The last bass

Posted November 29, 2012 at 11:54 am

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It was early October of 2010, and the first falling leaves were floating along the river beside us. Uncle Norten and I had enjoyed a great day of fishing. The bass had been hitting, and I marveled at how well he could cast and fish at his age of 87.

He had begun to have trouble remembering how to get to the river, but he had no trouble remembering how to fish a spinner-bait, or bounce a jig along the bottom, or manipulate a topwater lure. Norten had made his last guided float trip in the middle of the summer. I put him and two clients in on the Niangua River that morning and picked them up that evening.

His two fishermen were happy, they had never heard so many good stories, or caught so many fish. Admittedly, some of the stories had been repeated, but they didn’t mind. One of them confided in me, “I never knew anyone could handle a johnboat like he did… it was amazing.”

My uncle learned to handle a boat like that from his father, along the Big Piney River back in the late 1920’s. He was born in 1923, and I heard him talk about catching his very first bass when he was eight-years-old on a fly-rod and popping bug in the spring of 1931 there at the big eddy next to the old Lone Star Mill. He always remembered it like it was yesterday, a smallmouth about two pounds, which strained that bamboo fly-rod. He caught several more and took them up to the old house along the river where they lived, and my grandmother cooked them for supper.

Norten guided his first fishermen a year later right there on that same eddy, for 50¢ the entire day. He was a fishing guide of some sorts for a total of 79 years, missing only the two years in World War II when he was a paratrooper fighting in Europe.

On that sunny, cool day two years ago, the sun was beginning to dip down behind a high ridge when my Uncle leaned back on his casting rod, and set the hook into the jaw of a nice bass. He held it up and I took a picture of it. Thank God I did, because it was the last one he ever caught.

In the late evening, just before we loaded our boat, I made a cast or two around some old logs in deep water, and hooked a monstrous bass. My uncle cheered me on as I fought that huge fish, and eventually he netted it for me. It was the second largest bass I ever caught, 24 inches long and close to nine pounds. He tried to get a picture of it for me, but it was pretty dark, and the photo wasn’t much good.

As I released it, he shook his head. “We would never have turned loose a bass this size when I was young, but I guess you are right, what good does it do to take it in?”

And then my uncle got a little nostalgic and sentimental, something I had never seen much of, except for when we were recalling his life, writing his book. “We sure have caught a bunch of fish,” he said, “I appreciate you takin’ me.”

“Me and you are pards,” he went on, “ The times we’ve had, ‘shinin’ times’, the old mountain men called ‘em… shinin’ times.

We guided fishermen together when I was in my twenties, up to just a couple of years ago. There were hundreds of trips on dozens of rivers and lakes in Arkansas in the 70’s and 80’s, then back to Missouri to continue guided float trips on several more rivers.

That evening in October as we loaded the boat, I told my Uncle we would have a lot more fishing trips, even if he couldn’t find the put-in and take-out places. I could find them, and as he said, we were pards. I think he was happy about the prospect of more fishing trips, but there were no more. He took that last fish home to eat, just as he did the first one, nearly 80 years before. I know right where he caught his first bass, long before I was born. I know where he caught the last one because I took him there. I pass it on occasion, fishing alone. And I can hardly look at that spot next to an old rock bluff without fighting back the tears.

The article I wrote about my Uncle meeting General Petraeus a couple of weeks back got as much response from readers than anything I have ever written. We had a few dozen of his books which he had signed. There are still some left for those who want them. If I run out, I will take some to the nursing home the next time I visit my uncle and have him sign some more. It is something he always enjoys. Call the office number given below, or write to us for more information.

Quite often readers tell me they would like to spend time out in the woods with me when I am just relaxing and taking pictures and pretending it is 1800 again and I am a frontiersmen exploring a new wilderness. Well, if you would like to go with me for a day, you can do that this winter. I spent a lot of years when I was young taking folks on hikes and float trips as a naturalist on the Buffalo National River.

A few years ago we began to take guided “interpretive” trips on the Niangua River, and in the winter between December and March, we take folks on day-long excursions through some of the prettiest woods on Truman Lake, a beautiful area where giant trees grow, a pair of eagles nest and migrating waterfowl can be seen. It is an area full of wildlife.

We cross the lake on a big pontoon boat, hike for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, and come back as the sun sets in the western sky. At noon we relax and enjoy a fish fry out on the lakeshore. We take from 12 to 20 people at a time, and only on days when the temperature is tolerable, and there are no high winds.

This winter, I will be joined by another naturalist, Dennis Whiteside, who worked with me years ago in Arkansas State Parks, and Rich Abdoler, who was a Corps of Engineers Ranger on Truman Lake for 40 years. Sondra Gray, the editor of my outdoor magazine, goes along to help us with the cooking, so we won’t ruin anything. Actually, Sondra is in charge of getting the food out there and making it edible. And she bakes the brownies.

You can get on the list to make one of these trips with us by just writing or calling our office. We then contact people several days ahead when we see a good warm, calm Saturday coming up. Participants meet us at Wheatland at 8 a.m. on the day of the trip. Wheatland has a nice motel for those who have to travel a long way. The charge for the day, including the meal, is $40 per person and less for children under 16. If you have a special group you would like to schedule, just call me at the number given below.

I promise that you will enjoy the day immensely or we will refund your money. To get on our list, just call or write me or e-mail me. If you have questions about the trip, we will answer them. All you need to be able to do physically is walk slowly through the woods for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening, and have a good appetite for fresh fish and chocolate brownies. I will talk about this trip more on my “Outdoorsman” radio program Sunday from 8:05 to 9 a.m. on KWTO, 560 AM.

The office number to call is 417 777 5227, and you can e-mail me at The mailing address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. The website is

LAST ONE – Uncle Norten, with the last bass he ever caught, on the last fishing trip he ever took…