Saturday, June 27, 2020


Dennis Whiteside with hard-fighting smallmouth

      We first fished together fifty-some years ago, when we were teenagers in college.  He was from the Current River country around Doniphan, and I had never been far from the Big Piney.  Today Dennis Whiteside is becoming a very popular guide for those who want to float the rivers of the Ozarks to fish for smallmouth or just see the streams before they are only a shadow of what they were.  I still guide a little on Ozark rivers too, but not nearly as often as he does.

      We spent a day on the river a few years back when I did something I had never done… I sat in the front of a canoe made out of something like plastic, or Kevlar or some such nonsense.  We floated not far from you, and the fishing was poor...until about 11:00 a.m. and then it got very good.

      The price we had to pay for such memorable fishing was something lots of folks won't pay nowadays.... we had to endure some mid-day heat that was pretty intense. But despite the heat, there are deeper holes in that river which have hungry bass, and we found them. 
      There was one spot where we left the canoe and I cast below a flowing chute into a deep pool with an old-time black Heddon tadpoly.  I was using a spinning outfit with six pound line, and I felt a strike... missed him somehow.  On the third or fourth cast, something solid nailed it, and I set the hook hard.  I felt the fish lunge deep, and cross the current.  I leaned back on him a little too strong and he snapped the line, taking my tadpoly with him.

      Because I was doing so much moaning about losing the old lure, Dennis came up with the crawdad-looking jig and told me how much luck he had been having with it.   I tied it on my casting reel, with 12-pound line, and began to catch fish on almost every other cast.  Some weren't so big, but some were, and I sat up in front of his canoe and had a ball.

      I am seldom in the front of a canoe or johnboat.  I kidded Dennis about how, when we were young, I taught him how to paddle.  But some people figure it out easily and teach themselves, and they become experts at running any river.  With the days and days that Dennis spends all over the Ozarks on many, many rivers, with paying clients he's about as good as you can get.

      He wanted me to go along that day in that 18-foot, plastic canoe.  He said that it would float shallow, and slide over shoals that an aluminum craft would not easily navigate, something like the old wooden johnboats once did.  It is a far different canoe than the narrow, unstable 17-foot canoes so common on our streams today.  Whiteside's 18-footer is much wider and more stable.  It has no keel, and while that makes it float shallow water a little better, Dennis says that makes it difficult to hold in a wind, less capable of holding a true course because of the absence of the keel.

      From that first experience I had in his canoe, I figure there will be no metal river-floating crafts made in future years, they'll all be made out of plastic.  I would love to see some small river paddle johnboats made out of the stuff, to see how they'd do.  Or, if the companies just knew to put two small plastic keels along the bottom, and square off the stern, they could make an 18-foot canoe that would be great for serious fishermen and rivermen like Dennis and I who want to carry camping gear, camera's etc, and want stability over all else.

           Two days later we floated a long, long, 10-mile stretch of river in my 19-foot square-sterned Grumman and I did the paddling. At the end of the day, I had landed one 20-inch smallmouth and a dozen between 15 and 18-inches.  The fishing was great, but we worked hard for it, and had to paddle through much of the water just to get there by dark.

      The big smallmouth, long but much too slender, was probably short of four pounds, but not by much.  It hit that jig before I had a chance to touch my reel handle, slammed it and took off with it before it began to sink.  I fought it for quite awhile and then released it, as we did all the smallmouth.  As the streams of the Ozarks decline in water quality and begin to fill in, smallmouth become fewer and smaller. If you keep one, you should be ashamed of yourself. Same thing for rock bass. If you want to eat fish keep the Kentuckies (spotted bass) and green sunfish (black perch).

      But I kept a big channel catfish, which hit a small plastic grub about mid-day, and strained the spinning outfit I had gone back to at the time.  It was a fighter, but I got over to a gravel bar and landed it.  I figure it weighed about six pounds, and when I guess the weight of a fish, you can bet it won't weigh much more than that.  "Some things never change", Dennis pointed out, thinking he had never seen me underestimate a fish’s weight.  I reminded him that much HAD changed in more than fifty years. For instance, on that trip, he caught nearly as many fish as I did!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A Different Kind of Bait - MDC fish regulations need an overhaul

       I spent a few days on Truman Lake a couple of weeks ago living on my camp-boat. It is a hard-topped pontoon boat, custom-built for me with no furniture on it and attachable canvas-type cover with screened windows and doors built in.  On board I have attached small cabinets and a big box that holds cooking utensils and sleeping bags and air mattresses.  It is a great way to live in something like a camper on the water. I have taken it to several lakes in the Midwest and Canada and it is a great way to get back into the far corners of any kind of water, and be there at dawn and at dusk when the fishing seems to be the best.

     Crappie were spawning on Truman that week, and it wasn't hard to catch a limit. But I wasn't there for crappie. I knew of a small tributary to the lake that rainwater hd swollen to full flow, and it was swarming with white bass. the largest of them were averaging 15- to 16-inches in length. they wee hitting topwater lures and fighting like they thought they were smallmouth bass. I would rather catch a 15-inch white bass on a light action spinning outfit than a half dozen crappie that size. I love to catch them, and I know how easy it is to remove the red meat from a white bass filet so there is nothing left but pure white meat and great eating.

         There was the roar of outboard motors out on the lake, but I fished the small tributary all alone, watching nesting eagles and birds of all kinds, catching and releasing dozens of whites, keeping only the biggest ones.

         Some folks don’t seem to mind fishing in a crowd.  The trout parks show you that.  But I just want to be off somewhere by myself when I am outdoors. I don’t fish where others are fishing. Each evening that week I would return to my camp-boat with a limit of hefty white bass, and often had 18- to 20-inch hybrids in that number too.  I would filet them, and eat quite a few, and put the others on ice.   Out in the middle of a nearby cove, I dumped the cleanings into the lake.

         White bass are not very good to eat if you don’t skim off that layer of red meat between the white meat and the skin.  It is a thin layer and easy to remove with a sharp filet knife.  Then there is a strip of red meat in the center of the filet which I also remove.  That strip is a lot like a six-inch nightcrawler, and I got to thinking what a shame it is that it is thrown away when it appears to be tough enough to use as bait.  Fish and game laws forbid the use of game fish for bait, except for small-sized sunfish.  But if you have pieces of scrap from any fish like that red meat strip, why not use it.

         One night I set a trotline out in the cove for an experiment. With only 18 hooks, I baited half of them with rib cages and the other half with the red meat strips cut from the filets.  The next morning, the nine hooks with the ribs held no fish, but the ones baited with the red meat strips held seven catfish.  There were three smaller channel cat, three- to five- pounds and two small blues that were six- to eight-pounds.  Then there were two big blue catfish, a 40-incher and a 36-incher, pot-bellied and big enough to be a handful to land. 

         Because it was just an experiment and I didn’t have enough ice on board my camp-boat to keep catfish anyway I released them.  I do not know if it would be considered illegal to use the red meat discarded from the white bass as bait but it shouldn’t be, as it is discarded anyway.  I would like very much to trail that red meat strip behind a jig while fishing for bass or walleye.

         So many fish and game regulations are useless and outdated. There should be an overhaul of many of them.  How ridiculous it is that you can use sunfish species for bait only under a certain length.  How the heck does anyone think some of these regulations are going to be enforced with the way today’s agents work?  If you bait a trotline with sunfish a half-inch or an inch too long, no agent today will ever know it.

         People who obey the silliest of the game laws only do so because they want to follow the letter of the law and it is good to do that.  But those who do violate them, probably know they aren’t ever going to be caught.  There is no way a conservation agent could cite someone using that red strip of meat from a white bass unless they took samples to a laboratory to prove it wasn’t from a sucker or a shad or sunfish.  And I wonder why a whole 15-inch yellow sucker is legal for bait and a red strip from the filleted carcass of a white bass wouldn’t be.

         No one is going to use a crappie or walleye or bass for bait.  If you keep any of those fish, you do it to eat them, not use them for bait.  The remaining carcass of any fish ought to be used anyway it can be, rather than to feed over-populated buzzards! Or to pollute boat ramps. Plenty of anglers have learned that if you dump fish cleanings in a regular spot on any river or lake you will attract catfish. According to old laws, that is an illegal form of chumming.  In an earlier column (you can read it if you will scroll down), I about a kind of fish dumping that ought to be ended, but it goes on year after year.

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Lady, the Bass and the Memory

Katie Richardson and me

         It was one of the most beautiful smallmouth i ever saw… a deep chocolate brown, with a bulging belly full of eggs, and a length of 23 inches.  I know it was bigger than six-pounds but no one ever weighed it that I know of.  The photo of that enormous smallmouth is old, and it has been in hundreds of newspapers and magazines that have told its story.  I have used it to assure doubters that I really WAS guiding float fishermen on the Big Piney when I was only 12 years old.  There I was standing beside a pretty young lady by the name of Katie Richardson, holding up that big smallmouth while my mom took a Polaroid picture. 

         A couple of weeks ago, Katie Richardson passed away in Houston Missouri, survived by her two sons Joe Jr. and Ross and her favorite fishing guide…me.  Actually I was likely her ONLY fishing guide except for Joe.  I took them on a couple of float trips that year on the Piney.  On the first trip I dumped Joe into the river because we came upon a long limb in swift water that Katie and I could duck under but he couldn’t.  He never held that against me! For all his life I knew Joe Richardson.  He would come to all my swap meets and sometimes recall float trips he had taken with me back when I was a kid with a wooden johnboat and a sassafras paddle. 

         The big smallmouth that Katie Richardson caught was taken in late afternoon from a long stretch of deep flowing water with lots of big rocks and a high steep hillside to the west that shaded the water by two p.m.  It was known as the Ink Stand, just above one of the biggest and deepest eddies on the Piney, the Henry Hayes hole.  I guess the big brownie had come upstream from there looking for doughgut minnows, and when she saw that dark-colored midget-didget lure that was wobbling along on the end of Mrs. Richardson’s braided line she made perhaps the only mistake she had made in twenty years of patrolling the Piney’s clear waters. You could see the fish was a monster, and about all Katie could do was hang on.  Joe kept telling her to just let the fish fight and keep the line tight.  She did it right.

         I had no dip net, so I crunched the back end of my johnboat on the gravel bank behind us and got out in the water about waste deep.  I made a grab at the bass when it came by me the third or fourth time and got it. It was a miracle that a hook didn’t get caught in my jeans causing her to lose it.  Miracles sometime happen. 
         That day Joe gave me the biggest tip I had ever been given as a river guide.  But Katie Richardson’s smile was worth just as much.  She was a quiet, sweet lady I never will forget, though I don’t think I ever saw her again after that summer until a few years ago when I visited her and Joe in a nursing home in Houston and you know of course, that the big smallmouth came up.  Joe died soon after and now Katie has joined him, a great reunion in heaven I am sure.

I hope to gosh that I go to heaven too, 'cause I’d like to take her and Joe on another float trip on a river like the Big Piney was then, but never will be again.
In the years since that old photo was taken, I have taken hundreds of couples on river float trips on dozens of rivers in Missouri and Arkansas, but none ever caught a smallmouth close to that one. 

Once, I once caught a smallmouth bass from an Ozark river that almost weighed six- pounds.  She was 22 inches long and I put that big fish back in the water with no way to weigh it. I know that it was almost six pounds, but not quite.  I have caught only 2 or 3 from the Ozark streams that weighed better than 5 pounds, but I have caught several in Canada. Someone like me never knows what a smallmouth weighs because I never keep one out of the water more than a minute or so for a picture.  Back when I took Joe and Katy and others in the 1960’s no one ever turned back a bass caught on the river that weighed more than a pound.  Folks ate fish back then.

         It’s funny but there are quite a few smallmouth caught in Canadian Wilderness Lakes that will weigh six pounds and they are like bulging footballs that never reach a length greater than 20 inches.  But few people who catch them realize they were not in those Canada waters until they were stocked there about 120 years ago.  Ozark brown bass are longer and never as round. They are as native to Ozark streams as mink and muskrat.  But there are about half the number there were back when I was a kid, paddling Joe and Katy down the Piney.
         What memories I have when I look at that photo of me standing beside that pretty lady and the big bass, not realizing then how fast 60 years would go by.  This week I am going to float a river not far from my home, catch a few smallmouth and think about the time Katy fought the big bass and won, at a place where dark waters flowed, a place known then as the Ink Stand.