When the hens have gone to nest, and the season for hunting wary Eastern turkeys is all but over, Arthur Farrell can be found exercising his fly rod while the waters of the Elk River swirl around his sturdy legs, protected by thin waders. This cool, crisp, late-spring morning allows the fog more time to hover over the deeper parts of the river before it lifts and vanishes until its inevitable return the following morning. The only thing Arthur has planned for the morning is taking in Tennessee’s natural beauty and maybe a fish or two.
Arthur, a man in his early 60s, and who has just recently resigned his efforts in a successful career of practicing law, embeds his spirit into that very river he knows so well, but has only fished for a short time. Arthur’s time in the river is therapeutic for a man who has only known hard work his entire life—always busy running a business, raising a son, and being a devoted husband, he hardly had time for himself. And therapy it is: the gentle current of the water, so much softer than the speed at which the life rushes at us; the thoughtless, effortless casting motion becoming more fluid and closer to perfection with each swing of the pendulum. His only worries on this particular day today are those damn sweet gum limbs hanging too close to the deep hole he is fishing; his favorite hole of late.
Arthur didn’t worry himself too much over the quantity of fish he caught over the course of a day, just as he found that the companionship and clout of a good bird dog means more than a limit of quail. In recent years, Arthur changed his breed of choice from Setters to Spaniels; fine dogs he always had.
Pete, the oldest male, had melted Arthur’s heart immediately the day he’d picked the dog up from the Quail Valley Hunting Preserve that had seen him through his adolescence outside the small town of Petersburg, Tennessee. The two locked eyes, though uncharacteristic for a dog, as Arthur approached, for 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes; the four-legged animal furiously wagging his tail and panting hard the whole while, his breath cutting through the cool morning air. It was an instant, unveiled chemistry between man and animal that not only astonished the preserve manager, but allotted him the goodwill to give the dog to Arthur for half-price, knowing the relationship between Arthur and Pete would only help his business in the future. As for the two of them, master and servant, fruitful endeavors buzzed about the horizon.
It did not take Arthur long to find that his newfound best friend was a natural; a gentleman and a scholar, in a dog sense. The two made an immediate impact on the bird hunting world; Pete taking second-place honors in his first field trial competition, being not much older than a year. The two were, and still are, quite the pair. Nikki, the second Brittany Arthur had acquired after Pete, became more of a household dog rather than a hunting dog, much to Arthur’s dismay. But over time, just as anything else, Arthur had to accept the fact that Nikki, although out of a good bloodline of bird dogs, would never be the same caliber dog as Pete, and so she became a pet, and eventually, a mother to seven healthy pups.
Had it not been for Arthur’s wife becoming so fond of Nikki, Arthur would have sold her for half of what he’d paid, just to have her off his hands. With a little persuasion and some reluctance, Arthur gave in to his wife of more than three decades, as he still could not resist the easy charm and gentle love she spread upon him.
Arthur had been hunting upland birds since his teen years when Bobwhites were not so sparse. The first dog Arthur had ever owned was a pointer named Jim. Arthur, only 17 at the time, had owned a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Poor Jim was stuffed into the trunk as the car rattled down gravel and dirt roads to Arthur’s favorite spots in the hills of southern Tennessee. Had it not been for a 17-year-old with an infatuation for girls, Jim might have had himself a spot in the front passenger seat, but as it was, Arthur wasn’t fond of cleaning dog hair out of the front of his car before cruising the town on a Friday night.
As he grew older and more successful, Arthur had the means to afford pickup trucks and kennels for his dogs to ride comfortably in the bed. Though, in the present day, the bed of his Chevrolet pickup truck has been used for nothing more than hauling gasoline and other miscellaneous items to and from his farm. The dogs enjoyed the luxury of leather seats and air conditioning, or heat, up in the cab. It was not out of the question that that little spoil factor was his wife’s doing.
Arthur could cut his teeth with an over-and-under shotgun, rarely missing though always allowing others to shoot first. He enjoyed watching. Just being in the quiet and solitude of the wide-open country of the Midwest or around his Tennessee farm, coincidentally named Rocky Top, pleased Arthur immensely. He preferred watching, and handling, his field general, Pete, and the younger female, Annie, the dog he had most recently acquired.
Much to Arthur’s delight, his son had grown up an outdoorsman in his own right. The boy had trudged alongside his father at the young age of four years old, carrying his Red Rider BB gun while mimicking his teacher’s every move. In short, Arthur’s reputation stood fast among his peers and throughout the community as a first-rate outdoorsman and an all-around, damn-fine human being.
Arthur has allowed his mind go wander for a brief interval as his casting becomes flawless. The human body always performs better when the mind is not so much involved. Arthur’s motion is smooth.
Just one week before, on a cool morning, similar to the one on this day, Arthur had his final encounter of the season with a big Tennessee tom turkey. He was up well before daylight on that Sunday morning, knowing it would be his last chance to bag a bird. The woods were silent as he crept into his favorite spot: a ridge covered with white oak trees, facing the east where the morning sun would greet his camouflaged face, and overlooking the Elk River. For the many years that Arthur had owned his farm, Rocky Top—named decades before when it was a quail hunting preserve—turkeys always roosted in that particular spot. The tall oaks sat upon the ridge on a bluff overlooking the river, and offered adequate protection from predators for the roosting birds.
The old tom flew down less than 100 yards away. No sooner had the sun’s golden rays pierced the thick, green spring canopy than the gobbler pitched himself down into plain view and made a beeline for Arthur’s set up. Arthur’s set up consisted of a gobbler that is mounted in full strut and a foam hen. Many times Arthur had to defend Fred, as he called the “battle-scarred” mount, from crazed attackers. Even though he weighed about 25 pounds, Fred worked so well that Arthur refused to by one of the new lightweight, full-strut decoys.
As Arthur redirects his attention back to casting, he releases the line and lets fly the #16 pheasant-tail nymph, anticipating it finding its way through the cool morning air, and just upstream of the deep hole. Once in the water, the fly should drift down into the hole and then it would be up to the fish. The fly sailed through the air in the right direction, but to Arthur’s dismay, much too long. He managed to snag one of those damn sweet gum trees he had been carefully trying to avoid.
“Were they there last year?” Arthur said out loud to nobody but the squirrels barking up in the big white oak a short distance up river.
“Well, that I would not know because I was not quite the fly fisherman a year ago and stayed away from these tight spots.” Arthur laughed at the thought that he had just called himself quite the fly fisherman.
As he is now hung in the tree, a dilemma that could lead to a multitude of problems from tangling the line, to falling in the deep hole, to simply losing the fly, he takes a moment to look around him. To the east, the sun is just cresting outside the tunnel of trees that consume the river, creating a canopy for most of the distance Arthur can see before the river bends back left and then right in just a couple of its snake-like curves. Spider webs gleam in the trees as the sun illuminates the dew still present upon the art of the eight-legged arachnid, creating a translucent star of sorts. Back upriver two Canada geese watch the fisherman, perched upon a fallen log, not seeming to feel the intrusion by the much taller Arthur, to be bad for their health. A few leaves, knocked down by the slight breeze, float down from the taller trees and drift by Arthur’s face, gentle as snow. They slowly start their journey down the Elk only to become entrapped in a small cove created by a large red oak recently blown down by tornado-like winds. Some of the tin had been pulled away from the roof of Arthur’s cabin during that storm, but the damage was only minimal compared to some of his neighbors.
The hook has seated itself into the limb just to the barb as Arthur makes his way to the damn sweet gum tree. To reach the tree, Arthur has to cross the hole he’s been fishing this fine morning and potentially run out all the fish. But Arthur didn’t want to lose another fly. The pheasant-tail is his go-to fly, especially in the Elk River. Sunny days or rainy days, clear waters or murky waters, fish would bite the pheasant-tail, and this was his last one. Known for its variation of imitations of the 600 plus species of mayflies in North America, the pheasant tail replicates any fly from morning duns to March browns in the river. The pheasant-tail nymph can be found in many different styles. Some are bead-headed, which are used for fish that hold deeper under the water. Others have variations of colors along the thorax and abdomen.
Arthur keeps a fly fishing pocket book in the front left pocket of his fly vest. The small book gives every bit of information a fly fisherman needs, from the basics of tying flies to the proper way of releasing a netted fish. Arthur is a full-time student. During the course of a day, Arthur will often take the “Fly Fishing Bible,” as he refers to it, out while sitting in the shade of a great white oak, escaping the sultry sun. He also reads his little bible in the cool glow of evening as he sits and sips scotch or Tennessee whiskey and watches the sun sink low in the west, leaving nothing but the remnants of red fire that glazed the clouds just minutes before, but are now reduced to smoky silhouettes.
He reads and he reflects and he times his casting motion in his mind. He mentally corrects errors and makes notes of the holes of tomorrow that he will challenge and the obstructions that hungrily await a god-awful cast. He visualizes a heavy rainbow striking his fly, leaving a rippling swirl in the water as the fish runs away and line buzzes out after its furious retreat. Arthur has been working to quicken his reaction time to one impetuous motion to equal the fish’s heightened sense of danger as the hook locks into the mouth and holds on for dear life.
As he gingerly sets one foot in front of the other, he makes his way into the deep hole. To his right, a little downstream of the hole that has always housed many fish, he sees one, two, three, and then finally seven fish in all, vacate the hole—two of which Arthur thinks could go 20 inches, but probably just a mere exaggeration or a result of light infraction. The sun is all but pouring its golden rays into the river, warming the back of Arthur’s neck. The leather Filson jacket Arthur wears just beneath his waders shows its age with fade along the shoulders and collar where it has protected Arthur on countless occasions from sun and rain when afield. His son owns the same jacket, as it was a gift from Arthur some years back. Arthur is a man that will stand by anything or anyone that treats him the way he would treat the other, be it a jacket or a person or a dog. Rarely did he scold a dog and not once in his 26 years had his son heard his father raise his voice to his mother.
Many thought Arthur to be a kind and gracious sorts, but his Christianity was sometimes called into question among the wives of his friends and other women who favored the feeling of wine and gossip. What they do not know about Arthur is this: Arthur Farrell has not missed a sunrise in nearly a decade. Though most of the time his being up early was conducive to his law practice, Arthur spent more time than the average man in the outdoors, and in his retirement, it would be no contest. Arthur knew better than to take advantage and to take for granted the naturally structured church that God had made for him in the beauty that He Himself had crafted so long ago and left for his children to enjoy and conserve. Not a morning passed when Arthur Farrell did not pause in brief prayer, and thank the Maker for his lucky stars, though many would say that luck has had only a small hand in Arthur’s life. Many would tell you that they lack the desire to work as hard as Arthur has to become the man he is; the man known to others for his friendship and courage, the man whose mere presence is sometime a bit unsettling, the man standing in the river; the conservationist, the humanitarian, the adventurer, the husband, the father, the drinker of fine Tennessee whisky. Keep up the good work Mr. Farrell.
Image courtesy Hunter Worth