Split Fishing Personality

Posted by Al Agnew on November 4th, 2010
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If you’re a river angler, close your eyes for a moment and put yourself on your favorite stream, fishing for your favorite fish with your favorite equipment. What do you see in your mind’s eye?

I keep getting double vision.

I guess my dominant “eye”, or better yet, my dominant personality, is still smallmouth fishing on an Ozark stream. After all, I was “born ‘n’ raised” in this region of hills and hollows and friendly little clear-running streams. I learned to fish for river smallmouth from my dad and grandfather, with help from a few other old timers and a lot of trial and error. Dad was really more of a reservoir bass fisherman by the time I was old enough to go along, and my grandfather (whom I called “Paw”) was enamored with crappie fishing. In fact, Paw first introduced me to stream smallmouth. Understand, I knew what they were at the age of 6, because I listened to Dad, Paw, and my uncle talking about them. They’d all fished for smallies at one time or another, and spoke of them in such glowing terms that the smallmouth became a mythical creature to me.

Granny and Paw lived on a creek, but it was so highly polluted by waste from the local lead mines and sewage from the town it flowed through that Paw always drove about 20 miles to another creek to trap his crappie minnows (kept in a concrete tank behind the tool shed). And at about age six, he began to take me with him, since I spent so many summer weekends at their house anyway. Paw would bait his glass minnow traps with crackers and toss them in right below a concrete box culvert low-water bridge, while I played in the shallows above the bridge.

I guess it was one of the first few times he took me to the bridge that I happened to walk up to the upstream edge, where the gentle current deepened to sweep through the box culvert, looked down into the clear water, and saw two fish finning in the flow. They immediately let the current push them under the bridge as soon as my shadow loomed over them, but I’d seen them!

“Paw!” I shouted, “There was two big fish up here that just went under the bridge!”

“Prob’ly smallmouth,” Paw, a man of few words, said.

Smallmouth?! That mysterious fish?

“Paw, how do you catch them?”

Paw finished baiting his trap and easing it into the deeper pool below the bridge before answering.

“Go up a ways above the bridge and ketch a couple crawdads about this long,” he held his fingers two inches apart, “while I rig up this pole, and I’ll show ya.”

I ran up into the shallows and started turning over rocks, and quickly caught three crayfish of the requisite size. By the time I got back to the car, Paw had a hook and small split shot attached to the line of the spincast rod he kept in the trunk of the car.

“Now, you hook one of those crawdads through the tail like this.” He showed me. “Now, take this rod, sneak up real quiet to the edge of the bridge, and put that crawdad in and let the current take it under the bridge.”

He watched as I did so.

“Wait…wait…let it go a little farther…” Suddenly the line jumped. “Now, set the hook!”

As soon as I felt the smallie on the end of the line, I got so excited I forgot to reel and started to back up holding onto the rod for dear life, the line sawing against the rough concrete of the bridge. “No! Set still and start reelin’! You know better’n that!”

A few seconds later I hefted a smallmouth out of the water to flop on the bridge. To me it looked pretty big, but I suspect it was only ten inches or so. Didn’t matter, I was hooked.

The next summer, when I was seven, I finally talked my dad into taking me on a float trip. The only boat he had at the time was a 16 foot johnboat that he used on Wappapello Reservoir, and the accesses on upper Big River didn’t have boat ramps, nor was the river big enough for that boat. But he somehow wrestled it into the river at a bad spot (and wrestled it out at an even worse one) and we paddled and pushed our way down the river. I loved every moment of it, and never realized until much later what it cost him in hard work to give me that experience.

By that time, I was going with him every weekend reservoir fishing, and I’d already caught 6 pound class largemouth. But there was something special about those smallies and the river, and while Dad wasn’t about to go back to his stream fishing roots, I wanted more. The river was only a mile from the house, and by the time I was eight I’d gotten permission to ride my bicycle to the bridge whenever I didn’t have chores. I had one really good fishing buddy my same age, and the two of us became serious smallmouth seekers. I say seekers because we didn’t catch many. Dad and Paw had always fished the streams with fly rods, though not with “flies”. Their only real smallmouth artificial was the “Black Gnat Fly and Spinner”, so Rick and I put together some of them and tried to catch smallies. Soon, though, we were experimenting with other lures, all of them small, and catching smallmouth up to 12 or 13 inches.

So that’s how it started. Dad bought a little light 12 foot Sears jonboat when I was about 13, and anytime I could talk my parents (or we could talk Rick’s parents) into shuttling us we were doing float trips in that little boat, often overnighters. When I graduated from high school and got a job for the summer, my first purchase was a 15 foot Grumman aluminum canoe.

Oh, I was still a reservoir angler as well. It was my first case of split personality. The tournament craze was just beginning, and I was a hotshot local bass club warrior. But I had to have a regular river smallie fix. This was also the time when the proposed dam on the Meramec River first became news, and all the members of the bass club pored over maps of the potential reservoir site and dreamed of a new lake nearby to fish. I was no different for a while, but then one of those bits of serendipity happened.

I don’t remember where I saw the ad, but it was for a book called “The Buffalo River Country”, by Kenneth Smith, published by some outfit called The Ozark Society. I’d heard of the Buffalo once before; my dad’s best fishing buddy mentioned once that he’d floated it years ago. In fact, I still remember his exact words:

“Hell, I couldn’t fish much because I was too danged busy starin’ at the scenery with my mouth hangin’ open. That river is ungodly pretty.”

When I saw the ad for that book, I ordered it. At that time, the Buffalo was in the process of getting designated as a National River, and the book was produced to support the National River concept. The writing was okay, but the photos were so effective they had MY mouth hangin’ open. It was my river on a much larger, wilder, and spectacular scale. And where before I’d mainly considered the river only as a nice place to catch smallmouth bass, suddenly my eyes were opened to what gems ALL the Ozark streams could be. And just like that, I turned into a staunch opponent of the Meramec Dam. In the next few years I wrote letters to editors and politicians, joined all the organizations opposing the dam, wrote articles about it in college classes and local periodicals, and I like to think I had some small part in the results of the referendum that made the Meramec the first river to be saved from the Corps of Engineers after the land had been bought (by imminent domain) and construction had actually begun.

So by the time I graduated from college in 1976 and started a short career in teaching, my split personality was mostly cured. I’d floated the Meramec and fallen in love with it. I made it to the upper Buffalo on the honeymoon of my first marriage (my first wife died in an auto accident four years later). With the summers off from teaching, I traveled as much as I could afford all over the Ozarks, eventually floating and fishing at least some sections of nearly every Missouri Ozark stream and several in Arkansas. The reservoir bass fishing was relegated to the occasional trip to local lakes.

The teaching career fizzled after seven years, and with the encouragement of my new wife Mary I embarked upon a career as an artist. My first published print was a Meramec River scene. After a few years I was an established wildlife artist, attending various art shows around the country. And it was at one of those shows–well, actually after one of those shows–that my second manifestation of split fishing personality appeared.

The show was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In talking to Bruce Miller, an artist who I had met before and knew to be a fisherman, he mentioned that he and some other artists were planning on going over to a lodge on the Pere Marquette River after the show to fish for salmon running up out of Lake Michigan, and that Mary and I should go, too. I told him we had no gear with us, and he said that among the people who were going there were sure to be extra waders and fly rods.

Fly rods…I’d borrowed my dad’s fiberglass fly rod a few times when I was a teenager to try to catch smallmouth on it, but with little success and even less of an idea of how to cast it. That was my sum total of flyfishing experience. But it sounded like fun, so Mary and I soon found ourselves on the Pere Marguette with fly rods in hand. And we had a blast. 15 to 20 pound king salmon were thick in the river, and it was chuck and duck casting with egg flies to fish on redds, far from classic fly fishing, but we caught fish and we loved it, so much so that as soon as we got home, I ordered a pair of semi-cheap 7-8 weight rods from Bass Pro Shops, figuring that we’d be going to that show every year and would just plan to fish for salmon afterwards.

Unfortunately, the next year the show changed its dates to later in the autumn, after the salmon run was over. Several artists went anyway, hoping to catch steelhead, but the timing was bad and the river was almost snowed in anyway.

Somewhere along the line, though, Mary and I both realized we liked flyfishing, and I decided to make the fateful step of buying one good fly rod for possible trout fishing. I’d fished for trout on the Meramec with crankbaits several times, and thought it might be fun to learn how to catch them on the long rod. There was a shop in Cape Girardeau at the time that sold Sage rods, and I purchased a 4 weight.

As anybody knows, once you buy one fly rod, you just have to keep buying, but for a few years I used that one very little and saw no reason to add to my collection. My fly fishing persona was in abeyance for the most part. Then one day I met Tom Manion at a party. A conversation ensued and I quickly learned that Tom was a fly fishing addict, as passionate about it as I was about smallmouth fishing. I was intrigued, but soon forgot about Tom and flyfishing, until a few months later when he called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go with him on a trip he had planned to the Yellowstone Valley Lodge in Montana.

“I’m interested, but I only have one fly rod that might work for trout, and no flies or any other equipment.”

“Do you have waders?”

I did, although they were pretty cheap canvas Hodgmans.

“Got a vest?”

“Nope.”

“Okay…I have plenty of extra rods, no problem there. I’ll tie you up a supply of flies, no problem there. I have more tippet and floatant and stuff like that than you’ll ever need. You might think about buying some kind of vest to carry everything in, but other than that I’ve got you covered.”

Tom, the flyfishing pusher.

That was in 1994. The Yellowstone was blown out from record floods when we showed up at the lodge in early July, but other streams in the area were fishing well, and I had a ball. I was hooked, doomed, already flopping on the bank. I quickly added another 4 weight, a 5 weight, and a 6 weight to my armory. Ordered replacements for all of Tom’s flies I’d lost plus dozens more. Tried to tie some myself. Got better waders. Got a better vest and all the tools a flyfisherman or a marketing whiz ever thought were necessary to hang off it.

From then on, Tom and I made a trip to Montana every year. Our guide that first year, Tom Coleman, became a great friend, and guided us for a number of years until he told us he would fish with us but he wouldn’t guide us anymore. We had to take our turns handling the drift boat while HE fished. We got to know the Yellowstone from Gardiner to Big Timber, over a hundred miles of prime Western trout river. We fished the Boulder, the Shields, the Big Horn, the Big Hole, the Madison, the Gallatin, the Stillwater, and a multitude of smaller creeks around Livingston and up in Yellowstone Park. Mary and I had also spent time around Yellowstone photographing wildlife, and she loved the area, so a few years ago we took the plunge and bought a cabin in Paradise Valley, minutes from the river. And last spring we got a deal we couldn’t pass up on a house right on the Yellowstone just outside Livingston.

So now I find I have two nearly equal fishing persona. Part of the year I’m still an Ozark river smallmouth angler, with ten casting and spinning rods, enough tackle to start a fair sized shop, five canoes and a jetboat. Part of the year I’m a Montana flyfisherman, with ten rods, a pack full of flies and equipment that makes my back hurt to carry it, two pairs of Simms waders and three other sets of only slightly cheaper waders, the use of a drift boat and part ownership in a raft.

So when I close my eyes and picture my favorite fishing places…

I see green fertile water flowing smoothly along a rocky bank on Big River, with a long riffle downstream and a high, reddish stained bluff framed in the trees that arch over the sparkling shoal. I remember the exact rock along that bank where I’ve caught two 20 inch smallies over the years…

I see the Yellowstone River pouring over a wide, curving, turbulent riffle into a long run of choppy water reflecting the achingly clear blue sky, with autumn cottonwoods glowing golden in the sun and the Absaroka Mountains thrusting into the sky in the background. The inside of the riffle is slower water, and the seam between the fast chute and the slow eddy has produced trout every time I’ve ever fished it…

I see Vilander Bluff on a gray, misty winter day, with the Meramec dark and mysterious in the pool beneath the towering rock face. Everything is muted gray and brown, the water with just a hint of deep green, and yet it’s so hauntingly beautiful that I have to pause before making the next cast to soak it all in…

I see the amber water of the Big Hole River flowing through a fairy tale landscape because last night there was a 6 inch May snowfall that clung to everything it touched. The streamside bushes are a lacework of white, and the boulders along the riverbank all have fluffy caps that gleam in the morning sun, and I have to pause between casts even though the river is moving the raft so fast I know I’ll miss a couple of great spots to lay the streamer (and the brown trout have already shown that they are biting) to soak it all in…

Big, Meramec, Bourbeuse, Mineral Fork, Huzzah Courtois, Gasconade, Big Piney, Osage Fork, Little Piney, Roubidoux, Niangua, James, Flat, Shoal, Beaver, North Fork, Bryant, Eleven Point, Current, Jacks Fork, Black, Little Black, St. Francis, Little St. Francis, Big Creek, Castor, Whitewater, Kings, Crooked, Buffalo, Spring, Strawberry…I have a few more Ozark streams I haven’t floated yet, but not many…

Yellowstone, Boulder, Stillwater, Big Hole, Big Horn, Madison, Gallatin, Slough, Firehole, Gibbon, Lamar, De Puys, Armstrong, Nelson’s, Shields, Sixteenmile, Six Mile, Taylor’s Fork…there are still a lot of Montana streams to fish…

John Day, Kern, Maquoketa, Mississippi, St. Croix, Buffalo, New, Shenandoah, Delaware, Penobscot, Kennebec, St. Regis, Potomac, St. Lawrence, Burnt…I’ve only scratched the surface of all the smallmouth streams around the country I want to fish…

Salmon, Snake, Hoback, Gros Ventre, Eagle, Frying Pan, San Juan…there are still a vast number of Western trout streams I haven’t fished…

One of these days, maybe my split personality will merge. Maybe I’ll get serious about fishing for smallies with the long rod. Maybe I’ll set a trend and seek those bruiser Yellowstone trout that ignore flies with casting rod and crankbaits.

Or maybe it’s not a split personality at all. I’m simply a river fisherman. I love rivers no matter where they are found and no matter what kind of fish live in them. I love the living smell of moving water over rocks, the sound of a burbling riffle and the deep roar of a big rapid and the cry of a pair of wood ducks as they take off in front of me and the buzz of summer insects in the bankside trees. I love the feel of current tugging at my waders and the swirls and eddies gently rocking the canoe beneath me and the throbbing electric weight of a trout when I lift the fly rod and the power of a big smallmouth as it dives beneath the canoe in a last ditch effort to escape. I love the sight of bare rock mountains covered in snow, far away yet seeming so close in the clear air, reflected in the smooth water of a gliding run, and a rugged, mineral stained limestone cliff curving around the bend, getting more and more indistinct in the morning mist. I love straining to watch the tiny dry fly dancing in the flow, all your attention zeroed in on that little bit of steel and feathers, and seeing it suddenly disappear into the maw of a big head that quietly emerges from the water for an instant, and having all my attention zeroed in on the dancing, zig-zagging topwater lure coming past that big submerged log when a great bronze body suddenly lunges half in, half out of the water three feet away to explode upon it.

Split personality? No, I’ve just experienced some of the best of two aspects of the world of river fishing, and I’m no longer a smallmouth angler or a trout fisherman or a bassmaster or a flyfisherman, I’m a just a river rat.

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