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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Back to Bull Shoals

by Mike Masterson | May 22, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

The rhythm of Bull Shoals Lake lapping against the houseboat in Coffman Cove was enough to make me drowsy, as four of us from the Harrison High School Class of 1965 reunited for our 24th spring to annually celebrate the memory of our late friend, Dr. William B. Hudson.

Besides dozing off unexpectedly from time to time, there was fishing, good-natured razzing, and lots of shared memories among us septuagenarian grandfathers who 56 years ago donned blue and gold Goblin uniforms, double-dated together and often reeked of way too much English Leather, Old Spice, or Aqua Velva.

For Ken Reeves, Don Walker, Dr. C.W. "Bill" Dill and me, the chance to again spend nearly four days together on Reeves' comfy houseboat was overdue and a blessing.

It was readily apparent, after covid-19 forced us to skip last year's gathering, that not one of us is growing any younger, despite our attitudes and flashes from our carefree years.

What began in 1996 as a long weekend centered around boating large numbers of bass, this year was focused more on sharing memories, which included the number from our class who've departed.

That list accelerates each year. And we considered ourselves fortunate at 74 to still be together for this reunion. Life, as we all know, eventually catches up, as it did years ago with close friends like Sheridan Garrison and Bob Barker, who also had houseboats in this sheltered cove and had joined us in years past.

We fished enough to satisfy the urge in intermittent soft rain that kept the lake rising. And Bill still narrowly edged Ken for the most bass boated over three days. I suspected Ken allowed Bill to claim the crown (whatever that title means at this stage). Little wonder they always vie for bragging rights, since both were raised on Bull Shoals fishing with their now-departed fathers.

I think I could take them if we were back to wading Crooked Creek where my father often took me.

Perhaps most importantly, we feasted like kings while toasting those three days. The menu, you ask? Dinners included veal piccata, king crab legs, and an incredible spaghetti prepared with great affection by Ken's wife Debbie, along with Caesar salad and garlic bread. Desserts were Debbie's custard pie and the sugar-free peach I contributed.

Breakfasts, all prepared by Ken, were just as opulent with his custom Bull Shoals Eggs Benedict, biscuits, crispy hash browns and gravy, bacon, and ham. (Kinda makes one's mouth water a tad, don't you agree?)

Ken also displayed high school annuals from 1963 through '65 to boost our memories of friends from the years when hormones raged and letter sweaters and rings adorned the shoulders and necks of steady girlfriends. So steady, in fact, that all three married their high school sweethearts decades ago.

As with most years, it was inevitable I'd find a way to provide the weekend's levity. I've come to accept the teasing that comes along with these days together. Truth be known, I seem to work hard at unintentionally triggering belly laughs at my expense.

For instance, this year while fishing with Ken in his new red bass boat (signed, incidentally by the late Forrest Wood), I'd laid my backup rod and reel to my left, facing back toward the outboard motor, as I fished with the other. What could possibly go wrong?

I never saw the branch that reached in and snagged the attached topwater lure and slowly, ever-so-quietly, began dragging the whole kit and caboodle toward the stern.

When I did turn around, the rod and reel were teetering on the verge of disappearing over the back. I rose to my feet just in time to enjoy watching it going into the lake and submerged brush.

The only good news, as Ken reversed his trolling motor, was being able to reclaim the lure, which allowed me to track the line to the upper half of the divided rod. I stared at the retrieved stick and deduced it was worthless without its bottom and that previously unused spinning reel. So into the depths it went too.

Then, a short time later, when I yanked hard to loosen a lure caught in the brush, it released only to sail over my head, in the process somehow wrapping both me and the boat's console in a veritable cocoon of monofilament.

In the front seat, Ken swiveled around and stared in disbelief before (in his wry manner) uttering something to the effect: "You know, Mikey, I don't believe I've ever seen anything quite like that in all my years of fishing."

After darkness settled that evening and I endured the onslaught of ribbing about allegedly being a high-maintenance fishing partner, I responded by continually pestering Bill on if he'd mind taking me back out that night to search for my rod and reel.

Don later suggested referring to me in reunions-to-come as a "finesse fisherman." Ken wasn't as supportive of that particular description. I mentioned the possibility of launching a GoFundMe account to replace my equipment. Don offered a quarter. That was far more than Bill was willing to pitch in. Ken already had loaned me his Bass Pro rain gear. I assumed that counted as his donation.

The four of us sat more than once in a circle overlooking the cove to laugh and chat about the past, including our first jobs as teenagers in Harrison. Ken and I both had worked with a grizzled Ozarks native named Slivie Burnett, where we both squeezed beneath houses alongside spiders and centipedes to install and insulate duct work for Daniels Sheet Metal Company. Little wonder he became an attorney.

All in all, this weekend--as with others in recent years--centered around discussions of our families, children, grandchildren, old friends, who married whom and where our individual paths led after working across a combined 200 years in such widely varied careers.

While retired from his successful Fayetteville dental practice, Bill today directs dental services for the Boston Mountain Rural Health Centers after completing his final-year appointment as a member, then chairman, of the state's Board of Dental Examiners.

After retiring from his successful business in poultry development and marketing, Don, from Springdale, decided to earn his real estate license and today is closing sales with Weichert Realty in Springdale.

Ken completed his appointed stint on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission after serving as its chairman, and has since been appointed to the Arkansas State Police Commission.

Me? Well, I've apparently been permanently appointed to the Coffman Cove Fishing Finesse and Humor Commission. And thankfully you're still reading what I've been doing for 20 years in this space after a wide-ranging, 50-year career in journalism.

We remembered over icy beverages double-dating and popular parking spots around Harrison that have long since spawned subdivisions. We recalled that, in those early mid-'60s years, we'd attach a wire to the car window to pick up WLS Radio and popular DJ Dick Biondi in Chicago while engaging in affections teenagers tend to share in once-secluded spots around Harrison.

One coolish afternoon beside the glassy lake, we watched bass chasing schools of shad while singing along with timeless classics the likes of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's incredibly poignant and oh-so-relevant "Time to Say Goodbye." There also were classics by Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, and Alan Jackson's "Remember When" (in other words, bona fide music with beautiful melodies and lyrics).

During the initial decade of these weekends, we'd stay up until midnight. This year our heads found the pillows by 9. And when we once arose before dawn to be on the water early, this year it was closer to 7. Even then, we still made time for coffee and visiting before motoring off toward places long familiar to Ken and Bill, with names like Moon Cove and Little Elbow.

With the lake level so high, we fished relatively close to the houseboat to pillage shallows teeming with the same kinds of brush that claimed my rod and reel. Ken assured me someday that when the lake returns to normal level, some angler will be surprised to spot it gleaming on the shoreline like a golden Easter egg.

All in all, the fishing was good and Ken graciously cleaned a dozen bass while I was laboring to perfect my finesse. And as much as we each had anticipated this year's reunion after missing 2020, we departed eager for next spring's gathering after Don snapped the annual photograph showing just how much we've aged across 25 years.

Oh, incidentally, next year I'm considering bringing along a cane pole, red worms and bobber to save money while hopefully eliminating the chance of losing my standing as the group's only finesse fisherman. Suppose it's even possible for a veteran angler to backlash a bamboo pole?

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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