Saturday, August 6, 2016

Where the Status Quo Won’t Work

 This photo was taken in 1975 on the Big Piney.  The eddy below this senseless raping of the watershed was about 8 feet deep then.  Today it is less than half that.

         In Arkansas just the other day I talked to a friend of mine who is a bass-fishing nut, and all around outdoorsman.  Larry Davenport runs the Buffalo Point Restaurant high above the Buffalo River.  He grew up there. We got around to talking about Crooked Creek which flows from the Ozark Mountains south of Harrison into the White River southeast of Yellville.

         I first saw that smallmouth fishing paradise in 1972, after hearing so much about it from Uncle Norten, who began guiding fishermen there in the 1950’s.   It was everything he said it was, eddies deep and clear; the shoals rough and tumble waters where smallmouth fed. 

         Back then, I floated all the Arkansas rivers, the Buffalo, Kings, War Eagle, Illinois, Eleven Point and many more.  Uncle Norten and I guided folks on some of them during from the late seventies until 1990.   But I will tell you right now, as great and as unique as each of them were, Crooked Creek, not spectacular in terms of bluffs or scenic grandeur, beat them all as a ‘big smallmouth’ stream.

         Today it still has smallmouth, but it is a shell of the river I remember, because it has been so badly filled in with sand and gravel, and subject to unchecked pollution in the eighties and nineties.  A chemical spill there from train derailment right above the water devastated the lower portion about 40 years ago.

         Davenport thinks many of the once-deep eddies could be like they once were if the gravel could be removed.  Unrestricted gravel dredging operations back some time ago surely made the filling-in problem a major one, but it isn’t the only reason Crooked Creeks eddies often went from 10 feet deep to 3 feet deep. 

         The clearing of trees and brush along small tributaries and the river itself contributed mightily.  You cannot turn a timbered bottomland watershed into bulldozed and barren flat without having tremendous erosion over the years. That’s exactly what has happened.  Much of the silt and gravel came from places where there were never any gravel operations. 

         And for that reason, Davenport is exactly right, if you could bring in a big dredge line of some sort and take the gravel and sand and silt out of 10 or 12 big holes you would see those eddies support some big bass again and lots more of all kinds of aquatic life… but in time they would fill back in from the massive flooding Crooked Creek sees quite often.

         The Ozark watershed of a hundred years ago was a sponge that soaked up heavy rains, because of the timber. Layers of leaves made a soft forest floor that slowed and held water.  Today the Ozarks, almost all of it, is a brick.  Hard cattle-trod fields sit on slopes, and there is increasing pavement and concrete likely covering ten times what we had in 1970.  And that’s why stopping the gravel companies from reeking havoc along the stream didn’t stop the degradation of that unbelievable river.

         But what Larry Davenport theorizes, ought to be tried, not only on Crooked Creek but many other rivers.  While Tyson’s chicken operations have fouled Arkansas’ Illinois, Kings and War Eagle, there are other rivers where it could be attempted.  The Big Piney and the Niangua in Missouri, the Eleven Point in Arkansas.  The removal of fill-in gravel and silt ought to be tried as an experiment.  What could it hurt now?

         My close friend Dennis Whiteside was floating rivers with me in an old johnboat when we were college kids, only 18 years old. He grew up on the Current River and he knows the streams and smallmouth bass like no man I ever knew except my Uncle Norten.  That’s because he is doing exactly what Norten did, guiding folks year round, who want to fish or otherwise see the rivers before they are ruined forever.  As many streams as I have floated, Dennis has floated twice as many, and he can tell you all about them… dozens and dozens of creeks and rivers from tributaries of the Arkansas River to tributaries of the Missouri.

         “Tell me something the Ozarks has that is of greater value than it’s rivers,” he says.  “Men can make almost anything, but not a river.” 

         When you set somewhere and see a bluff towering up above a stretch of flowing, tumbling water where a big smallmouth and a half dozen rock bass may lurk, when you see and hear kingfishers in a majestic white sycamore, where a mink plays along it’s roots, what can we boast of here in these hills that is better? Why aren’t we doing everything we can do to stop the abuse that is killing them?

         Dennis and another long time friend who floats rivers all over the nation went to a meeting about smallmouth held by Missouri Department of Conservation biologists last year.  They came back very despondent.

         “They have no clue!” Dennis said, “They want to base everything on some study they had on a few miles of one stream.  They just haven’t ‘been there’ and ‘done that’.”

         Dennis points out that in the course of a year, if he and I concentrate on a few good holes of water in a small to medium stream like Crooked Creek, we could catch and keep every smallmouth above 14 inches.  NOT MOST--ALL!
People like us who are dedicated to rivers and smallmouth have the answer biologists won’t even consider…  keep no smallmouth ever, from any stream, that exceed 13 inches, and a limit of two.          

         If you just have to have fish to eat, keep green sunfish, catfish, largemouth and Kentucky bass, but keep no smallmouth above 13-inches and no rock bass at all.
A smallmouth bass from an Ozark river is poor eating.  The flavor doesn’t compare to other fish and most have yellow grubs in the meat.  If you take out someone from the city who hasn’t caught many fish, he might clean and fry a smallmouth filet.  But show him those yellow grubs, which are sometimes a dozen or more per 6-inch filet, and he will likely decide he doesn’t want it.

         Another solution is seeing the Conservation Department work with cattlemen to keep cattle out of the river and to stop the worst of the bank erosion with rip rap and willows, and a buffer strip of native grasses and planted trees.

         A federal program helps landowners along the river practice these conservation measures by paying for the planting, fencing and drilled wells to water stock.  The catch is, the Soil Conservation Service must wait until it is all finished to reimburse the landowner and most landowners can’t afford the initial expense.

         If the Conservation Departments in Missouri and Arkansas paid for it all up front, many landowners would try this, and the Departments would only be out that money for a short time before the SCS reimburses them.  Missouri’s Department of Conservation has nearly 200 million a year to work with and vast amounts of that money which all Missourians pay them in licenses and taxes is wasted, much of it spent for almost nothing. Recently they paid a retiring employee who was a close friend of the director 145,000 dollars to write a book about rivers.  It will never be written.  You could take that wasted money and repair miles of river somewhere where it is most needed.

         A neighbor of mine, Jim Hacker, has used this program to do preserve a mile or so of river along the Pomme de Terre. On that river, cattleman David Cribbs saw a place along his land where the river was eroding barren bank several feet a year, so he used discarded concrete slabs and huge chunks of cement to stop it.  Now you can scarcely see the concrete, as willows and other plants have hidden it, and the riverbank is stable in the worst of floods.

         To see the best of this, go look at the once-terribly eroded banks above the big new bridge at Galena on the James River and see what was done to stop it cold. Oh yes, it can be done! Saving our rivers is possible, but we need to want to do it.

         Whiteside was right, the Ozarks has nothing compared to our rivers, and in a matter of years our over-used, over-fished, much neglected streams will be nothing to boast about.  Changing what is coming to them will take some money… but they are worth it.

         If you want to learn more about Ozark streams, I would encourage you to read my book, “Rivers to Run—Swift water, Sycamores and Smallmouth Bass”.  To find out how to get a copy, call my office, 417-777-5227 or email

This photo was taken in 1975 on the Big Piney.  The eddy below this senseless raping of the watershed was about 8 feet deep then.  Today it is less than half that.

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