LAKE DEGRAY — Hernando DeSoto dropped by almost 500 years ago, introduced the Caddos to capitalism and made more friends than enemies. The tribe found the fur trade profitable because there was no fine lake here to make a market in crappie and thus no competition from fishing guides. We didn’t think to ask Darrell Morris and Tammy Richardson if they had Native American ancestors; our concern was not linage but lines, monofilament, and whether the weather would favor the minnows squirming at the end of them.
Rain, drenching rain, at our Friday night arrival. “It’ll pass,” one of us said, eyeing his smart phone’s forecast. No one wanted to cook. Off to a catfish hole around the corner, where a tap on the shoulder brought a happy if unplanned reunion with an old friend, who would be Randall Mathis, former Clark County judge, unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate and onetime director of the state environmental quality agency. We talked old political times for a moment, including the campaigns Mathis led for restructuring county governments (successful) and for giving city and county governments a fixed percentage of state general revenues (unsuccessful). Forty years had gone by. We could only smile at one another. The downpour produced a sparkling morning, cooler than the day we’d anticipated. Sensing the winds, we layered for the journey across DeGray, 15 minutes through daybreak air and the water’s chop, chilled hands clutching hats. Four couples in one boat rendezvousing with a second. The women, naturally, had reserved Tammy’s services; their spouses engaged Darrell. Both guides were old friends. Both had their boats and the bait ready for a battle of the sexes.
The crappie were on. I mean, on. Pomoxis anularis and Pomoxis nigromaculatus, both. Slabs, every one; not a single fish, black or white, too small for the live well. By mid-morning we had at least a dozen and a right nice catfish as well, and now the fates were bathing us in ever brighter sunshine and temperatures nudging toward the 60s, a comfortable warmth provided one stayed in long sleeves to buffer the gusts that brushed against the 20 miles-per-hour mark the weather guys had correctly predicted.
Lunch: sandwiches on the shore, courtesy of our sweeties. Catfish-thick assemblages of ham and turkey and cheese on rye or sourdough. Chips and, for conscience sake, some fruit. Beverages, in clear plastic or brown bottles. Back on the water and the hunt resumed. Submerged brush piles yielded a few, deeper waters a few more. From across the lake, their boat barely within sight, howls of delight from the ladies, one in particular. A couple minutes later a smart phone photo arrived via e-mail: your columnist’s bride had brought in a 20-inch hybrid bass. Rats, but the crappie suddenly didn’t seem that big.
The afternoon ended with Darrell and Tammy and an electric knife zipping through four big buckets of that night’s dinner. But first, back at the cabin, a lethal buffet of snacks: one, two, three, four varieties of cheese, each as wonderful as the others; breads, nuts, chips and pretzels; more fresh fruit. Beverage of choice.
Dinner: crappie fresh from the lake, hot from the cooker brought along by the Cooker, than whom there is no finer. Les puppies du hush. Fried green tomatoes. New potatoes and onions. Pasta. Salad of a dozen ingredients. Beverage of choice. Splendid, spirited conversation. Soft beds.
Breakfast: the Fort Smith sister-in-law presented Cajun casserole, a spicy but not overpowering blend of eggs and peppers and sausage. Yummy. Salty ham. Yummy. Cold fish, leftover from last night. Yummy. Other stuff. Yummy.
Cleanup, settle up, then hugs, smooches, heartfelt expressions including the cheery admonition to drive home safely. So we could do this again.
And a parting assessment of the water we were leaving behind, almost 14,000 acres of it, glistening below a dam that took nine years and $64 million to create. Perhaps government doesn’t do everything wrong.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.