I expected excitement, but I heard crickets.
Not the proverbial kind that represents boredom and dullness. These crickets sounded like life. Like freedom. These crickets one only hears in the wilds of Arkansas after Labor Day, when the people have all gone back to work and back to school.
Jim Spencer, a great outdoor writer and former associate editor for Arkansas Wildlife magazine, often taunts his readers with lines like this: "Don't ask me where I was. I won't tell you because I don't want to see you there." Those articles used to irritate me, but on Thursday, I understood what he means.
I was at a spot on the Buffalo National River where I did not expect to be nor want to be. I intended to spend Thursday wade fishing at Steel Creek Recreation Area near Ponca. The logical route is to go up Highway 7 to Fallsville, go down the mountain to Ponca and then go over the mountain to Steel Creek.
I usually fish farther downstream, in the vicinity of Yellville. Out of habit, I absentmindedly exited I-40 at Conway and drove north on US-65. At Leslie I realized my mistake, but it was way too late to backtrack.
Compounding the problem was my late start. I intended to leave Little Rock at about 7:30 a.m. Life happened, and I didn't leave until about noon.
So, there I was, about 50 miles off course with no time to correct. (Hey) Siri gave me a good route from Western Grove to Ponca that's even better than the western route. As I crossed the Buffalo River at Hasty, I glanced at the water.
"Dang! That right there looks mighty good!" I thought. It looked so good that I decided I didn't need to go to Steel Creek after all. I whipped the truck around, and 15 minutes later I was in the water.
Nobody was on the river, a plus. Fishing is never good at an access because it gets fished so hard, so I waded downstream and started fishing the next pool below.
That's where I heard the crickets. The sound was reedy and sparse, like somebody scraping a penny across a hair comb. I stopped and tuned my ears to it. How long has it been since I heard crickets? They are always around, I'm sure, but I don't hear them. Gradually, I began hearing other insects. Then, birdsong became audible. I heard phoebes, kingfishers, wood thrushes and many others. A gentle breeze rustled through the leaves like the rattle of a thousand maracas.
As if potting up channels on a studio mixing board, the sounds blended into a symphony that soon blossomed into a sonic fullness, the soundtrack of a river in repose.
Overhead, vultures circled on thermals boiling up from hills that were shrouded in the gray haze of a heat-fueled drought. Behind me came the sound of a small jet plane. A flock of about 30 blue-winged teal rocketed low overhead. They darted from side to side they way teal do. When they reached the next pool, they swept upward at about a 70-degree angle, banked sharply and then plunged headfirst toward the water. More teal came and went. One group was even larger. They were my constant companions for the rest of the day.
A deer materialized from the brush and stood confused and unsure on a gravel bar. It eyed me suspiciously, but since I was visible only from the waist up, it didn't process my shape as a threat. Finally, with its rump and tail whipping from side to side, it bounded across the river and ascended the steep bank on the opposite side.
I looked upstream and noticed how the sunlight gave the rippling water a mesmerizing, pixellated effect.
Way upstream, beyond the pixels, I saw a double flash and a splash of orange. A kayaker was appoaching. It was Jerry Siegler, a Wisconsin native that settled in this area with his wife 25 years ago. He said he kayaks every day.
"What did you do when you were working?" I asked.
"I was a computer programmer," Siegler said. "I got started in the 70s, so I got in at a good time."
"You probably wrote in COBOL," I said. "Or FORTRAN."
"Oh, gosh, no, I came into it after that," Siegler said, laughing. He rattled off half a dozen programming languages that I didn't know.
Siegler said the community accepted him and his wife warmly from the beginning. They were the first to build on their road, but now they have a lot of neighbors.
"I bought 25 acres for $1,000 an acre," Siegler said. "It was probably too much, but I wanted it. My wife is involved in everything. She volunteers all over the place, so we've made a lot of great relationships through all the things that she does."
Siegler said that the electric company originally wanted to charge $16,000 to run a line to his place.
"For $16,000, I thought I could have a lot of fun with solar, so I went that route," Siegler said. "I used 12 golf cart batteries, and that took care of everything except air-conditioning. We had to be real conservative with that. Mainly, we dealt with the heat by going someplace else for a few weeks."
Eventually, electricity became affordable, and the Sieglers attached to the grid.
With that, we parted ways, and I concentrated on fishing. I used a light-action Creekside spinning rod mated to a Mitchell Avocet reel spooled with 6-pound test line. I had a bag of Zoom Tiny Brush Hawgs in watermelon/red flake and a bag of Zoom cotton candy Mini Lizards. I had some 1/0 hooks in a medicine bottle and some 1/16-ounce and 1/8-ounce weights in a different medicine bottle. I had three bottles of water. All of this rode in a dry bag that I carried on my back. In my pocket was a Fuji XP, an excellent waterproof camera that takes phenomenal photos and videos.
I caught a few smallmouth bass and a green sunfish in the first pool downstream from the bridge. The river has changed course recently. It used to cut hard to the left and run beside a low bluff. A gravel dam diverted the channel to the right, which entails a long walk through wet gravel and weeds to reach the next pool.
It was worth the walk. I caught four smallmouth in the tail of the riffle. I cast to the left bank and felt a hard thump from a 14-inch smallmouth bass. The next one was 13 inches. I caught a total of 10 smallmouths and three green sunfish.
I would have caught a lot more with a different rig. Six-pound test line stretches a lot, and a light-action rod isn't stiff enough to yank out the stretch when a fish hits at the end of a long cast. Some big fish struck, but I couldn't muscle enough power to set the hook. I will use stiffer stuff going forward.
As the sun dipped below the hills, I returned upstream. Siegler had long gone home. The symphony increased in volume as night fell, and I took it all in as I waded slowly back toward the truck.
It felt great to be alone with a river I love.