Tony hated his hole getting banged so hard. Who could blame him? That’s because Kyle Faulkner and I had just caught nearly every trout trapped in a shallow, White River side-chute near Tony’s house. Helplessly, Tony watched from the shore, and paced back and forth as our rods bent repeatedly with heavy trout on nearly every cast. “You don’t have to keep them all,” Tony cried from the river bank.
Within minutes, Tony was pulling on boots and waders, and wading toward his now-pillaged pool to lecture us on proper fishing etiquette. Kyle and I were young, early 20s, new to fly fishing and strangers to the concept of catch-and-release angling. Tony was salt-and-pepper haired, hairy-faced and spoke with unmistakable Chicago in his voice. Tony explained that he retired from life as a pipe fitter and boilermaker, and treasured his house and new life in Arkansas’ warm Southern winters. More than that, Tony loved the nearby side channel that funneled trout during high water, and left them stranded and easily caught in low-flows. Despite Tony’s concerns, we assured him that we only took our legal limit. After catching a few more fish as Tony looked on, Kyle and I wished Tony “good luck,” then waded downstream laughing to ourselves about what became known ever-after as the time we were “bangin’ Tony’s Hole!”
Today, I am the only person who carries the memory of that crude, comical tale. That’s because Kyle died in October, 2021, leaving me alone to retell the story of penetrating Tony’s secret trout sanctuary 30 years ago. Kyle was a friend and fishing buddy, and we shared many other adventures before his death at 54 years old from liver failure. Sadly, most of Kyle’s life was filled with more tragedy than comedy, a story of misfortune largely of his own creation.
Fast Fishing Buddies
The first time Kyle and I fished together was 1994, catching bass with plastic worms on a Madison County, Arkansas, pond owned by Jared Pebworth, Kyle’s lifelong friend. I worked with Jared at the University of Arkansas’ Archaeological Survey, and he introduced me to Kyle as a fellow angler. As two people who love water and the things that live in it, we instantly connected over our mutual passion for fishing. Yet, we were very different humans, even if we both loved angling.
Kyle was smart but mostly uneducated, his days spent working as a framing carpenter, sweating, joking and competing with other builders, while I was working on my undergraduate degree and focused on becoming an archaeologist. Kyle didn’t read, whether by disinterest or disability, but was far from stupid. However, shortly before I met Kyle, he’d made a life-changing mistake and impregnated a girl named Crystal, who worked at Sonic Drive-In. Besides the child – a beautiful baby girl they called Lauren, who was born with Kyle’s long eyelashes and dark hair – Kyle and Crystal had nearly nothing in common. Kyle loved Lauren, but spent most of his off-work hours far away from his family. That pattern didn’t change when their second daughter, Amy, was born a few years later. In fact, stress caused by having two children may have forced Kyle further from Crystal, and they eventually divorced.
Whether the emotional distance from his wife, or the fact that they lived with her family without a home of their own – and Kyle’s entire life was under his mother-in-law’s gaze – he was rarely home. Instead, Kyle could be found drinking beer, smoking weed and playing music at my kitchen table, sometimes until nearly midnight on weekdays. Then Kyle would pour himself into his old Ford Bronco, and slide back into the family life he never wanted in the first place. Kyle’s best efforts at being a husband and father often failed.
Kyle’s disinterest in his family was a terrible loss, for certain. I know that his daughters wanted to spend time with their father as children, like most kids. Yet, Kyle was more likely to be walking a river bank than playing with his daughters most weekends, and I was usually fishing by Kyle’s side. Sadly, his daughters lost time with their father, while I built friendship with Kyle on the water chasing fish.
My own life was very different than Kyle’s, but I still had lots of time to go fishing. Unlike my new fishing buddy, I had no children and a live-in girlfriend who worked weekends as a waitress, and she didn’t care if I was home or not most days. Without weekend obligations, I was free to fish anytime money allowed. Neither of us had reliable vehicles, nor much extra cash for fishing supplies. Yet, together we could usually scrape up enough money to put fuel in his gas-guzzling Bronco or my 1978 Volkswagen van, and hit a river nearly every weekend.
As a result, I spent more time fishing with Kyle than any other person to this day. Those untold hours forged a strong friendship between unlikely allies. Kyle grew up middle class in east Texas, and even though his father was a pilot and Kyle played on a golf course in his backyard as a kid, his well-practiced demeanor was nothing but redneck. By contrast, I was an aspiring hippie from the Arkansas Ozarks, without experience dealing with over-confident and bossy Texans. Kyle was a dedicated Arkansas Razorbacks fan, and loved most sports, and I was not a fan of any sport but fishing. In time, we found common ground, not just mutual love for fishing, but music, drinking, dancing and anything to distract us from the routine shit-life that most poor people like us lived.
For example, my grandpa was a fighter pilot in World War II, and flew P-38 Lightning airplanes in the Pacific theater. Kyle’s grandpa spent the war working in a Wichita, Kansas, aircraft factory building P-38s. “He probably built the plane that your grandpa flew,” Kyle once declared. Also, we both had troubles relating to our fathers due to childhood struggles. We were definitely mismatched, but common life experiences helped make us lifelong friends.
Intro to Fly Fishing
The first time Kyle and I went fly fishing was at Roaring River State Park in Missouri, in April 1994. Although Kyle later claimed that he taught me to fly fish, I introduced Kyle to the sport, demonstrated the casts and showed him how to tie simple flies that caught fish. Kyle was a longtime bass angler, and didn’t own a fly rod, but borrowed one for that first fly fishing trip. We caught so many trout that day, Kyle was finally convinced that fly fishing was at least as fun as bass fishing with heavy gear.
From that first trip onward, we spent every winter chasing cold-water trout, and every summer fishing for warm-water bass for nearly a decade. We drove endless hours doing the “trout circuit,” a 200-mile arc across the Ozarks that takes anglers from one fish-filled tailwater to another. If one dam was releasing too much water for safe fishing, we drove on to the next dam, sometimes nearly two hours from site to site, hoping to find low water and willing fish.
During a time when few fly fishers waded those rivers, our endless journeys carried us to all the famous trout waters in Arkansas and Missouri, including the White River, where Tony’s hole was located (now long-since filled in by the meandering river, Tony’s hole is truly just a memory) . Unlike today, with billions more humans on earth and a proportionate number of newly minted fly anglers, Kyle and I often found ourselves alone on those famed trout waters. And we caught amazing fish. Once, we located a pod of hand-fed trophy trout and spent months experimenting with flies to take those finicky fish. Eventually, a fly imitating the hatchery food pellets fed to trout broke the code and brought many fine fish to hand.
Along the way, we snapped seemingly endless photos of fish we caught. Each believed bigger and better than the last, but every fish was fun and a miniature milestone in our ever-growing fly fishing experience. Today, those old photos reveal frozen memories of days that were great, but no happy times ever last.
Music and Mayhem
Kyle and I came from different backgrounds, but shared similarities that served as glue to bond us as friends. Beyond angling, we both loved music, weed and alcohol. In time, when my girlfriend bailed after six years and I was very depressed, Kyle taught me to drink whisky, specifically Bushmills Irish Whisky. Some days, Kyle waited at my kitchen table when I got home from work or class, smoking cigarettes, drinking a beer and loading one-hitters with crappy Mexican pot. We’d eat homemade chili, drink more beer and whisky, smoke and listen to our favorite hillbilly string band, Big Smith.
That band captivated us both, along with many of our friends, and the hours we spent seeing Big Smith live at Chester’s Place on Dickson Street in Fayetteville were second only to the hours we spent fishing together. The ticket stubs from those concerts are piled high in my collection, precious mementos of nights dancing, singing and living full lives like happy young people should. Following that good feeling, Kyle and I traveled with friends to see Big Smith from Springfield, Missouri, to Talequah, Oklahoma, and many places in between.
Along the way, we formed what we called “The Kitchen Table Band,” and explored our own fun making music with many other friends. Kyle kept time with washboard or table drumming, while I played guitar and sang along. Many empty bottles and full ashtrays were created those nights spent playing and singing together around the kitchen table. From traditional tunes to new rockers, we sang and strummed, picked and partied every weekend for years.
Each of us introduced the other to different influences, not just Irish whisky and fly fishing. Kyle was first to play me music by Del McCoury band and John Hartford, and I provided tunes by Jerry Garcia, the sad girls of Freakwater and Frank Zappa’s lewd-and-lengthy Joe’s Garage. Kyle also introduced me to good friends, many of whom I still know. Lenny and Judy Blankenship were my roommates for two years after we met through Kyle. Lenny was a founding member of The Kitchen Table Band, as well. They brought Dave Lawson into my life, who was Kyle’s boss at several liquor stores through the years, and another good human who only wanted Kyle to be happy and healthy.
In fact, Dave always offered Kyle work, even when Kyle didn’t offer much work in return, especially as his old knee injury flared and he was relegated to stool duty at the liquor store cash register, instead of carrying kegs and cans. Jeff Jackson, who knew Kyle nearly as long as me, let Kyle sleep on his couch and housed Kyle’s rowdy chocolate Labrador, named Abe, when Kyle finally lost his apartment before moving to Texas. All of those people, especially Jared Pebworth, (Kyle’s closest buddy in Arkansas, who first convinced Kyle to move to Fayetteville from Texas in the late 1980s) loved our mutual friend like a brother. Yet, we all understood that Kyle was always teetering on an uncertain edge because of bad decisions and excessive drinking.
The End Days
Fishing fun and musical mayhem came to an end when I moved away from Fayetteville in 2002, and Kyle and I weren’t in contact for many years. In those days before cellphones, Kyle was not accessible by email or telephone, in part because he was never home with his family. When I moved away, we simply stopped communicating. Then, Kyle’s life changed for the worse.
At work one day, Kyle fell off a house from a height that left him with a knee so broken he spent six months in a hospital bed recovering at his new girlfriend’s house. She was a woman who truly cared for Kyle, and although I never met her, friends say she wanted to improve Kyle’s life. When she attended school in Kansas City, Kyle moved with her for a brief time and escaped Fayetteville’s routine. When they broke up shortly after, she called Kyle’s friend, Jared, and asked simply, “What is wrong with Kyle?”
That was the question that everyone eventually asked who knew Kyle for any length of time. Kyle was a well-known self saboteur, and long before I met him, he was famous for turning good situations into bad through terrible choices. For example, making children he didn’t want with a woman he didn’t love. That’s one reason Kyle chose to drink excessively, to escape life, even if the result was a foggy mess that ultimately destroyed every relationship Kyle ever had – even our friendship.
Alcohol was Kyle’s kryptonite. He always drank more than anyone I’d ever known. I liked to drink, true, but I never drank like Kyle. For example, he always stopped and bought a six-pack to drink while he drove home from fishing. I knew I couldn’t stop him from drinking and driving, so I just kept silent, and counted the beers he finished to ensure I didn’t need to take the wheel.
In fact, no one could convince Kyle to change anything about his life, including drinking, for better or worse. There’s an old song by the band The Rainmakers, called “Thanks for the Information.” The song addresses a friend’s drinking problem by asking, “How can I bitch at them for something they already know?” Ultimately, that was the same conundrum every friend of Kyle’s faced. He was too stubborn to change, but knew exactly what he was doing, even if the damage to his mind and body was irreparable. It was slow-motion suicide by bottle.
Thankfully, Kyle and I reconnected in 2010, when I returned to Fayetteville. He was working at a liquor store managed by old friends, and recently divorced from a woman named Breezy, with two sons to raise. Kyle didn’t want to raise his own daughters, and definitely didn’t want two more kids, which is one reason their marriage ended. The other was clearly too much alcohol, which left Kyle unable to make clear-headed decisions, even when he wasn’t drunk.
One day, Kyle was arrested after his ex-wife called the police as he sat in his truck outside his own apartment. Kyle and Breezy had argued, and she called police when he left. Cops found him drunk behind the wheel of a parked vehicle, which was his third DUI in a decade. Shortly after, around 2012, he quit his job and moved back to Texas, in part to escape another failed marriage and legal troubles, and also to reconnect with his family. Sadly, Kyle would never return from the Lone Star State and I would never see him alive again.
Even before Kyle left Arkansas, he’d all but quit fishing. Kyle’s mother had bought him an older bass boat to try to bring him happiness, but it had a faulty motor and rarely worked. After that, he slowly stopped angling and started drinking more instead. Kyle and I shared different fishing philosophies, even though we enjoyed time on the water together immensely. First, Kyle was extremely competitive about everything in life – to a fault – and especially fishing. Besides convincing himself that he taught me to fly fish, Kyle could be a braggart who cared more about boosting himself than camaraderie. His fish were always bigger and better fighting than mine, according to Kyle, and he apparently always out-fished me. And sometimes, he truly did!
Second, for some reason, Kyle thought the end result of fishing experience was elevation to the professional bass fishing circuit. He’d grown up watching tournament bass competitions on television, and was convinced that fishing was only intended to train one for fishing contests. Conversely, I believed that fishing was about more than catching fish, but rather a great excuse to spend time in nature and enjoy living. If we caught fish in the process, then even better. Coupled with intense competition, some days Kyle turned fishing into a chore while dealing with his blustery bragging.
The last time Kyle and I went fishing was in 2011, on Lake Wilson near Fayetteville. He didn’t own a fishing rod anymore, because he had pawned all of his expensive fishing gear or sold it to friends. Kyle was no stranger to the pawn shop, and nearly every item of value he ever owned was eventually pawned by the time he died, from guns to televisions. Once, Kyle helped insulate our attic to earn extra money, and I gave Kyle some high-end fishing gear that I no longer used, and convinced him we’d have a great time on the water. Unfortunately, I used a one-person inflatable boat to fish from the water, and Kyle walked alone on the weedy shoreline. While I caught bass and had fun, Kyle only caught seed ticks and got hot and frustrated in the summer sun. The day ended with Kyle determined to quit fishing once and for all until he had a boat of his own. That never happened, and the fishing gear I gave him eventually went to a Texas neighbor years later.
After Kyle moved to Texas, he worked at a grocery store and a convenience store, but soon stopped working because his old knee injury again hurt too much to stand for long periods. He met some girls online through dating apps, but those relationships never blossomed beyond bedroom fun. Kyle’s family tried to engage him with family activities, and Kyle attended his nephew’s football games, but was unable to reconnect as they’d hoped because he drank too much. Like many alcoholics, Kyle could not care enough about other people because he was unable to even care for himself. Kyle’s mother did her best to improve his life through the years. She paid for a boat, an old truck, a hernia operation, and even gave Kyle her small house in DeLeon, Texas, where he lived until he died. None of her efforts helped Kyle adjust to living, and sadly, the fault was his alone.
Even though he was far away, I called Kyle frequently to check on him. Once, I mailed him dried, smoked chile peppers from my garden to season his beans. He talked about those chilies nearly every phone call for years. When our old friend, Jeff Jackson, married the year after Kyle left Arkansas, I hoped Kyle would attend. I knew his old truck wouldn’t make it to Fayetteville, so I offered to meet him in Texarkana, Arkansas, about four hours south of my home and about three hours from Kyle’s. He never committed to the offer, then after the wedding said he regretted the choice. Another time, I was in New Mexico and planned to drive back to Arkansas through Texas and surprise Kyle with a visit. I called his cellphone for days on end without answer. Kyle’s voicemail was never set up the entire time he owned a cellphone, so I couldn’t leave a message about my plan. Instead of a surprise visit, I drove back to my Arkansas farm and focused on growing gardens instead of tending an old, fading friendship.
In the meantime, I moved to Buffalo City, Ark., a tiny town on the White River that I first visited with Kyle long ago, searching for trout fishing access. I called Kyle to update him on our house construction, my new fly fishing business and life in Arkansas. I detailed my fishing trips and my hunting success, but Kyle was usually too drunk to talk about anything but himself. When Kyle chose to discuss my life, he tried to tell me how to hunt and fish, even though I was the one with deer and fish in the freezer, and Kyle hadn’t left the couch in years. As my life improved, Kyle’s life got worse with each year he lived in Texas. Maybe that’s why Kyle didn’t want to hear about my good fortune, even those hard-won through great struggle. That’s when I learned an important truth about Kyle: A person could be a bad friend, but still be a good fishing buddy. It was difficult lesson, but well learned, nonetheless.
Our communication faltered further when I stopped carrying a cellphone and his ability to text me vanished. For some reason, Kyle preferred texting and refused to use email, perhaps because he didn’t read or write well. Strangely, Kyle played Word’s With Friends like a Rhodes Scholar, which demonstrated his overlooked intelligence. So without texting and email, Kyle and I were left with phone calls that became fewer and further between with each passing year.
Too Far Gone
Kyle’s money troubles and his life got worse when he sold the house his mother gave him to an old high school friend to earn quick money. Kyle could remain in the house, but no longer owned the property. He spent the proceeds on a new rifle and other things that eventually went to the pawn shop. Ultimately, Kyle earned nothing from the house sale, but lost ownership of the property. When Kyle’s knees got so bad that he needed a walker, he finally lived up to his long-time nickname “Paw-Paw,” but he was only 51 years old. Kyle applied for government aid but was denied. Fighting Uncle Sam for cash was a years-long struggle filled with maddening government bureaucracy and paperwork, a challenge that was nearly too much for an already dispirited Kyle. When the ceiling over the couch collapsed, Kyle described raccoons falling from the attic one-by-one like coins from a slot machine. The story was meant to be funny when Kyle told it, but I knew it was a harbinger of his demise. Kyle could not check his own mailbox, let alone repair his roof – or his broken life.
The last two years of Kyle’s life were spent drinking wine by the bottle. When his dog, Abe, was hit by a car, Kyle was destroyed because he’d lost one of his last friends. That loss made Kyle more distant and he communicated even less. When we succeeded in connecting for phone conversations, they always started fun, but eventually devolved into Kyle crying about his current life and pining for the old days fishing rivers in Arkansas. That’s if I could reach him by phone. He rarely returned phone calls, especially when I was the one who needed an old friend to listen as I complained about my life. As a result, it was like Kyle was gone long before he even died.
Strangely, the one arena where Kyle excelled at communication was the Internet. He spent endless hours on Facebook and other websites, but the result was not good for Kyle. Debates about politics of the day, and his own stubbornness, led Kyle to end many old friendships online. Also, the 2020 election and associated controversy left Kyle angry, militant and enflamed his worst traits. Cut off from old friends and isolated online, Kyle drank more with each passing day. Worst of all, in February 2021, an ice storm ravaged Texas and left Kyle’s house with frozen and broken pipes. With his house nearly unlivable, and without money or physical ability to make repairs, Kyle’s life diminished to the point of breaking.
The last time I heard Kyle’s voice, it was weak and full of tears and regret. Jared Pebworth and I were enjoying hunting at his family cabin in Madison County, where Kyle and I first fished together nearly 30 years before. We decided to call Kyle and talk on speaker phone, and tell him we wished he was with us at the cabin, just like old days. Kyle was initially happy to hear from us, but had very little to say about his own life because it was faltering. Silence grew longer between each word, and finally Kyle was crying. “You were the best fishing buddy I ever had,” he said through tears. Then he told Jared what a great friend he had been, and then was unable to talk anymore without crying. We said we loved him and hung up the phone, shaking our heads and saddened at our once-happy friend’s tragic demise.
For some reason, I knew at that moment that Kyle had passed a point of no return in his life. There is no person I’ve ever known who needed to stop drinking as much as Kyle Faulkner. In the end, I told Jared that I hoped Kyle would find Jesus, go to Alcoholics Anonymous or do whatever it took to get happy again. Even though I do not subscribe to those philosophies, I just wanted my old friend to stay among the living. Yet, like everyone who drinks themselves to death, the best efforts of all their loved ones always fail.
Around Kyle’s death on October, 25, 2021, I got a voice message from him. “Can you please have my old friend Jason call me?” he asked plaintively. I never returned the call. I was preparing for a guided fly fishing trip on the White River, and I didn’t have time to listen to Kyle crying again. I had to focus on living. He rarely answered my calls in recent years, and I decided to return the favor. In hindsight, I wish I had returned Kyle’s last phone call. I would’ve said honestly, “Fare thee well, Kyle. You were a friend and a good fishing buddy.”
Kyle and I were so disconnected in the last year of his life, that three months passed before I learned he was dead. I woke up one night about 1 a.m., and found an email from Jared Pebworth. He explained that an old Texas friend just sent word that Kyle had passed away. That sad news did not surprise me, but I still cried for hours that day while listening to music from the old days. In fact, I’d told Jared after our final speaker phone conversation with Kyle, that the next news we’d hear would be that he was dead. To this day, I hate that I was so correct.
Part of my sadness losing Kyle is that he carried memories of me and my life that no one else possesses. Once laughing so hard that we cried at Sonic Drive-In about a menu item called “Wacky Packs.” Dancing to Big Smith in an over-crowded bar surrounded by beautiful women. Building a garden shed together at my Fayetteville farm, likely the last carpentry project Kyle ever tackled. Seeing Doc Watson, live and in person, play an unexpected and haunting version of “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. The time we wrecked my Honda on the way to the river, then called another friend, who lent us his car, and we drove on to have a great day fishing, despite the accident. And endless hours fishing on the water, like when we were “bangin’ Tony’s Hole.”
Those are the days you never know are so important until the people who share those memories with you are gone. When Kyle died, those memories died, too, and a small part of my own human story went with my old friend to the grave. Who will remember the fishing and fun we had when I die? Perhaps that’s the selfish part of human existence, that we rely on others to reflect our lives back to us like memory mirrors. In the end, Kyle died because he surrendered the will to live. He stopped engaging life and soon ceased living. Perhaps his family described Kyle’s troubles best in his obituary, “Kyle struggled with issues that his mind and body just could not overcome.”
Yet, no matter how difficult life is for me, the difference between Kyle and myself, is that I never stopped living. Even on my worst days, I somehow manage to get out of bed, put my pants on and lace up my boots for life. I’m sad some days, and I’ve been suicidal, but I’ve never stopped fishing. Maybe that is the real secret to happy life for me, and perhaps Kyle’s fatal error. Even the day after I learned about Kyle’s death, I went fishing instead of laying on the couch crying. I drove to a spot he and I always talked about fishing, but we never made it there. Amazingly, I found a 5,000-year-old arrowhead by the shore, and I saw eagles, river otters and caught-and-released many fine fish. Most of all, I engaged with nature and enjoyed life. Maybe if Kyle hadn’t put down the fishing rod, he would have kept himself occupied and doing what he once loved most: Walking the gravel bar, fishing to live and living to fish.
Waters fished with Kyle Faulkner:
- Kings River
- Buffalo River
- All forks of the White River
- Roaring River
- War Eagle River
- North Fork River and tailwater
- Crooked Creek
- Illinois River
- Lake Wilson
- Jared’s Pond
- Table Rock Dam
- Beaver Dam
- Spring River
- Tony’s Hole!