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,,

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