The sport of fishing in Arkansas is much changed over the past several decades. Technical advances have been coupled with increased knowledge on the part of anglers.
Pushed aside and nearly forgotten has been the do-it-yourself element of fishing.
To narrow our focus here, we look at Lake Conway, completed in 1951 and a development that in itself changed the scope of fishing in Arkansas.
Conway dentist Terry Fiddler was just a toddler when Lake Conway was born, but his grandfather, Carl Fiddler, was much in the picture, participating in construction then fishing in those legendary early days of the lake.
Terry Fiddler said, "We didn’t have Walmart and other stores where you could buy fishing things. You made do with what you could. There wasn’t any place to buy fishing stuff until Dwight (Matchett) opened his store in Conway."
Matchett’s One-Stop Sporting Goods was a Conway fixture for nearly a half-century. Fishing tackle of all kinds was sold, and fishermen themselves congregated at the store to swap stories, poke fun and tease each other and along the way to exchange information and tips.
Fiddler learned to fish by tagging along with his grandfather, and today he has many of Carl Fiddler’s tackle items from long ago. He displayed a cricket box made from an old air filter taken off a road-grading machine.
Carl Fiddler operated bulldozers, graders and other machinery in the building of Lake Conway.
The cylindrical metal mesh air filter was fitted with a wood bottom and top, the latter with a removable plug, to holds crickets for bream outings on the new lake.
The cricket box and other gear were transported in a large sturdy canvas bucket with the name Standard Ice Co. on the side. This ice facility was another Conway landmark, now the home of the city’s festival-themed Toad Store.
Terry Fiddler has several fly rods used by his grandfather, bringing out one more forgotten bit of fishing more than a half century ago. Many of those early Lake Conway’s bountiful catches were on fly-fishing rigs.
These were what was available. Spinning gear and spincasting gear had not developed. Baitcasting reels were crude in comparison to today’s finely crafted models. But with a fly rod, a Lake Conway angler could toss light lures like popping bugs and baits like minnow, worms and crickets into selected spots on the brush and cypress-choked lake.
The rods were limber, and the simple reels on the back end were for line storage, not for fighting frantic fish on the other end.
Cane poles were used extensively on those days, and these were cut locally, hung by the small end to dry, then often were shellacked for preservation. Terry Fiddler has some of his grandfather’s cane poles, the finishes on them bright today. Many anglers rigged line holders on these cane poles also.
Terry Fiddler said, "My grandfather used a boat with a 5-horse motor on it, and it got us around the lake just fine."
On Lake Conway today, the prevalent flatbottom aluminum boats have much larger motors, and bass boats with 150-horsepower and larger motors are not uncommon, although these can’t be operated at full throttle on the stump-filled lake.
The fish themselves have changed but just a little for Lake Conway.
Largemouth bass, catfish, bream and crappie were the foundations of those legends, but the bream were bluegill. Red-ear bream came a little later. The largemouths were the northern strain. Later, Florida-strain largemouth bass were stocked in Conway.
Dark water rich with nutrients started Lake Conway, and it is still a feature today, although a problem has built over the years with increased sedimentation from water running into the lake from surrounding areas.
"The grass and trees of the old days are now concrete and asphalt," said retired fisheries biologist Carl Perrin of Conway.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.