I went back to Texas County last week for a class reunion at Houston High School. I graduated from there and went off to School of the Ozarks college when I was only seventeen, but returned often to visit my parents and hunt and fish the Big Piney, where I had once guided fishermen in an old wooden johnboat.
While there I stopped by to visit Joe and Katy Richardson. When I was about twelve-years-old I took them on a day-long float trip which was my first professional guide trip. A guide had to purchase a guide’s license, and I was so proud of that piece of paper that said I was a river guide, as my dad and grandfather and uncles had been.
I got paid fifty cents an hour back then, and Joe gave me a good tip at the end of the float trip. He had good reason to! That day, in a long swift stretch of deep dark water, at a place along the river which all the rivermen called ‘The Ink Stand’, Mrs. Richardson caught a genuine, bona-fide six-pound smallmouth on a Heddon River Runt. We had no net, and she couldn’t lift the big fish into the boat so I waded out into the current and grabbed it when it finally tired.
Do you know that I have guided hundreds of fishermen on at least a fifteen different Ozark streams on hundreds of float trips in Missouri and Arkansas in the fifty years since then, and have never see a smallmouth that big caught by anyone? It was 24- inches long and nearly black in color.
Mrs. Richardson with her six pound smallmouth, biggest one I've ever seen from an Ozark river.
The Piney is a far cry from what it was when I was a boy. The Ink Stand isn’t deep and dark current any more. Like all Ozark rivers, the Piney is filled in and polluted from a dozen sources, and still, it has smallmouth and goggle-eye on the lower reaches of the river. If you didn’t see it a half century ago, you wouldn’t know what has happened to it, and likely wouldn’t care.
Most folks who float it don’t seriously fish it any more and I am sure it has been at least 40 years since a wooden johnboat sat upon it’s waters. While I was in Houston, a man by the name of Don Kern came by and gave me a gift that means a great deal to me. His father had lived on the Piney decades back and he and my Uncle Norten fished together often. Norten had given him a little sassafras boat paddle that my grandfather had made for him in 1932, when my uncle was a little nine-year old river-rat. Don Kern gave it to me, knowing full well he could have sold it for a hundred dollars or more. It is priceless to me, and it will go above my fireplace mantle soon.
A miniature sassafras boat paddle given to me last week by a Big Piney resident. It was made for my uncle by my grandfather in 1932.
I got to share some memories with my cousin and visit with the Morton family that attended our church way back there. Their son, Roy Wayne, was with them and he and I spent many a day and night on the Big Piney. Roy Wayne was with me when I got struck by lightning one evening fleeing from a fast approaching storm, and he was in the boat with me when I nearly drowned in the middle of the night, running a trotline. I got hooked and entangled in the weighted line and fell out of the boat. That was a close one. He was also with me one night in early summer when a tornado bore down on the Big Piney and we sought refuge at the house of an old, old man named Squire Lee. He was asleep, and annoyed, but he told us just to take refuge in his barn. Roy and I still remember exactly what he said that night. “Don’t worry boys,” he told us, “if yer gonna die, yer gonna die… if ya ain’t, ya ain’t.”
I am anxious to head for Canada this week. I will fish on Lake of the Woods, and fly to some wilderness lakes with my old friend, Tinker Helseth, an outfitter, pilot and guide. Tinker is a third generation guide in the Nestor Falls area, one of the best outdoorsmen I ever knew. I should come back with some great stories for my magazine, “The Lightnin’ Ridge Outdoor Journal” and this column. Mostly it will be a fishing trip, but I also hope to hunt ducks and ruffed grouse. If it weren’t for family, I wouldn’t ever come back.
I have had a lot of questions from readers who saw the column I wrote about the underprivileged kids-fatherless boys-wilderness retreat I am trying to establish on a creek about 40 miles north of Springfield. Yes, the cabins and all facilities there will be free for any counselors who want to bring kids there, and it is ready now for this fall. I intend to make it available to anyone who wants to bring a group of kids to spend a day or several days. And yes, we have much work to do to prepare trails, create a sports field, set up a shooting range and an archery range.
Anyone or any group of people who wants to come to help build trails or work on the sports field is welcome. I will set up a couple of work days when I know there are no threats from copperheads, and when the ticks are all froze. I will say again, no one is going to make any money out of this, but once a year we will have a fish fry there on the grounds to help raise money to pay for the annual electricity and insurance bill. We do need a lawyer we are willing to pay. I just want a lawyer who has a great deal of interest in this type of project and who wants to help underprivileged children. If you know one like that, tell me who it is.
Over time, we are going to make a difference in the lives of a lot of boys. I want to change some of them from young men whose destiny is alcohol, drugs and prison to young men who believe in themselves and their future, and become good citizens, husbands and fathers. This wilderness retreat, with a creek and about 90 acres, a large house, barn and two cabins, can’t be a complete answer for all, but it can be a strong influence for some boys or girls who need help.
One of the darndest things…it has a cold flowing artesian spring. What a trout fishing pool that can make for kids! That’s something we’ll need lots of help with this winter, but I hope to have it working by fall.
You can write me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My office number is 417 777 5227