The water was cold. The mountain stream seldom rose above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect for trout.
Knee deep in the icy current, the fly fisherman focused on a pool of water thirty feet away. He watched until he saw the small ripples. The trout were feeding. That’s the moment when an onlooker would see a solitary fisherman transform into an artist as his fly rod begins its dance.
The line glistening in the sunlight as it arcs and sings back and forth in nothing less than a poetry of motion.
And then, the cord unfurls, gracefully laying the leader and tiny hand-tied fly onto the surface of the water. He hits his target. Rhythm and focus working together.
The rod bends. The hook is set. The fight is on.
There’s something about a fly fisherman that’s different from a typical angler. Part philosopher and part sportsman, there is a Zen-like quality to their nature. You seldom hear them talk about the size of fish that they catch, but far more often about their beauty. Gently holding the rainbow or brown trout just pulled from the stream, the fly fisherman will marvel at the early morning sun reflecting on the skin of the multi-colored fish. And then, with silent gratitude, return the fish to the ice-cold water to live and fight another day.
But, you can’t catch trout in Russellville, Arkansas.
Or can you?
Meet Jerry McKaughan, grandfather of five and president of the CADDIS Fly Fishing club. Jerry, who spends his days as the finance director for the city of Russellville, started tying flies in 1996 because he was looking for something to help him relax. That, and he had seen Colonel Sherman T. Potter doing it on the television series, M*A*S*H and thought it looked like fun. For those unfamiliar, in the fly fishing world, flies are the tiny, hand-made lures at the end of the fly fisherman’s line.
Oddly enough, when he began tying flies Jerry wasn’t actually a fly fisherman. He wasn’t really a fisherman at all. But after supplying flies to some friends who liked to fly fish they convinced him to go with them on a fishing trip to the mountains of southern New Mexico. With a little instruction and a little practice he was hooked.
And from that week of standing knee deep in an ice cold mountain stream fed by melting snow capped mountains, Jerry became not only a fly fishing enthusiast, but perhaps it’s better stated that he became a fly fishing evangelist. He is, in fact, the best sort of salesman because he is one who truly believes in what he’s selling. Fishing is good for the soul.
When I asked him what it was about fly fishing that’s so addictive he didn’t hesitate.
“The serenity,” he said.
The thing that’s immediately noticeable is the glee with which he talks about trout fishing.
The more we talked the more I realized that he was drifting further and further from his City Hall office. His feet may have been planted on a hardwood floor, but I could tell his soul was moving closer and closer to a fishing hole somewhere in the mountains.
And so I asked him where his favorite fishing hole was located. Again, no hesitation. “The Big Thompson in the Rocky Mountain National Park,” he said. “The atmosphere, the nature, it’s just beautiful. It’s crystal clear. It’s gin clear. It’s amazing you can’t see the fish. They’re there, but you just have to really focus because it seems like they’re chameleons. They just blend right in. The fish aren’t huge, but I’m not after huge fish. I’m after the experience and the time, taking the kids there and let them fish it. To me, it’s just a total outlet for getting away from everything. The first time I went out there I hired a guide and he took me out there for a day. I told him that you have the best office in the whole world.”
As it also happens, in 1996 there was a group of River Valley anglers and conservationists who got together and formed the CADDIS Fly Fishing Club. CADDIS, which stands for Central Arkansas Dead Drifters Ichthyological Society is a mouthful. The name is the result of a bunch of creative fishermen. A caddis is a type of fly and ichthyological means to study fish. So basically, they came up with a clever acronym that means they use fake bugs to catch fish. Sometimes you just have to be in the subculture to keep up with the lingo. Which, when it comes to tying flies, at times seems limitless.
The cleverness of the name is indicative of the cleverness of its members. They’re not just a group of people who like to fish. They’re a group of people who want to give others an opportunity to fish. And in the minds of the members, there was a problem with Russellville that probably only they were aware.
You couldn’t catch trout here.
The members of CADDIS fixed that problem once and for all. In 2004 they teamed up with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Russellville Parks and Recreation Department to put on what would become the annual event known as Trout Day.
And since that time, from the first Saturday of December until as long as cool temperatures keep the water below 52 degrees, a person can catch a limit of trout in Russellville, Arkansas, at Pleasant View Park.
2015 marked the eleventh year that anywhere from 130-250 people, mostly children with their moms and dads, show up on a cold December morning and cast a line in the pond stocked by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. For the kids who don’t have fishing gear, CADDIS takes care of supplying them with all the tackle and bait they need.
Jerry, now president of CADDIS, gets a smile on his face every time he mentions it.
“The Trout Day is an awesome deal for kids,” he said. “We have a clinic the week before and we try to give out certificates to get kids to come to the clinic and teach them about the fish. It’s not just fly fishing at that point. It’s about the fish. It’s about what they eat. It’s to hand out a certificate to them that they can bring back the following week and collect their rod.
If you come out there and you don’t have a fishing rod, we’re going to see that you get to fish.” Handing a kid their first rod and reel brings a special level of joy to Jerry when they realize that it’s theirs to keep. “They love it, they really love it.”
Jerry strikes me as the best grandfather any kid could hope to have. Gentle and kind hearted, there seems to be few things that makes him smile more than helping children fish. I watch his computer screen as he flips through photos from years past of community children standing on the bank, proudly holding their freshly caught fish. Catching the fish, it seems, is the path to getting kids hooked on fishing.
“Look at that girl’s face. How can you not…” His voice trails off. He’s back at trout day and no longer in his office.
“Look at that. I bet that kid never held a fish in his life. That’s what it’s about.”
“Look at this little one there. They’re involved.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. How many times is that kid going to catch one of them?”
He laughs like a grandfather watching his grandchildren open Christmas presents. By showing me the photos he’s trying to help me experience a sample of the joy he feels. It seems obvious, but I ask him why they do this.
He tells me,“The kids. Of course we all like trout fishing, but for me it’s the kids.“
CADDIS, like Jerry, wants as many kids as possible to get the most out of Trout Day. Currently they’re working on securing funding for their portion of a $90,000 project to match the 48 percent the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has committed to build two handicap accessible fishing piers at Pleasant View Park. He told me, “The kids in wheel chairs struggle to get down to the bank and I think they ought to be able to fish as much as anyone else.”
But CADDIS is something that, like Trout Day, he hopes to see increase its numbers. The club’s youngest member is in his twenties, and the next youngest is in his early fifties. “I’d like to see CADDIS grow,” he said. “We’re 20-years-old. Our membership got as high as 50. Since I’ve been here it’s averaged about 20. We’re all old.”
CADDIS meets at 7 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month at Western Sizzlin on East Main Street in Russellville. If you’re interested in learning how to fly fish or want to connect with a group of men and women who like to get together and “tell lies and tie flies” they would love to help you get started. If fact, I’m not sure much would make them happier.