“Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.”
—Earnest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
With the New Year here, I find myself reflecting on the river’s bounty from the year just ended. Not just last year, but all the years and all of the seasons given in 40+ years of fishing the Ozarks rivers.
I’ll try to help you conjure images of these places via words, but words alone will not do them justice. If you know where they are, I’ve either guided you, we’ve fished together, or you know the rivers I am describing well enough to decipher my personal colloquialisms.
So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite runs.
The Miracle 1/2 Mile —James River, somewhere between Hootentown & Marble Grounds
Stay left at the rock wall. The current wants to pull you into the shallow gravel, but you know better.
This run gets deep on the other side of the river, and if you allow her to pull you in, you’ll get beached, or worse, run over the fish below.
Dig. Hard. The sweet spot is far right, the one that will deposit you (almost) perfectly in the seam. Below the rapid, river left is cane and willow. River right is gravel flat and timber.
Spin your boat and paddle up into the back eddy. If this were a battlefield, it would be the kill box. The riffle has dug a trench 300 yards long. One side is 18 inches deep, the other, three plus feet.
It winds like a serpent, digging into the bank river left, until it flattens out and becomes more uniform. From start to finish, it’s all kindred-sized gravel, with sporadic depressions from the river’s chaos carved out like shallow graves.
At the end it turns hard right and will put you squarely in harm’s way if you are not attentive.
In each of the past 5 years we have managed at least one day on this run with multiple 18-inch fish. As recently as last summer, in early June, we caught a 19.5-inch, an 18-inch and a 17.5-inch fish from the first 200 yards of this run.
And I with the remnants of a treble hook in my right forearm. That one required surgery and 5 well-earned stitches.
Stacked Rock run
Alaskan Bush pilots call small, sunshine filled breaks in dense clouds “sucker holes.” They look great and make you feel safe, until you fly through them and there is more dense cloud on the other side, with no escape.
The hole above Stacked Rock fits this description perfectly.
Deep, with good flow and full of structure, it looks like the perfect lair for a big smallmouth (or two). Until, after 30 fruitless minutes of fishing it, you look beyond the house-sized sycamore stump at the bottom and see Stacked Rock.
I’m still not sure how Stacked Rock keeps as much water in it as it does. When you are in the pool looking upstream you see three narrow chutes of water that enter the long, languid pool that is Stacked Rock.
None of these chutes are floatable in normal flows. The pool is a deep, lazy run with Volkswagen-sized boulders strewn across the bottom. These rocks seem out of place in the karst landscape surrounding the creek.
But brother, those rocks hold fish. Big ones. And more than a few of them.
If you’ve played the morning right, you’ll be in Stacked Rock by 9 am. Just in time for the last of the topwater bite. You drag your kayak across the left chute, get back in and shake the pea-sized gravel out of your shoes.
Paddle up, slowly, and begin the symphony of cast, retrieve, repeat. You’re the maestro in this concert and you know from experience that with proper cadence comes results.
There is a Jetta-sized rock right below the middle chute that always holds a good fish and if you are quiet, he (or most likely she) can be yours for a moment.
The Gauntlet — Osage Fork, somewhere between Dry Knob and Davis Ford
There are fish that haunt my dreams. Smallmouth that when I close my eyes, seem as big as fresh-run Atlantic salmon.
One of these apparitions lives in the Osage Fork, about two miles below Dry Knob access. You enter the Gauntlet tentatively. Trees are strewn haphazardly across the creek.
Like giant fingers, they reach out and try to grab your kayak, threatening to spill your possessions into the current while you watch, soaked, as they float into the abyss.
You find the seam between the fallen Sycamore, Oak and Hickory stumps, turn your boat to face upstream, and begin working the slot.
If you hit it right, you are on auto-pilot until the pool drains into the next run. Miss it and you are correcting more than fishing.
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Assuming you get it right, you are rewarded with fish on about every other cast. Most are chunky, 10-14 inch smallmouth that fight well beyond their size.
They seem to be custom-built for the river they haunt. Cast, retrieve, repeat. Then it happens.
Your cast is good, the bait hits a sycamore stump softly, sliding off and into the depths. One, two, three. Bottom.
But this “bottom” is swimming up stream. When you set the hook, you know; big smallmouth. Big smallies do not fight like their smaller brethren. Using their weight, they bore to the bottom and then head for cover.
And this one is heading for the big strainer he was hiding in when you so rudely interrupted his meal.
Side pressure, good gear and a lot of luck coax the fish into the small open space in the Gauntlet, so you reach the folding net you are so proud of. You know, the one you found at the outlet store that was marked down 75 percent.
Then you see the fish. Good gravy, that can’t be a smallmouth? Keep calm, you’ve been here before. Unfold the net. Or at least try to. Dang thing is stuck. Shake it. Still stuck. That’s a big fish. WHY WON’T THIS NET UNFOLD!!!
Keep calm, he’s at the kayak. You got this. The net unfolds and then… collapses as you get under the giant, simultaneously knocking the fish loose.
And he just swims away.
Biggest smallmouth you’ve ever hooked and he’s gone, like a dream you can’t quite recall. You look at your buddy, who is trying not to laugh, and send your bargain net sailing, tossing it into the deepest part of the run.
Just like that beast of a fish you lost, it sinks out of sight, never to be seen again.
The Bridge Run — Finley River in Christian County, MO
The slab bridge where I caught my first smallmouth has been replaced with a new, fancy high bridge. The remnants of the slab are resting in the same pool they provided passage over in years past.
I’d like to think that the contractor was a fisherman and realized they would make incredible fish cover, but that would be a stretch. Still, they do hold some really big fish, and help anchor the creek bottom.
Good intentions or coincidence? Doesn’t matter.
This run is really two pools separated by a quarter-mile stretch of striated limestone we refer to as “snotrock.” In midsummer, you have to walk the bank. This stuff gets so slick it’s like walking on ice.
The upper pool, with the bridge, almost has to be wade fished. Park your kayak on the island and approach it carefully. It’s gin-clear most of the time, and the good, cover producing current is on the far bank.
Get below the bridge, cast upstream and expect a fish on every cast. It doesn’t always work that way, but you’ve been here enough when it does that you aren’t surprised when it happens.
Until this spring, the second pool was 100 yards long and nearly uniform in depth from bank to bank. The floods pushed mounds of gravel into the pool, shifting the channel river-left, and really decreasing the fish holding area you’d gotten used to.
Six years ago I caught an 18-inch smallmouth at the top of the pool. She had a gimpy pectoral fin and was missing several spines on her dorsal. Later that summer, I caught her again.
The next spring, again. And in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Same fish. Same malformed pec. Same missing dorsal spines. The last time I held her, she was 19 inches and change, still full of fight and closing in on four pounds.
I briefly had her hooked this spring, on the Thursday before the skies let loose for a week, and the pool was forever altered. When I close my eyes, I can see her massive tail as it made one final attempt at freedom and snapped my line.
After the flood waters receded, I took a walk to the pool and looked for Oscar. I’ve fished for her several times this year, all in vain.
The romantic in me wants to believe she is still swimming, finding a still spot in the raging flood, waiting on Mother Nature to relent.
My realistic view is that she is lost. I take consolation in the fact that at her size, she was most likely 12-15 years old and had many seasons to spread her good genetics in the river.
Chances are I will tangle with her offspring many times in the coming years.
There are literally hundreds of good smallmouth runs in the Ozarks. We are truly blessed with a resource that continues to provide quality fish year in, year out.
These four happen to be close to home for me. I have a paternal instinct to watch over them.
Like the fish that we chase, they need constant care and feeding to survive.
See you out there.
(Ryan Walker can be reached at email@example.com.)