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Out There: Rivers I have known

3/20/2007

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.

I have a special fondness for rivers. Roaring rivers. Placid rivers. Clear rivers. Brown rivers. Canoe rivers. Johnboat rivers. Mountain rivers. Cypress rivers.

So it is with many of us who love catfishing.

My fondness was born from a circumstance of location. I grew up in a small Arkansas town situated in a landscape dominated by rivers.

Three miles to the west, the L'Anguille River writhes across the Mississippi delta. Continuing west, the traveler crosses Bayou de View at mile 16, the Cache River at mile 22 and the White River at mile 34.

To the east, two more rivers plough S-curves and figure eights through the delta. The St. Francis River slips through the countryside just nine miles from my hometown. The Mississippi races past the Pyramid of Memphis, 50 miles away.

Catfish drew me to these waters from an early age.

I was 10 when I caught my first river catfish in the L'Anguille. A friend and I biked to a wooden bridge outside town for a day of catfishing. There, with cane poles stuck in the cracks between the bridge timbers, we waited for the telltale tap, tap on our lines that signaled a catfish below.

The catfishing wasn't great, but there was magic to it all: lying belly down on the sun-warmed bridge to snatch bullheads and channel cats from the sleepy current; watching wood ducks and herons trading through the timber in dawn's gray light; smelling midday's honeysuckle and fresh-plowed earth; hearing owls praise the day for surrendering to night.

I fell in love, then and there, with the L'Anguille. And over the next few years I returned again and again to experience the river's magic.

It was on that country bridge my love for rivers began.

My burgeoning fondness for rivers took me, naturally, downstream. The L'Anguille flows into the St. Francis, and the St. Francis into the Mississippi. My river wanderings followed a similar course.

When I turned 16, possession of a new driver's license put my mom's car at my disposal for weekend catfishing forays on the St. Francis. I had sampled the river's bounty already, but having my own transportation opened a new world of adventure.

I could catfish now every weekend, instead of waiting for invitations months apart. I often camped with friends on the riverbank, fishing all night for catfish. And the things I experienced during those excursions strengthened my love for rivers.

The Mississippi River also became one of my frequent destinations. An uncle enjoyed fishing the river and its oxbows, and I often tagged along.

Mom would wake me at 3 a.m. so I could rendezvous with Uncle Guy. We would arrive at an ungodly hour and be fishing before daybreak.

I remember the nebulous curtains of mist hanging over the water like fog on a Scottish moor, and the croaking of coots bobbing through the buckbrush. I recall the traditional vittles — potted meat, soda crackers and coffee — and the itchy bottom I got from sitting too many hours on a too-hard boat seat.

It's the fishing, though, I remember most.

A half-dozen canepoles jutted from both sides of the boat as Uncle Guy sculled us across the water. He knew all the honeyholes. And before long one of the poles would bob, and we'd pull in a nice channel cat or crappie.

I learned from Uncle Guy some of the finer points of fishing. And I learned from him that a river can be a haven — a quiet place, wild and beautiful, where one can escape the hustle and bustle of more civilized realms.

Uncle Guy loved the river. And through him, my own love for rivers was nourished.

With my best friend, Lewis, I discovered the charms of another river — the White — which I soon grew to love.

At age 16, we bought backpacks and set out to explore the White River country high in the Ozarks. We stayed for an entire week — swimming in the icy river, exploring streamside bluffs and camping at night in a pup tent hardly big enough for both of us.

Two years later, we rented a canoe and fished the White's upper reaches. We caught nothing, at least partly because we knew nothing about fishing this swift, mountain stream.

But I cannot forget the day, because it was our first time to float the river and it was the first time I saw a trout that wasn't on a dinner plate. We watched them lying motionless in the crystal-clear water, some so big you could have easily mistaken them for rocks or logs.

After that, most river trips took us far south and east of the mountain trout waters. We hunted deer in White River Refuge, and fished for panfish in river oxbows. There were catfishing nights on snow-white sandbars and squirrel hunts in groves of river-island sweet pecans.

One day while catfishing, we watched sky-darkening waves of mallards descending into the flooded river bottoms, tens of thousands of them tumbling earthward like the pelting gusts of a spring thundershower.

Other times, there were simpler thrills — bald eagles soaring overhead, meteor showers at night and the occasional big catfish caught and carried home so we could show it off at the pool hall.

It was never enough, though. No matter how often we visited the river, we always found an excuse to go back.

One of my last river trips was on the lower Arkansas River. Four of my sons were with me.

When everyone was asleep, I went out and sat by the water. It felt good to lean back and enjoy the wilderness around me — a sweep of star-specked sky between walls of majestic hardwoods; sandbars scrubbed white by the moving waters; flowers and greenery cuffing the river. There were no sounds of civilization, only the calls of a barred owl hunting downstream.

I took my shoes off and soaked my feet in the water. The river tugged at my toes. It was as if the stream was alive, and I could feel its pulse.

Relaxing there, I pondered the many miles this water had traveled, the people it had touched, the animals and plants it had nourished, the mountain bluffs, cypress bottoms, farmlands, cities, fishing shanties and hunting camps it had coursed past … before reaching this point at the end of its long journey.

I thought about others like us who must have been drawn to the river that day, and about the people who had come before us — explorers, voyageurs, boat captains, naturalists, pioneers, historians — all lured by the magic of the river.

I reflected on my own attraction to this river and other rivers I have come to know.

I have fished many rivers since I was a 10-year-old sitting on that country bridge over the L'Anguille. The Atchafalaya, Columbia, Snake, Missouri, Red, Escambia, Suwannee, Colorado, Rio Grande, Elota, Magaguadavic, Amazon, Xingu, Paragua and dozens more.

Rivers are like threads woven through the fabric of my life. Catfishing is the fabric itself. Catfish give me reason to be there. They are the spice that flavors every trip.

Sitting by the river that night, I thought about my sons sleeping in the tents nearby. It was their third river campout, and they had gone to bed exhausted.

Now they, too, have been charmed by a river mistress. And in them, I see hope for the future of these precious waters.

I slept well that night, knowing they were with me.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.