The new normal

Are you ready for it?
Freshwater drum
Photo: Johnny Carrol Sain

August in Arkansas. Lawns dried to a crispy, dusty brown. Bathwater lake temperatures, creeks cinched down to trickling riffles with pools full of hungry smallmouth bass. Day after day of 95-105 degree sunshine, which seems a damn near impossible combination with the ungodly and stifling humidity billowing up from the Gulf of Mexico. I like to spend this time waist deep in the creek.

But that’s not what’s happening this year.

No sir, this year is what you would call an anomaly, although it's really an intensified continuation of patterns we've seen in previous summers. Every summer since 2012, which featured a record heat wave and drought, has been wetter than normal. Drenched is the word for summer 2016.

Six times this July and August I was rained out of smallmouth wade fishing. Not because I'm afraid of getting wet (I'm wade fishing, y'all) and not because of lightning. It was because the creek was too damn high. In summer. In Arkansas. And I mean kayaking high. My favorite streams were at levels usually associated with early spring. Rolling, frothing, discolored water that was shocking at first then and made me mad as hell when I realized that the bulk of summer fishing I'd dreamt about since last October was shot. The rain has not stopped and the forecast calls for near 50 percent chances through the first week of September.

This is unprecedented. As a good friend said the other day, “You don’t hear any old-timers talking about this being the wettest summer since ’42 or whenever because this has been the wettest, weirdest summer anyone can remember. Ever.”

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The climate is not changing, gentle reader. It's done changed.

As a rebuttal to Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe's snowball of bullshit on the senate floor, I offer the waterlogged Arkansas summer. Or better yet, take a gander at the poor residents of Louisiana, literally neck deep in what is becoming the new normal. Missing out on smallmouth fishing doesn't seem like such a big deal now.

Still, I was determined to fish.

A raging Snow Creek sent me back home on one of those doomed trips to exchange the 6-weight for a 7-weight freshly paired with a new reel and line. The 7-weight is too much for the creek smallmouths. It was going to be a spring spawn rod, the tool of choice for egg-laden largemouth sows staging in the creek channel and yard-long longnose gar churning in the weedy shallows. As a fellow basser turned fly angler said, a 7’11’’ 7-or 8-weight fly rod is the fairy wand version of stiffer baitcasting rods we grew up with. It’s nostalgia packaged in a new passion. The 7-weight was going to see summer action on the Arkansas River this day.

I went to the river stupidly expecting to see typical summer gar action — lots of porpoising and gar hanging under the surface waiting for wounded shad belched from the dam generators — somehow not making the connection that all that water in the creeks was headed here. So instead, it was turbid flows and strong current and nary a gar sighting for the first hour. Blind casting the to the rip rap produced nothing. And then, as I played around with the ugly-as-hell homemade gar flies, I saw a flash and boil just as the fly lifted from the water. A follow-up cast produced a bump and then a screaming reel as whatever it was rocketed from the rip rap and hit the rolling Arkansas River current. The Mojo rod bowed in earnest and I was tethered to the river itself as backing peeked through the last orange loops with the drag still clicking — an exhilarating first for my fly fishing career.

After a good 30 seconds of back and forth, the fish finally tired and I got a glimpse of the beast. It was a freshwater drum, a much maligned brute generally labeled as “trash fish” by bass snobs, which is ironic since its close cousin the redfish is an A-lister just south of here in the Gulf. Trash fish or not, this thing out-pulled many, many largemouths by a factor of two. More importantly, the river was teeming with its brothers and sisters. A quick jaunt upstream and closer to the dam revealed schools of wide scaly tails and shad-sucking mouths frothing the water, just waiting on a well-placed cast and drift. No one else was fishing for them. Three hours and over 15 drum later, I was absolutely worn smooth.

The drive home was reflective. There was excitement about finding a quarry not previously considered, a fish that was eager but not easy and pulled like a train. Plus, there was the real possibility of hooking an indomitable monster. The state record drum is a 45-pounder. That first fish was in the 7-9 pound range so a 20-pound drum would have whipped my ass up and down the river while my stubborn attitude held on until the last loop of backing. Anything bigger would likely be no contest, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Mystique factored in as well. The power of the river, the strength and weight of so many creeks and streams from as far away as Colorado bundled and bulling south is a spiritual force that beckons to something primal in my soul. All of this was good, and it cushioned the sobering reality that this could be the new normal.

But as the chilling slap of truth hit, I realized I’m not ready for this to be the new normal.


It has changed and it will continue to change and not for the better. We're in deep doo-doo. People have spotted manatees in Cape Cod Bay the past couple summers. I just hear that sales of SUVs are up this year because gasoline is cheap.
That will not help.

You could have shared some of that rain with Pennsylvania, its been dry and hot all summer.

Haven't had the pleasure of nailing a drum on the fly, but a 15 pound brute on 8 lb. test spinning gear was a thrill for me this past spring. The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers here in western PA hold numerous drum over 10 lb. Good write up. Thanks.