Burl’s Sunrise
March 9, 2005

No doubt I've spent more time in the outdoors with Burl Penson than I have with anyone else. Our first trip to the outdoors together was almost 20 years ago. I can’t remember if that first trip was hunting squirrel or floating down the Frog Bayou in his brown fiberglass canoe. We went either hunting or fishing every chance we got back then.
I bought my first canoe thanks to Burl. He'd found an ad in the newspaper for this old blue beat-up aluminum canoe, and after I bought it he did most of the work making it creekworthy.
Our first trip in that canoe was on the Fourche La Fave in early summer, Burl and Jeanette in their fiberglass canoe and Johnny and I in the aluminum one. We made one other float on the Fourche - I wrote about that one last October.
I rediscovered the Buffalo River with Mike that first summer with the canoe, and was eager to share it with Burl. He and Jeanette, Dale and I drove up on a Friday night and camped at Hasty, then the next morning we put in at Pruitt and floated back to camp. We caught enough smallmouth and goggle eye to have a decent fish fry that night. We stayed Saturday night then floated upstream Sunday morning to do some more fishing.
I recall one other trip with Burl to the Buffalo. One summer weekend when the water was just high enough, Burl and I and two others floated the short distance from the Ponca low water bridge to Steele Creek campground. The idea was to go downstream as slowly as we wanted and fish every little hole and eddy, and enjoy the views of the towering bluffs. It didn't take us very long to get to Steele Creek, so we fished and swam in the area just downstream from the canoe launch area for most of the afternoon.
I spent the entire Labor Day weekend with Burl and his family one year up on the Little Red River. Jeanette's dad had a big camper at one of the trout docks.  The first morning we floated in canoes from the campsite downstream to the swinging bridge. The rest of the weekend we fished nearby. Michelle's husband Jack shared Burl's canoe, and Jack's son Michael shared mine.
I replaced that aluminum canoe with a friendlier red synthetic Old Towne model, and Burl and I took that thing lots of places. During the Fourth of July in 1995 we did an overnight float trip on the Mulberry from Campbell Cemetery to the Wire Road bridge above I-40. Burl showed me how to put out limb lines that first night, and there were several nice catfish on the lines the next morning. Another summer morning we floated the Mulberry from the Plymouth Road put-in to Wire Road. I was impressed by the river's personality that day, it was much more like an Ozark stream with clear, cold, swift water. And the fish loved our small crawdad crankbaits.
The last long float trip we made together was on the Illinois River one April. Vern Rich floated with me, and one of Burl's many friends floated with him. We put in at the Highway 16 bridge near Lake Weddington and floated to the old 412 access. It was a great day to be outdoors floating and fishing, the sky was blue, the air was warm and the forest was about halfway into leaf-out.
More often Burl and I went on fishing trips closer to home. If the trip was my idea we'd usually go to Shores Lake, Lake Fort Smith or Lake Shepherd Springs, although once Heath, Burl and I drove down to Cossatot Falls and fished for smallmouth.  If it was Burl's idea, we'd usually wind up on one of the many holes of water near the Kibler bottoms where he grew up. Those places included the Frog Bayou, the original Arkansas River channel at Yoestown, and several other backwater areas along the river. One of my favorite fishing trips was a Saturday morning in early spring on the Mulberry city water supply lake, Burl's idea. In the woods around the lake the wild azaleas were putting on a show, the bass were hitting everything we threw at them, and there was one cove where a beautiful little mountain stream came tumbling in.
Every once in a while Burl would come up with something new for us to try, and that always resulted in fun. One year we bought some cheap fly reels, stuck them on some old fly rods I'd inherited, and fly fished on the Frog Bayou below Burl's place. Another time we went night fishing for catfish and hung so many gar that we went back a couple of nights later rigged to catch the gar. One spring one of Burl’s friends hooked a striper on the Frog below Burl’s place, so for the next few evenings we tried to catch stripers. The water was too swift and cold for us to wade out into it, so we had to use light spinning rigs so that we could cast out far enough to reach the channel where the stripers were hanging out. The problem there was the stripers were so big that they usually broke our light line. Then there was the time we took innertubes to a pond in Yoestown; we were catching crappie on tube jigs, and the amazing thing about it was these fish were mere inches from our feet.
It was great fishing out of a canoe with Burl. He always took the back seat, and was so good at maneuvering  that I hardly ever had to pick up my paddle. Many times I’d be surprised to feel the canoe move a little - he could grab his oar and dip it into the water without making a sound.
Burl and I shared an enthusiasm for squirrel hunting. I’m sure we did as much squirrel hunting together as we did fishing. He usually let me pick the place, probably because he could get his limit almost anywhere we went. Early on we went to many different spots in an area we called "1716", which was where Forest Service Road 1716 crossed Cove Creek north of Natural Dam. I shot a squirrel there with a .22 from 100 yards away. Of course Burl didn't believe me when I first told him, but we walked off the distance and sure enough I was right.
We eventually did almost all our squirrel hunting over the years on this one hillside above West Cedar Creek northeast of Cedarville. Somehow we all named it "220", after the highway we took part of the way there. That hillside had an exceptional concentration of hickory trees, and therefore a good concentration of squirrels.
We always split up while squirrel hunting, usually staying a couple of hundred yards apart. Burl's hunting style was to do a lot of moving, which he could do with much stealth in the woods. Many times on a slow morning he would end the hunt by sneaking up on me, and I never once caught him in the act.
Our squirrel hunts weren’t limited to mornings in the fall. Some of our best trips were in the evening after work. And we usually went a couple of times every year during the spring season. Heck we even squirrel hunted out of a canoe one morning, after we realized on a then recent fishing trip that for some reason squirrels weren’t spooked by men in boats.
As the years passed our trips to the outdoors together gradually became less frequent. First to take their toll were the increasingly long hours I worked, then I met the girl of my dreams and got married, then came the boys. By the time Burl retired a little under two years ago, which is the last time I remember talking to him, he’d found more willing friends to accompany him on his fishing and hunting trips.
The picture at the top of this page was taken Saturday morning, March 4. I got up early enough to try to catch the sunrise at Clear Creek park, which is where the Frog empties into the Arkansas River backwater, about 4 miles downstream from Burl’s place. I found myself thinking about Burl that morning, for one because I passed by his place on the way in, and also because the last time I went fishing at Clear Creek was with Burl. That fishing trip was for crappie one May evening after work. We were trolling slowly along the old river channel, with minnows hooked to tube jigs. Burl had three lines out, and suddenly got hits on all three. I had to take one for him and we wound up with three nice slabs in the boat.
Saturday morning on the drive back from Clear Creek I again passed Burl’s place. If it weren’t so early I would have pulled in to see if he was outside working, but then again he was probably off fishing somewhere. I really need to call him, I told myself, though I’d told myself that several times in the last year and always forgot to. Burl passed away four days later, and I’ll always regret not taking the time to call, but even more, not making the time to spend with him in recent years.
The reverend at Burl’s funeral was a lifelong friend of his, and gave the perfect eulogy, telling us that while the sun has set for Burl in this life, really Burl’s sun is just rising. One day my sun will rise too, and it’s comforting to know Burl will be there waiting for me with fishing pole in hand, just like all those other mornings.