Archive for the ‘Fishing’ Category

My perfect summer meal

Monday, July 7th, 2014

A version of this story can be found in the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Summer is upon us, and my thoughts turn back more than 40 years to long, lazy mornings fishing with my grandmother on the dock in front of her cabin at Lake Norrell in Saline County.

Lake Norrell was constructed in 1953 as a water supply reservoir for the city of Benton. It originally was known as Brushy Lake and later was named for William Frank Norrell, an Ashley County native who first was elected to the U.S. House in 1938 and represented part of south Arkansas in Congress until his death in 1961.

Lake Norrell covers just 280 acres, which is considered tiny in a state that boasts such huge U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments as Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greers Ferry. To a boy growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s, though, Lake Norrell might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean. It’s where I learned to swim, water ski, fish, run a trotline, catch crawdads and gig frogs.

More important than any of that, it’s where I learned that the finest summer meal is fried fish, fresh out of an Arkansas lake or stream, served with fried potatoes, cornbread and fresh peas cooked with fatback. The platter in the middle of the table must have tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

A couple of years ago, a website owned by the giant Hearst Corp. featured a story headlined “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.” The editors chose one ingredient or dish to represent each state.

What did they choose that best represented Arkansas?

Would you believe chocolate gravy?

The website described it as a “breakfast staple in Arkansas.”

I had two grandmothers who were great Arkansas cooks. One lived on the Grand Prairie, and the other lived in central Arkansas. Both lived well into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy. That’s not to say it wasn’t served in some Arkansas families. I know. I’ve heard from some of you since I wrote on this subject for the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine. But it’s far from “a staple” in this state. Had the website said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, made with the drippings of a salty country ham and a bit of coffee, I might have given those editors a pass.

Far too often, writers and editors in places such as New York and Chicago list what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking. In addition to chocolate gravy, examples of this are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Both have become trendy in the state, but these aren’t things I was raised on.

When I was growing up, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon, put sugar in the glass and stirred. It wasn’t brewed that way. Tables at restaurants and tables at homes all had bowls filled with sugar.

And, yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. Yet we were much more likely to have fried green apples than fried green tomatoes in the summer. If tomatoes fell off the vine early, you put them in the windowsill to ripen rather than battering them and putting them in a skillet.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more a staple in the Deep South than they are in Arkansas. Defining Arkansas, its habits and its customs long has been a problem for those who aren’t from here. Outsiders fail to understand that this is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas, and northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.

Once we’ve passed the age of 50, we’ve started to understand ourselves. But we still have a heck of a time explaining Arkansas to outsiders.

As for those younger than 50, well, let’s just say that for some reason they think chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are longtime Arkansas staples.

Just how difficult are we to define?

Consider the fact that people from outside Arkansas think Bill Clinton came of age in Hope. Granted, he was born at Hope but moved to Hot Springs as a child. He finished elementary school, junior high school and high school in the Spa City. Arkansans always considered him to be a Hot Springs product until that 1992 presidential campaign came along. Some political consultants evidently determined that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just didn’t have the same ring to it. It’s another example of how this state of constant contradictions confounds outsiders.

I digress. Let’s get back to that wooden dock on Lake Norrell.

When the lake was built, the first lots were offered to Benton city employees. My paternal grandfather was the Benton street superintendent. He bought a lot and built a small wooden cabin that would in the next decade come to represent summer nirvana for a certain redheaded boy. His Christmas trees were tied to concrete blocks and sunk at the end of that dock each January. Bags of dry dog food with holes punched in the sides were submerged there. He would try anything he thought would attract fish.

Summer mornings at Lake Norrell with my grandmother were spent with cane poles in hand, sitting in metal chairs at the end of the dock. My grandmother would bait the tiny hooks with the red wigglers my grandfather had raised. Before dropping the worm into the water, she would spit on it for good luck and say, “Nelson sugar.”

It wasn’t uncommon for us to catch several dozen bream before lunch. We threw nothing back. My grandmother’s motto was, “If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat.”

At about 11 a.m., we would end our fishing, go inside the cabin and ask for my grandfather’s help in cleaning the bream. You scaled them with a spoon. The smallest ones were fried to the point that you could eat them bones and all.

The vegetables from the garden were a necessary complement to the fried bream, fried potatoes, peas and cornbread. Together they formed the great Arkansas summer meal.

The sliced tomatoes were particularly essential.

Each summer on the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg writes his ode to that finest of all tomatoes, the Bradley County Pink.

Arkansans are serious about their tomatoes.

Last month, Paul and I received this note from Bob Nolan of El Dorado: “The winter of my discontent ended precisely at 6:47 a.m. on June 6 when, with great care, I lovingly twisted the stem of this magnificent Cherokee Purple heirloom, separating it from its mother plant. As I was once told, ‘It ain’t braggin’ if it’s fact,’ but I’m not sure it’s true because I’m pretty darned puffed up.

“Being mindful of the supposed ‘art’ of photoshopping, I have, to the best of my ability, framed this beauty with, first, my cupped hands, then secondly, juxtaposed on the cover of my favorite food magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. I honored my forebears this year by planting on Good Friday and not before, and thank God for their guidance, because the Lord smote down all gardens planted in south Arkansas prior to Good Friday with killing frost – period — here endeth the lesson.

“Question: Am I to be discomfited by the fact that my first harvest was not an Early Girl, a Bradley Pink, Big Boy, Better Boy or Celebrity but was a Cherokee Purple heirloom, vis-a-vis the Trail of Tears and all that guilt? I leave it to you scribes to tell me whether I should be directed towards absolution.

“Now, four days later, my harvest has begun in earnest. Bush Goliaths are particularly impressive and tasty. These are a ‘determinant variety’ (how impressed are you with my knowledge?), and you all should try them, either in your garden or in containers — trust me on this one.

“I will be signing off now, before the inevitable ‘blossom end rot’ attacks my treasures as a result of the unusually heavy rains of the last several days. So for now, here from our patio on Calion Road, we praise our Lord for the bounty of the earth, we thank him for this deliciously cool spring evening and we wish you the blessings of this beautiful late Arkansas spring.”

I told you Arkansans were serious about their tomatoes.

So you have my perfect Arkansas summer meal.

Fried fish, caught just hours before with a red worm and a touch of “Nelson sugar.”

Tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

Fried potatoes.

Fresh peas cooked with fatback.

Cornbread.

Maybe even a cobbler made from wild dewberries picked earlier in the week.

I’ve just defined what an Arkansas summer tastes like.

You can save the chocolate gravy for a visitor from up north.

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The beauty of Big Lake

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

The invitation was intriguing.

I was having lunch in Arkadelphia a couple of days before Thanksgiving with banker and philanthropist Ross Whipple, the chairman of Summit Bank.

He began telling me about the Big Lake Hunting Club, formed in 1886 by a group of Little Rock businessmen with prominent last names such as Worthen, Penick and Kavanaugh.

“One of the great things about Big Lake is you can almost see it from downtown Little Rock,” Whipple told me. “I would love for you to come duck hunting with me.”

Having lived in Little Rock since I moved back to my native Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989, how could I have never heard of Big Lake?

It appears I have plenty of company since most other Arkansans have never heard of this natural treasure in southern Pulaski County, which covers almost 1,100 acres. There are areas of open water, but much of the lake is thick with cypress and tupelo.

The Big Lake Hunting Club — also known in various documents through the years as the Big Lake Club, the Big Lake Sportsman’s Club and the Big Lake Sportsmen’s Club — had 41 original members who paid $100 each and then were charged annual dues.

On the walls of the lodge that Whipple built overlooking the lake in 2004 are maps of the club and photos of the individual members from the late 1880s. In those photos, each man holds a shotgun and is accompanied by a dog. They hunted ducks and geese on Big Lake in those days while hunting deer in the woods surrounding the lake.

A wooden clubhouse was built on the spot where Whipple now has his lodge.

They also fished. The shallow lake, which now has maximum depths ranging from six to eight feet, is the home to mostly rough fish. There still are some crappie and bass.

“It was a place for them to get away,” Whipple says of those early Big Lake Hunting Club members.

The club gave free memberships to governors, members of the state’s congressional delegation, judges, legislators, county officials and others. Those memberships proved especially popular during Prohibition. I’ll let you speculate why.

Members could ride the train south from Little Rock and get off the train close to the clubhouse at what was known as Rottaken Station.

In 1943, the club disbanded after 57 years of operation. It seems that someone was putting arsenic in the sugar, and no one could determine the culprit. The members voted to dissolve the partnership.

World War II was in progress. Many males were away at war, and money was tight. There just wasn’t much time or money for hunting, fishing and playing cards in the country.

In 1946, the land was purchased by south Arkansas timber magnate Hugh Ross, who would take the train each Wednesday from Arkadelphia to Little Rock for an evening poker game at the Marion Hotel. That poker game included a number of the state’s top businessmen. Financier W.R. “Witt” Stephens, a Prattsville native, told Ross that there was property in Pulaski County he might want to buy.

Ross made the purchase, though he didn’t use Big Lake as a hunting club.

As an Arkadelphia native, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Ross and Clark families. J.G. Clark began buying timberland in Clark and surrounding counties in the 1880s. Ross married J.G. Clark’s daughter, Esther.

Jane Ross, the daughter of Hugh and Esther Clark Ross, was born in Arkadelphia in December 1920. She would go on to become one of the state’s best-known philanthropists. Jane Ross graduated from what’s now Henderson State University in 1942 and then worked as a Navy photographer in Washington. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and had assignments in Delaware and New Hampshire.

Jane Ross studied color photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology after the war and then came home to open a studio, Photos by Ross.

In a large scrapbook, Whipple has a collection of photos taken by Ross after her father hired a group of men from south Louisiana to use pirogues to harvest cypress trees from Big Lake.

When Hugh Ross died in 1955, Jane Ross gave up her photography studio in order to manage the family timber operations.

Christin Northern picks up the story from there in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Jane Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple. The Ross Foundation, which continues to operate, focuses on education.”

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres of timberland with the proceeds from that land going for charitable purposes. The initial endowment consisted of about 18,000 acres that had been part of the J.G. Clark estate. Smaller tracts were added through the years.

In 1993, the Ross Foundation acquired a major tract of land from International Paper Co. in Hot Spring and Garland counties. Following Jane Ross’ death in 1999, the foundation received additional acres from her estate.

The foundation has opened part of its land to the public. For example, much of the land in Clark County is operated in partnership with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Hiking trails are maintained in Hot Spring County.

Ross Whipple has followed in the footsteps of the Ross family, becoming one of Arkansas’ most noted conservationists.

In an interview with the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, Whipple laid out his activities: “I serve as chairman of the Ross Foundation, chairman of the board of Summit Bank and run a timber management company, Horizon Timber Services Inc. I am also the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. This is a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisitions. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you.”

Big Lake isn’t open to the public, but the fact it is owned by Whipple is good news since that means that this natural wonder on Little Rock’s doorstep will remain pristine rather than ever being drained for row-crop agriculture or developed into a housing project.

Whipple established Horizon Bank. After selling it, he founded Summit Bank in 2000. The bank now has more than $1 billion in assets and has moved into the  Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hope, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Magnolia and Malvern markets in addition to Arkadelphia.

Whipple bought Big Lake from Jane Ross in 1996. He now owns almost 5,000 acres in the area. Hugh Ross tore down the original clubhouse in 1951, using part of the cypress timber to build a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs.

When Whipple decided to build his hunting lodge, he determined the best location was the one that had been used by the founders.

If you were to search the corporation records in the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, you would find a nonprofit corporation with the interesting name of Clark’s Squirrel Head Hunting and Fishing Club. The club dates back to 1911, and the orginal bylaws allow 17 members. In its more than a century of existence, the club has included a number of well-known southwest Arkansas business figures. Arkadelphia attorney Ed McCorkle keeps the club’s records, but Whipple now hosts its meetings at Big Lake.

Several years ago, a man named David Gatzke contacted Whipple and said he had a box filled with Big Lake Hunting Club records. A descendent of J.W. Mons — an early officer in the club — knew that Gatzke hunted in the area and gave him the records.

Gatzke learned that Whipple owned Big Lake and turned the records over to him. Those records have since been preserved in scrapbooks and in frames on the walls of Whipple’s lodge, making it as much a museum as it is a hunting club.

A map from the 1880s showed that parts of Big Lake had names — the Frog Hole, the Pike Hole, the Big Opening, Holly Island.

The modern club also has names — the Grinnel Hole, the Round Pond, the Ash Hole, the Island Blind and the Beaver Pond Blind.

Whipple has a bound copy of the orginal articles of incorporation and club rules, done in beautiful calligraphy. Guest charges were $1 a visit for males age 10 and older, $1 a visit for females age 18 and older and 50 cents a visit for females from age 10 to 18. No females were allowed at the club from Sept. 1 until April 1 each year in the late 1800s.

The letterheads are fascinating. A few of the ones I looked at were:

– L. Muller & Co., which sold “liquors, cigars and tobacco.”

– The W.M. Kavanaugh Co. in the Southern Trust Building.

– The Little Rock Cooperage Co. with offices at the corner of Main and Markham in downtown Little Rock and a factory in Argenta. It listed its products as “oak barrels, whisky barrels and white oak staves.”

– Parker & Worthen Bankers, Brokers and General Real Estate Agents.

– Geyer & Adams Co., wholesale grocers and cotton factors.

– The American Delinter Co.

– F.B. Wells, the maker of the “Page” brand of boat oars with offices in Camden and DeValls Bluff.

– Cockrill & Cockrill Lawyers.

– Missouri Pacific Railroad Co.

 – The Little Rock Street Fair and Mardi Gras Celebration.

– Arkansas Rock Asphalt Co.

– Fones Brothers Hardware Co.

– St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. of Pine Bluff.

The club members made a concerted — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt to raise wild rice in the lake to attract more ducks. There are numerous letters to a supplier of seeds in Wisconsin and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning wild rice.

There also are letters to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation and to various federal agencies asking that crappie be stocked in Big Lake.

Many of the letters are signed by Mons, who headed the Little Rock operations of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.

Among the most interesting things in Whipple’s collection of papers are the thank-you notes from politicians for their complimentary memberships. The roster represents a who’s who of leading Arkansas politicians from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

There are letters from Joe T. Robinson both when he was a governor (he only served for a short time in early 1913 before resigning on March 10, 1913, to enter the Senate) and when he was a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Jeff Davis both when he was a governor and a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Gov. George Donaghey and Gov. X.O. Pindall (the Arkansas City lawyer who became governor in 1907 after Gov. John S. Little resigned for health reasons).

Carl Bailey, who would serve as governor from 1937-41, was an early member of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

There’s even a letter from the Garland County judge asking that a constituent be allowed to trap on Big Lake (with promises that he would not hunt or fish).

For those who love Arkansas history, what Whipple has is a treasure trove. He’s preserving both the natural beauty of Big Lake and the history of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

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Arkansas — A caviar state

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

I mentioned in an earlier Southern Fried post that I had done some writing for the July edition of Arkansas Life magazine. It’s the magazine’s annual food issue, and it’s filled with stories about (and great photos of) Arkansas food.

One of the things I most enjoy about writing is sharing with others stories about Arkansas that they might not otherwise know.

I bet that a majority of Arkansans don’t know that our state produces caviar — very good caviar, in fact.

So it was fun to be asked by the magazine’s editors to make the trip east to Marvell to interview 62-year-old Jessie George — his friends call him John — about the caviar he ships out from George’s Fish Market each winter and early spring.

“It’s comparable to the taste of Russian caviar,” he told me.

He gave me a container of his caviar to take home. I like anything salty, and this was something I found hard to stop eating.

Jessie George knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the rivers of the Arkansas Delta and the things those rivers produce. He grew up on a houseboat at St. Charles on the lower White River during the river-rat era when hundreds of Arkansans lived on houseboats on the lower Arkansas, Cache, St. Francis and White rivers.

These families scratched out a living catching fish, trapping for furs and gathering mussel shells for the button industry.

Jessie George has picked cotton, worked in grain elevators, fished commercially for catfish and buffalo and overcome alcoholism in his life.

One brother was killed in a boating accident while fishing on the White River at Indian Bay.

Another brother was killed when the truck he was driving, which was carrying 750 pounds of catfish, was hit by a train at Almyra.

“People were out there picking the fish up before they could even get his body removed from the vehicle,” George told me.

It hasn’t been an easy life.

Back in the day when Arkansas restaurants primarily sold river-caught catfish rather than farm-raised catfish, the George brothers supplied the owners of the best-known catfish restaurants in the state — men such as Virgil Young of North Little Rock and Olden Murry of DeValls Bluff.

George said he has thrown “tons” of paddlefish back in the river, never realizing there might be a demand for their eggs. Paddlefish can reach more than five feet in length and weigh more than 60 pounds.

George began moving slowly into the caviar business in 1998. At one point, he drove from east Arkansas to Portland, Maine, just so a wholesaler could sample his product.

“I’d send samples to famous companies such as Petrossian and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar,” he said. “In all these years, I’ve never had a pound of eggs returned.”

Within a few years, George was no longer selling buffalo or catfish. He explained it this way: “I would be selling someone $4 worth of buffalo and let $100 worth of caviar get spoiled in the process.”

About 15 commercial fishermen supply George from late November until early April with eggs from paddlefish (often known in the Delta as spoonbill catfish), shovelnose sturgeon and bowfin.

There was a time when George shipped almost 10,000 pounds of eggs a year out of Marvell. He said it’s now too hard for him to find seasonal labor — people willing to work long hours in short stretches — in that part of the Delta. He also has a bad back.

“If you meet a commercial fisherman who is as old as I am, you’ll meet someone with a bad back,” he said.

Pulling in those nets day after day can take its toll.

The output at the Marvell facility is now in the range of 5,000 pounds a season. That’s still a lot of caviar.

George’s biggest buyer is the Great Atlantic Trading Co. of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., which describes paddlefish roe on its website as ranging from “light to dark steel gray, and comparable in taste to Caspian Sea Sevruga.”

The eggs from shovelnose sturgeon, which are known in the business as hackleback caviar (the term “shovelnose” apparently turns some consumers off), are described by Great Atlantic as “dark, firm with a very mild, subtle flavor.”

George also supplies Great Atlantic with bowfin eggs that are marketed by the company as “black caviar roe with an earthy and distinctive flavor that makes a good, less expensive substitute for sturgeon caviar. Unlike sturgeon, bowfin black caviar roe will turn red if heated.”

George supplied me with the finest of his three types of freshwater caviar, the hackleback.

Caviar has quite a history.

Armenian brothers Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, who were born on the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea and raised on the Russian side, are credited with popularizing caviar in Paris during the 1920s and spurring a worldwide interest in the product.

The brothers went to France to continue their studies of medicine and law, which had been interrupted in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Petrossian website tells the story this way: “Paris welcomed exiled Russian princes, intellectuals and aristocrats with open arms, and Parisians embraced all things Russian, especially the arts, ballet, the choreography of Diaghilev and the music of Igor Stravinsky. Nonetheless, there was one thing missing from the Russian expatriates’ lives: caviar. The French had yet to be introduced to this rare delicacy, a situation that the Petrossian brothers immediately set out to remedy.

“Their first attempts to create an awareness of caviar in Paris were assisted by Cesar Ritz, the great impresario of the European hotel trade. His initial reluctance to offer caviar in his prestigious establishment at the Place Vendome was quickly overcome as caviar caught on and assumed its own very special niche in the world of gastronomy.”

Marvell and Jessie George don’t seem to fit alongside Paris and Cesar Ritz.

But there’s no doubt that Arkansas has found its own niche in the world caviar trade.

Pick up the latest issue of Arkansas Life to read more about it.

And know that for a recent Friday night meal, my family started with caviar, followed by fried crappie for the main course.

That might seem upscale-downscale to some, but I considered it a meal featuring the best of what comes out of Arkansas’ lakes, rivers and streams.

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A (Natural State) river runs through it

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

“There are places along the rivers of the Ozarks where large numbers of cattle have the banks eroded, muddy and bare, and every time the river floods, a load of soil and silt is carried from those places to fill the eddies below,” Larry Dablemont wrote last year. “It goes back a hundred years to a time when there was no other way to water stock, when cattle and pigs roamed and then, as their numbers increased, timber was cut and bulldozed along the streams to make more room for grazing.”

Dablemont, who writes lovingly about the Ozarks, is based out of Bolivar, Mo. According to his website, his grandfather “was an old-time river man who trapped, fished, built johnboats and ran a fishing camp. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncles, Larry began guiding fishermen in his grandfather’s johnboats when he was only 13 years old. He loved the outdoors from his early boyhood and began writing about the world he knew when he was in high school.”

Dablemont’s past includes stints as the outdoors editor of the Arkansas Democrat, as a naturalist for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and as a naturalist for the National Park Service along the Buffalo National River.

While living in north Arkansas in 1975, he decided to become a freelance writer and has turned out thousands of pieces since then.

Dablemont wrote about a landowner named Jim Hacker who owns about two miles of river frontage along the Pomme de Terre River in southwest Missouri. He described Hacker as a “cattleman who saw there was a better way.”

Dablemont said that because of the steps Hacker took, his “river bottomland, in trees and grasses, is filled with wildlife, not only deer and turkey, but furbearers and rabbits and quail.”

Hacker said: “I have always loved to fish, and my wife and I float the Pomme de Terre as much as possible. I want to see it saved, and I believe it can be because nature is quick to heal itself. The river can recover from much of what we have done if we let it.”

Dablemont noted that there are “hundreds of us who love the rivers who would talk to landowners about conservation programs, and there are landowners like Jim Hacker who will testify to the wisdom and economics in doing what he has done. There are canoe clubs and fishing groups who would join me, I believe, in talking to landowners along our streams about stopping erosion caused by cattle and improving their land.”

Dablemont was writing about Missouri, but he could have been talking about Arkansas, a state blessed with thousands of miles of streams.

It’s an unseasonably warm late February (a welcome relief after the harsh winter of 2011), and our thoughts turn to an early spring. For many Arkansans that means being on the rivers, creeks, bayous and sloughs of the Natural State.

In thinking about north Arkansas, I think of trips along the Kings River, the Buffalo, the Eleven Point, the Strawberry, the Spring, the South Fork of the Spring, the Current and the Little Black.

And then there are the floatable creeks in the Arkansas Ozarks — the War Eagle, Crooked, Osage, Long, Myatt and more.

Coming out of the Ozarks and headed south into the Arkansas River Valley are the Mulberry River, Big Piney Creek and the Illinois Bayou.

There’s the magnificent White River as it transforms itself from a mountain stream in northwest Arkansas to a wide, slow Delta artery in southeast Arkansas.

In southwest Arkansas, there’s the Caddo, the Ouachita, the Little Missouri, the Cossatot, the Mountain Fork and more.

There’s Cadron Creek in central Arkansas and the Little Red River with its upper forks — the South Fork, the Middle Fork and the Archeys Fork. Big Creek flows into the Little Red.

There’s the Saline River and its upper forks — the North Fork, the Alum Fork and the Middle Fork.

There are the dozens of other streams I know nothing about but would love to experience.

Arkansans have been given so much that it’s incumbent on them to give something back.

One way to do so is through participation in the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Stream Team initiative. The program began in 1996, and there are now more than 500 stream teams across the state.

You should consider joining an existing team or forming your own while adopting part of a favorite river or creek.

According to the Game & Fish Commission: “These teams conduct litter pickups, repair eroding streambanks on willing owners’ land, plant trees to restore degraded riparian areas, work with local leaders to better manage their watersheds and conduct a variety of other activities aimed at conserving one of the most valuable of Arkansas’ natural resources, its water.”

Those interested in participating should email Steve Filipek at sfilipek@agfc.state.ar.us or call him at (501) 223-6371.

“Stream Team members can adopt a stream, determine its current situation and plan a project based on the initial survey,” according to the Game & Fish Commission. “This is done with the landowner’s approval and technical assistance from program sponsors. Your imagination is the only limitation.”

Another way to give back is by becoming involved with the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy has several stream restoration and protection programs across the state.

I had written earlier on the Southern Fried blog about the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of land along the Kings River in March 2010. In April 2011, the Conservancy added a 28.9-acre tract that includes a quarter mile of river frontage with bluffs, a sandy beach and a gravel bar. This tract connects two other parts of the Kings River Nature Preserve, forming an unbroken area along the river.

“The Kings River is a recreational paradise offering excellent floating and fishing with deep pools, overhanging trees, occasional rapids and towering bluffs,” the Conservancy noted in its 2011 year-end report. “Attesting to the stream’s beauty is the fact that in 1971 the General Assembly passed legislation to protect the portion of the river in Madison County, noting that it ‘possesses unique scenic, recreational and other characteristics in a natural, unpolluted and wild state.’

“The Conservancy’s primary purpose in acquiring the preserve, which spans more than seven miles on both sides of the Kings River, is to maintain the health and water quality of this Ozark gem.

“The river fosters a rich aquatic community, including 18 species of fish, crayfish, mussels, turtles and insects found only in the Ozarks, as well as one species of stonefly found only in the Kings watershed. Besides being a recreational treasure, the river is also an important drinking water source as it flows into Table Rock Lake to join the White River.”

Another important part of the Nature Conservancy’s work in Arkansas involves gravel road repairs that are used as demonstration projects.

“You may find it hard to believe that gravel roads are one of the biggest threats to stream health in Arkansas and around the United States, but it’s true,” the year-end report stated. “Unpaved roads, combined with heavy rainfall, can dump huge amounts of sediment into our rivers.”

In one 2011 effort, the Nature Conservancy partnered with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and the Arkansas Forestry Commission to hold a best management practices workshop at Clinton. The Conservancy has been involved in restoration projects along the Little Red River near Clinton.

The workshop drew more than 60 participants. There were foresters, private contractors, county road department employees, natural gas company employees and representatives of state and federal agencies.

The floods of last spring brought additional challenges. The Nature Conservancy worked in the aftermath of those floods to protect eroding banks and remove downed trees on streams ranging from the South Fork of the Little Red River to the Middle Fork of the Saline River.

As spring begins, enjoy our state’s streams.

But please remember to give back.

According to the Game and Fish Commission: “We’ve lost thousands of miles of free-flowing natural streams to damming, industrial and agricultural pollution and other activities. Recent studies indicate we’ve lost more than 25 percent of the state’s smallmouth bass streams this century.”

And as Larry Dablemont noted, “If we don’t do something soon, it will someday be too late.”

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Along the Cache River

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It begins along the Arkansas-Missouri border and meanders through east Arkansas until emptying into the White River near Clarendon.

The Cache River.

This Delta stream played the lead role in one of the great environmental battles in American history.

“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding, and major stands of native hardwood survived,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile … the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall.

“Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt. … During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees.

“The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView, the river’s main tributary. However, initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

Bill Alexander, the Democratic congressman from the 1st District, fought hard for the project. His opponents included the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and conservationists statewide who realized that a large percentage of the remaining bottomland hardwoods in east Arkansas were along the Cache.

Leading that band of conservationists was Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart, a dentist and avid duck hunter.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” said Hancock, whose organization was known as the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

Hancock was born in July 1923 in Laddonia, Mo., a small town northwest of St. Louis. His father was a dentist. Hancock served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 1947. He then went to dental school in Kansas City.

The thing that led him to Arkansas was his love of hunting. He first practiced at Huntsville and then moved to Stuttgart in 1951.

A lawsuit was filed to stop the Cache River project, but U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 5, 1972.

The Corps wasted no time. Clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area began in July 1972 even though Henley’s ruling had been appealed.

On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the Enviromental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement. The court ordered construction stopped in 1973.

The environmental impact statement was approved in 1976, but funding was stalled in Congress. In addition to blocking funding, opponents of the project worked feverishly to establish a national wildlife refuge along the lower Cache.

Congress reauthorized funding in 1977, and three more miles of the river were ditched. A year later, a government task force concluded that ditching the river would be the single most damaging project to waterfowl and floodplain forest in the nation.

Funding ended, leaving a seven-mile scar along the lower Cache.

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1986, covers almost 60,000 acres and is now considered to be among the nation’s most vital wintering areas for migratory waterfowl. It’s also among the country’s last remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forests.

These east Arkansas wetlands were recognized in 1990 by the 61 nations of the United Nations Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for wetlands preservation, as Wetlands of International Importance.

The Cache River ranks right up there with the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and the Chesapeake Bay as far as environmental importance.

Last fall, the Nature Conservancy held what it billed as the Save the Cache Bash at the home of Hanke and Cathy Browne in DeValls Bluff to draw attention to its efforts to restore 4.6 miles of the river that were channelized upstream from Clarendon before the courts could step in.

Working with the Corps, the city of Clarendon, the Game & Fish Commisson, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy hopes to make this a model for river restoration nationwide.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, who chaired the Nature Conservancy’s board in Arkansas, wrote in the organization’s 2011 year-end report: “We are opening a new and exciting chapter for the Cache River. The story of conservation in the lower Cache River and surrounding Big Woods of east Arkansas is one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration.

“Many of you might remember the efforts in the early 1970s to prevent the channelization of the Cache River. We cheered when, after much hard work and a halt to the channelization that had already begun, the river was left to run its natural course. … It is up to us to carry on the extraordinary desire of so many conservationists who came before and to restore this iconic river.”

If you want to see what the Cache would have looked like if Alexander and the Corps had had their way, go north of Grubbs. It’s basically a drainage ditch.

In addition to its work to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the conservation coalition was instrumental in the addition of 41,000 acres of Potlatch Corp. lands to the adjacent White River National Wildlife Refuge.

There has been steady progress since then.

“Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of acres were reforested,” the Nature Conservancy writes in its year-end report. “All told, the Conservancy and partners have reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While conservation strides have been significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the lower Cache remains incomplete. Now we have an opportunity to begin restoring natural meanders of the channelized river, helping to fulfill the vision of those who originally worked to protect the river. If successful, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of other resident and migratory bird species.”

The Nature Conservancy correctly notes that the Cache “pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas.”

On Aug. 17, the city of Clarendon entered into a project partnership agreement with the Corps to move forward with the restoration project. The Nature Conservancy is working with the city to raise the funds needed to complete the effort.

The cost of the project is $7.3 million. The Corps is contributing $5 million. The Nature Conservancy must raise $2.3 million.

The Conservancy notes: “Timing is crucial. … While design work on the project has been completed, the Conservancy must be certain that we can deliver our share of the funding before we begin construction. After coming so close to losing the entire river, we now have a chance to put the Cache back on course for future generations.”

Why is restoration so important?

The Nature Conservancy responds: “With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests have declined. This harms millions of wintering waterfowl that flock to this area, black bears that roam freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that define the Cache’s waters.

“Returning the lower Cache to its natural meandering condition will slow the river’s velocity and reduce the delivery of sediment that damages not only the Cache but also downstream rivers and habitats.”

Back to Rex Hancock: Later in life, he was instrumental in documenting the presence of dioxin — a toxin known to cause cancer and birth defects — in the Bayou Meto.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation named him its Conservationist of the Year in 1968. In 1981, the Game & Fish Commission renamed the Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Woodruff County in his honor. His ashes were buried there following his death in July 1986.

In 1993, Hancock was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame.

He no doubt would be pleased with the current efforts to restore the lower part of his beloved Cache River.

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Arkansas’ Kings River: Priceless

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

The Buffalo River hogs the spotlight when it comes to the state’s Ozark streams.

And rightly so.

It’s a gorgeous stream, and the epic battle to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from placing a dam on it led to one of the great chapters in Arkansas history.

The focus on the Buffalo, declared by the National Park Service as the country’s first “national river,” takes attention away from the equally special Kings River.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Those of us who love the Kings enjoy the solitude that often can be found there. We would hate to see it “loved to death” by tourists.

An exciting piece of news for Kings River aficionados came last spring when the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas announced that it had purchased 4,561 acres of land with seven miles of frontage along both sides of the river. That allowed the Nature Conservancy to establish what’s already one of the crown jewels in its collection, the Kings River Preserve.

“The Kings River is beautiful and forested along most of its corridor,” the Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas director, Scott Simon, said at the time of the purchase. “Our primary goal in purchasing the property is to help maintain water quality.”

The Buffalo River begins in Newton County while the Kings River begins just to the west in Madison County. While the Buffalo generally flows to the east before joining up with the White River south of Mountain Home, the Kings takes more of a northerly course, joining the White River east of Eureka Spring in what’s now Table Rock Lake.

Tim Snell, the Nature Conservancy’s water resources director, explained the plans for the preserve this way when last year’s announcement was made: “We’ll work to reduce sediment entering the stream, which can fill in gravel beds and choke out organisms at the bottom of the food chain, affecting those at the top like smallmouth bass. We hope to help the Kings River continue to be a treasured recreational resource and a prime spot for smallmouth bass fishing.”

Few people know the Kings better than Ernie Kilman of Kings River Outfitters.

“The Kings River is such an incredibly scenic place, and that’s because it’s a natural stream — one with forested and bluff-lined banks,” Kilman said. “Knowing that my son will be able to canoe on this river with his children and grandchildren and it will look the same — or better — than it does now is a wonderful thought. It’s great knowing that this land remains in good hands.”

The Nature Conservancy’s tract is a short distance downstream from the McIlroy Madison County Wildlife Management Area, a 14,496-acre operation of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission through which the Kings River flows for several miles.

The land purchased by the Nature Conservancy earlier had been a cattle ranch. The tract was a mix of forest and pasture with many of the pastures planted in fescue. The Nature Conservancy wasted no time planting trees along the banks of the river to prevent further erosion.

Here’s how the website www.arkansas.com describes the river: “High in the Boston Mountains of Madison County lie the beginnings of the Kings River. From this steep country the stream twists its way northward to the White River. … In its upper reaches, the Kings cuts a narrow gorge through sandstone, shale and limestone. On downstream, the surrounding countryside is not quite so precipitous, but the water is the same — clear and cool.

“The Kings’ most attractive features are found along the rock banks and bluffs where floaters will notice wild azaleas, ferns, umbrella magnolias and other fascinating plants. In addition, observant visitors can view a great many signs of wildlife — beaver cuttings and deer and raccoon tracks, for instance — and may even spot some of the local creatures.

“A float on the Kings River is a return to fishing in its purest form — no motors, no loaded bass boat, only your partner quietly paddling as you both absorb the untainted outdoor grandeur. The Kings has countless rock bass and hefty channel cats, but when fishing this stream, first and foremost on the minds of most anglers are the big smallmouth bass.

“If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. … Two sportfish often overlooked by Kings River anglers are the walleye and white bass. Both species are common in the portion of the river near Table Rock Lake during the spring spawning runs in March, April and early May. White bass will hit a variety of shad-imitation lures and minnows, while walleyes are usually taken on live baits such as minnows, crayfish and worms or artificial lures, particularly deep-running crankbaits and jigs.”

In a 2001 feature for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Buddy Gough described a Kings River float with a legendary Ozarks guide: “J.D. Fletcher was a grumpy old guy at the start of a recent Kings River float.

“‘All that rain didn’t do any good at all,’ he said as he eyed the river’s water level in the aftermath of thunderstorms that swept the Ozarks two weeks ago. The veteran fishing guide’s mood had been soured for weeks by a dry spring that had failed to produce runoff to flush up the river and bring the big smallmouths out of hiding.

“‘I can’t remember when the river hasn’t flushed up for us to fish in May,’ he said.

“For a fisherman whose memories of the Kings River reach back 43 years, that was saying something. For our much-postponed outing, Fletcher had hoped for a rise to allow fishing on his favorite stretch of river between Trigger Gap and the U.S. Highway 62 bridge near Berryville. Instead, he had settled for a six-mile stretch of the lower river between Stony Point and Smith’s Landing. He called it his summer float, meaning it normally had enough water flow to float fish in the summer months.”

Near the end of that day’s float, there was a narrow pool half a mile long with the current flowing over chunk rock. Fletcher said: “I got here with my son Jeff one time, and we caught 22 smallmouths before we left this pool. Another time, I caught a five-pound largemouth here. I remember because it was the 50th bass of the trip and it weighed five pounds.”

In May 2005, Gough went back on the Kings River with Tony Harlan.

“The weather and water conditions may not have been auspicious for good fishing at midmorning Thursday, but the river was beautiful to behold,” Gough wrote. “Under bright sun, the water reflected blue sky and leafy trees in many shades of green. Intermixed among the greenery were locust trees heavy with their clusters of white blooms. Although the water was low, it dazzled the eye with its sparkling clarity as it danced over clean gravel shining in golden colors.”

Spring approaches, and my thoughts turn to the Kings River. It’s an Arkansas treasure.

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The smallmouth streams of Arkansas

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Spring is upon us.

I look forward to that first wilted salad of fresh lettuce, radishes and bacon grease.

I look forward to frying up some crappie.

I look forward to the dogwoods and azaleas blooming as April begins.

And then, as April turns into May, I look forward to the water warming in our Arkansas streams and the smallmouth bass beginning to bite.

My grandfather, my grandmother and my father taught me to enjoy all types of fishing.

I first learned to use a fly rod not by going after trout in a mountain stream but instead fishing for bream while using a popping bug on the slow streams, bayous and sloughs of south Arkansas.

I enjoyed being out with my grandfather in the middle of the night, jug fishing for catfish while using empty Clorox bottles.

I had just as much fun fishing with my dad in a tiny flatbottom boat for crappie on the secluded slough at the Pennington farm near the Ouachita River as I did being in his bass boat on DeGray Lake fishing for largemouth bass.

Our trips to Empire in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana to fish alongside oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and to Lake of the Woods in western Ontario to fish for walleye will long be remembered.

For my money, though, there’s nothing finer than floating the mountain streams of Arkansas in search of smallmouth bass.

The fewer people I see on those trips, the better. Dennis Whiteside, a stream guide who knows the Ozark rivers and creeks better than most anyone, is a master at guiding a canoe. Dennis has put me on some smallmouth streams that I never would have thought of.

For instance, I crossed Long Creek at Alpena near the Boone County-Carroll County line while driving on U.S. Highway 62 for years without ever thinking of it as a smallmouth stream. Several years ago, however, Dennis and I caught the water just right on Long Creek. It was a day to remember.

When I was growing up in south Arkansas, the Caddo River was our smallmouth stream of choice. The six-mile float from Caddo Gap to Glenwood is probably the most popular, but smallmouth can be caught further down the river as it makes its way from Pike County into Clark County and forms DeGray Lake.

Our state is blessed with talented outdoors writers, and one of the best is Keith Sutton. Here’s what he had to say about the Caddo in an article for Arkansas Sportsman: “Launch at the low-water bridge west of Arkansas Highway 8 in Caddo Gap; take out beneath the U.S. Highway 70 bridge at Glenwood. In between, you’ll encounter small rapids, long gravel bars and plenty of good smallmouth fishing around boulders and fallen treetops. Bait choices run the gamut from live crayfish to willow-leaf spinnerbaits. Try to be on the river at daybreak, as peak smallmouth activity is usually during the day’s first couple of hours.”

Another quality southwest Arkansas stream is the Little Missouri River before it empties into Lake Greeson. Sutton calls it a “strikingly beautiful smallmouth stream” that “harbors plenty of feisty smallmouths within its rock gardens and deep pools. The bronzebacks are suckers for live crawfish, and if you take time to turn over a few rocks and leaves in small feeder creeks you pass, you can often gather a dozen or more in just a few minutes. … Most smallmouths will be holding on the downstream side of boulders, treetops and other current breaks, so cast upstream and allow the bait to drift by this cover naturally.”

My dad grew up in Benton fishing the Saline River and its forks that flow out of the Ouachita Mountains — the North Fork, the Middle Fork, the Alum Fork. All of those forks can still offer excellent smallmouth fishing if you catch the water just right.

The upper Ouachita River also can provide opportunities to catch smallmouth bass. Sutton likes the stretch from Oden to the Rocky Shoals Campground.

“Smallmouth fishing on this stretch of the Ouachita is exhilarating with fast-paced action for bronzebacks up to three and four pounds,” he writes. “Put in early and take out late to get the most from this scenic 10-mile float. The put-in point is the Arkansas Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden. The campground takeout is at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing.

“The water here is clear, cool and fast flowing, and there’s a good mix of long, deep pools and rapids. There are lots of big rocks, deep runs under steep banks and downed timber offering shade, food and protection from the current. That’s where you find smallmouths.

“Most local smallmouth anglers prefer to use live baits, particularly live crayfish and minnows. However, any artificial designed to imitate the smallmouth’s natural prey will usually prove productive.”

The Ozark streams, of course, are the state’s best-known places for smallmouth bass. Jerry McKinnis made Crooked Creek nationally famous with his many visits there for his television show. The most popular stretch runs from Kelly’s Slab to Yellville and takes about half a day.

The Kings River is my favorite Ozark stream (I’ll write more about it in a later post). Sutton calls it a “dream stream beyond compare, beautiful and pristine. It transports the float fisherman back in time to a simpler, less complicated era. … If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. Some people expect bass from this smallish river to be smallish too, and that can cost you some trophy fish. A baitcasting reel, medium-action rod and 10- to 20-pound-test line are appropriate. Big smallmouths hit large crankbaits and large tandem spinners with trailing pork rind.”

The Buffalo National River is by far the state’s most popular river for floating. The smallmouth fishing can also be good. I prefer solitude when fishing, though, and the Buffalo can become awfully crowded (and those kids in canoes can be awfully loud) when the weather warms, especially on weekends. The same is true of the Spring River, which has become known as a “party stream” if you can imagine such a thing.

This time of year, when the spring rains come and the water levels rise quickly, the Mulberry River and the Big Piney Creek are best known as whitewater streams. But the smallmouth fishing can be worth the float when water levels are down. If the water is right, Sutton suggests floats on the Big Piney from Arkansas Highway 123 to Treat and on the Mulberry from Arkansas Highway 23 to Milton’s Ford.

The Eleven Point River also can provide fine smallmouth fishing, though the best fishing on the river seems to be on the Missouri side of the state line.

“The Eleven Point enters northeast Arkansas from Missouri near the town of Elm Store and courses southward to merge with the Spring River near Old Davidsonville State Park, a distance of about 40 miles,” Sutton writes. “Floating can be tough thanks to stream obstructions, but it’s worth trying. Smallmouths from one pound to two pounds are abundant with bigger specimens possible.

“The nine-mile run from the state Highway 93 bridge at Dalton to the Arkansas Highway 90 access has vertical banks that rise more than 10 feet. The banks often are undercut and cave in, taking trees and undergrowth that clog the stream. But the cover provides a haven for outsized brownies. An old stone dam must be negotiated about eight miles downstream, shortly after an island and its accompanying brush-filled channel. Walk your craft through to the right.”

I’ve also had good luck with Dennis fishing the South Fork of the Spring River.

The water quality, cool water temperatures, quality habitat and long growing season make the above streams good bets for smallmouth fishing. Smallmouth bass can reach up to six pounds in these streams.

Floating the streams can be work due to fluctuating water levels and debris blocking your path. But the work is worth it for what is pound for pound the hardest-fighting fish in Arkansas.

Smallmouth spawning usually begins in April and can continue until late May. If you like to fish and like the Arkansas outdoors, you should make plans to get out on one of the state’s smallmouth streams during April and May.

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