It was almost dark. I was fishing a black topwater chugger of some kind, about three inches long. But it was light enough to see the fish take it, and there wasn’t any doubt he was big and strong. I questioned for a moment whether I’d get to see him or not.
Fish like to move and feed during the evening of an early summer day. It had been fairly hot earlier, but the fishing had been good, and the water was cool. I had already landed and released one big smallmouth, about 19 inches in length, and I figured the one I had ahold of would beat that one. We were paddling up a big eddy in the river off in the middle of nowhere, and 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 12-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 light rod to a breaking 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 be… one of the biggest Ozark stream smallmouth I have ever taken. My partner waited with a net, and even before the fish was finished fighting, he slipped it beneath the big brownie and the fight continued in the bottom of my boat. We got some good pictures, thanks to the flash unit, 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 several years for a smallmouth to reach his size, 21 inches and about four-and-a-half pounds. There’s a chance he will eventually exceed five pounds.
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 18 to 19-foot square-stern canoe, or a 16 to 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 very light sleeping bag or blanket and pack it all in one waterproof bag. Most important is a small air mattress, a tough one… one of those which doesn’t easily puncture or leak, and a little battery operated air pump. There’s very little weight in that pack. In another small waterproof bag… rain gear, a change of dry clothes and dry footwear. Again, not much weight. In a cooler, stash a frozen milk carton or two, so that as it melts, you can drink the water. And bring extra water in another container. Put a variety of food in that cooler for two lunches, dinner and one breakfast. Use your head… instead of cartons of eggs, break two or three eggs for each fisherman, into a ziplock bag. You can fill the bag with chunks of ham, cheese, peppers, onions, whatever. Bring along a camp cooking kit and fry it. If you want, you can fry potatoes and fish, or take cans of beef stew. You figure out how you want to eat, but plan it, and take as little as you can. Add to it a light camp stove, 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.
I catch lots of big smallmouth, they are the fish I love to fish for. Now you know how and where. In late spring and early summer, that early and late river fishing seems to be at its best. And it is so quiet and peaceful. I get sick of hearing outboard motors on our reservoirs, and no matter how good the fishing is, it doesn’t compare to what I find on the rivers where smallmouth lurk. But you have to work a little to get there, and to make it all come together.
On the river, even those where the hollering, banging greenhorn canoeists hurry through in the heat of mid-day, all is quiet at dusk, except for the sound of a topwater lure, and a smallmouth busting it with everything he’s got. And I can eat well, sleep well and get back at ‘em at first light.
I wrote a book a few years back all about rivers and fishing and camping and everything unique about the streams, with lots of history and nature. The name of it is “Rivers to Run,– swift water, sycamores and smallmouth bass.” If you are a fan of rivers, or want to learn more about rivers and how to enjoy them I think you’ll like it.
It is a big book, 374 pages with many of pictures. In it is the plans for building a couple of types of wooden river johnboats. If you find it in bookstores it sells for $15.95 but you can get an autographed inscribed copy from us for $12.95 and we’ll pay the postage.
My address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613.