from Mike Harrison at Norfork Trout Dock that he loaded on trailers and drove to Cotter," he said. "We'd rig them out and float the trip back to Norfork with a sandwich lunch at Buffalo City."

This made for an enjoyable one-day trip.

"My felicity was that I had a captive audience. I had a real burden for the souls of these young men."

The boys could swim, fish, hike over Matney Mountain, or listen to Jerry's message.

A few years later, teacher Tracy Adams of Fayetteville and Jerry decided to branch out to include a 12th-grade Sunday School co-ed fishing trip. What's that they say about the best-laid plans?

"The first trip we left it up to the kids with their parents' consent to get themselves to Mountain Home. Husbands and wives arrived the night before to serve as chaperones. We all were waiting patiently for the kids when I got the call. Seems they had changed their minds and weren't coming."

Jerry said he was devastated. The wives seemed elated.

"The next day we rented our boats and the wives were treated to a day on the river guided by their husbands."

Turned out that Jerry's wife, Sue, was at home, so he spent the day with a college student who'd shown up to help.

"From that point on, we always took the kids with us," he said.

Over time, Jerry's inspired program evolved to include several years of chaperoned camping and fishing trips with many senior-class teenagers. Then around 1994, while driving back to Fayetteville from a White River trip, he was idling at a stoplight in Harrison. He'd stopped at that same light many times over the years, he said.

"Suddenly, I noticed the sign, 'Arkansas Baptist Boys Ranch.' As I looked at the sign, God spoke to my heart. He said, 'Jerry, if you can take the Sunday School kids fishing, you can take these boys.' "

In that moment, his fishing ministry took a turn.

"On Monday, I called the Boys Ranch and made arrangements for a bunch of guys who would take the boys fishing, cook them a shore lunch, then fish together a little more."

He had one condition. He asked to be able to minister to the boys for about 20 minutes at the end of the trip. The agreement was struck.

That first day with the ranch boys brought a schedule dizzying enough to exhaust the Energizer Bunny. They arose at 3 a.m., drove to the ranch, loaded boys, drove some more to Buffalo City, met Mike Harrison with the boats, fished all day, went up the Buffalo River, swam a while, ministered to the boys, loaded the boats, took them back to Norfork and carried the boys back to the ranch. Jerry eased into his driveway at about 10 p.m. It had been a 19-hour day.

From that point, the ranch expanded to accommodate 30 boys, which means Jerry has had to expand his fishing ministry to two or three summer weekends. He's been assisted by volunteer male chaperones. This year, they included West Doss, Tommy Deweese, Kent Martin, Greg Martin, Scott Bingaman, Bob Donague, Louis Campbell, Jeff Courtway, Kirk Martin and Morris Hanks.

"This summer we took 24 boys plus two ranch counselors for every trip over two Saturdays," Jerry said. "For the last few years we've generally had the same chaperones. We all try hard to show these boys in one day that there really is a better way to live."

The volunteers and Jerry feel driven to help kids who need it.

"My wife Sue and I came out of the drug culture of the 1960s into a personal relationship with Christ. Even though that was years ago, I still have a story to tell kids in hopes that they won't follow the same path I did for so many years."

It occurs to me that Jerry Dudley was set on a special path all those decades back and has devotedly followed it since that day on the river.


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 mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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