Sunday, July 1, 2018

Memories of Crooked Creek

Norten and I guiding Hee-Haw's Grandpa Jones (left) and his friend in 1975

         On my way to speak to a group in Mt. Home a few nights ago, I crossed Crooked Creek near Yellville.  For some reason it cause my heart to ache a little for another time.  I lived in north Arkansas for about 25 years, and Crooked Creek was a special place, the little river where I spent hours and hours, the best smallmouth stream I have ever cast a lure into.

         I first floated it in 1970-I think, or maybe it was ’71.  My dad came down from my hometown of Houston, Missouri and brought one of his wooden johnboats. We put in where the highway crosses the creek east of Yellville.  It was in April and the water was higher than normal and not at all clear—a green, wild little river that was full of brown bass, and shoals that required a floater to be efficient and careful.

          I had just taken the job of outdoor editor for the Arkansas Democrat newspaper in Little Rock, and eventually I would float all the streams of north and west Arkansas. Crooked Creek wasn’t all that scenic.  The bluffs weren’t high and the Missouri Big Piney I had grown up on put it to shame in beauty and volume of water.  But it didn’t compare to Crooked Creek when it came to catchable, hard fighting smallmouth.  And when it was bank full it was something of a rodeo ride because of the gradient, oramount of fall on the shoals.

          I looked through old black and white photos the other day showing my dad and I and other friends from those days, and that has a lot to do with the longing for those earlier times.  As I wrote about it, and the populations of north Arkansas grew in Harrison and Mt. Home, the fishing began to fade.  The gravel companies helped to fill many of the deep holes, and habitat for the big bass began to disappear.   A railroad runs alongside much of Crooked Creek, and I think it was in the 1980’s that a derailment emptied a chemical into the river and killed thousands of fish.

         I have learned not to go home again.  The upper Big Piney I knew is a wisp of what it was, and Crooked Creek, still a good stream to fish, doesn’t have the deep holes and 4 to 5 pound smallmouth I saw and caught in the seventies.

        My Uncle Norten floated it in the 1950’s, usually guiding other fishermen. In his book, “Ridge-Runner” he talks about an old man he grew to love, who considered Norten to be his personal fishing guide.  If you haven’t read his book, you need to get it.  The old fisherman he spent so many years guiding had never caught a bon-fide 5-pound smallmouth.  On his last fishing trip he caught one late in the day, and died shortly afterward.

         Uncle Norten and I guided fishermen together on most all of those Arkansas streams, the Kings, War Eagle, Illinois and Buffalo, to name a few.  They were all exceptional streams back then in the seventies and eighties, but when it came to big smallmouth, none equaled Crooked Creek.  I think I caught several 5-pound bass from the stream, but who knows?  I never kept any and never weighed any.  But I’ll bet, over the years and a hundred fishing trips, I caught a hundred bass twenty inches or longer, and 3 that were more than 22 inches.

         One old photo I found from 1975, I think, was of Norten and me and country music legend Grandpa Jones.  That day is a story in itself, as quite often Grandpa Jones sang as he fished and big tears rolled down his face.  He was having a hard time getting over the death of his old-time fishing buddy from the Hee-Haw television show, known as ‘String-Bean, who, along with his wife, had been murdered at their home outside Nashville.

         I hesitate to float the streams from the day when we used those wooden johnboats and the very first Grumman square-sterned canoes we obtained in the late seventies. After Don Tyson and his chicken-gut plants ruined the Kings and War Eagle and after the water levels began to drop on most all of them, it has been a hard thing to go back and be depressed by what they have become.

        But I have an old friend from Harrison who fished the Creek with me often, and I intend to make perhaps one last trip down Crooked Creek with him, stop on a gravel bar and talk about the good ol’ days.  And maybe we won’t catch as many big smallmouth as we did back then, but I will bet a dollar I land just one that is 3 pounds or better!  Just one will be enough.

        You can read a bunch of great old time fishing stories in Uncle Norten’s book.  Of the ten I have published, his outsells them all.  Much of it is about his time at Bastogne, as a 101st Airborne Paratrooper who was a war hero, in my book. 

         In 2001 as I recall, he was given a commendation by Major General David Petraeus, who invited us to Ft. Campbell Kentucky just before he and his troops went to Iraq.  Petraeus also put Uncle Norten’s photo on what they call the Wall of Fame for the 101st Airborne’s World War Two 327th division, actually nearly wiped out at Bastogne Belgium.
Significant…?  There are only 26 paratroopers on that wall.  Norten was the 26th one.

         But the book covers nearly 70 years of guiding float-fishermen in the Ozarks, and the great stories that go with that. It is filled with laughter!  He started when he was 11 years old on the Big Piney and made his last trip on the Niangua River when he was 88.  He was in great health at that age and could have had more years on the river but for a state agency known as Social Services, who helped his wife and his own brother put him away and claim his bank account.

         But that is another story too, to be told in another book sometime perhaps. If you want to read a book you can’t put down, call me and I will tell you how to obtain a copy of ‘Ridge-Runner’, 324 pages recording an unbelievable life … another time in History. I still have several that are numbered and signed by my Uncle, before he died in 2013. That phone number is 417-777-5227.  My email is… mailing address Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613

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