Cowboy Collie

Well, you know what they say;  the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Even back in the 50’s, there was “division”, if you will, between those who bait fish and those who fly fish. 

It’s only fitting that  my Dad would write about bridging that gap over 50 years ago, and finding common ground with others who truly love the White River, even if only for a day.  It’s just the kind of man he is. 

We could all learn something from him.

I’ll let him tell y’all about it in his own words…  enjoy!


By Bob Watts 

Cowboy Collie in 1955 at the Cotter Big Spring Park
Cowboy Collie, 1955, Cotter Big Spring Park

He was a big man, about 60, and always wore overalls and a wide brimmed straw hat.  Lived right there in Cotter along with his two fox hounds.  Apparently no wife.  Walked with a limp caused by supposedly trying to ride a buffalo in a small circus back in his younger days.  He fished the river about twice a week and had the reputation of catching more big trout than just about anyone else.

He kept about every trout he caught over about 2 lbs.  Some would probably have gone at least 5.  So what could one man do with all those trout?  Well, sad to say, he fed ‘em to his fox hounds.  Now that didn’t go over too well with a lot of the locals, especially the fishing guides, whose livelihood depended on tourists coming down there and all hoping to catch a big trout.  Cowboy simply said he didn’t like the taste of trout and was sorry they ever built the dam.

I first noticed Cowboy in a restaurant located on the ground floor of the Waverly Hotel in Cotter.  I usually had breakfast there about 6:30 a.m. and he would often be there having coffee.  We never spoke.  Believe one reason is that some of the locals figured that I might be a secret agent for the ATF.  (Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms Dept) Yes, there were still several illegal stills operating in the surrounding hills

One morning, all of a sudden, he finally spoke to me.   “Well, young man, have you been getting your share of the big ‘uns?”  I could hardly believe he spoke to me.  I replied something like “Well, I get a big one occasionally, but sure haven’t learned how to catch ‘em like you do”.  (right out of Dale Carnegie).  Apparently, I said the right thing. 

“Well, I’m going out in about 30 minutes, If you want to come along, meet me at Millers (the trout dock) in 30 minutes and don’t be late.”  Then, as he was walking out the door, he turned and said, “And don’t be bringing that switch you use.  I got all the tackle we’ll need.”

Holy smoke!  I just got invited to go fishing with the best big trout fisherman on the whole river.  And if that wasn’t good enough, I now had a new name for my very expensive fly rod – a switch…  Oh well.

When I got to the trout dock, Cowboy was already in his boat bailing it out.  Since the boat was kept in a covered dock, assumed it leaked.  My first impression of the boat was that it was probably built around the beginning of time.  There were some random splotches of a dull green color along the sides of the boat.  Probably some very old green paint that had not yet fallen off, or some mold.  I was leaning toward the mold, but before I could figure this one out, up the river we were going.

We stopped in some quiet water just off the main current.  Cowboy threw out the anchor which was made from a Folgers coffee can filled with cement with an eye protruding out of the cement.  Ohh-kay.  Next he handed a rod and reel which could have handled at least a hundred lb. fish.  Then, here came the bait.  It was a peeled crawdad tail.  Turned out that was the only bait he ever used!

Well, we hadn’t been there 5 minutes when here came a boat with 3 locals in it.  One of ‘em hollered out something like, “You want one this morning?”  Cowboy replied in the affirmative.  Well, one what?  Didn’t ask, as I had already learned that the less questions I asked down in that country the better.  Saw Cowboy look at his watch and then it was back to fishing. 

Now would like to tell all of you that we proceeded to catch a lot of big trout, but we didn’t.  Guess even Cowboy had some bad days.  After about 45 minutes, the largest trout we (actually Cowboy) caught was about 2 lbs.  During this time, I did notice Cowboy check the time on his wrist watch several times.  At one time, I thought I saw a Mickey Mouse imprint on his watch, but no.  Surely not.  He also started shading his eyes and looking upstream. 

All of a sudden, Cowboy said, “O.K.  Bring in your bait.  We’re moving.”  He then headed straight out to the main current and kept his outboard running at just the speed necessary to keep us from going either upstream or down.  Yes, he kept shading his eyes and looking upstream.  Then I saw something that was round and green floating down with the current.  Cowboy suddenly grabbed his oversize landing net and netted – are you ready for this – a small watermelon!

Apparently, the 3 locals knew of a watermelon patch up the river somewhere and picked out a few.  One was for Cowboy which they promptly threw in the river.  Hey, thanks guys.  The watermelon was delicious!

So here I was, in a boat that made ugly look good, with an old man who, after one glance, you just knew owned the boat, fishing with tackle that was an insult to all rainbow trout, using peeled crawdad tails which was, and still is, absolutely forbidden by all snobbish fly fisherman like myself, eating watermelon, and with my shirt stained all down the front with watermelon juice.  My napkin happened to be what I was wearing.  Come to think about it, my shirt wasn’t all that clean before the watermelon came along.

Anyhow, all I needed now was to have one of my fly fishing friends come by in a boat & see me.  I mean, how embarrassing would that be?  I would probably never hear the end of it.  Oh, well.  So kept right on fishing (if you can call it that) and almost before I knew it, it was a little after 12 & the water started rising.  Now Cowboy would not fish in high water, so off we took to go back to the dock. 

On the way, got to thinking.  I really had a great time that day.  Got invited to go fishing with a man who was close to being a legend in his own time.  The weather was great and the scenery was outstanding.  Got kicked off my fly fishing high horse and landed with only minor pain which soon went away.  Saw a brand new way to order watermelon.  Guess not too many people have ever seen anything like that.  And to top it all off, realized that the fact that we did not have a very good fishing day was really not all that important.

Oh well, as the old saying goes, live and learn…