The Strange Death of the Ancient Grass Carp

Hungry racoons dug up and devoured the grass carp within two days.

The giant grass carp had to die. I pondered a well-placed .22 bullet to its skull as it swam just under the surface of the pond, nosing its snout into the air to pluck fresh-fallen leaves from the water’s surface. Or I could try and net the monster fish and hope to bash its head with a rock as it flailed on the shore. No matter the method, it wouldn’t be easy to murder the venerable carp, but it had to be done.

The grass carp, or White Amur, had prowled our small pond, cleaning leaves and Hoovering algae for at least 40 years – maybe even 50 years. The fish’s age was uncertain, but it was at least 40 inches long, and perhaps its length roughly matched its age. The pond was built around 1974, and the carp could’ve been in the pond from the beginning. It shared the water with four large Coy fish when we moved here in 2017, and all were likely stocked by the pond’s original owners many years ago, judging by their enormity. The Coy are at least 2-feet long, perhaps 30 inches, a size that takes decades to obtain. The carp was nearly 4-feet long and likely 30 solid pounds.

I didn’t hate the grass carp, even though I wanted it dead. The half-ugly fish was a familiar, silver-gray phantom, slipping from shadow to shadow in the pond. Somewhat shy and rarely seen for months, somedays it was clearly visible for hours suspended stoically in the pond’s still water. Often, it seemed to watch warily with its weird, down-turned eyes as I walked past on shore, before speeding away with one sweep of its sail-like tail, leaving a wavey wake that rocked the entire pond.

Together with the Coy fish, they all seemed more at home in a faraway Buddhist monastery reflecting pool than in an old Arkansas farm pond. Unfortunately, the pond is flawed and was built from sandy soil. Most of its water drains away within a month after filling full with spring rains. As a result, the fish are left doing slow circles in a daily-dwindling, ever-muddier water hole. The giant grass carp made the situation worse for all the fish, and muddied the water further with each swing of its massive tail. Even without swimming more than a foot in either direction in that murky bathtub, the big fish fanned fine silt from the pond bottom day and night.

Each summer, when the rain stops falling and the pond is deprived of fresh water, it looks like a scene from a drought-stricken watering hole on the African savannah. Trapped in a cloudy pool of crowded water without sufficient food or oxygen for months, the fish somehow manage to exist in that stagnant pool year after year. In winter’s deepest cold, the remaining water freezes nearly solid, and only flashes of the bright-orange Coy are visible beneath the thick ice. By the time spring rains again fill the pond, all the remaining catfish, Coy and others have breathed stagnant mud-water for months. Mortality is high, and fewer fish survive each year. Except the grass carp, which seemed to thrive and grow larger despite the hardships. That giant carp’s uncanny ability to weather winter freeze and summer drought finally ended last weekend when it died unexpectedly.

I heard the loud splashing in the pond all the way from the barn. I’d just passed the pond on my way to fetch the tractor, and had seen the grass carp casually sipping leaves that were floating on the surface. Again, I wondered how to remove the pond-fouling fish, but reminded myself that the difficult chore could wait, and continued to the barn. Along the way, I saw one of our free-range chickens strolling the pond shore for snacks.

When I heard the first splashing – more like the sound of a boulder slapping water than a playful sloppy slosh ­– I wondered if the pond’s resident snapping turtle had grabbed the wandering hen and she was fighting for her life. Again and again, the crashing water boomed across the farm, but the view was obscured and I couldn’t determine the cause. As I reached the pond, the surface rippled with rings but nothing seemed amiss. The chicken hen strutted calmly around the water’s edge, and our Tabby cat, Sassafras, napped peacefully on the nearby bench. Whatever caused the ruckus had vanished.

That calm disintegrated instantly, and the grass carp exploded without warning like a depth charge onto the pond’s quiet water. Once. Twice. Then three times, the great fish breached like a Humpback whale, slapping its entire 25-pound bulk onto the pond’s surface time and again. Then the flailing stopped, and the fish vanished beneath the muddy water. Stunned by the carp’s shocking antics, I stared transfixed at the pond, which was quiet and still as if the fish’s violent display never occurred. That silence ended when the carp made one final slap of its great tail and propelled itself like an errant torpedo out of the water and onto dry land. The old fish never moved again.

Flabbergasted by the bizarre spectacle, I ran to the grass carp and inspected the scene. I expected the carp to flop back into the water as I neared, but the fish was deathly still. The gills didn’t open and close. I grabbed a stick and poked the carp’s broad leathery head, but instead of swimming away, its tail twitched twice, then stopped moving entirely. The ancient grass carp was dead, sitting upright like a beached dolphin that would never again see the ocean. My fish-killing chore was done without lifting a finger!

As I buried the big stinky fish with the tractor, I wondered exactly why it died. Was it injured from leaping out of the water and crashing back into the pond repeatedly? Were those great splashes merely death throes of a dying giant? Perhaps it was decrepit and wracked by age, or had a parasite slowly turned its brain into death-inducing goo?

Or had the fish committed a form of piscatorial suicide? Tired of endless circles around the same shallow pond, breathing muddy water all summer and freezing nearly solid each winter, the big old carp had enough of life. It finally decided to pull the proverbial trigger and cease its misery, leaping and crashing its body onto the water until death. There is no way to learn the cause, the coons have now pulled the fish from its grave and cleaned the bones. Perhaps the fish actually wanted a witness to its final moments, and used its last breath to push itself onto shore before me? Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that the old grass carp died one of the strangest deaths a fish has ever died.

Grass carp can grow to nearly 100 pounds eating nothing but aquatic vegetation. Only the thick hide on this grass carp’s skull remains of its flesh.

The Tale of Jason and the Golden Trout

The golden trout from Clear Lake caught in 1996. The fish was 22 inches long and took three days to catch.

Fly fishing can be a dangerous obsession. Anglers are compelled to travel down unknown roads and rivers while on the quest for ever-more elusive fish. In fact, some wise fishing writer, whose name is long gone from my memory, once identified five stages that all fly fishers pass through on that often-perilous journey.

First, a beginning angler wants to simply catch a fish – any fish – on a fly rod. Second, armed with new confidence from initial success, that same angler wants to catch a lot of fish. Third, a big fish becomes a prize worth seeking for the now experienced fly fisher. And naturally, the fourth stage fills an angler with the craving to catch, not just one, but lots of big fish in a single outing. Yet the fifth and final stage is the most infectious and sends many good anglers into watery madness: The quest to catch the impossible fish!

As a young fly fisher, I too heard the siren’s call of a faraway fish that beaconed with gleaming promise. This is the tale of my quest to catch the golden trout.

Birth of the Arkansas Traveler

Honestly, I don’t recall how I learned about golden trout or why I planned to chase them high up in Wyoming’s Wind River mountains. The year was 1996, and I was seven years into my fly-fishing journey. With persistent practice and countless hours on the water, I’d already worked my way through the first four fly fishing stages. Naturally, I began to plan to catch an impossible fish. Hidden in faraway alpine lakes, golden trout are as difficult to reach as they are to catch. That combination created the perfect challenge for a young fly fisher on an angling sojourn.

Long-gone friends posing with my beloved 1978 Volkswagen van. That van carried me fishing from Maine to New Mexico in the 1990s.

Always eager to see what’s beyond the next bend, I am a lifelong traveler. And everywhere I go I take fishing gear. Even before I picked up my first fly rod, angling was an addiction more than a passed time. Like a gambling addict, the sheer possibility of catching another fish was akin to pulling a slot machine lever, watching the wheels line up and hearing coins drop. And like all addicts, I satisfied my craving no matter where it took me. For example, when I ran away from home at 17 years old, I somehow managed to carry an old spin casting rod with me on the Greyhound bus along with paper sacks full of clothes

Some fly fishers are well-heeled people who frequently jet to faraway waters to catch fish with exotic pedigrees. I am not one of those fly anglers. Yet, I still managed to catch fish from Maine to Mexico, Wyoming to Washington state, and even multiple Hawaiian Islands. And I always fish for native species whenever possible to experience each landscapes’ natural offerings. From Apache trout in New Mexico’s Gila River to Olympic Peninsula steelhead, Colorado’s once-endangered greenback trout and even smallmouth bass in the stream-filled hills of Kauai, Hawaii, I’ve fished as many places as I can afford to travel to as a poor Arkie angler. That’s why my fishing guide business is called Arkansas Traveler Fly Fishing. I literally am the Arkansas Traveler.

In the mid-1990s, my longtime girlfriend and I adventured each summer as far as our meager money would take us. She once called my fly rod “an expensive stick,” and clearly wasn’t an angler, but she was always willing to travel. We drove my old Volkswagen van to New Mexico, New England and parts between, usually to some national forest or park where we could camp and enjoy the world while spending little to no money, because we had very little money to spend. That summer, we intended to visit Yellowstone National Park. I’d been to Yellowstone in 1989, I knew the crowds were terrible in summertime and no dogs were allowed in the back country. We had a blonde lab named Cassidy, and we decided to choose another place where we could camp and hike into the wilderness with the dog. That’s how we selected the Wind River mountains.

The Golden Trout Trail

The Wind River range runs southeast from Yellowstone National Park, and it’s as rugged and wild as the neighboring park, but without the crowds. The same animals roam the Wind River mountains as in the park, too, with moose, elk and even grizzly bear frequently seen. Like Yellowstone, the Wind River range spawns famous rivers, and we found ourselves drawn to the Green River’s headwaters in the Jim Bridger Wilderness area. It’s a 50-mile drive from pavement on washboard dirt-and-gravel roads that follow the river to the Green River Lakes, where the Green River spills out and begins its long, winding course to join the Colorado River in Utah.

The Green River Lakes sit at the heart of Wyoming’s Wind River mountains, fifty miles from the nearest paved road.

In those days before everyone had instant internet access and on-demand GPS maps on their cellphones, anglers relied on old fashioned books, magazines, paper maps and word of mouth to plan fishing adventures. We simply followed the dotted line provided by our dog-eared Rand-McNally atlas, which wound its way up the river and ended at the lake shore. Also, we stopped for local advice and directions at the Forest Service headquarters and a fly shop in Pinedale, Wyoming, which is the only town near the wilderness area.

At the fly shop, I learned nothing about golden trout. Except for the colorful specimens mounted on the wall, those trout must’ve been a well-kept secret. The only advice I recall was to imitate the golden stonefly nymphs found that time of the year, which they just happened to sell in abundance. Clearly, they didn’t want tourists to take the golden trout for themselves. I bought four of the stonefly nymphs and left with no more information than when I arrived.

The real wisdom about golden trout came from a Forest Service ranger, who was more than eager to share secrets of finding the true treasure hidden in those hills. He smiled when I asked about catching golden trout, and asked if I was ready for a long hike? That’s when I first heard about Clear Lake, which he said sits between two mountain peaks high above Green River Lakes. That’s where the golden trout swim unmolested, except by only but the most daring anglers, he explained, because the trail is nearly too difficult to hike. Armed with stonefly nymphs and knowledge about golden trout, we left civilization’s last outpost and headed deep into the wilderness to continue the quest.

This map shows Clear Lake circled in red, and the location of Green River Lakes within the Jim Bridger Wilderness Area, about 100 miles from Pinedale, Wyoming.

The Green River Lakes (there are two, one upper and one larger, lower lake, connected by a small stream) sit in a glacier-carved valley that looks like Planet of the Apes meets Land of the Lost. A flat-topped granite peak looms tower-like over the waters, and 12,000-foot spires of massive mountains surround in all directions. Truly a humbling sight for mere mortals seeking trout.

The lakes are as famous for fish as scenic beauty. In fact, the Wyoming state-record brook trout was caught there in 1976, two feet long and nearly 10 pounds. The state-record golden trout came from Cook Lake, not more than 20 miles away from Green River Lakes. It was an 11-pound beast nearly 30 inches long, but it was caught many years ago in 1948. Those records are likely to stand, given the difficult access to those fish, especially golden trout.

Neither trout were native to Wyoming, but both fish adapted and thrived in the high mountain rivers and lakes. Although now found in select waters across the globe, golden trout were originally found only in the Kern River drainage in California. The fish evolved about 30,000 years ago from sea-run rainbow trout that were isolated in remote California waters, which allowed them to take on their unique, alternating bright-colored banding that earned them the name “golden.”

Humans introduced golden trout to Wyoming in 1920 using pack mules loaded with eggs from California. Cook Lake was first stocked, which for decades served as brood lake for the entire state’s golden trout rearing program. That likely explains why the state record golden trout was caught in Cook Lake, it had the earliest stocking, the least pressure, largest fish and population. Today, fixed wing planes airdrop fingerling fish into hard-to-reach mountain lakes, because that’s the only habitat in which they thrive. That’s why anglers must journey far into the wilderness to seek the golden trout.

Journey to Clear Lake

Another fly-fishing writer once wrote that “trout live in beautiful places.” Clear Lake must have been his inspiration. It sits nearly 1,000 feet above Green River Lakes, and six miles into the wilderness by foot. Getting there requires a full-day hike from the trailhead, and the path is nearly as impossible to traverse as the golden trout was to catch. The first two miles are deceivingly easy, and the trail gradually climbs along the shore of the largest of the two Green River Lakes. Then the trail follows a gently meandering stream that flows down from Clear Lake miles upstream. The stream cuts through a lush grassy mountain meadow filled with tall, bright-blue lupine flowers found only in alpine valleys. If you are lucky enough to see those flowers, you know you are at least 8,000 feet above sea level.

Then the forest turned against us. The peaceful meadow transitioned into a thick tangle of nearly impassible lodgepole pines. Repeated storms and a late 1980s wildfire had killed many trees and pushed pines horizontally across the trail, creating hurdles that added hours to the hike. Each step forward required crawling, climbing and clawing our way across a seemingly endless obstacle course, all while carrying large backpacks. Even today, the thought of crossing what the Forest Service ranger described as “a good section of blowdown” is daunting, even with the promise of golden trout swimming Clear Lake’s waters.

There was no rest after crossing the destroyed forest, because a mile-long maze of granite boulders waited on the other side. The trail ahead led through a talus field of massive rocks – some as large as the proverbial Volkswagen Beatle – that had sloughed off the mountain side since the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. One by one, we hopped from boulder to boulder, inching closer to the destination while trying to retain balance with heavy backpacks. At times the trail vanished among the rock piles, and we relied on instinct to guide our feet. The mountain sun beat down hard on skin unused to high altitude UV rays, which burn faster than at lower altitudes. The effort left us tired, hungry and wondering if we’d made the right decision to follow the forest ranger’s friendly advice. Eventually, the rocks became smaller, the trail again appeared, and we dutifully followed as it wound its way ever-upward toward Clear Lake.

The final labor required to reach the lake was almost too much to endure. After we’d hiked nearly six miles through deceptively peaceful meadows, skeletal forests that clawed and grabbed at us with each step, and a miles-long granite maze, we faced a near-vertical climb to the lake. A narrow, natural stairway of rock and roots twisted and wound its way upward along Clear Lake’s outflow. Carefully, we stepped along the stairway, with the weight of heavy backpacks pulling us off balance the entire distance. As we crested the jumbled log pile above us on the vertical trail, we realized we were climbing atop the log jam at the lake’s outflow. Our feet reached level ground, then bare rock and we finally looked out upon Clear Lake’s crystal waters. Then we collapsed into our tent and sleeping bags to chase trout after sleep. That night, I dreamed of fat fish and big bears.

Grabbing the Golden

The journey to Clear Lake nearly broke me. My legs were almost unusable, with massive cramps and I could only awkwardly walk around camp. My girlfriend fared a bit better, but she was sore and damaged from the hike like anyone would feel. We spent that first morning at Clear Lake resting and enjoying the isolation. There were no human sounds except our voices and tent zippers. We drank coffee, scouted the area for wildflowers and wildlife, and tried to recover from the brutal trek required to reach the lake.

Clear Lake sits at about 9,000-feet above sea level, and is home to many impossible fish waiting for adventurous anglers to make the six-mile trek.

Staring into Clear Lake’s gin-clear water, it was obvious that the lake was glacier fed. That fact was undeniable when I decided to bathe in the waters after the long hike. I stripped naked and jumped into the water, and instantly thought I was having a heart attack. My lungs collapsed from the near-freezing water, I struggled to swim and breathe as I flailed my body toward shore. Finally, I pulled myself out of the water and onto a giant rock like some gasping lizard hoping to sun itself back to health. I didn’t repeat that mistake and bathed with a pan and cloth the following days. My respect for Clear Lake grew from mere awe to slight fear. There was danger in those mountains, where even the water could kill.

That afternoon, I finally glimpsed the golden trout of Clear Lake. I was walking the shore, searching for firewood, when I saw the first fins reflecting sunlight. The fish were huge, and my heart jumped at the sudden sight. I didn’t expect to see the fish so clearly, but the lake’s window-like waters made the fish seem to float suspended in a strange airy abyss. Then dozens of fish appeared, all swimming out of the bright sun and into the shadow of the large cliff across the lake. The fish made slow circles, searching for food in the fading light.

Energized by the swimming golden trout pod, I grabbed my fly rod and confidently began casting to the cruising fish. Nothing. That’s because my fly line and fly didn’t come close to the fishes’ favorite swimming hole across the lake. I was at least 20 to 30 feet from the closest trout, and no fish will take a fly it cannot see. Besides the extreme casting distance, I didn’t have the correct fly. Even though I received no specific advice about golden trout at the fly shop in Pinedale, I followed their fly suggestion and tied on the golden stonefly. I figured the fly must be effective, not just because the shop sold them by the ton, but because I located an identical stonefly larva under a rock in the stream that flowed out from Clear Lake. The fish must eat the local food, I surmised, and I cast that fly for countless hours without success.

That maddening cycle repeated itself for three days. Every morning, I followed fly fishing wisdom and matched the hatch, then walked the lake shore casting and hoping for fish, but never got a bite. Each afternoon, I was frustrated and stymied without fish. Although I’d learned a lot about fly angling in seven years, I didn’t know enough to unravel the golden trout riddle. I tried to catch a golden trout but without a single bite. Not even a look or a glance, as bass fishing guides in Louisiana say about fish toying with an angler’s bait. The attempt left me defeated and demoralized. And each evening, I watched the slow circling pod of monster golden trout when the bright sunlight was finally blocked by towering peaks, and shadows fell across the water. Every time I failed to catch a fish.

Out of desperation, I abandoned all advice and caution. First, I shortened my casting distance by crossing the lake to reach the fish more easily. I took a chance and walked across the dangerous log jam at Clear Lake’s outflow stream and reached the lake’s far shore. There was still a large rock cliff behind me, which prevented easy casting, but a handy roll cast would help me get fly to fish. Next, I ignored fly shop advice on fly patterns. Instead, I reached deep into my fishing gear and pulled out a fly that always caught trout on the rivers back home in Arkansas: The lowly wooly bugger!

The much-maligned Wooly Bugger fly, tied with a peacock hurl body and bead head. I learned the power of this fly pattern and now fish it almost exclusively, especially on unfamiliar waters.

That fly is often maligned by critical anglers as too simple to tie and only fit for fly fishing beginners. I knew it might be the only fly that had a chance to catch a golden trout. After careful selection, I chose a wooly bugger with olive tail, olive hackle and a body made of peacock herl feathers wrapped around the hook shank. At that time in my fishing career, I was still using a double-tapered fly line, which was built without a heavy portion that helps propel casts forward. Also, I had yet to learn Spey casting, which allows anglers to easily cast even with vertical obstacles behind them. As a result, it was very difficult to extend a cast to reach the distant trout, even though I’d crossed the lake to cast where they frequently swam.

Every fly angler should carry a good selection of Wooly Bugger flies. Can you guess my favorite colors?

The first casts were pathetic attempts, with crashing piles of fly line on the water sending fishing scurrying from the sudden commotion. Then I struck gold. With great effort and concentration, mustering all the skills I’d mastered, my next cast extended perfectly, and the fly line landed fully extended. The wooly bugger hit the water and barely sank before the line went tight. Then the lake’s surface exploded like a water bomb, and my fly rod bent further than ever before. The fish was on the line, and it was a big one! Like a multi-colored submarine, the fish tried repeatedly to dive into the lake’s depths to escape, but each time I managed to ease the fish toward my waiting hands.

The long struggle ended a few minutes later with a stunning 22-inch golden trout at my feet. Like some scripted Hollywood moment, I held the fish aloft and shouted to the mountains, “I did it! I did it!”

Self-assured and overproud, I pulled a metal stringer from my bag and strung the fish because I intended to eat it for supper that night. I’d traveled six miles into the back country, I convinced myself, there was no way I would release the golden trout after so much effort expended catching the fish. That was a terrible mistake that I regret to this day. Today, I would always release such a fine fish, no matter how hard won the trophy. In fact, I am embarrassed that the fish is no longer swimming the waters of Clear Lake.

My ex-girlfriend shows off her mountain cooking skills, using a flat rock to cook the golden trout. Today I understand that I should have released that fish to fight another day, one lesson gained from chasing fish.

Even burdened with regrets, that was the best tasting fish I ever ate. We had no fish cooking pans or even spices beyond salt and pepper. We improvised and placed a large flat rock on top of two other stones to form a makeshift griddle. Then we gutted the fish, and even its intestines were beautiful, with a deep orange and white coloring that I’ve never seen on any other fish species. Better yet, its flesh was raspberry red and just as delicious. We cooked it with a small fire built of twigs, and the fish smell filled the valley. We ate the fish like paleo people, with fingers and sloppy faces. I’ve never been so satisfied from any fishing effort – or any meal.

Suddenly, and at nearly dark, another hiker appeared on the lake shore. He was on his way back to the trailhead from two weeks spent hiking the backcountry, and he brought an ominous warning. Someone saw a grizzly bear within just five miles of our campsite just the day before. Worse yet, bears love fish, and the hiker chastised us for cooking the meat and tempting the bears, creating danger for everyone in the area. We apologized and thanked him for his wisdom, then we hung our food supplies in an even higher tree that night to avoid bear troubles. Unfortunately, we couldn’t cleanse ourselves or gear of the stinky fish. “Even my toothbrush smells like fish!” my girlfriend declared. Our luck held, though, and the feared grizzly never materialized.

Quest Fulfilled

The next morning, we packed up gear and bid farewell to Clear Lake, a place I knew I would never see or fish again. Like my Greek namesake, I fulfilled my quest for the golden trout. Along the way I learned many truths as a fly angler and traveler. The most important lesson was to always practice catch and release fishing. Some fish are irreplaceable and should be treated as precious treasures. Another lesson was that flies which catch fish on familiar rivers might also catch fish on strange waters. Fly fishers should trust their guts when it comes to fly selection, and do what one angler once described as, “fishing the fly you like.”

Finally, my quest taught me the most important lesson of all: Fishing is more important than catching fish. Even if I failed to catch a golden trout, and merely made the attempt, I successfully completed the fishing challenge. Trekking to faraway mountains, hiking through unknown and dangerous terrain, sleeping under stars and bathing in freezing mountain lakes are the experiences that make fishing important and special. Today, a faded photo is all that remains of that long-dead golden trout. Yet, the hard-won memories made – and wisdom gained about life beyond angling – linger as the real treasure won from trying to catch the impossible fish.

What is Low-Petroleum Fly Fishing?

After more than 30 years fly fishing, I’ve learned that the White River does not need any more gasoline motors. Besides being loud and disruptive, motors use both gasoline and motor oil. Every gas-powered motor trickles a steady stream of oil into the river as the engine runs. Water is pumped through the engine for cooling, and the water expelled leaves an oily sheen on the surface behind every boat.

That’s why Arkansas Traveler Fly Fishing offers low-petroleum fly fishing. Only the minimum amount of gasoline will be used, specifically shuttling anglers between accesses, usually less than a gallon of gasoline for each trip.

Oars and human muscle are the only power used to ply the White River’s waters. The only noise heard is the sound of water dripping off the oars as they are lifted from the water. No motor oil pollutes the water. No gasoline fumes or exhaust foul the air.

There are options for anglers when selecting a fishing guide service. To protect the river, the fish and the air, always select guides who respect the Earth and use as little petroleum possible. Fly anglers can’t easily change the world, but we can alter our personal behavior and make smart choices that benefit the planet. Low-petroleum fly fishing is one of the best choices any angler can make.

‘Bangin’ Tony’s Hole’ and Other Fishing Adventures with Kyle Faulkner

Kyle Faulkner, circa 2012.

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.

Somehow, someone snapped a photo of the first time I fished with Kyle. Circa 1994
Left to Right: Jason Harmon, Kyle Faulkner and Jared Pebworth, Halloween 1998.

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.

Kyle Faulkner catches a rainbow trout during our first fly fishing trip together in April 1994 at Roaring River State Park in Missouri.

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.

Top to Bottom: Fat trout from Tony’s Hole, Kyle Faulkner and Jared Pebworth with trout at Wildcat Shoals, Jason with a nice rainbow trout caught from Tony’s Hole. Circa 1995.

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.

The fish in Tony’s Hole never stood a chance with Kyle and I on the river, circa 1995.

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.

These few ticket stubs are all that remain of many Big Smith shows Kyle and I saw together through the years.

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.

Sometimes The Kitchen Table Band moved to the living room. Circa 2000.

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.

Kyle catches a beautiful bluegill from my homemade fish pond in Fayetteville, Ark., Spring 2012.

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.

Kyle was so proud of this fine fighting rainbow trout that he released the fish, a very unusual move for Kyle.
Circa 1995.

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.

Jared Pebworth helps Kyle land the last bass he ever caught. Circa 2012
Kyle wears the hoodie from his high school days. He gave himself the nickname, “Paw-Paw,” and sadly lived up the moniker by the time he was only 51 years old, when he relied on a walker for mobility.

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.

Kyle could be very happy and easy-going while fly fishing the War Eagle River. Circa 1995.

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.

Kyle catches a fish from the backyard pool I converted into a fish pond. Circa 2012.

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.

Jared Pebworth and Kyle in the distance catch bluegill with fly rods on War Eagle River. Circa 1995.

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.”

Photo I took at Kapoho Tide Pools on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2008 at sunrise on the winter solstice. A recent eruption of Mount Kilauea covered the tide pools with lava and destroyed it entirely.
Nothing beautiful ever lasts.

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!