Spring River Fly Shop in downtown Mammoth Spring opened its doors in October 2008. Flies and fishing gear decorate the shop's basic presentation. Maps of the Spring River are available at the entrance. Designed to be a "fly fishing hangout," "somewhere people can come and be comfortable and talk about fly fishing," extra camp chairs are offered to take a seat and learn about fly fishing the Spring River from its only expert, Mark Crawford, co-owner of the Spring River Fly Shop.
"It's so passionate a sport," Crawford said. "With fly fishing what they say is: 'you teach a man to fly fish, you feed his soul.' You get deep, real deep."
Crawford nodded his head, twisting a fly in his hand.
"I tell clients: 'yeah, I'm pretty good, but to be honest, I'm the only guy fly fishing on the Spring River'," he said.
He carried a smile that continued throughout the interview, speaking about his love of fly fishing and stories he had picked up from his experience along the way.
"There's a stigma with fly fishing that it's so complicated, so hard to do, that people think it's not easy," Crawford said. "What I always hear is someone bought a fly rod, went out and tried it, and all they did was tangle themselves up and made a mess. It's like anything else in life, if you have someone show you the easy way of doing it, then it's easy."
Raised fishing for catfish and bass in and around Pocahontas, fishing has always been easy for Crawford, and easier still to be the best fly fisherman on Spring River. But, in a culture of spinning reels and trout lines, the topic of fly fishing will leave most locals speechless.
Five years ago, Crawford began catching larger fish with a fly reel, and soon became everyone's favorite fishing buddy, he said. Then a fly fishing guide was born. "It's not anything I planned or sought after, but the Good Lord gives us gifts, and I found one I was good at."
Crawford started out fly fishing for carp, brim and bass on other local rivers. "Then I had a friend of mine bring me up to the Spring River, and it's been just a mess ever since," he affectionately refers to himself as a "trout bum."
"I fly fish any chance I get, at least once a day," he said. "It's a tough life, because you have to eat a lot of fish instead of making a lot of money." Crawford eats, breathes and dreams fish. And now, he teaches others.
"I love to take people that's never been," he said. "I love to fish, but I've gotten to a point in my life where I'd like to take someone out and see them catch something on a fly rod."
Crawford learned to fly fish by reading books and magazines. His self-taught methods are simple, easy for the beginner to pick up on, he said.
Crawford guides on a western drift boat with pedestal seats on each end. He rows the boat from its center, able to put his customers right next to the fish, he said.
"I didn't want to open a fly shop for a long time, because once you do this you are stuck in a fly shop," Crawford said. "You're in a store, when you should be fishing. What makes a really good guide is someone that's on the river constantly and knows it very intimately, really." Crawford keeps one hand on the river at all times, sharing his expertise through a blog on the company Web site, SpringRiverFlyShop.com, where they pick up the vast majority of their guide business.
"The thing that sets (our shop) apart from everyone else is that I design our own line of flies," Crawford said. He has 10 to 15 trusted patterns that he relies on, although he is always up to the challenge of turning burnt fishing line into bumblebee eyes or bear fur into a set of crawdad claws. "You can't find (our flies) anywhere else. And now I tie all the time." When Crawford is not out guiding he is in the shop, tying flies to be sold in-house, or shipped and sold in other fly shops. On average, Crawford sells 200 flies a week. Turkey and rooster feathers, even bob cat hide are standard materials for his flies.
"I can tie 50 or 60 a day," he said. After seven years of tying experience, Crawford has turned himself into an entomologist of sorts, collecting bugs and preserving them in vials for life examples that he will recreate.
"There's no perfect fly," Crawford said. "Anyone tells you that... they are just crazy. Fish hit different things at different times."
The approach to fishing is based upon more visible qualities: the flash of color the fly creates, tantalizing the fish to take a bite; the clarity of the water making a fly visible; the movement of the fly as it swims through the current. They all matter, he said.
Crawford monitors the rains in southern Missouri to keep an accurate beat of what water clarity on the Spring River will be.
The Spring River is full of varieties of small mouth and large mouth bass. A less common variety available is the tiger musky, a hybrid northern pike -- "an alligator without legs," Crawford said. "Such a big, ferocious fish, they are not scared of human approach. They have no natural predators." A sight to behold, tiger musky are striped (like a tiger) and can be found on the Spring River up to four feet long, Crawford said.
When it comes to trout on the Spring River, from Dam Three to Mini Islands Canoe and Camp Ground, the fish run thick.
"We are lucky to have a state-run fish hatchery that stocks trout in the river five to seven times a week," Crawford said. "It's literally full of trout year round. Prime trout waters, it's just full of them." Unlike the waters of Norfork River and White River, the Spring River has a steady water level and remains about 10 degrees warmer than the two tail water rivers.
While Crawford keeps an eye on the fish, Dale Sorrell keeps an eye on the shop's bottom line. Sorrell, originally from Thayer, and Crawford partnered in the Spring River Fly Shop, drawing on each other's strengths to streamline the business.
When traveling out west, Sorrell and his wife would go on fishing excursions, he said. Three years ago, when he came to Thayer for a family reunion, Sorrell found Crawford's guide service business card and took him out as a guide, he said. After one trip, Crawford's guide service became a staple of Sorrell's trips back home.
"We always had such good luck," Sorrell said. "All this time that I'd known him, Mark had expressed that he wanted to open a fly shop. It woke me up at 2 a.m. one night, thinking about a way of putting a fly shop in Mammoth Spring. I asked myself why wouldn't it work?"
Sorrell soon after contacted Crawford and asked if he would consider going into business with him.
Nine months after the fly shop's opening, Sorrell is proud to report that for the last four months the fly shop and guide service has been self supporting.
"It's almost reached the point where our income is 50/50, half from the store and half from guide trips," Sorrell said.
The downtown Mammoth Spring community has been very supportive, welcoming a different type of business into the downtown area.
"The people have been receptive to something different," Sorrell said. "I thought most of our customers would be out of town, but the local people are also coming and supporting us. I didn't ever think I would own a business back at home, but never say never, because you don't know how life will turn out," Sorrell said.
Sorrell, an Oklahoma City resident, has been thrilled and satisfied with his participation in his partnership with Crawford, the opening of the fly shop and its continued success. Although it does not seem to have been the plan all along, a little fly shop in Mammoth Spring has brought a new meaning to fishing recreation on Spring River.