As we cross the Mississippi at dawn, John Ryan inhales the steam off his fresh mug of coffee and grins from the passenger seat. "Well," he says, lifting his cup, "here's to another boondoggle." "This ain't a boondoggle, John. This is journalism. You know that."
Ryan has served as my wingman on a number of these journeys into the heart of leisure. He's an iconoclast, a gifted artist who paints to support his fishing habit. We've traversed at least half the Confederate states in the name of providing meticulous reports on the playability of various fine golf courses. We've risked life and limb -- or at least potential drink spillage -- rigorously researching the best fishing spots from the Gulf Coast to the Appalachians. We're professionals, and we know readers rely on our painstaking attention to detail.
So when Ryan referred to our latest fact-finding trip as a boondoggle, he was most certainly joshing. We take these things seriously. And this time, it was even more a labor (ahem) of love than usual. We were assigned to get an outdoor recreation story about Arkansas, which just happens to be one of my favorite states in which to recreate outdoors. I even used to own a cabin there, just outside of Mountain View on Sylamore Creek. Still got the phonebook with my name in it.
I grew up fishing and canoeing the Ozark streams of Missouri and Arkansas, and there's something about clear, cold water coursing over river rocks that hits a root chord in me. I like to stand in streams with my eyes closed and listen. I like the way you can disappear in a morning mist. I like the feel of water pushing against my calves as I wade. I like to skinny dip. And I like to fly-fish.
For these reasons and more, I've spent many a day on Arkansas streams. On this trip, we were headed to the Little Red River, which spills out below the dam at the eastern end of Greer's Ferry Lake, about two and a half hours from Memphis. The lake itself is worth the trip. The boating, fishing, and swimming are all first-rate. But for a fly-fisherman, it's hard to beat the Little Red.
And one of the best things about the Little Red is that it's easily the closest trout-fishing destination to Memphis. Good ol' State Highway 64 runs straight as a string for 90 miles across eastern Arkansas, with only the teasing precursor of Crowley's Ridge breaking the run through the flatlands. You hit a few one-stoplight towns (and a few you only have to slow down for). I should add there's one stop you might want to make if you, um, plan to imbibe -- a liquor store. It's mighty dry around the Little Red. There's a terrific one in Augusta called Porter's, a huge warehouse of a place that even has decent wine if you're so inclined.
Once you hit Bald Knob (which is next to Velvet Ridge, a juxtaposition I always found a bit suspicious), you're into the hills and hollows of the southern Ozarks and the roads get twisty.
We'd been invited to stay at a place called Fat Possum Hollow (cue Deliverance banjo intro). The name didn't exactly speak "sophistication," but we decided to give it a go, and if the bathrooms were outside, so be it.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Fat Possum was a Memphis neighborhood. A really nice Memphis neighborhood with wonderful houses, plus horses, deer, turkey, great blue herons, and trout, lots of trout. And the bathrooms were definitely inside.
After selling his security business and a couple of downtown buildings a few years back, Maurice Lipsey bought 250 acres along the Little Red River. He moved to Arkansas, but he never lost his love for Memphis, so he set about creating a place for his friends -- and those who would become his friends. He built eight two- and three-bedroom houses, each beautifully handcrafted of natural cedar. Each with firep-laces, whirlpool baths, satellite television -- and decks that overlook the Little Red. He doesn't sell them; he sells what he calls "quarter-shares." If you buy a quarter-share in one of the houses, you get one week a month at Fat Possum Hollow, year-round. Business is good -- there aren't many shares left -- and almost everybody who's bought one is from Memphis.
Maurice will tell you all this at the neigh-borhood bar, which he also built. It's not a bar in the regular sense -- it's in a barn and you have to bring your own poison, but Maurice will set you up, and if you're from Memphis -- and like I said, everyone is -- you'll feel right at home. The barnwood walls are covered with Tigers sports posters, CA front pages, old photos, and other Memphis memorabilia. There's a generous fireplace, a pool table, a television permanently tuned to ESPN, one of the world's best beer bottle collections, and a big friendly Airedale named Monroe.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We came for the fishing, after all, and just before we met Maurice, fishing we went. My friend Paul Chandler, also a Fat Hollow Memphian, suggested we enlist a local fishing guide named Jamie Rouse. So we did. And -- surprise, surprise -- like everyone else we met, Jamie turned out to be a former Memphian. He graduated from Christian Brothers High School in the late 1980s and spent a number of years guiding around the country before settling down at Heber Springs, where he primarily guides the Little Red, White, and Norfork rivers. He's a cheerful, bearded fellow and he knows his stuff.
We met Rouse at the Dripping Springs put-in, a few miles from Fat Possum. He motored us upstream quickly, slicing around logs and over shoals in his high-tech boat. On the way, he told us a couple of times that we were going to "catch the fire out of these trout." He was right.
I've done a lot of fly-fishing in my day, from Nantucket to Mexico and points in-between, but I've never caught so many nice fish that my arms got tired. I've never caught so many fish that it almost got routine, but we did with Jamie. In a little over three hours, we caught 50 fish, according to Rouse. I stopped counting after a while. (For you fly-fishing types: We used a sowbug nymph tied by Rouse. He wouldn't share his secret, but it appeared to involve some sort of lead-wire weighting under the hackle.) The highlight of the day was John's 27-inch brown trout.
As evening moved in, we headed back to Fat Possum Hollow. That night in Maurice's bar we watched Rodney Carney in the NCAA tournament dunk contest. We drank and swapped fishing stories and other tales. By the end of the evening John's trout had grown to 35 inches.
We headed to our truck and began slowly driving through the field leading back to our house on the river. Monroe, the friendly neighborhood Airedale, galloped along in front, leading the way. Our headlights spooked several deer, their eyes glowing green in the dark.
Back at the cabin, we sat on the deck under the stars and a crescent moon, listening to the river flow and sipping the last drink of the day.
"You know," John said, "we haven't come up with any clever repartée for this story yet. Do I need to start working on one-liners?" (John takes pride in the fact that he usually comes up with a funny line or two in these junket stories.)
"Nah," I said. "It's too late for thinkin' up clever stuff. We'll just have to do better tomorrow."
"Guess you're right. . . . You know," John said, settling back into his chair, "this place reminds me of my friend Richard's house in Florida -- just a wonderful place, right on the water. It's funny . . when we were growing up as kids, his name was Dick. Now that he's all into the big money, he changed it to Richard."
"Yeah, well," I said, "you know how it is: The rich get Richard and the poor get Dick."
"Dang. Nice one," John said.
"Yup. Pretty much covers that whole repartée issue."
Morning came early, as it always seems to when you're nudged by birdsong and sunrise. After a bracing hot shower, I wandered around the house. With its high ceilings, cedar interior, stone floors, and fireplace, it reminded me of a ski lodge. But the Memphis magazine on the coffee table brought it all back to the Mid-South. This was truly a home away from home.
I took my coffee out on the deck and watched a great blue heron stalk the shoals a few yards away. The sky was pale behind Sugarloaf Mountain in the early light. The trout were calling.
For the next six hours or so John and I waded the river and fished. Our luck (and perhaps even a little skill) held. Even without Jamie's magic fly, the trout came to the net often, but not without a fight. Which is the whole point, I suppose. That, and escaping from the world of work and responsibility and traffic and fast food and . . .
But as all days must, this day had to end. Now we were the ones being drawn back into the net. We loaded up our gear and headed out, but not before stopping by the barn to thank our host, Maurice.
"Come back, soon," he said. "And be careful, it's a jungle outside that gate."
And paradise inside.
IF YOU GO
Fat Possum Hollow: 501.362.7738 (Maurice Lipsey), or fatpossumhollow.com.
Jamie Rouse: 501.691.0149 or jamierouse.net