Saturday, July 15, 2017

Advice for a Lunker Seeker

 In the middle of a dark summer night, another hefty brownie falls victim to a jitterbug.
       In this very column I am fixin’ to tell all you fishermen how to catch a five-pound smallmouth and three or four seven-pound largemouth on the same fishing trip, so if that interests you, keep reading.

       This is prompted by a phone call I got last spring. A fellow from a group calling itself ‘the smallmouth alliance’ called me recently and asked me if I was still guiding float fishermen on Ozark rivers.  I do that on a limited basis, and a friend of mine, Dennis Whiteside, guides river fishermen on a weekly basis, all over Missouri and Arkansas.

“I want to catch a smallmouth between four and five pounds, just once,” he said, “and I have been told you are the one who can help me do it.”

       Most readers know I come from a river family, and began guiding float fishermen who were mainly after smallmouth bass, when I was only 12 years old.  I was following in the footsteps of my grandfather, father and uncles on the Big Piney River.  Dad and Grandpa made the wooden johnboats and I put them to good use at a young age.

       On Ozarks streams in my lifetime I have caught lots of four-pound smallmouth.  In those years gone by I have only landed two bona-fide five-pound brownies myself, one from Crooked Creek in Arkansas and one from the Niangua.  They were just a couple ounces over five pounds.

I think I had one on the Kings River in Arkansas once that would have weighed five pounds that I released in the early 1980’s.

       But when I was about thirteen, I paddled Joe and Katy Richardson down the Big Piney, and in a long stretch of shaded swift water that local folks referred to as the Ink Stand, Mrs. Richardson hooked into biggest Ozark river smallmouth I have ever seen. We had no net but I got out in knee-deep water and got ahold of its lower lip. I don’t know which of the three of us was more excited.  That was the only bona-fide six-pound smallmouth I have ever seen taken from an Ozark river by rod and reel.

       Grandpa and I caught one nearly that large one late summer night at a place called the Peaked Rock eddy, on a trotline.  Completely against his nature, Grandpa talked me into letting it go, thinking it was bad luck to keep a bass on a trotline if you were after 30 or 40 pound flatheads.  Years later, I wrote an article about that night and the big smallmouth I released.  Outdoor Life magazine published it, in 1974 I think.

       But that doesn’t answer the question of how to catch a four to five pound brownie in the Ozarks.  It can be done, but the odds are against it.  Our rivers are a shell of what they were 30 or 40 years ago when I regularly saw big bass taken during the day.  Those deep holes are filled in so much, and fishing pressure is so great that four pound smallmouth, say in a river like the Niangua or Crooked Creek, are probably five percent or less of the number found in 1974.  I know… I was there!   I probably saw those rivers, floated and fished them,  before smallmouth alliance members or today’s fisheries biologists were born.

      But I am sure that this week or next, even into August, I can catch a five-pound smallmouth or a few seven-pound largemouth.  I would do it on some little isolated lake up in the Lake of the Woods area of Northwestern Ontario.  I would take my tent and fishing gear and camping supplies and have my friend Tinker Helseth, a bush pilot from Nestor Falls, fly me in to those places where there are no lodges and no cabins and no fishermen.  He has one such nameless lake where he flew a small boat in, strapped to his airplane’s pontoon.  One day on that lake a friend and I caught about fifty largemouth that were all less than 2 pounds.  That night in the darkness we fished with a jitterbug and caught lunkers one after another.  None exceeded seven pounds by much, because up there, largemouth bass don’t get any bigger than that.  In Canada, largemouth and smallmouth seldom thrive together in the same lakes.  Smallmouth, which are an introduced species, take over and crowd out the native largemouth.

       There are many more small wilderness lakes today where you can find the smallmouth, and likewise, in the heat of July and August you most likely won’t catch any really big ones.  But if you will pitch a tent on a windy, barren rock point where the mosquitoes get carried off on any breeze, you sleep until after sundown, then paddle along the shores fishing that jitterbug.  If you can handle that kind of fishing until first light, which comes a little after three a.m., you have a better than 50-50 chance to catch that five pound, or maybe six-pound smallmouth.  To tell the truth, I would give my left ear to be up there in early August.  My left ear is of little value, since my hair covers it anyway!

       You have to use strong line and a steel leader, because sometimes a 30- or 40-pound muskie will target your jitterbug.  That happened to my dad once when I took him to Canada on a night-fishing jitterbug outing.  He said that when the musky clobbered the jitterbug along the shore in the twilight, he thought briefly that Canada might have alligators!  Dad didn’t land that muskie but he did catch smallmouth bigger than any he had landed on the Big Piney.

       In my summer issue of the Lightnin’ Ridge outdoor magazine, you can read all about fishing the jitterbug in the Ozarks at night, but it isn’t easy to do unless you are an experienced ‘casting-gear’ angler. Forget doing that with spinning gear.  It takes an effort most of today’s fishermen won’t make.  There are lots of things to hang up on in the dark, and some snakes and bugs, etc.  And big smallmouth at night concentrate in a certain kind of water you have to know how to find.

       So I told the fellow who called, to get back to me in the dead of summer and we’d go to Canada and fulfill his dream, if he can handle the discomfort of it all, and the cost.  If not we will camp on an Ozark river gravel bar somewhere, fish all night and pray for a miracle!

You may call our office to get one of my books or the new magazine… 417-777=5227. Or email me at  Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, MO. 65163.

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