My yearly adventure… on no-name creek

Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
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Al Agnew

As I loaded the camping stuff into the canoe, I was thinking to myself that this really isn’t my private creek, but it usually seems like it is. Not another soul at the put-in, and I didn’t expect to see anybody actually floating throughout the next two days. I had flown back to Missouri from Montana for this week, mainly to get in my one trip a year on this special creek, although I also had to do some business back home.

The creek actually has about three short to medium days of floating, and I usually do it in 2 1/2 days, with two nights spent on the stream. But I admit that I don’t like camping on gravel bars when there is supposed to be a good chance of thunderstorms, and that’s what the early weather forecast was calling for on Tuesday night. So I decided to cut the float a little shorter, foregoing the lower 6 or 7 miles, putting in on Monday late in the morning and taking out Tuesday evening.

This creek is special in several ways. First and foremost, it’s gorgeous. Second, the fishing is usually insane. And third, you won’t see many other people on it. It’s the creek where I expect to average over 100 smallmouth a day, with several over 17 inches thrown in. (In fact, it’s the creek that I got some grief about last year when I wouldn’t divulge the name of it after reporting on a fantastic fishing trip.) So as I dropped through the riffle below the put-in, I gazed at the first bluff for a bit and then picked up the rod, fully expecting a fish on one of the first casts.

It didn’t happen. In fact, through the first three pools, I caught one little smallmouth and had only one more half-hearted strike on the Sammy. Hmm. Have people been pounding this area from the access? Not only that, but I got the lure hung up, and while going to retrieve it I somehow knocked my open box of bass flies out of the canoe and had to spend some time retrieving all of them I could. I was planning on using the fly rod a lot, expecting the fishing to be good enough that it would be easy to practice catching smallies on the fly.

The fishing continued slow, and the fish small, as I got further from the access. The weather was cloudy and cool. Maybe that was the problem. Conventional wisdom is that a cloudy day can really turn the fish on, but in my experience on Ozark streams the opposite often happens in the summer for some reason. Then the sun came out and it warmed up a little, but the fishing didn’t. So much for that theory. There’s an intermediate access a few miles below the put-in. Maybe people had been floating that stretch a lot more than usual and had educated the fish (or cleaned them out). I reached the access, and the fishing didn’t get any better. Okay, maybe they have been floating this whole first day’s stretch, since the shuttle is not too difficult–on the second day’s stretch the shuttle is a real bear. Or maybe it was because the creek was still up a little from some heavy rain last week, although it was also extremely clear.

It just seemed like the fish weren’t there. I’d pick up a small one now and then, but I wasn’t even seeing fish of any size. Then I finally got a solid strike on my homemade twin spin. It turned out to be a 16 inch largemouth. Largemouth are usually scarce in this creek.

I’d put in about 11 AM, and at 5:30 PM I reached the spot where I’d tentatively planned to camp for the night. But the creek had changed a bit, and the pool there was a lot shallower than I remembered. I wanted a long, deep pool, because I intended to try some night fishing to see if that was necessary to catch the bigger fish I knew should be there. A half mile downstream, I found the pool I was looking for–actually two long pools lined with big rocks, and a small but high and beautiful gravel bar with a level spot covered with fine gravel for the tent, and a huge bluff across the creek with the setting sun flooding it with a warm reddish glow. Perfect.

I set up the tent and then sat down to eat my supper, the usual cold fried chicken and potato salad, washed down with a Coke and finished with a handful of vanilla wafers. As I ate I watched the sunlight on the bluff rise and fade, and a beaver came out, saw me, and slapped its tail on the water as it submerged. Other than that, there was blessed, beautiful silence, broken only by the faint gurgle of the riffle upstream.

I used the last of the daylight tying on a couple of lures for night fishing. I’d forgotten my night stuff (mainly Jitterbugs), but I had a big black buzzbait and a Super Spook Jr. with that loud rattle, and I figured one or the other should produce. I was both right and wrong. Right in that I caught a fish on each, wrong in that I caught only one fish on each. So night fishing wasn’t the answer, either. I’d finished up the day with about 45 bass, which sounds good until I tell you that other than the 16 inch largemouth, the biggest smallie was pushing 14 inches and few were over 12 inches.

Oh well, I thought, I’d pass the middle access tomorrow morning. Surely the fishing would get better below it, because surely hardly anybody braved the shuttle for that float.

I read a book in the tent by the light of my flashlight until I got sleepy–and got so engrossed in it I didn’t turn off the flashlight until after 11 PM. The book is about the Congo River in Africa, a place that has always excited my imagination. I was wakened right after I dropped off to sleep by some critter nosing around the cooler sitting outside the tent. I debated whether or not to bring the cooler inside the tent. This is a place where I’m pretty sure there are bears. But I decided I’d take the slight chance of a bear over the surety that a raccoon would keep me awake half the night, and brought the cooler in. I slept like a baby the rest of the night.

I emerged from the tent in the cool, foggy dawn, and watched the sun rising upstream and clearing the mist as I broke camp and breakfasted on powdered sugar do-nuts washed down with cold water. Maybe the morning bite was on. I hurriedly loaded the canoe and started fishing. Nothing happened in the pool in front of my campsite, but in the next pool I caught a nice 15 inch smallmouth. And the fishing, while not exactly up to its usual standards, was definitely better. In the next short, rather shallow pool, I fished the upper portion carefully with only a couple small fish to show for it, but in the even shallower rocks below, I had a big fish blow up on the Sammy and miss. I involutarily jerked at the strike, aborting the hook set almost instantly, but the lure still traveled a few feet across the surface. I saw the shadows of two big fish charging it, and what looked like the bigger of the two got to it first and engulfed it. This was a wild, powerful smallmouth. My drag seldom comes into play when battling smallies on 8 pound test McCoys line, but this one stripped a good ten feet of line off the drag, twice. Finally I lipped it and laid it across the paddle blade to photograph, noting that it was a little shy of 20 inches, but a little over 19.

In fast water a little further along, I hooked another big fish on the twin spin, but this one knew exactly what to do. It lunged directly under a big boulder in the heart of the current and disappeared. I couldn’t get it out. I beached the canoe nearby and waded out as far as I could, jammed the rod tip down into the crevice the line led into, and couldn’t feel the lure or the fish. I finally had to break off, not knowing whether the fish was still hooked or not.

Another big fish did the same thing a bit farther along, this time taking me instantly under the log it had come from to take the Sammy, and snagging the lure on the wood and tearing free. At least this time I got the lure back, and knew the fish didn’t have the hooks in its face.

There was a tree down across a riffle, and I had to get out to walk the canoe around it. As I was walking the canoe over inch deep rocky shallows, I slipped a bit, just enough to jam my lower leg into the side of the canoe, right where my lure was dangling. Ouch. I looked down, and the belly hook of the big topwater lure was buried in the meat of my upper ankle, all the way to the shank. I gingerly grabbed the lure, unsnapped it from the line, and sat down to study the situation. The old rope trick was going to be needed. But to do it right, I was going to need to get that hook off the lure.

It is not easy, nor painless, to take a hook off a split ring when the ring is attached to a big lure, the hook is buried in your anatomy, and all you have to do it with is wet fingernails. But I managed it after a bit of grunting, moaning, and cussing. Now I could operate. I took a length of fly line and looped it around the bend, pushed down hard on the eye of the hook, pressing it toward the buried barb, took a deep breath, and jerked sharply and HARD. The hook popped right out. Back to floating and fishing.

But the fishing had slowed, again. On this second day stretch, the habitat gradually deteriorates, getting more and more shallow with longer stretches of seemingly barren, coverless water. But the fish are usually found about anywhere they could possibly be. Today, it seemed that as the sun got high the fish all moved to the fast water right below the riffles. I was seeing more fish than the day before, however. They seemed to be in bunches. There was apparently a great year class about three years ago, because there were a lot of 8-9 inch smallies. I saw one group in a shallow pool, all of them retreated to hide under a low ledge in a couple feet of water, and there must have been at least 30 fish in that pod. And 7-9 inchers were everywhere, but the fish just a little bigger where in small groups, usually near the heads of the pools. I did catch a pretty 17.5 incher which came out from a little piece of brush on an otherwise barren, slow current bank no more than two feet deep to chase down the twin spin. And an 18 incher got some exercise when I hooked it in slow water near the tail of a pool on a buzzbait. It actually jumped all over the buzzbait the instant it hit the water, and I’m convinced it saw the lure coming in mid-air.

I also saw cottonmouths. A LOT of cottonmouths. I see more cottonmouths every time I float this creek; it probably has one of the best populations of the pit vipers in the Ozarks. All of them are about the same size, about 2 feet long. I watched one of them swim into a bed of water willow, and paddled over to get a closer look. When I was about ten feet away, the snake came out of the water willows straight toward me. A lot of people probably think the snake is attacking you when this happens, but it’s simply a matter of cottonmouths being curious and having no fear. It wanted to see what that big thing was, and I don’t know what it would have done if I’d allowed it to swim up to the canoe, but I slapped the water several times right in front of its face with my rod tip, and it finally turned and swam away. At any rate, it was one of probably a dozen cottonmouths I saw on this trip.

By mid-day the fishing had slowed again. The big pools, which usually have fish scattered all through them, were totally dead, seemingly devoid of fish other than the ubiquitous 8-9 inchers, and even they weren’t playing. And goggle-eye. I only caught one goggle-eye the whole trip, but I saw thousands of them, nearly all of them under 7 inches. I finally just stopped fishing and drifted, occasionally making a paddle stroke, watching fish and soaking up the scenery. When I’d come to a particularly good looking piece of fast water I’d make a few casts, and sometimes hook a fish, but mostly I sat back and relaxed, knowing I was well on schedule to finish the float long before dark.

As the afternoon shadows lengthened and I neared the end of the float, the fish finally turned on to something close to what I’d expected in the first place. They were having none of the topwater lures anymore, but the twin spin was deadly. In a very fast run, I made a cast to a big boulder in front of me and saw the swirl of another big fish. I set the hook, and by the time I could regain the slack line caused by the canoe approaching the rock at breakneck speed, the fish was diving under the boat. I barely evaded slamming into the rock, got the canoe half turned, and let it drift as I played the fish. This one was a bit under 19 inches.

The last couple of pools gave the lie to the many that had come before, because I caught nice 15-16 inch smallies out of both. The last fish came on my very last cast before the gravel bar take-out, a 14 incher.

As I drove home, I turned the experience over and over in my mind. I’d tried everything, including night fishing and stopping to really work good looking water with both the fly rod and with spinning tackle and slow, bottom bumping baits. I’d run through about every kind of lure in my arsenal of tackle. It just seemed that the fish weren’t there–until that last couple of miles. I’d have thought that, in the clear water, I would have seen them at least. Had something happened to the vast numbers of fish that had “always” been there, especially on that upper section the first day? Had people been cleaning them out? Or, horrors, otters? Nah, the otters had been there for years. Perhaps the recent rise and cooler weather had something to do with it.

On the other hand, I was happy anyway. The scenery was magnificent as always. The weather was beautiful. I ended up catching 85 fish the second day, which is a red-letter day on most Ozark streams, with four between 17.5 and 19.5 inches. I had fun running the riffles, some of them tricky enough to make a bit of a challenge with the higher than usual water for late summer. I enjoyed the many vultures riding thermals above the bluffs, along with an eagle. I even enjoyed seeing the cottonmouths–they somehow contributed to the feeling of wildness. And, to top it off, in two whole days of floating, I saw exactly zero other people.

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