If you are the kind of person who likes to fish in the winter, if you enjoy seeing big old white flakes of snow drifting down against the dark outline of a high ridge with steel-gray water flowing along beside you, then you will like the White River in December and January and February. It isn’t exactly the kind of place a grizzled old outdoorsman like me is drawn to in the summer. Too many people, too much development. But in the winter, you can sometimes fish it without having much competition. And when my old botany teacher at S. of O. College, Dr. Alice Nightingale, told me that “evolution” is simply a word for God’s continuous change and ongoing creation, I didn’t figure I would see an example so plain right here in the Ozarks.

The White River of a hundred years ago is long gone and it was indeed a wonder to behold. Giant dams destroyed what it was, especially down in Arkansas below Bull Shoals dam. I have some great experiences there, going back to the early seventies.

With water flowing at a pretty good rate back then, I recall seeing a friend of mine hook into an underwater monster that he could scarcely get off the bottom. As we drifted along, the big fish ran to each side of the boat, above and below it, bending that rod to a breaking point. Eventually we drifted into a slower backwater and my fishing companion decided to horse it in. What a dandy it was. The treble hook had somehow worked through a hole in a big flat rock, and after a good 20-minute fight I netted it. I am sure that rock weighed 12 or 15 pounds. My friend took it home with him.

Back then no one talked much about spawning fish or brown trout. Everything was rainbows, and most were only 12 to 14 inch fish. But they were fun to catch on a light action rod and reel, and I thought they were great to eat. But I was a kid who grew up eating bass, goggle-eye, black perch and catfish and “yeller suckers” from the Big Piney. Never a trout. Today I filet them like anything else and I think that rainbows are fine eating. Lots of folks disagree. But everyone likes to catch them.

Well, evolution has happened. They still stock those rainbows, but a new fish moved in a few years back, the brown trout, which is a fish that almost everyone releases, and they have filled the river, because they spawn most years, in December and January. And in February, those spawned out browns feed voraciously. They catch 10 pounders regularly, 15 to 20 pounders on occasion. And almost every one of the White River guides can take you to places where there are some 25 to 30 pound browns. Ask any of them and they will tell you stories of huge brown trout they have caught or seen caught.

One of those guides is Jerry McCoy, who owns a little outdoor antique shop about a mile west of the dam. His place ought to be called a museum, because he buys more than he sells, and if you go in that place of his, you are going to be there a long time looking at the ancient fishing and hunting artifacts from the Ozarks which he had gathered and displays.

Jerry grew up much as I did except he came from the Kings River country of northwest Arkansas. We are the same age and both of us are steeped in the nostalgia of those wonderful days of the Ozarks that use to be. McCoy guides constantly on the White, and he is a real fly-fishing enthusiast, but a few weeks ago on a rainy, misty evening he took me down to the White River’s section of catch and release water, a few miles of it below the dam where you must release any trout you catch. We used very light tackle and jigs. In that section you may fish single hooks only and the barb must be removed.

“There was once a problem in the White River catching anything but stocking-sized rainbows,” he told me. “But not now. Now in this section you’ll catch some that are four or five pounds and even bigger.”

But then he told  me something that fits into Dr. Nightingale’s theory of evolution.

As fog rose from the water and it grew darker in the cloud-covered afternoon he said that during the past year he has caught lots of crappie and walleye in the river, a result of those occasions the past few years when Bull Shoals Lake reached its highest level and the gates were opened to release water. McCoy says it put a lot of walleye in the White and biologists are worried about it, because they think they can spawn and create a problem. Big walleye like to eat trout. But wouldn’t it be something if walleye took to the white and became a third species that anglers can pursue.

In an hour or so of fishing, before the rain started to splatter down, we caught two nice-sized walleye, under 20 inches, but not by much. McCoy caught a big colorful rainbow that was between three and four pounds. There was a time when catching a rainbow that size from the White River was not very likely, but my friend makes it possible for lots of anglers in that catch and release area to catch one like that and bigger, constantly taking fishermen who he can teach. And Jerry McCoy is one of our Panther Creek youth counselors who has promised to come up next summer and teach kids how to fly fish.

I will be back to the White in late January and February, when the duck hunting is over and I get tired of hunting rabbits. I keep telling Jerry that a grizzled old outdoorsman like me won’t need a guide to fish for those brown trout that grow big enough to eat a muskrat. But he insists that I do, and I expect he is right, although it might be hard to catch him when he is free, or find a time when he is in his museum instead of his boat.

My new book, “Little Home on the Piney” is being printed this week and it will be mailed first class on Dec. 15, which should get it to everyone by Christmas.  Those first couple of hundred copies will be numbered, but we will sign each and inscribe them to whoever you think might like to receive one as a gift.  The cost is $15 postpaid. If you need to reach me, you can call my executive secretary, at our executive offices 417-777-5227. If you are fairly rich, I have eight other books that might make good gifts and would consider giving someone a good price on a combination of them.  I quite often barter and might be willing to trade books for old guns, old outdoor magazines or chickens or a hound pup.  You can write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613 or email lightninridge@windstream.net.

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WELCOME CATCHES – Jerry McCoy with a rainbow trout, a regular to the White River, and a walleye, which is a newcomer.

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