Friday, February 14, 2020

An Old-Timers Walleye Story

         Back in the seventies, when I was working as an outdoor columnist for the Arkansas Democrat, I became involved in the Greer’s Ferry Walleye Tournament, which took place in late February and March.  They offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could catch a world record walleye.  I got to know some great people up there, good fishermen and honest enough to do it right.

         Of course, when they found out that the world record walleye reported years earlier was a complete hoax, they found out that the world record actually HAD BEEN caught from Greer’s Ferry during one of those spring events by a man named Nelson.  He never did get his million dollars!

         But one of those years I was up at Clinton, Arkansas in late February having coffee in one of those little restaurants where old men gather and they were talking about Big Ed Claiborne’s 19-pound walleye caught the week before.  I was only 24 years old.  That brought a few smiles from those old-timers who read my outdoor columns and knew that, as yet, this kid from the Big Piney up in Missouri had yet to catch even one walleye.  Most of them had caught hundreds of those glassy-eyed ‘jack salmon’. 

         After most of them had gone that morning one old-timer said he would tell me a story if I would promise not to write about it.  I promised, and listened and now almost 50 years later, I am going to break that promise.  He said that the big walleye out of Greer’s Ferry went up the Little Red River in February, preparing to spawn.  He said there are two baits they love more than anything, big night-crawlers and small bluegills.

         “If’n you go up that river and set yourself a half dozen trotlines for catfish, well that’s all legal.  You just bait up one that has 5 or 6 hooks in a little hole across the deep water below a shoal.  Then you do the same thing up in the next hole below the creek riffles and the same thing up in the next ones ‘til you’ve set all the trotline hooks what’s legal an’ tagged ‘em like the game wardens want it done.”

         He slurped a big cup of coffee and hunched over closer to me and said, as if he were afraid someone else might hear…. “You know when them fisheries biologist was up there shockin’ walleye in the Li’l Red at night last year an’ they caught that big hen walleye that you run a pitcher of in yore newspaper?”

         I nodded… they said they figured the walleye they had shocked, photographed and released might have weighed 24 pounds. “Well sir, that there walleye was caught on one of my trotlines.” he said, “And they found ‘er.”

         As to whether or not he was telling the truth I don’t know, but that old guy ate a lot of walleye.  On many of the reservoirs in Missouri and Kansas, the same thing could be done, and a fisherman who started catching the smaller male walleye could surely figure out what pool the females were coming too soon afterward.  You cannot legally fish for walleye at night in the spawning period, but you can set your lines in the afternoon, run them in the morning and keep the catfish, or the walleye, that you catch.  Not very sporting but some fishermen like to eat walleye, not caring how they are caught.  Up one river I know of, fish traps are already being used.  Conservation agents waiting downriver in their pickups, looking for some kind of technical violations, will never find them.

         Walleye spawning runs are beginning, and I intend to go to my favorite places in various tributaries to catch a few very soon.  My best days are the days with no sunlight, overcast and dreary, because a walleye’s eyes are sensitive to sunlight.  I’ll fish vertically in deep pools below shoals, with light- blue or blue-green half-ounce jigs, having big hooks tipped with night crawlers or chubs.  But the old fellow back then was right, you wouldn’t need the jigs if you found a few small bluegill you could set out there on the bottom with a half ounce of weight about two feet up the line.  

         And while it is indeed against the law to fish for walleye at night, you can motor up the river, or paddle down it, and shine a light into the deep waters looking for a rod and reel you have recently lost, and you’ll see the congregating walleye by shining their eyes.  Then you might know where some are the next day.  Be darn sure if you do that, you have no fishing gear in your boat, because that is a technicality that a pair of wardens, waiting somewhere in their pickup, can use.

         It isn’t that you cannot fish at night for catfish or crappie, but if you catch a walleye in darkness, you darn sure better release it.  And in an Ozark river, you cannot keep a bass in March, April, or May; no matter what time of day you hook it. 

         To contact me, email or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo.  If you would like to reserve a free table at our big outdoor swap meet on Saturday, March 21 at Bolivar, just notify me, or call my office, 417-777-5227.  This year we have nearly 10,000 square feet available free… for vendors.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Making Memories

       It’s a sad time… duck season has ended. I can switch to something else quickly if the weather stays nice enough to make the walleye begin to move earlier.  But the past week was one of great enjoyment to me as my old Labrador and I walked miles of river, jump shooting mallards and gadwalls from backwaters and sloughs.  Old Bolt is going to be 10 years old this spring and he can barely see out of one eye.  But he got to retrieve several ducks in the past three or four days of the season.

       I can’t explain, to someone who has never owned hunting dogs, the love you can develop for a Labrador.  Bolt sleeps beside my bed, dozes beside my desk when I write, and rides in my pickup wherever I go.  He sits in my boat while I fish, and chases squirrels away from the corn feeder.  Then he sneaks back and eats more corn than they would.

       And there I was at a small pothole last week watching an old drake mallard that was just out of gun range, wishing I could get a shot at him so Bolt could retrieve him.  Then I heard it, and he did too, that unmistakable sound of wind sliding over wings as ducks drop down through tree branches.  And there they were, right out before us, a drake and hen mallard, with their red feet extended toward the water below them.  I had an easy shot and the emerald-headed drake folded neatly into the middle of the slough.  

       Normally I do not kill hens of any species, but this was a perfect way for Bolt to make a double retrieve, and I couldn’t pass it up.  He charged down to the waters edge, and I knew he couldn’t see the two mallards kicking at the sky before him. So I looked for a rock, and couldn’t find any.  I took a small stick and threw it out in the middle, and he headed for the sound of the splash at my command. His nose did the rest.  We sat there at the edge of the pothole, with me telling him what a great job he had done, hugging his wet neck and relishing the moment.  There have been lots and lots of moments like that, and it hurts to know there may not be anymore.  I dearly love that old dog, as I did his father and grandfather and great grandfather in years gone by.

       And I looked to the sky and thanked God for that moment in time, and the blessing he has given me to be able to roam the valleys and the hills, still, as I have done for so long.  I go slower, but the amount of ground I cover isn’t important. At a slower pace, you see more. We have a lot of ducks to eat this spring, and lots of photos to keep the memories fresh.  Before the week was out Bolt retrieved more greenheads and a gadwall drake from ponds and sloughs along the river, and I had days when I hated to see the night come.  But even though the season has ended, I intend to shoot some more ducks, as I said, with old Bolt by my side.  This time it will be with a camera.

       I wrote an article decades ago about Bolts great grandfather, a big frisky chocolate Labrador I called Rambunctious.  It was entitled, The Best There Ever Was, and you can read it and many other duck hunting stories in my book, “Memories From a Misty Morning Marsh”.  If it isn’t in your local library, call me and I can tell you where you can find it.  The gist of that story was Rambunctious’ last hunt and final retrieve.  It was a long time ago and I never thought then about my last hunt someday.  This week, roaming the river bottoms, I started to think about that.  You can thank the Creator at such times for the day, the dogs and the ducks, and not worry about what hunt might be your last, and what memory is the final one. I figure on lots more miles of wooded valleys to walk, more hills to climb and more rivers to paddle down, either here or in heaven. 


       Some of what I have come across in the woods miles from nowhere is amazing.  This past week I sat down on a stump in a little wooded knoll over the river and there in the ground beside me was a flat rock nearly covered by soil.  There was an inscription in it, it was tombstone of a lady who had been born, according to the crude etching, in 1820 and died in 1843.  Her name was Mallala Moore Williams. Looking around and found about three or four more such stones. 

One was of a man named Williams, born in 1798 and died in 1851.  One was a civil war soldier headstone saying 28th Illinois Regiment.  His name was Wellington Bailey. 

       Five or six small headstones were unmarked, likely children’s graves.  I sat there for awhile as Bolt rested and dozed.  How I would have loved to be able to see them and how they lived.  Maybe we are living in the best of times, and then again... Maybe we ain't.  What might that river below have looked like when our nation was only 30 or 40 years old? Wish I could have seen it then.