Friendships Forged From Fly Line
Updated: Apr 29
The bass bumps hard as Seth and Sarah belt out the lyrics to “Old Town Road” with the band. Everyone’s dancing, partying, and drinking all the top-shelf everything they can get their hands on.
This is the single most “posh” wedding I’ve ever been to. The teams of photographers, the professionally designed menu, the clubhouse at one of the top country clubs in the world. The whole thing is simply "high-end." Weddings can certainly be out-of-hand from an expense perspective, but this one is next level. As the new couple gets into their getaway car and drives off through a tunnel of sparklers, I can’t help but think: “How the hell did I get here?”
As a middle-class kid growing up in a small town in Michigan, I had never experienced anything like this. It wasn't lost on me that my attendance at this wedding was a little crazy considering I didn’t know a single soul in this room 18 months ago and that I have no real connection to this gathering of people that I mostly don’t fit in with, beyond fishing.
This story starts in the spring of 2016, with some other guys I barely knew when I got “out-of-the-blue'' invited to tag along on a trip to fish Arkansas’s famed White River during prime streamer season.
The guys that invited me were, at that point, mere acquaintances that I had shared a boat with once, just a few weeks before this trip. We had connected on social media (if you’re holding a fish in your profile picture, it’s a good bet I’m accepting that friend request). My aging grandmother lived in North-Central Arkansas at the time, and even though we rented our own place to stay near the river, I decided to go down early to see Grandma and spend a night at her house before connecting with the fellas to sling the big, fluffy bugs.
Leaving a day early was both a blessing and a curse. I hopped in my Toyota Camry and left before a big snowstorm hit, meanwhile those guys were trapped back in Michigan in the nasty blizzard. The problem was, they were bringing the boat! By the time I arrived in Arkansas, the rest of the crew was at least 24 hours behind me, and I had a whole day to kill before their arrival.
After some lackluster research, I found a place in Cotter that would rent boats for the day, so I could at least get out on the water. What I didn’t realize was that the river was running over 26,000 CFS, and trying to manage a 14-foot Jon boat and cast a streamer in those kinds of conditions rhymed with “death wish.”
I ran into a fella that looked the part of a Cotter, Arkansas trout guide and I asked him if he knew about the place that rented boats. He said he did, and invited me into the fly shop he was helping run at the time. I walked into the shop and it was immediately evident that they had just moved in… maybe like 5 minutes ago. Half-empty boxes lay all over the place, some with rods out, others in tubes. There were fly bins that had a few odd patterns in them. Overall, the place looked barely open for business, but the guys seemed friendly so what the hell, right?
We bullshitted for a bit about fishing and where we had caught some nice browns. I was super itchy to get on the water as I had been looking forward to this trip for a while and seeing Facebook pictures of mondo brown trout for months. I finally broke up the small-talk and asked what their thoughts were on my renting a boat. John Holsten (the fella that looked every bit the part of the Cotter trout guide) told me he had a drift boat he’d rent for the rest of the day.
I thought that sounded way more manageable than trying to handle a motor on a Jon boat while messing with fly line on a massive, fast-moving river. John told me he would meet me at Wildcat Shoals boat ramp at 12:30 to drop off the boat. As I was waiting a Ford Explorer hauling a skiff pulled in, and out hopped John donning full waders.
“What are you doing? You look like you’re getting ready to fish,” I queried.
“Look man, it’s windier than hell, and you’re on vacation, I don’t want you to go out there and have a bad time,” John replied.
“I can’t really afford to hire a guide for the day”
“I’m not worried about it, brother, let's just go mess up some fish”
Barely 10 minutes into the float, I broke off on a giant fish (probably due to my faulty knot). John dropped anchor, looked at my stuff, and tied on a new leader and replaced the fly with one tied by Mark Loughead, who ironically hails from Michigan. We continued down the river, caught a few 18-20” fish, and had a great conversation.
When we were about 500 yards from the takeout, we came to a creek mouth. As John moved the boat into position, he instructed me on the importance of making just the right cast and starting the retrieve immediately. I lucked out and made the perfect cast which landed about six inches from the bank. As I began to move the fly, the water ERUPTED, and the trout of a lifetime inhaled my eight-inch streamer.
I fought the fish back to the boat and John effortlessly netted it. As this massive, 30” brown rested in the net, we both sat, speechless and shaking. There was a significant amount of disbelief onboard about what had just happened. The fish of my lifetime without a doubt. We pretty much just gave up after that, there wasn’t much use in making another cast for the rest of the day… or the rest of the entire trip for that matter. After that experience, and the fish being enshrined on the wall of The Natural State Fly Shop, I could consider John a lifelong friend. Bonds forged over giant trout are not easily broken.
The rest of the first big Arkansas trip was fun, but mostly uneventful. The flows dropped significantly, and the streamer fishing took a turn for the worse, and even if the fishing was lights out, it would never have compared to that first day. My mind was made up; heading to Arkansas on an annual streamer pilgrimage was absolutely going to happen. What I didn’t know was how that one fish, which created a tradition, was going to change my life.
Over the course of the next year, John and I kept in contact, plotting, and planning my next trip to the White. In 2017, my dad and I, along with another buddy, connected and fished with John again. He blocked off three days of his peak season and told me prior to the trip that he would “try” and keep the time open, but I never expected him to totally clear his calendar.
There was a group of three of us fishing so we took our own boat down thinking he might have time for a single float. He actually took one of the three of us down the river each day. On that particular trip my dad caught a 26” behemoth in John’s boat. John has always been absolute gold to me and I’m happy to call him a friend.
Our 2018 trip was going to be one for the ages. We rented a big house right on the river and gathered a ragtag group of 12 guys (only about eight of which I really knew). It was a low-water year for the most part, so we were relegated to mousing most of the time. One evening, as we were about to put the boats in (four of them, mind you), a group of three guys that looked to be roughly my age approached and asked what the hell we were doing getting ready to launch into the White River at night.
We explained that we were going mousing, and watched the brains on these fellas explode in front of our very eyes. The thought that anyone would go out on the White River at night was unthinkable. I shared with Weston (the boldest of the three guys that came up to talk to me) that we would have an empty spot in the boat the following night if one of them wanted to join us. We exchanged numbers and the next day I reached out to Weston and invited him to fish. He declined, as he had to work, but passed me along to Seth, who would be around town for a couple more days. Seth excitedly accepted the invitation and met us back at the rental house the next day.
After shuttling cars, we launched the boats near the Bull Shoals Dam as the sun went below the horizon. Just in front of the boat ramp, Seth had his first blow-up on a mouse. It shook him to his very core. There wasn’t anything that could’ve prepared him for the intensity of the eat. He, of course, missed the fish, but we were hopeful it was a promising omen for the rest of the float. We crossed over to the west side and Seth, from the back of the boat, swung his mouse pattern toward the bank. As the fly line began to straighten out, KA-SHPLOOP! There it was, the fish! I’m pretty sure I shouted out: “Holy shit, that’s the state record!”
This thing ripped drag off Seth’s reel about like you’d expect it to if you tied off to the bumper of a Tesla. The fly line caught on the seat pedestal, and the guy rowing (who was inexperienced on the oars) smashed the boat into several rocks as we tried to race down river to get caught up. It was absolute chaos onboard. When we finally freed ourselves from the big rocks, we got down to where we thought the fish was, and it wasn’t moving. Seth stripped the line in and we shined our headlamps onto the area where we thought it lay. Sure enough, there it was… a goddam beaver. This man had stuck a beaver. We couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the float and shared the story with everyone we came across.
When you catch a giant beaver on a mouse pattern, it’s not a story that dies quickly.
After the trip, I maintained contact with Seth and Weston and invited them to fish for smallmouth up in Michigan. They stayed on the couches in my garage (they refused to inconvenience my wife by sleeping in the house). I’m pretty sure my mother-in-law asked if we were taking in strays. I developed a really good friendship with those boys over the several months that followed, and we vowed that the Michigan smallmouth trip would be an annual thing.
Several weeks prior to the 2019 trip to Michigan, Seth gave me a call on a random mid-week afternoon…
“Hey Yankee, what’s going on?”
“Nothin much buddy, just heading to a meeting with a client,” I replied.
“Well, I wanted to ask you something, and if you don’t want to, it’s totally fine. I don’t want to put you out or anything,” Seth explained.
“Well, go on…,” I said.
“I’d be honored to have you stand up for me in my wedding in a few months.”
“DUDE!” I shouted, “that would be a total honor! I don’t know why you thought I wouldn’t want to.”
So, there I was, not only invited to the wedding of a random stranger that I’d met on the boat ramp in Cotter, Arkansas, but actually in the wedding.
During the long drive back to Michigan, the idea that one huge brown trout could lead to an annual trip to Arkansas and that this pilgrimage each year would become the catalyst for meeting some random dudes at a boat ramp that would become some of my closest friends was completely mind-blowing. The relationships that I’ve developed through this sport continue to be a big part of why I love to fish.
As I write this, Seth, Weston, and I have gotten through the pandemic tying flies and drinking beers on Zoom until all hours of the night, taken a trip together to Montana, and I’m currently packing my bags for yet another trip to Arkansas. There really is something incredible about the relationships that can be forged over fishing. I’ve met some of my absolute favorite people and continue to deepen and strengthen relationships through time spent on the water.
Looking back on that first trip I’m full of gratitude for every fishing invitation I’ve ever gotten, and thankful for the friends that have been in my boat and I, in theirs. Fishing led to friendships and friendships have paved the path to tradition. That’s a lot to expect from a trout, but in the end, it’s never really been about the fish, anyway.