Tuesday, April 30, 2019

How to Score a Sucker and Where to Grab One

Spring suckers provide fine sport and good eating.

          Usually the yellow suckers run up the streams of the Ozarks earlier than this, but there is no strict timetable. Depending on water conditions, weather, and other factors you can find suckers shoaling in April and May if you look for them. Some friends of mine make a trip each year to the tributaries of Norfork Lake to grab suckers, and they have it down to a fine art, with perfect gear for grabbing, and grab hooks that are built with one large hook and a weight beneath it that makes the single hook sit up on the bottom.  That type of grabbing is sort of blind grabbing, like the paddlefish grabbers do.

          But when I was young, we found the suckers on clear shoals in the spring, preparing to spawn, and we simply used a big treble hook with a white rag tied to the line about eighteen inches in front of the hook.  When a sucker swam up to that white rag you gave a mighty jerk and if you were lucky, the fight was on.  Because you had to use a fairly stiff rod to jerk those hooks, the fight might not be the kind you expected from hooking a bass on a spinning rod.

In the old days, sucker grabbing in the spring allowed for a church or community fish fry.

         But the idea was to get a string of suckers to eat, and I am here to tell you, those spring ‘yaller suckers’ were delicious.  Of course you had to know about suckers to be able to eat them.  You removed the scales with a spoon, removed the head, entrails and tail, and then you had a big chunk of fish full of fine bones.  Fry it that way and you couldn’t eat it for the bones.  But Ozark sucker grabbers knew that you could eliminate the bone problem by ‘scoring’ the fish.  That meant you took a sharp thin-bladed knife and sliced through the meat on each side of the fish all the way to the backbone, making cuts from top to bottom every quarter inch or so.  That way, the bones were indiscernible.
there are lots of ways to grab yellow suckers in the spring    

         A few years back I was floating a stream in north Arkansas the first week in May and I came across a couple of fellows who had sucker grabbing fever.  They were sitting up over a shallow eddy below a shoal perched on sycamore limbs, grabbing suckers swimming below them.  The strung the fish they grabbed on a long stringer hanging into the water behind them.  I was catching smallmouth and releasing them, but I couldn’t help but want to join them.  They loaned me a treble-hook and I sat in my johnboat just below them and grabbed a half-dozen suckers to eat for super.

not many modern fishermen grab buffalo, or know how to prepare them to eat.

         A couple of springs back, I was floating another tributary to an Ozark lake trying to catch a walleye or two and some white bass, when I came onto a flowing tail waters below a shallow shoal that was teeming with spawning black buffalo.  I found the biggest lure in my tackle box and removed the treble hook and started whipping it through that water in an attempt to grab one of those fish, some as large as ten or twelve pounds.  It took awhile to get those small trebles to hook and hold, but when I finally hooked a six or seven pound buffalo I had a fight on that medium casting rod that was a real tussle.  It took an hour or so, but I had three in the boat before I laid into one of those 12 pounders and it broke my line.  While few fishermen know enough about the black buffalo to know how good they are to eat, I have learned a thing or two from old-time rivermen. When they use to talk about a feast on buffalo ribs in the springtime, they weren’t talking about the plains animals the mountain men ate.

What an odd spring it has been for us mushroom hunters who always eat too many of them and then wonder why they spent so much time hunting them.  I usually find a hundred or so morels in April and sometimes many more… enough to where I give away quite a few to some elderly folks who can’t get out and hunt them.  This year on two three-hour jaunts I found only about 60 or so in my area.  While in past years I have found morels in many habitats, including thickets, gravel bars and even cedar glades, this year I found not one morel that was more than a few feet from fairly large ash trees.

          The fascinating thing about nature is, nothing is ever the same, from one year to another.  I will find some more morels I think, this week up on Truman Lake, which, it seems, always has a good crop in late April or early May.  In northwest Ontario, which I will visit about the end of May, there will be some morels to be found as late as early June.  Those in Canada are twice the size of the average morel found in the Ozarks, but they taste the same.

         To contact me, write to P.O. Box 22 Bolivar, Mo 65613 or email lightninridge47@gmail.com  If I am not somewhere else, I am usually here in my office and can talk with you via phone, 417 777 5227.  That is the number to use to order one of my magazines or one of my books.

Friday, April 26, 2019

A Bad Time for Outdoor Decisions

         I have trouble this time of year!!  It drives me nuts trying to make a good decision about what to do tomorrow.

         My daughter Christy and I found about 50 nice morel mushrooms yesterday and she and Gloria Jean cooked them for supper with about two-dozen white bass filets. Two days ago I caught the white bass while hunting turkeys. That is, I boated up the river to a spot where wild turkeys rake the leaves along a pair of long wooded ridge tops. I had an old gobbler thundering his passion (what one outdoor writer referred to in place of the term ‘gobbling’) and coming to me slowly.  But it was all ruint when a stupid jake flew across the river and came up the hill behind me perkin’ and puttin’ and carrying on.

         I have seldom seen a jake gobbler (yearling) as big and pretty as he was, long legs, a four or five inch beard and a head of turquoise, white and blood red. I look at him and I calculate 18 pounds, which should amount to about eight or nine pounds of smoked turkey breast and wings. Let me say here that I get downright aggravated at these hunters who throw away turkey drumsticks just because they are full of ligaments. Boil the meat off the legs and throw away the bones and ligaments and you have some great dark meat to make a stroganoff dish or wild turkey and noodle soup.

         I see it this way… any hunter who throws away turkey legs cause his wife won’t boil the meat of turkey drumsticks, ought to get a new wife, learn to cook it himself or quit hunting wild turkey altogether.

         Anyway, I shot a nice six or seven inch diameter tree just this side of that beautiful jake’s head and he ran off.  So I went a couple miles up the river and caught some white bass, which some of you folks think aren’t much good to eat just because you don’t trim the red meat off the filets. I know there are a lot of daytime crappie fishermen who would rather catch crappie in the spring but I would rather fish for spawning white bass because one of them that weighs a pound and a half will outfight a six-pound crappie. If you want to enjoy a bent-rod, line-straining tussle, fish for white bass.

        Daytime crappie don’t get me too excited and I will tell you why… even though you probably wasn’t going to ask. I catch plenty of crappie, a whole year’s supply, in April and May, at night. At night with a pair of bright, submerged lights, we haul in the crappie and a few walleye with them, from lakes with clear water like Stockton, Bull Shoals and Norfork.

         If you have a pontoon boat on which you can spread out a sleeping bag and sleep late at night, you surely can get yourself a limit of crappie, and big ones too… 11 to 13 inches on Stockton, up to 15 or 16 inches in Bull Shoals and Norfork.

         Sometimes on my pontoon boat, I get out there about sunset and fix up some supper, set up a soft chair and fish straight down beside my lights with minnows or threadfin shad until one or two in the morning, feeling guilt at times because fishing shouldn’t be that easy.

         And in the dark, you can’t hardly tell my old ragged pontoon boat from a brand new one that I couldn’t begin to afford. And the crappie don’t seem to look down on old fashioned, somewhat poorer fishermen like me when they are assembling beneath those lights.

         But in late Aril and early May, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I hadn’t never seen a crappie or white bass, and didn’t care to. ‘Cause that’s when my dad would load up our old wooden johnboat and we would head for the upper half of the Big Piney River to fish for goggle-eye. Back then there was no wild turkey hunting to distract us, and though bass season was closed on the river, we’d hook some big old slab-sided smallmouth on regular occasions and turn ‘em loose figuring we get ‘em again in the summer and fall.

         The goggle-eye, which city folks call rock bass, were usually 9- to 11- inch fish back then and they would spawn in reasonably swift, flowing water at the end of shoals, usually no more than three or four feet deep. We used only one lure for them in the spring, hairy black or brown little jigs with bumble-bee bodies and a small spinner. The were called “shimmy-flies,” a fore-runner of the little plastic lures known as beetle spins, which began to appear in the 80’s.

         Back then goggle-eye were plentiful. Below one shoal you might catch 12 or 15 of them in a spot the size of a bathtub.  On down the Piney a ways, we would set trotlines for flathead catfish that would regularly weigh 20 or 30 pounds and every now and then, bigger.  And that is why I am so gosh-awful disgusted about spring… decisions, decisions, decisions.  And you might not believe this but I haven’t even mentioned the most Ozarkian method of spring fishing of all.  I will talk about that in next week’s column.  If you haven’t done all these things in the past few springs then it is likely easier for you to get through April than it is for me. I am looking forward to mid-summer when it gets up into the nineties so I can sleep awhile during the day and go bull-froggin’ and jitterbuggin’ in the cool of the night.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Time of Wild Gobblers


     I killed my first gobbler in 1970 or ’71, I think; an 18½-pound jake that gobbled for an hour just like an old ground-raker. That was also a first and last, because that was a BIG jake. I haven’t killed a juvenile gobbler since that would tip 18 pounds on the scales.

      A week or so later I got my first mature tom, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. I figured there wasn’t much to this turkey hunting business, and expected to get one every time I heard a gobble. In the years that followed, I learned about all the things that keep turkey hunters humble. Indeed, it is sometimes the easiest thing in the world to call in and kill a wild gobbler.  And then sometimes it seems next to impossible, no matter how much you know, or the amount of experience you have.

      A lack of patience was always my ruination; it still is today. A hunter who can sit still for two or three house and envision his gobbler only 70 or 80 yards away even after the gobbling has stopped is the hunter who will enjoy a great deal of success.  But me, I give up on one too quickly and figure there might be another old tom sounding off in another valley, just over the ridge.

      Positioning was another problem I had. It didn’t take long to learn that you didn’t sit in the sunlight, or hide behind a tree you had to peer around.
Somehow, a hunter has to hide where he can get the best opportunity to see the gobbler and shoot it. As simple as that sounds, it may be the most complicated part of turkey hunting.  If I hear one gobble close, I too often just plop down anywhere that offers some cover.

      After learning all these things, and overcoming the worst of my shortcomings to some degree, I found other mistakes to make.  For instance novice hunters hear a gobbler and very often try to get within 50 yards. It seems like a good idea because then you only have to call the tom 15 yards or so. But it seldom works, unless the wind is blowing very hard and there’s a large rock wall between hunter and turkey. They can spot a movement in the woods at unbelievable distances.  And they can tell whether or not it’s a hen turkey. If it is something else, they have no curiosity at all.  It is best to try to call the gobbler a bit farther and not risk making him suspicious by getting in too close.

      I am not going to tell you how many gobblers I have killed in the spring, but I will tell you that in those many years I worked as a turkey hunting guide I called in a lot of gobblers for clients, and quite a few for non-paying friends. I also called in a few that got spooked or got missed. I will never forget the time I saw an 8-inch hickory tree take a full load of number 6 shot as a gobbler stepped behind it, only 20 yards away. There are a hundred or so stories like that. I wrote a book entitled, “The Greatest Wild Gobblers, Lessons Learned from Old Timers and Old Toms.”  If you would like to find out where to find one, call my office and have Ms. Wiggins, the secretary, give you the information.
      In that book there is a chapter telling how you can make a little cedar box call that I have used all these many years, a call that you can make in 10 minutes or so. I’ve probably made a few hundred in the last several years, new ones each year for new gobblers.  It is a soft call you can’t hear a long way off, but gobblers can. Hunters who complain that they can call a gobbler from a half mile away but can’t get him to come the final 70 or 80 yards are almost always too loud, most using mouth calls.

      Other problems that new turkey hunters face include using 20-gauge or open-bore shotguns; a smoker’s cough; and the tendency to doze off when it gets warm and still on a beautiful spring morning.

       Many hunters who fail are hunters who like to sneak up on turkeys, or come in for breakfast at 9:30 in the morning. this time of year, plenty turkey hunting stories begin with, "I should've..." or 
    "If only..."
      They end with “next time…”

In the Ozarks this year there’s the problem of declining numbers of gobblers.  It has been happening now for six or seven years and it is serious.  Next week I will write about why I think it is happening.  In feeding and photographing winter turkeys all over for the past ten years, I have seen a real decline, in some areas where there were winter flocks holding ten or twelve mature gobblers, the number has dropped to three or four.  That is a tremendous drop in numbers.  But in this day and time, few turkey hunters, and few wildlife biologists, spend enough time outdoors to know it.  I hope it changes but I don’t think it will be any time soon.  Why?? More about that and what I think we should do about it, in next week’s column.

     Contact me via email, lightninridge47@gmail.com or call my office, 417 777 5227.  The mail address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613.  Read more material I write about conservation matters at larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com

White Bass


         When warming water starts running into Ozark reservoirs, thanks to the spring storms that rumble across southern Missouri every year, great schools of white bass will move into small tributaries where they will spawn. Sometimes it will last two or three weeks, sometimes more than a month.

        But it usually gets to going pretty well in late March or early April. They need lots of flowing water to really make a strong spring spawning run, and hit looks like there is plenty of water this spring.

         The white bass males are smaller fish as a rule, usually weighing only a pound or so, but the females will often weigh two, three or four pounds and they fight like tigers. The only thing that will compare to them pound for pound in our reservoirs is a smallmouth bass. Maybe to some, the white bass is not as good to eat as other fish, but they are more fun to catch, especially when you catch them on the light spinning gear that most people use.

         White bass lay their eggs just after sunset well into the night in small tributaries that flow into the reservoirs. I’ve seen them stacked in shallow, clear water by the hundreds, males and females thrashing against the current in the fading light. When actual spawning occurs and for some time afterward, they won’t hit anything. But when you catch the females getting ready to make that trip into the shoals, they’ll nearly tear the rod out of your hand.

         A fishing companion and I found them like that one spring many years ago in a very small tributary to the Long Creek arm of Table Rock Lake. We had spent the morning scouting the area in north Arkansas looking for, and listening for, wild turkeys.  It was the first few days of April and we planned to chase crappie that afternoon with perhaps more enthusiasm than we had for wild gobblers, which had been scarce, quiet or both.

         About two or three p.m., we backed my boat down the ramp near the Cricket Creek Marina, and were catching crappie in a very short time. We kept about 15 nice big slabs that afternoon, and released that many smaller ones. Eventually we worked our way back into the tip of the cove where you could see the small stream flowing in. There was a little rock bluff, some fairly deep water, and a few logs.

         I fastened the boat to a snag sticking up in the middle of the hole, and tied on a topwater rebel, hoping there’d be bass back toward the logs behind us and along the bank before us.

         There were, and as the shadows lengthened, we sat there uninterrupted by other fishermen, setting trebles into small-sized largemouth bass that would swirl beneath the topwater wobblers or slash across the still surface to engulf them. We were using light spinning gear with six pound line, and the bass, mostly 11, 12, or 13-inch fish, were affording us a great time before we released them.

         On occasion we would hook a 14 or 15-inch fish, but nothing bigger. Then as the sun began to set, I cast toward the small rock wall on the other side of the boat. I twitched the rebel, and worked it back at a brisk pace a foot or so beneath the surface. Only a few feet from the boat, I saw a broad silver side flash beneath the lure. I tied on a small shad-like crank bait and made several casts toward the rocky outcrop where the main creek channel coursed.

         Finally, as dusk crept over the lake, and spring peepers made music around us, the white bass became belligerent. A four- pounder hit savagely beside the boat and stripped line against the drag. My fishing partner tied on a new lure, and we pitched into the best white bass fishing I’ve ever seen.

         In no time the floor of the boat was alive with whites. We turned back smaller fish, which were few, and kept those from two pounds up. It was a constant flurry of activity, catching fish for an hour or so on almost every cast, straining the light rods against surging, underwater tigers. It slowed after dark, then stopped altogether. We had three, four-pound whites, one nearly 4½ . We weighed the six biggest fish at 23 pounds total.

         We were there the following evening, but the whites weren’t. I’m sure they did come back again that week, but the turkey season opened the next day and we headed south to the national forest with our attention turned to gobblers. But I haven’t forgotten that spot, and some spring day I’d like to go back to see if the descendants of those whites we caught years ago ever return to that little creek as the evening wanes.

         It was perhaps the best of the white bass fishing I have enjoyed over the years, but it is not uncommon to find big white bass back in a deep tributary-fed cove this time of year.  You have to look for them, and when you find them you’ll never find such action as those bigger females can provide.

Contact me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613 or email lightninridge47@gmail.com  Call our office to order either of my magazines, or one of my books.  That number is 417 777 5227.  I write some conservation articles which cannot be printed in newspapers. You may read them on my website… larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com