Thursday, October 28, 2021

An Underwater World




       What a wonderful time it is to be outdoors… as the temperature cools and all of nature seems painted by the Master Artist’s brush. Finally the darn spider webs are gone from woodland trails. If you find a place to walk through a real forest, unmarred by the hands of man, you cannot help but have your spirits lifted.          

    There isn’t a therapist in the world who can give a man answers to his problems which compare to those he can find alone, walking through a woodland in October, or drifting down a river, eyes and ears and nose tuned to a world where everything is as the creator made it.



       A few years back, I wrote about gigging in Ozark rivers, and mentioned seeing river redhorse suckers between 10 and 15 pounds as a boy.  Shortly afterward I received this letter from someone by the name of Brown.

-----“Like Ronald Reagan said ‘There you go again’! The state record red horse is just over 8 pounds. But you’ve seen 10-15 pounders? Ha ha ha ha ha!  Man are you full of it!… yuk yuk yuk.” ----

       Mr. Brown is convinced the book he has is the last word in the subject, but there are many of us who actually spent time on our rivers 60 years ago and saw much larger river redhorse.  In William L. Pflieger’s book, “The Fishes of Missouri,” he writes this about the river redhorse…, “length and weight in Missouri streams seldom exceeds 26.1 and 8.25 pounds now, but the present state fishing record is 17 pounds.”

Mr. Brown is guilty of what so many of our present-day biologists and overnight naturalists are guilty of… relying on whatever book they have read, and not spending enough time outdoors… not having been there. I have been there!!! I grew up using those books too, but also spending enough time outdoors to see and learn things on my own.  Natural history books are not always accurate, nor are present day wildlife biologists. For whatever reason, while we have smaller individuals of that species still fairly abundant in some rivers, those big, river redhorse suckers do not exist anymore.  But they did once, and believe me, there was a time when even larger specimens than that recorded 17-pounder swam in our Ozark rivers. My grandfather gigged many of those big ones, and I saw them… and ate them. Anyway, thanks for the letter Mr. Brown, I hope you have learned something today… yuk, yuk, yuk.


Anyone who wants to know about the outdoors has to spend a great deal of time in the woods and on the waters! When it comes to the outdoors and fish and wildlife, the books and the Internet are often wrong, as in this case.  There are five different redhorse sucker species in Ozark streams, and the largest is the river redhorse.  Who knows what happened to the river redhorse that we knew fifty or sixty years ago? They were a fish with average weights way above 8 pounds. Maybe it is the declining quality of our streams, maybe it is an inherited genetic defect, maybe it was over-harvesting. 

       William Pflieger was one of the best fisheries biologists Missouri ever had. He started working for the Missouri Conservation Commission in 1961, and first published his book in 1975.  He worked with some of the best, biologists Otto Fajen, Fred Vasey and George Fleener, to compile the information found in the book.  If you are interested in fish, it is a book you need to get ahold of.  That was a different state agency than we have today.  The name of the agency was different and the men who worked for them were different, and the goals were different as well.


In the night, beneath bright lights, the bottom of an Ozark river was once a fascinating world of many creatures, and seeing it was absolutely amazing.  I saw the rivers when the gravel hadn’t filled the deep eddies, and the big rocks and underwater caves could still be seen.  Back then, you didn’t see the slime and algae there is today.  Even golden redhorse, black redhorse suckers, and hog-molly suckers were so much bigger and more numerous back then. But too, there was just so much more life in those waters.  It is seeing that underwater world in that time which makes one realize how fish numbers are being reduced, from the largest to the very smallest.  If you saw the bottom of a river in the sixties, and you see the same substrate in the same place now, you absolutely will not believe what has happened to them.


I hope readers will visit my website, to see the outdoor books and magazines we produce.  And you should know that you can read this column each week on the computer under when your local newspaper has space problems and cannot run it.  We have a new book coming out soon, and you can learn about it by calling my office, 417 777 5227




Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Golden Bass



       There wasn’t anything about that point to tell me it was any special hideout for bass. I knew I’d love to fish it sometimes when the wind wasn’t blowing across it. But that’s what you deal with on Canadian lakes. All the old time Canadian guides and experienced anglers I learned from 40 and 50 years ago said it over and over, “Fish the points, fish the points.”


       ‘Reefs’ they often called them, because sometimes, big boulders ran off them for 29 yards or more, then there would be a drop-off of perhaps 25 to 40 feet. In those drop-offs, in the fall, you found smallmouth, walleye, yellow perch and often crappie.


    Only two of those four species of fish were found in Canada in 1900. Can you guess which two?  I will tell you at the end of this column.


       I had trailered my boat from Lake of the Woods to a small lake only five miles away. It was only about a mile wide and three miles long but Tinker Helseth’s son-in-law, Dallas, said it was a good lake for smallmouth bass. Back in August he told me about a reef jutting out from a bank which had underwater boulders under the surface a few feet. You could see them in the clear water and if you worked top-water Rapala lures over them while sitting out aways on the lake, you could see smallmouth from 10 to 15 inches long came up and whack those lures like a Lynx going after a pine marten. The strikes were vicious, not a lot of surface commotion, just a flash of gold or brown, and a four-inch lure sucked under. With that, four-pound line stretched taut and an ultralite rod bent nearly double. The water was still and deep to each side of those boulders, little wind on an August afternoon and it was wonderful.


       A smallmouth bass that was 12- to 15- inches long was a battler on my light rod. But I drifted out a little to the end of the reef and decided that I might catch a big walleye in that deep water around me. So I tied on a jig and retrieved a dead minnow out of a bucket I had brought along. You catch most of your walleye on jigs and minnows in that Lake of the Woods region.


       Walleye seldom hit a dead one, but bass and crappie will.  In just a few seconds off the end of that reef, I lifted my jig off the bottom a few inches and felt a weight on the line so I set the hook into the jaw of a hefty fish. At the time I was using that same light spinning outfit with four-pound line that was a year and a half old. I know better than to do that, but it seemed strong enough. The bass in the depths below me fought hard and I gave him line by loosening my drag. I could do that because in the depths of 25 or 30 feet there was nothing he could get around to help him escape, or so I hoped. But I desperately wanted to see that fish.


       It is easy to tell a big bass from a big walleye in Canada after 40 some years of hooking each. I knew what he was, but I didn’t know how big he was. In a few minutes I did.


       He seemed to tire and the arc in that light rod eased a little. Fishermen dream of a fight like that, maybe a six-pound bass, easily well over five. And finally there he was, surrendering to lay on his side, not a dark brown bass like I so often see in the Ozarks, but a light bronze or golden color.


       On the other side of my boat I had a nice-sized dip net, but the big bass seemed whipped so I just reached down to grab his jaw, seeing the jig firmly embedded in the side of his mouth.  He’d be released anyway, the fight was over, but I couldn’t wait to get a picture of this bass, at least 20 to 21 inches in length.


       My thumb had just touched his lip when he mustered one last lunge, burrowing toward the depths and snapping the line with his last effort. I have measured a lot of lunker bass, both black and brown , and you don’t catch a lot of bass longer than that one, even in the Ozarks.  He was broad-shouldered, shaped like a football rather than long and lean as our Ozark smallmouth are. What was really exceptional was not his length, but his width.  I think he was seven inches or so below the dorsal fin and thick as my grandma’s biscuits! I tipped my cap to him and told him I would be back in October.


       So last Monday on my birthday, I kept my promise. That is when I wound up on that windy point; about forty yards from the end of the reef where the golden bass had took that jig away from me.  The wind encountered each October was prevalent, and I used it to take me over the point again and again.  On every pass I caught a bass between 15 and 20 inches, but not that big one.  Maybe he lay in the depths telling other lunkers like him to beware of that rubber lure.  Some didn’t listen.  But for a few hours, it was the best birthday I can remember.  In all the years of going to Canada, I have never seen the equal to it.  I believe a lone angler like me could easily catch a couple hundred smallmouth there.  Lots would be smaller; the lake has plenty of 8 to 10 inch brownies that pester you to death while you pursue their grandparents.  If there is no photo of a bass with this column, you can see a 19 inch golden smallmouth and other Canada photos on your computer.


    I’ll write more about my 10-day October trip to Northwest Ontario, fishing, hunting grouse and geese, and enjoying the mildest October they have ever had.  And I will tell you more about the fish, including smallmouth and crappie, which once did not exist in Canada anywhere.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Storm


The storm recedes at dawn, photo by Jim Gaston


       I awakened on Saturday morning about four o’clock, and fixed up a cup of coffee before going out on my screened porch in the darkness to sit and listen to the gentle rain falling.


       It is strange for me to have a time that it is difficult to write, or to go through a time when I have trouble sleeping through the night.  But I am troubled now, by what is going on in the Ozarks, and the nation. There are some nightmares in which I see things coming I would not like to see. 


       My perch here on the highest point of this county looks out across a wide river valley, and the distant ridge on the other side of it is miles and miles away.  But there on the porch as I relax in an old rocking chair and listen to the rain, I can see that far-away ridge from time to time, in flashes of white which play across the western sky.  I try to count off seconds between the time I see it and the time I hear the thunder.  At first it is 22 seconds.  I think that is supposed to mean the storm is that many miles away.  That rumbling of thunder in the darkness is a beautiful sound, combined with the slow rain on the metal roof.


       I thought, that morning, of all the nights I have laid in a gravel bar tent, just loving the sound of a gentle rain falling through sycamore branches, knowing and apprehensive about what is coming. That rumble in the distance is soon going to sweep over that peaceful, flowing river, and the lightning bolts will be crashing down, taking away the sound of a nearby shoal, making it impossible to sleep.  But then the storm passes and a welcome still morning takes its place.  My dreams are something like that, but what I hear isn’t thunder and lightning, it is another kind of distant roar, and it is coming slowly to destroy this whole nation.  It is something you can’t sleep through.


       And then, in a night as black as a politician’s soul, there is another bright, white sky, and the rumble count becomes 16.  The storm is moving fast.  The rain is picking up a little, and on the open deck to the north side of the covered porch where my coffee cup now sits empty, acorns whack down from the big white oak which towers over it.  It is the same every October in the past thirty years.  What a racket we have to contend with, and it is a wonder that two or three acorns no bigger than the end of my thumb can sound so loud and intrusive, falling onto a board floor.  That oak tree sits next to it, at least 200 years old.  Should a coming storm ever shatter its giant base; the limbs much bigger than my leg will be lying across my bed.  But for now it stands just like it has since before the civil war, showering my roof with acorns in the fall, sounding like someone is throwing rocks.


       In the darkness below my perch there are about 25 huge trees made up of about ten or eleven species.  Hickories and walnuts are falling now too, and it is good to know we are going to have a good winter mast crop.  In January, those acorns, way down into the deep woods, will be eaten up, by most ever kind of bird and mammal that roams lightnin’ ridge. Sometimes, in the dream that wakes me up, I envision a time when there isn’t plenty for everyone, when inevitably, the earth revolts against too many and too much.  Once in Arkansas I saw a huge migration of squirrels across Bull Shoals Lake and I remember there were thousands of them moving, in search of a better place.  Then days later there were hundreds of dead squirrels in the lake.  Made me think of the plagues of locusts in the Bible.  There were no acorns to be found in the wake of that migration. Among men there is a migration which will result in turmoil you do not see in nature.


       A chinquapin oak behind my place has already been hit by lightning, the first night I moved my family onto this high, wooded ridge.  But it survived it and is doing well, with a big scar down it’s trunk.  The night sky becomes white again, and now I see a streak of lightning, a bolt from high places which strikes the ground somewhere in the deep valley before me.  I count again.  The thunder comes in 6 seconds, no longer a gentle rumble but a loud and ominous roar from the heavens.  A couple of minutes later I hear another kind of roar, which is the sound of heavy rain hitting the earth perhaps a mile away.  It moves slowly, but as steady as daylight appearing through the timber to the east on a calmer day.  Soon it is becoming a roar only a few hundred yards to the west of me, and then in minutes there comes a subdued whisper of cool water against the warm dry earth, then the sound of bigger raindrops rushing through the foliage, coming to a crescendo against the roof of my porch.  There is that smell of fresh rain, a smell that makes you breathe deeply to pull in the scent.  Many things no writer can describe, and that scent is one of them.  I sit in the darkness hoping that the lightning will pass and the rain will continue. But as in my dreams, the worst of the storm is coming!


        The river in the valley below me has been low, but now the shoals will run swift again. My old johnboat sits in the trees below me. I will sit in it soon, paddling down that river looking for ducks or trying to tease a bass with some old lure, now the worse for wear after too many days on the river and many, many fish. I don’t know why I cling to the past so tightly, but old lures are better, to me. Then, as a bolt of lightning cracks down on something only few hundred yards away from my porch, I decide I will go inside. It’s funny, but you can smell a close lightning strike too.


        Finally, we have the rain we’ve been needing.  It makes me think of my Dad, who often said, as we took cover in some Piney River cave to wait out a storm… “It rains on the just and the unjust… and they just ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”  Then he would light his pipe, lean back against the dry rock wall and ask if I had pulled the boat up high enough on the gravel bar, JUST in case the river started rising.  I always wondered if I had… if I had done a good enough job and was what Dad wanted me to be. From the shelter of the cave I would peer into the deluge, worried about whether the storm would pass on or stay. But always, the rain and thunder would recede and we would go on down the river as foliage dripped and the clouds began to break open.


       Now when I wake up early, before a storm comes I might wish I could go back to sleep and be comforted by the coming smell of fresh rain, the gentle rumble of distant thunder and the lightning flashing, still far, far away and feel as safe as I did in those caves with my dad. But in the dreams that awaken me in a panic, sometimes I see huge bolts of fire, and hear thunder as loud as explosions in our cities that are felt all over the world. I see strong trees splintered in awful winds, and rivers flooded by great torrents never seen before.  And I can smell burnt earth. 


       But then the daylight comes and I know that what is beyond that distant horizon is not here in the Ozarks. We should all be glad of that, being born and raised in this part of the country instead of those tormented cities where the war is on the way, if not there already, like a giant unstoppable storm. It will reach the Ozarks too, someday, but not soon I hope.

On Lightnin' Ridge, roses still bloom, birds still sing and my Labrador chases squirrels. It reminds me then, of something my Dad also said often, as we floated down the river. “This is a day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad about it.” And whether there is a storm here at dawn on Lightnin’ Ridge or the sun bathes the forest brightly as it climbs high in a blue sky, I try to remember that!


A knife from two eras; these two found on a river gravel bar on the same day.

         I found an old pocket knife the other day, fairly rusty, and with part of the handle gone. It had three blades, but one was broken.  If you soaked it in oil and sanded away the rust and loosened it up again, the old knife would have a few years left in it. I wondered just where it had come from, and when it had been new.  What era had it seen and what stories could it tell if knives could talk?   What kind of man had carried the old knife...was it perhaps a gift he had cherished in a day and time when little things meant a great deal more than they do today?  Looking at the old knife, I could almost picture him in my mind.

         I grew up around Ozark rivermen, farmers, trappers, hunters and fishermen who owned such knives.  At a young age, I learned the importance of a  good knife.   Most of my schoolmates had some kind of pocketknife, many handed down from fathers or grandfathers, and each one a prized possession.  I had several, a lot like that one I found recently, usually with blades worn down from constant sharpening... some with a point or handle partially broken. I got most of them from my grandfathers.

         Folks said you could judge a man somewhat by his knife. Anyone wearing a large sheathed knife was thought to be something of a show-off, since there were no Indians left to fight during my boyhood.  A man who had a dull blade was considered a bit lazy, and if a man had broken blades he was perhaps careless.  Anyone who asked to borrow a knife wasn't looked upon highly.  A fellow who lost his knife regularly wasn't dependable, and one who cut himself was a real greener. If you swapped knives where I grew up, you were gullible. Kids at the old country school did that on occasion, one would hold his knife in a closed fist and offer to trade for whatever pocket knife you had in your pocket. If you ever yielded to temptation, you would likely find out that anyone wanting to trade knives sight unseen had one in such poor shape he didn't figure you could come out ahead.

         Old-timers kept favored knives for years, until the blades were sharpened to near nothing. Then they gave them to youngsters they thought highly of as my grandfathers did with me.  Or perhaps on occasion they gave them to kids who made a nuisance of themselves asking for one, as I often did.

         I never knew any Ozark woodsman to carry a large sheathed knife,though there may have been some during the deer season.  A good outdoorsman carried a small axe to do heavy work, and a large pocket knife with two blades or maybe three. One blade was always duller than the others, used for emergency prying or scraping or anything you wouldn't want to use a fine-honed edge on.  But you could bet there would be one blade he kept so sharp he could darn near shave with it.

         Knives weren't so expensive then, but there was less money to waste, so they were taken care of.   As they grew old, Ozark outdoorsmen often became whittlers. You could see them in the summer sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse telling tall stories about legendary bucks and catfish too big to fit in a johnboat, all the while whittling away on a cedar plug.  They'd move inside during the winter, and tell the same stories before the pot bellied stove at the general store, whittling away and chewing tobacco.

         If you had some ability, you whittled something like a toy or a figure.  If you weren't that good at it, you just whittled.  You didn't have to whittle anything in particular, just whittling was enough. It showed that your knife had an edge so keen you could whittle a toothpick out of a railroad tie, and that said something about you.

         Grandpa Dablemont used his knife to fashion rabbit-trap triggers or deadfall sets, to skin a mink, cut bait, or shave a rough edge off his sassafras paddle.  Grandpa McNew had different uses for his knife. He cut green hickory whistles for his grandkids, and cut off plugs of tobacco for himself. He used it to trim his toenails regularly before bedtime, and then used the same knife to peel an apple on occasion. The old timers I grew up around seemed to never eat an apple off the core. They sliced off pieces, chunk by chunk, and balanced each slice on the knife blade with a leathery thumb while guiding it to their mouths.

         Grandpa's knife was an old Shrade-Walden, and he was proud of it. It had "good metal in it", he claimed.  And he referred to the men he liked and respected the same way.  They "had good metal in 'em." 

         I still have a couple of old knives owned by my grandfathers.  I sometimes carry one around for awhile for good luck, but I am ever fearful of losing it.  Still there is something about sitting at a deer crossing, whittling on a stick with a knife that is 70 years older than I, and once fit in the weathered hand of my grandfather.