Back off Honey! It was a phrase I would repeat frequently on this trip. My friend David Thrasher and I were sliding his 20-foot Old Town Canoe into War Eagle Creek below the old Highway 412 Bridge. Honey is David’s dog. She accompanies him everywhere, even to the top of Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada. Honey had just taken her position in the canoe right under my seat. It’s hard to say just what kind of dog Honey is, but she is clearly descended from big dogs. Currently she weighs about 120 pounds. It was around 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 10th, a bright and sunny but cool day. We were out for a day of creek fishing.
The canoe drifted out into the stream and we commenced canoeing at our normal pace, slow. Wait, make that really slow. I was rigged with a chartreuse plastic worm on a 1/8th ounce jig head and an ultralight spinning rod and reel. David had a variety of rods and a different rig for each. My first cast wrapped around the branch of a low hanging tree. David reminded me that we came to catch fish, not hoot owls. The next cast was better. My worm hit the water next to a log. I reeled it back in slowly bringing with it several leaves.
For the first hour or so, as David likes to say, the fishing was great, the catching was a little slow. After every cast we would remove a collection of leaves from our lures. We had arrived at this creek just after the peak of autumn color and right in the midst of the peak of autumn leaf fall. For us, removing leaves from our lures was a minor annoyance. But for small Ozark streams in forested watersheds, leaves are an important source of food. All ecosystems ultimately rely on the sun as a source of energy. In streams where forest cover spreads over most of the channel, leaves spend their summers intercepting that solar energy and, through the process of photosynthesis, use the energy along with nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce organic matter. During leaf fall, the energy stored in the leaves is delivered to the stream.
When a leaf falls into the stream, organic matter starts to leach out of the leaf. Ecologists call this leached material “dissolved organic matter” or DOM. Bacteria and fungi use this material as food. Scientists are not really sure yet whether that bacteria and fungi ever gets into the larger food chain or if it just remains within the microbes in the stream. The leaves themselves are referred to as “coarse particulate organic matter” or CPOM. Fungi and algae quickly colonize the leaves making a slimy surface. Some macroinvertebrates — macro meaning big, at least big enough to see, and invertebrate meaning animal with no backbone, so we are talking about big bugs and worms — love this slime and start munching. The macroinvertebrates that feed on the slime on the leaves are called “shredders” because they shred the leaves. Shredded leaf parts and feces from the shredders continue to drift downstream. This material is referred to as “fine particulate organic matter” or FPOM. There are other benthic macroinvertebrates that spin webs, kind of like spiders do, to catch the FPOM as it drifts. They then wipe the FPOM from their nets and eat it. These macroinvertebrates are referred to as collectors. Our prey for the day was smallmouth and largemouth bass, which in turn prey on macroinvertebrates. So we put up with the annoyance and just appreciated the beauty of the trees and leaves. Eventually, I managed to convince a small bass that my plastic worm was actually an invertebrate feeding on CPOM. He picked up the worm and ran. I set the hook. Honey perked up. Somewhere Honey had figured out that it was my job to catch the fish and her job to finish them off. The battle lasted a few seconds then I lifted the fish out of the water. Honey made a lunge trying to chomp the fish in one bite. The canoe rocked but David managed to counter and keep us upright. Back off Honey was all I had to say. She continued to chomp at the air as I removed the hook and released the fish. Then she looked at me as if to say, “what’s the deal?”
We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar across from a big bluff. After lunch we fished the hole one more time. I caught a really nice bass. Our pace went from really slow to really, really slow. Fish catching picked up. With every fish, Honey did her best to get involved. We drifted along catching a fish every now and then. A few minutes before dark we pulled out at Withrow Springs State Park having canoed a total of 4 and ½ miles for the day.
War Eagle Creek doesn’t seem to get the respect that the better-known streams of the Ozarks get. Perhaps it is because the name “creek” sounds kind of diminutive while the others have the more impressive name, “river.” War Eagle has neither the crystal clear water of the Kings, nor the exciting whitewater of the Mulberry or Buffalo rivers. Nevertheless, it does have an impressive collection of bluffs. Many of the bluffs have large overhanging ledges. Almost every bluff has a deep pool below that provides good fish habitat. Plus it is a lot closer to Springdale than the aforementioned rivers.
The source of the War Eagle is in the Boston Mountains, literally on the same mountain as the source of the White. The War Eagle’s source is actually about a hundred feet higher than that of the White. The stream tumbles off the mountain to the north while the White flows west before it turns north. After some miles, the creek flows under Arkansas State Highway 23 then it travels several miles along the highway flowing north toward Huntsville. Near the town of Aurora, the highway crosses the creek one more time and then leaves the valley. The Creek continues its northerly course east of Huntsville. It is in this reach that the city once tapped the water of the War Eagle as its source of drinking water. Several miles later, the creek flows under U.S. Highway 412 northeast of Huntsville, the crossing where David and I launched his canoe. Four and a half miles later the War Eagle flows under highway 23 again in Withrow Springs State Park. From there it continues flowing north and west past the War Eagle Mill. Eventually, after 59 miles, the creek joins with the White River in Beaver Lake.
For the last 52 years, the War Eagle has been an important part of my life. In 1961 I joined Boy Scout Troop 122 sponsored by the Central Methodist Church in Rogers. Mrs. Elliott, who owned the house across the bridge from the War Eagle Mill, frequently let us camp in the pine grove down from her house. On one of those trips, we were fooling around with fly rods. After a while I got to where I could cast a popping bug without catching my ear or tying a knot in the line in the process. I waded into the head of the pool at the pine grove. A few casts and I managed to lay the bug into a pocket in the river willows along the bank. The river exploded. A few minutes later I lifted a hefty largemouth bass from the water. The bass got off easy; he was cooked on a campfire that evening. I, on the other hand, had just caught an incurable case of fishing fever. The dreaded disease has plagued me the rest of my life. Had it not been for that fish, I might have made something of myself.
When I got to high school, every time I could talk dad out of his 62 Ford Fairlane on a Saturday afternoon I headed out to the low water bridge at the “Gar Hole.” From there I could wade fish a quarter of a mile of stream. About that same time, my friend John Leflar’s dad bought a blue 17-foot square stern fiberglass canoe. It was kind of a double hull configuration and weighed roughly 150 pounds. If we worked together, three of us could lift it onto the top of John’s Volkswagen Van. We were free to roam. The War Eagle was our favorite destination. Then in college several of us bought our own canoes. Probably because of its proximity to Fayetteville, the War Eagle was where we honed our paddling skills.
After college our canoe trips in general and War Eagle trips especially became less frequent. Usually when we got away for a trip, we all gathered at one of the big name streams. In the “Conservation Esthetic,” Aldo Leopold makes the point that nature is not something that happens in exotic locations, but it goes on everywhere. He states, “the weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientists adventuring in the South Seas.” War Eagle is close to home, but it is a special place.