Fly fishing adventures often teach important life lessons about people, not just angling. For example, I thought I knew how to eat a mango and catch trout on the fly rod, but I learned lessons about both long ago on my first journey to Missouri’s Montauk State Park.
The park is one of that state’s four spring-fed trout parks open to the public, and I toured each location in the early 1990s. There I found eager fish, cool waters running from massive, year-round springs and honed my skills as a novice fly angler. With fish stocked daily from nearby trout rearing ponds, the fish catching was nearly as good as the fishing itself.
My trusty 1978 Volkswagen van always carried me, my girlfriend and blonde lab Cassidy to each park without fail. There we’d camp, winter or summer, and I would fish while she and Cassidy explored the river trails. That first journey to Montauk was a long haul from our home in Fayetteville, Ark., about seven hours, and we planned to make the most of the drive by camping there for days to learn the area.
Montauk is located at the headwaters of the Current River, part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways operated by the National Park Service. Much like the Buffalo National River, the Current River is federally protected but is dotted with private lands between stretches of wilderness. The spring at Montauk hosts trout and draws people from across the country hoping to camp, fish and vacation.
As we pulled into the parking lot after our long drive, we were road weary but grateful to experience a new and beautiful part of the Ozarks. When I saw the other Volkswagen van in the lot, my tiredness vanished into fascination and excitement. There is comradery between Volkswagen drivers, especially van owners, that transcends social class and instantly bonds strangers into friends.
Eager to see the van and introduce myself to another Volkswagen compadre, I parked close to the vehicle, so it appeared like an impromptu VW auto show. The other van was a strange milky-green color, the shade that only graced 1970s vehicles and kitchen appliances. The van was a 1979 pop-top Westfalia camper, with all the bells and whistles thrown in – even a kitchen sink. Its Florida plates, fancy features and shiny green paint made my dull-brown transporter van seem run-down and unworthy to be parked so closely to a German-made masterpiece. For example, my van was not fitted with camping accessories, and provided only a hard bench seat instead of a comfortable folding bed, like all Westfalia models. While my girlfriend and I used sleeping bags and blankets on our van’s hard metal floor, Westfalia owners all snoozed on soft mattresses. I was envious.
Gawking, I walked around the stunning van but found no owner willing to shake hands and talk VWs. I imagined my erstwhile comrade was catching trout in the nearby river, and I could meet them on the water to discuss our mutual obsessions with fly fishing and Volkswagens. I suited up for fishing, said goodbye to my girlfriend and dog and waded into the river.
The spring that gives Montauk its name is a big eye-like water hole. It oozes about 53 million gallons daily to instantly create the Current River from tiny Pigeon Creek. It flows for more than a hundred miles southward into Arkansas, where it joins the Black River near Pocahontas. As impressive as Montauk Spring is, its waterflow is dwarfed by other springs downstream on the Current River, including Big Spring, the state’s largest water outflow averaging 286 million gallons daily. All are worth visiting, but none hold blue-ribbon trout status like Montauk State Park.
I was no novice to Missouri trout streams, even if I’d never fished Montauk. I thought I knew the gear to take, flies to tie and how to present them to catch fish. I also thought I knew how to eat a mango, but I was wrong about everything. Those are all lessons I learned that day from the Preacher.
Just downstream, wading along the water’s edge and slowly roll-casting a fly line to the far shore, stood the man whom I guessed must’ve owned the green Westfalia van. His wide straw hat and bright red Polo shirt were as comical as his gleaming white golf shorts and skinny, pale white legs slowly turning pale blue below the frigid water. I worked my way toward him, suddenly aware that my vision of another long-haired VW driver on the river was misplaced.
In fact, there are two kinds of people who drive Volkswagen vans. The first group is mostly made of dirty hippies, which is widely known. The other, oddly, is composed of old men over 50, retirees who have money to buy and maintain Volkswagens and time to travel. Rather than a Grateful Dead-listening hippie, like I assumed, the Westfalia’s owner was instead a very-uptight looking gray-haired fellow, who sported golf clothes rather than a tie dye.
In contrast to his casual golf attire, I wore thick neoprene chest waders, the obligatory tan fly vest stuffed with every gadget and fly box I’d ever owned, and a pair of wading boots that weighed me down with each waterlogged step. I’d only been in the river a few minutes, and I was already sweating in the hot July sun. Compared to my fellow angler, I was unprepared and overdressed for the weather.
As I waded closer, he smiled, waved and said in a syrupy southern accent, “Howdy, are you ready to catch some fish?” He spoke as if he knew me, and I was so confused by his familiarity that I assumed he must be talking with someone behind me. I turned around expecting another angler, but we were alone on the water. Unstymied by social stigma that separated us, I smiled and asked if he was catching any fish.
“About a dozen so far,” he replied. Then his rod tip bent and danced with another fish. “That’s thirteen!”
Eager to learn more about the Volkswagen van, and certain he was the owner, I asked if the van burned much oil on its way from Florida. That’s when his smile turned up to 11, because he realized he must be talking with a fellow Volkswagen owner. That’s because oil problems are the Volkswagen’s fatal flaw, and everyone who drives one quickly learns to monitor engine oil. Valves leak with blow-by, making thick black smoke. Or seals fail and oil drains out, killing engines and stranding unlucky drivers.
The angler introduced himself as The Preacher. He earned the name because he was a retired Southern Baptist preacher in his Florida hometown. The Preacher worked as a schoolteacher, too, and spent summer breaks prowling Missouri trout streams to avoid Florida heat and hurricanes. The van, he explained, was the best vehicle he could buy for his summertime sojourns. It provided a place to sleep, as well as an easy way to carry the fishing and camping gear needed for months-long adventures in the Ozarks.
As we talked Volkswagens, I fished without luck. Cast after cast in the summer sun brought no fish. The Preacher, however, couldn’t stop catching trout even as he relayed his entire life story, from his time as a schoolboy fishing the Gulf to his wife’s death a few years earlier. One by one, he brought trout to hand, admired their dark spots and bright rainbow hues, then released each fish saying cheerfully, “So long, friend!”
Compared to the Preacher, I was overburdened with a vest full of gear that didn’t help me catch fish. I was overdressed and sweating in the sun, wearing heavy waders and boots that did nothing but slow me down. The Preacher was cool and calm in the spring water, enjoying each trout he caught with a smile while wearing shorts and sandals. He didn’t even wear a gadget-packed fishing vest, and instead carried only a pair of hemostats clipped to his shirt, and a small box of flies in his shorts’ pocket. I learned that day that minimalism makes fly fishing far simpler and more enjoyable.
Next, the Preacher taught me about flies. Curious about my lack of luck, the Preacher noticed my frustration without fish on the line and asked what fly I was using. I showed him my fly pattern, a tiny tan-and-black bead-headed Hare’s Ear fly that resembled a mayfly nymph. That fly pattern caught many fish at other Missouri trout parks, but it failed to attract any bites that day at Montauk and I was a bit embarrassed by my lack of fish.
The Preacher opened his fly box and pulled out a fly that looked like a bright hunk of yellow yarn wrapped around a hook, and nothing else. It wasn’t round, like a typical fish-egg fly pattern, but oblong, with a fat forward section near the hook’s eye that tapered to nothing at the hook’s point. It looked more like a piece of bright-colored trash than a carefully crafted fly meant to catch picky trout. If I hadn’t seen the Preacher pull fish-after-fish out of the river with that ugly fly pattern, I would’ve never believed it would catch fish.
He passed me the fly and I asked what it was called. “They aren’t like any fly you’ve seen,” he conceded. “I call them the Ugly Bug. It’s pretty ugly for a bug!”
Armed with an Ugly Bug, I started catching trout. One fish after another came to hand, both rainbows and browns, all taken on the simple, yarn-tied hooks. The Preacher laughed with each fish we caught and released, and my attitude brightened with every bite. Soon, we’d become fast fishing friends, despite our age difference and our different backgrounds. What began as bonding over Volkswagens and fly fishing, led to an afternoon of ever-growing familiarity and fun.
Back at the parking lot, we compared Volkswagens and stories about inevitable breakdowns and resulting roadside repairs. The gleaming green camper van looked museum-kept inside, with crisp plaid upholstery, storage cabinets of all sizes, a cook stove and even carpeting. In return, I showed off the engine I rebuilt on my van, rather than offer a tour of the nearly empty interior, which lacked comforts and smelled like a combination of burnt engine oil with a faint whiff of marijuana smoke.
As the conversation waned, and we were about to drive our separate ways, the Preacher turned and asked if we’d like to eat some mangos that he had at his nearby campsite. My girlfriend and I had no real plans, and we were both hungry from an afternoon on the river, so we agreed to follow the Preacher to his camp and enjoy some fresh fruit. It seemed like an innocent and generous offer from a kindly fellow, and nothing more.
We followed the Preacher’s green van as he drove too fast around each winding curve on the country road, and over hills surrounded by forests and pasture. Mile after mile we traveled, further from Montauk State Park and familiar terrain, until the Preacher suddenly turned off the pavement and into a full-grown hay field. He was unphased by the field and kept driving up the hill through the tall grass and out of sight. Confused but happy to follow, we drove behind and plowed through the pasture to keep up with the Preacher.
At the top of a hill, the pasture leveled out and we saw the Preacher’s campsite. It was a sad affair, without a tree in sight and surrounded by waist-high, tick-filled grass. The hay was beaten down where his van had been parked, and a folding chair and small table sat nearby. The Preacher hopped out of his van and welcomed us to his camp, explaining that a friend owned the land and allowed the Preacher to camp there each year. Even though there were no amenities, and the campsite was literally in an open field in the hot summer sun, it was free and affordable.
The Preacher said he needed to change clothes and climbed into the back of his van and closed the heavy sliding door. My girlfriend and I stood awkwardly next to our van as he vanished, unsure if we’d made the right decision about hanging out with a Southern Baptist preacher far from other humans. Was he a serial killer about to murder two young hippies and their sweet dog? Would he emerge from the van with a ski mask and machete? Maybe he was a pervert wanting his way with us?
What happened next could not be predicted. The Preacher slid open the van door and stepped out shirtless, wearing only a skirt. Not a common skirt that a woman might wear to church or work, but a colorful batik cloth that was more likely to be worn by hippies. A combination of an Indian sari and a flowing silk-like scarf that wrapped around the waist with tassels and fringe hanging down.
I don’t recall my actual words or facial expressions, but I’m certain the Preacher noticed the surprise in my eyes. My girlfriend was stunned, too, and searched our van feigning to find a lost object, avoiding the sight of the shirtless preacher in his flowing skirt. Even though we were surprised by the conservative southern man’s curious costume change, something like a transvestite Clark Kent, we didn’t judge his clothing choice. We supported anyone’s lifestyle choices, as long as they didn’t expect others to join them. He could wear any clothes he wanted, a golf shirt and shorts or frilly skirt. We didn’t care.
In fact, we soon collected ourselves when the mangos appeared. We acclimated to the skirt-wearing preacher and watched as he demonstrated the proper method to eat a mango. First, the Preacher pealed the ripe mango. Next, he sliced a full lime in half. Then he squeezed half a lime onto the pealed fruit. Finally, the Preacher devoured it, with mango and lime juice mingling and dripping off his face with a sloppy smile. The Preacher’s demonstration was nearly pornographic, but we imitated and discovered his mango munching technique created delicious results. Rather than merely a messy tropical fruit snack, the lime juice created an entirely unique flavor when squeezed over the mango.
The intense flavor soon overcame our concerns about skirt-wearing preachers. Far from an axe-wielding murderer, we realized the Preacher was just a fellow human. He was lonely traveling alone, and he wanted to share a scrumptious secret and a few minutes company with a fellow Volkswagen owner and his girlfriend. The skirt, we discovered, was the perfect mango eating outfit. He could get messy and stay cool in the hot sun. We ate two mangos each standing in an open hay field, hot sun pounding down as we squeezed limes and slurped juices next to our vans.
When the mangos were gone, we thanked the Preacher for his kindness, wished him well on his journey and drove back to the state park. That day at Montauk Spring I learned a lot about fly fishing and people. By watching the Preacher, I learned to pare down my gear to the essentials, in order to adapt to weather and water conditions. Leave the waders and boots at home if you can wet wade and abandon the traditional fly-fishing vest for packs and pockets. Fly fishing does not have to be complicated to be fun. Also, I learned that flies don’t have to be fancy to catch fish. Even a bright hank of yarn wrapped around a hook will fool a trout.
Most importantly, I learned that people are not always who they seem to be: Even a conservative southern preacher can don a skirt and slather ripe mangos in tangy lime juice when you least expect it. That’s how I learned to eat a mango and lost my Montauk Spring virginity.