THE ORIGINS OF THE AFF: Back in the mid to late 1960s, a fly fisherman casting his line on an Arkansas tailwater would be an odd sight to the bait and lure anglers drifting by in their johnboats. There just weren't that many fly fishers around in those days. So when one fly fisherman came upon another of his kind on the banks of the White, Norfork, or Little Red rivers it was not unusual for them to strike up a conversation and make an effort to get to know one another. These serendipitous encounters would establish a common ground for the future formation of fly fishing clubs in Arkansas, including the first Federation of Fly Fishers-affiliated club formed in the state--the AFF.
One such onstream encounter back in 1969 between Frank Brown of Little Rock and Dave Whitlock of Midway (today, the renowned fly fisher, tyer, artist, writer, conservationist) would lead to a friendship and a mutual commitment to improving the fisheries in Arkansas and to the promotion of fly-fishing in the state. Both Brown and Whitlock were long-time members of the Federation of Fly Fishers, and it is Brown who credits Dave Whitlock with coming up with the idea of forming an FFF club for the Little Rock/Central Arkansas area.
So it was that in 1973 Frank Brown, Dave Whitlock, and Jim Wingfield founded the Arkansas Fly Fishers. Within a short time, between 10-12 fly fishermen who wanted to better themselves, as well as assist others, in the sport of fly-fishing were attending monthly AFF meetings at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Little Rock. The club's constitution was written by Rusty Russell, a charter member and Frank Brown's best friend, and was modeled after the FFF constitution, including its motto, "To Conserve, Restore, & Educate through Fly Fishing". Jim Wingfield of Prescott was elected the first AFF president.
ORIGINS OF THE MOUNTAIN HOME FFF SOUTHERN COUNCIL CONCLAVE: That same chance encounter between Dave Whitlock and Frank Brown back in '69 would eventually result in Mountain Home, Arkansas being chosen as the location of the regional FFF Conclave, or "gathering", each year since the early 1970s. The friendship formed between these two men extended to a handful of other fly fishers from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Tennesee. These men began a tradition of meeting in the fall each year in Mountain Home to fish, enjoy each other's company, and concern themselves with the conservation of the fisheries they all loved.
For three years in a row Brown, Whitlock, and the rest of those Arkansas fly fishing pioneers gathered in Mountain Home at the Holiday Inn for what were called "Big Ones". Big One I, II, and III would be the precursors of Conclave in Mountain Home.
What would have been Big One IV became the first FFF regional (then Midwest Council) conclave held in Mountain Home on November 30th and December 1st and 2nd, 1973. The conclave was co-sponsored by the AFF, Green Country Fly Fishers, and the Ozark Fly Fishers, and attracted more than 100 visitors. Lefty Kreh was the featured presenter.
Today, the Southern Council's Mountain Home Conclave is considered to be one of the biggest and best FFF conclaves in the nation. The Arkansas Fly Fishers were there in the beginning and have been big supporters of the region's annual autumn fly fishers' pilgrimage ever since.
ARKANSAS' WORLD-CLASS WILD BROWN TROUT FISHERY: The most notable achievement in AFF history is how it established the first (and only) wild brown trout fishery in Arkansas on the Little Red River (Greers Ferry Tailwater) in 1975. (The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has never stocked the Greers Ferry Tailwater with brown trout.)
Within a few short months after its founding, the Arkansas Fly Fishers planted brown trout eggs in the Spring River (Northeast Arkansas) in late 1973. This attempt failed, and so did a second attempt the following year.
Undaunted, the AFF decided to try again to establish a brown trout fishery, but this time in another river. Frank Brown went to then AG&FC Director Andrew Hulsey and asked for permission to plant brown trout eggs in the Little Red River. Hulsey gave his permission reluctantly, "It won't do any good or any harm." (Hulsey was probably skeptical because the AG&FC's attempt to establish a brown trout fishery on the White River [Bull Shoals Tailwater] in the late 50s and 60s with hatchery fish had been controversial, and because of the AFF's failed attempts on the Spring River.)
But Hulsey's dubious response did not deter Brown, Whitlock, and the other AFF members from their mission of bringing brown trout to Arkansas. On December 7th, 1975 AFF members planted 20,000 fertilized "Bitterroot strain" brown trout eggs (purchased from a Pennsylvania hatchery) in forty Vibert boxes along a one-mile stretch of the Cow Shoals area of the Little Red River. A little less than one month later, thirty-five of the original forty Vibert boxes that had contained the eggs were recovered--it was believed that the empty boxes were a sign that the hatch would be successful. Time would tell.
To an Arkansas fly fisher the scene that was played out on a winter's day one year after the initial egg planting at Cow Shoals would be reminiscent of, and as significant as, that famous day at Sutter's Mill, California back in 1848. Frank Brown and fellow AFF member Lou Piper were fishing the Cow Shoals area that day. Piper was in a casting station upstream from Brown, near the long pool. As Frank Brown recalls, "Lou let out a scream you could hear a mile away and I came a-runnin'. In his landing net was a small brown trout. Lou was grinning from ear to ear."
Lou Piper had not discovered gold, but he couldn't have been more excited because he held proof in his hand that the egg planting at the shoals the year before had been successful and that a brown trout fishery had been established in Arkansas. (It was only fitting that Lou Piper had caught the trout--which most likely was the first one ever caught in the river. Piper was one of the AFF members who had planted the eggs.)
As proof of their discovery, Brown and Piper brought the trout back to Little Rock and Piper put it in his freezer. The following day AFF member Glen Cox took the frozen evidence to the AG&FC and presented it to Director Hulsey.
Hulsey was both pleased and surprised.
Early on, creel reports indicated that the new fishery had taken hold, but the AFF wanted to further insure the fishery's success. As an afterthought, in 1978 the AFF and the Mid-South Fly Fishers (Memphis/West Memphis) cooperated in a project to enhance the Little Red's new brown trout fishery by stocking 5,000 fingerlings in the Cow Shoals spawning pool.
By the early 1980s wild brown trout reproduction on the Little Red River had become prolific. Frank Brown states that the spawn was so thick at Cow Shoals that "you could literally walk across their backs to the other side of the river". Several trophy brown trout were caught during the 80s but the real trophy wasn't caught until early in the next decade.
The trout fishing world was turned upside down on May 9th, 1992 when Howard "Rip" Collins of Heber Springs caught the current world record brown trout while fishing a 1/32 oz. olive jig on 4 lb. test line upstream from the Swinging Bridge Trout Dock on the Little Red River. The monstrous henfish measured 40 1/4 inches in length and weighed 40 lbs. 4 ounces. (Dave Whitlock has remarked that the size and apparent age of the fish gives him "a feeling that fish was from the original eggs or the first generation after".)
Rip Collins' record catch put the Little Red River on the world-class brown trout fisheries list. It also was the ultimate reward for, and a testament to, the AFF members who had the vision to establish a brown trout fishery in the Little Red seventeen years earlier. Dave Whitlock has said, "it affected the history of the state, the nation, and the world".
COW SHOALS ACCESS: Frank Brown and the AFF made another contribution to the Little Red River in 1988. At that time Gregg Patterson was the president of the AFF. Patterson was also the AG&FC's magazine editor. When he heard news that the land on the west bank of the river near the end of Cow Shoals was on the market he perceived the need to protect it from future development and presented the idea to both the AG&FC and his club. The AG&FC agreed to purchase the land using a 2-1 matching funds plan. Frank Brown got on the phone and was able to raise $10,000 to match the initial $20,000 to be provided by the AG&FC. Frank gathered contributions from the Mid-South Fly Fishers and the Ozark Fly Fishers (St. Louis), as well as funds provided by the AFF, and even made a contribution himself.
AFF'S 25th ANNIVERSARY & BEYOND: 1998 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Arkansas Fly Fishers and it also marked a renewed spirit of purpose for the club and its members. Over the past few years the AFF added the following to its list of accomplishments: