Monday, July 25, 2022

The Bluff and the Pipeline


         The thrill of seeing the lower Big Piney with Jim Barr and Charlie Curran made me remember days from another time.  But everything about a river changes, and the changes when men are involved are never good.  It is funny how I talk about the days of my boyhood when the river was so perfect, clean and full and wild.  My grandfather talked of how much better it was when he was young, forty years before I was born. The Piney has suffered much since Dad paddled me down that lower-end of the river for the first time in the fall of ’59. 

         Pollution is one thing, but the filling of the river with silt, sand and gravel, the cutting of the big pines and coming of massive acres of pastureland is only part of what I see as the years go on. But it was destined to be, as numbers of men in those Ozarks increased beyond what anyone could have believed. The bluffs don’t change, though, and there are still some deep eddies that survive below them. Those eddies no longer have the big 15-pound redhorse or 12-inch goggleye, and the hellbenders seem extinct.   But memories are still there, and always will be for men like Charlie and Jim.

         Charlie pointed to huge rocks along one bank and said, “those came crashing down from that high bluff yonder in the spring of 1942. “Scared folks half ta death,” he said “an’ some wouldn’t fish in this hole because they expected the whole bluff to follow soon after.”  One of the boulders which came down was a big flat rock along the bank jutting out into the water today.  Charlie told me that when he was 8 or 9 years old, just a few years after the part of the bluff had came down with a roar, he fished off of that rock with a cane pole and caught his very first fish from the Piney.  

         My Dad and I would float from Slabtown to Six Crossings or from the latter down to Ross Bridge, hunting ducks.  I had killed my first wood duck a couple of miles upstream from where Charlie had caught his first fish. But when we were floating from the crossings down to Ross Bridge in the early sixties there was the thrill of bouncing over the swiftwater chute crossing the pipeline…  and what a thrill that was.  The pipeline was about 2/3rds covered with gravel where it crossed the river, but it caused a 2- or 3-foot fall in the current that was a challenge.

         But so many old-timers know so many stories of the river I still do not know.  For instance, Charlie related how nearly a hundred years back, several men from the area floated the river in a pair of wooden johnboats when the pipeline was only about half buried and they had all had too much to drink.  They didn’t get the bow of the boat pointed right and it swung sideways, tipped up, then filled with current-strength swift water , pinning one man against the pipeline. The boat crushing his legs and held him there.  

         Charlie told about what it took to free the screaming man from his horrible  pain. He was there for hours pinned against the pipeline waiting for an army truck that could get to the river to pull the boat off him.  He had plenty of time to drink in the future, sitting at home with no legs.  But his problem was one that many of today’s river runners have, coming in increasing numbers of brightly-colored canoes and kayaks.  Gallons of alcohol goes down the stream now and drugs of all kinds are with the weekenders as often as not. 

           I suspect the bluffs will see more and more of that and more drownings too. fewer of us like Charlie and Jim and I who can tell the stories, recalling the days of best  times of the river and the people who loved it.

          From the Buffalo to the Current, from the Big Piney to the Arkansas Kings, from the Jack’s Fork to the Eleven Point, there will be some who drown because it isn’t the river they come to enjoy, as we did decades ago. The bluffs will watch them come and go, in great lines of bright colors and loud yells and screams.  These are different people now. There are few who see the rivers as God’s greatest creation, places to be still and listen and watch and know what places of reverence they are.

It is all different now, but the bluff which looks down from the west is exactly as it was when I first saw in 1959. As Charlie and Jim and I went down the river, last month I looked up at it and imagined it saying… I am the rock carved by the creator, and I will not pass…. Some things need to stay the way God made them  and some things will.  Too much will not. 

You can contact me via email… or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613

Thursday, July 21, 2022



         The first time I ever saw it was sometime about, or around, 65 years ago.  It was just a huge hole in the side of the bluff overlooking the lower Big Piney River, a fantastic looking cave about 50 or 60 feet above the base of the bluff, and likely 15 or 20 feet down from the peak of it. Inaccessible! The face of the bluff was sheer.  As I grew into my teenage years, I would float past it in the late fall and winter hunting ducks and squirrels with my dad and I would look at that hole with an awful longing.


         All up and down the Piney I explored dozens of caves larger and smaller, but not that one.  It was one I could never see the inside of.  All it would take was risking one’s life to drop down on a long and secured rope, and the ability to swing back into the opening. What treasure might be found inside?


        I never saw the inside of it, but Charlie Curran did.  Born in 1937, Charlie is one of those Ozark mountain-men who is a human history-book of the Big Piney.  I floated the lower Piney with him a few weeks ago, and realized how similar our lives had been.  Charlie had an uncle who was a well-known riverman.  He and my grandfather crossed paths on occasion, and grandpa spoke of him with high regard.

          His name was Wilford Lee, a trapper, trotliner and fishing guide.  Wilford and Charlie’s family grew up on the lower Piney and the Dablemont family spent their lives on the upper and middle part of the river.  I listened to the stories of Charlie and his friend Jim Barr, who I will write about in next weeks column, and it took me back to a day and time when life and the living of it, was better, and nearly forgotten.  A time nearly forgotten, but treasured by those who knew it and the simplicity and the peace of it.

         On that float trip last month, Charlie found an old railroad tie in a drift.  We know where there are others in the river, so deeply embedded underwater you could never get them out.  But never have I seen one on the bank.  It was weathered and dark, and likely weighed a hundred pounds and is likely 110 to 120 years old.  When my museum on the Big Piney is finished, that tie will be in it, with the complete story of the men who made them, and how the Piney played such a big part in producing tie rafts by the hundreds and what they were.

         There isn’t enough room here to write the full story of Charlie and Jim, but in my fall magazine, you can read more about the two of them, and see a dozen or so photos of them.    


       Jim Barr is no less of a story than Charlie, though a little younger.  He makes fishing lures that I hate to talk about because I am afraid they catch too many fish.  In next weeks column I will talk more about these two, and I will post some of the photos this week on my blogspot.


         We have accumulated many of the logs for the Museum of the Big Piney, but the heat has stopped things for a while.  In the next couple of months we have to decide on a location for it.  Our best help has come from Bennie Cook with the Lions Club, who is trying to make it possible on Lions Club land just north of Houston.  But that is a lot of hoops to jump through to finalize a sale of that kind.  There is also some chance we can get an acre along highway 63 at Licking.  The Museum will happen, and someday I visualize it being a place that Charlie and Jim and many other old-time Ozarkians can come to talk to travelers and tourists about the Ozarks and the river.  It will be free for all who want to come and visit a museum made from all cedar logs.


I thought for awhile our Ozark and Outdoor magazines might be a thing of the past, but some new development have given me hope.  We will try something new by putting out a magazine in the fall with 100 to 120 pages encompassing both magazines.

If you are a subscriber, you will be getting a copy in the fall.  If you aren’t call us and we will make you one.  The number is 417 777 5227,  email me at

Charlie and I

Jim Barr in his johnboat

Piney River goggle-eye

A little color from the Piney

Friday, July 15, 2022

Lunkers in a Lonely Place


         It was almost dark, I was fishing a black topwater chugger of some kind, only about three inches long with a skirt behind it.  But it was light enough to see the fish hit, and there wasn't any doubt he was big and strong.


         This was in the evening of a 98-degree day.  We had sweltered a little earlier in the afternoon, but the water was cool.  I had already landed and released one good smallmouth, and I figured the one I had ahold of would beat that one by quite a bit. I was right! We had our camp set up and were paddling up a big eddy in the river off in the middle of nowhere. We were almost to the shoal which fed it.  There was the increasing current, six or eight feet of water and big rocks well out into the river with weeds along the bank.  Of course a big smallmouth would be there, and he just engulfed that topwater lure about halfway between my boat and the bank.  He stripped line against the drag, but I had twelve-pound line on that casting reel, and I figured I would land him if the hooks held, and they did.


         For quite some time he bore deep, and bent my rod to a cracking point as he went beneath the boat.  He did that twice, and I strained against him to bring him back.  Finally he made one half-hearted jump, and I could see he was everything I guessed him to of the biggest Ozark stream smallmouth I have ever taken.  My partner waited with a net, and even before the brownie was finished fighting, he slipped it beneath the big bass and his struggle continued in the bottom of my boat.  We got some good pictures,  and I measured him and bid him farewell, releasing him back into the current that had been his home for a long time.  It takes many years for a smallmouth to reach his size, twenty-one inches and about four-and-a-half pounds.  There's a chance he will eventually exceed five pounds, but not much larger in that Ozark river.

         Few fishermen will ever be a threat to him, because he lives in a place where no one tarries much past mid-day.  It is not a stretch of river on which the canoe rental people have operated, and it is far from any put-in or take-out point.  Serious fishermen don't get there often late in the day when summer smallmouth feed ravenously.  To be there late in the evening, or at first light of dawn, when the air is cool and columns of mist rise from the river, you need to float down, set up a mid-afternoon camp and spend the night there. In mid-summer, when the river is low, there is an art to doing that.  You can't load a boat or canoe with heavy gear and cover miles of water.  You have to be something of a back-packer in a canoe.

         First of all, I tell serious fishermen to forget the 17-foot canoe, unless it is a square-sterned version with several inches more width than a double-ender, and much more stability because of it.  My choice for any Ozark stream fishing is an 19-foot square-stern, or a 17-foot aluminum river johnboat, and both are hard to come by.  But both are easy to handle and stable.

         I don't like sleeping on hard gravel bars as I did when I was younger, so I take a small light tent, a light sleeping bag or blanket and pack it all in one waterproof bag.  Most important is a small rolled-up mattress and perhaps an air-mattress to go with it, one of those which doesn't easily puncture or leak, you   have to be able to sleep well. There's very little weight in that pack.  In another small waterproof bag.... rain gear, a change of dry clothes and footwear. You figure out how you want to eat,  but plan it, and take as little as you can.  Add to it an extra paddle, two good rods and tackle, and a camera box.   Spend the night somewhere on a lonely Ozark river where there's not a sound but the bullfrogs and the owls and the splash of feeding fish during the night.  Keep green sunfish or Kentucky bass to eat, but please turn back the smallmouth and rock  bass.

          I catch and release lots of smallmouth, the fish I love to fish for.  Now you know how and where.  In the mid- to late-summer, the fishing on our reservoirs is poor compared to what I find on the rivers where smallmouth lurk. Seldom do I ever hear outboard motors.  On the river, even those where the hollering, beer drinking, greenhorn canoeists hurry through in the heat of mid-day, all is quiet at dusk, except for the sound of my topwater lure, and a smallmouth busting it with everything he's got.  And I eat can eat well, sleep well, and get back at 'em at first light.  If you are a smallmouth enthusiast, you might learn much more about summer smallmouth on the riverby reading my book, “Rivers to Run…Swiftwater, Sycamores and Smallmouth Bass.”  You can see it and order it from my website,,

Monday, July 4, 2022

Too Soon Old


My first car, a 54 chevy in 1965.  If I had been smart, I would still have it.  Gave 50 for it, sold it for 20!

     My maternal grandparents, Bert and Hilda McNew, had a little farm out southeast of Houston, Mo a few miles. I was born in their old farmhouse. They were wonderful people whom I dearly loved and still do.


Scratching out a living with a few milk cows and chickens and a hog or two was a difficult thing in those days, so Grandma sold some eggs and milk and butter, tended a big garden and canned and sewed a lot. Grandpa did a little work on the side when he could find it. One of the things he did for a while was pick up trash each Saturday morning from businesses along Main Street to haul to the city dump in his old faded red pickup. 


When I was only five or six years old I would go with him on Saturday mornings, and it was a wonderful thing to go through that trash as he raked it from the bed of his old truck. Grandma always wanted him to look for jars she could use for canning, and I would look for comic books and magazines. There were a bunch of them, and they always had the top few inches cut off of the cover. I guess the stores had to do that to prove they hadn’t sold them, and that’s the way I saw my first outdoor magazines, which fascinated me. 

But one day I found a little oblong wooden plaque, obviously cut out of a small pine tree, with the phrase printed on it, “Ve get too soon old, and too late smart.”


I clung to it like a valuable prize, and wrapped it up and gave it too my dad on Father’s Day. It was the first gift I ever gave anyone and I was tremendously proud of it. For a while Dad hung it in the kitchen, and it seemed everyone was amused by it. Dad said it was advice he could use.


In time of course I forgot all about it, and a few years back, going through Mom and Dad’s photos and things after they had passed away, I came across so many old things I had forgotten: a Mother’s Day card I had made, a book of my poems my first grade teacher, Mrs. Frost, had bound together for me. I found my first letter sent home from college at the age of 17, a high school yearbook that was full of pictures of my high school enemies and without even one of me, and an old photo of dad and me, which I had never seen. And there was that little plaque in the bottom of a box! 


As I held it in my hands, it brought me back to that time long ago when I rode in Grandpa’s old red Chevy pick-up, looking so forward to driving down the back alleys with him, behind the Main Street businesses, to load up and haul off someone else’s refuse. And it was a time when I realized that someone’s trash could be someone else’s treasure.


But the words had such an impact on me now… “Ve get too soon old and too late smart”. My gosh, there is so much truth in that. I got old so fast. How did it happen? I was just a kid not long ago. 


I wish I could go back and do things differently. I wish I had gotten smart long before I got old. I would have quit school when I was young, spent my early life as a fishing guide on the Piney and kept all those old cars I had when I was young.   I bought each at Roy Fisher’s junkyard for 50 bucks and as they began to use a quart of 35 cent oil every 100 miles I would sell them back to him for 20 dollars and get another one for 50.  They were, in order of acquirement, a 1950 Ford, a 1954 Chevy, a 1956 Oldsmobile and a 1956 Chevy.  I had that 1956 Chevy when I went left School of the Ozarks to attend University of Missouri.  The 1956 Oldsmobile had an automatic light-dimmer device sitting on the dash, and electric seats that made the seat go up and down and back and forth via a button on the driver’s side of the seat.  Once at the drive-in on one of the few dates I ever had with a girl, I scared the heck out of her with that electrical moving seat. Darn near ran the battery down; I was having so much fun with it.  When I graduated at M.U. I purchased, through Ford credit, for a great deal more than 50 dollars, a 1963, sporty-looking Ford Galaxie that today would be worth twenty times what the interest amounted too. If today I owned those cars still and my grandpa’s old 1949 truck, I wouldn’t have needed an education.  But come to think of it, I never needed it anyway. If I had known it then, I would be a fishing and hunting guide up in Northwest Ontario today, far from this mess the U.S. is in now.  But like that plaque said, “We get too soon old and too late smart”.


I ought to thank someone right here at this point.  His name is Rodney Fockler.  He was a mechanic out south of town with a garage at his home and he kept all those old cars of mine running by fixing this and that, while I was going to school.  He charged me very little, sometimes nothing, knowing I never had much money.  Rodney, to me you deserve sainthood.  You are one of the reasons I got to where I am today, whatever that amounts too.   Rodney, you have my heartfelt gratitude