I first met Goldberg (Goldenfishberg) years ago during a pretty nasty electrical storm while fishing a local Catfish hole on the St. Croix River. He and his two friends were the only souls, besides me, crazy enough to be out fishing that wet, windy night and it payed off with some nice fish for all of us. I instantly liked him because of his true grit and great sense of humor and as luck would have it, we started to run into each other more often. We have since become good fishing buddies and spend quite a bit of time on the bank together over the course of the season.
Goldberg was already a seasoned Roughfisherman when I met him, with a great appreciation for the lesser sought after fish species of our river and lakes, and a fantastic combination of “do-it-yourself” and adventurousness woven into his fishing style. He was also very keen on the idea of keeping a Life-List when I told him about mine and he eventually started his own.
The more pictures Goldenfishberg added to his list, the more motivated and enthusiastic he became. I started to get multiple calls a week to discuss species-hunting related questions he had and I knew then he was terminal. With that in mind, I thought he would be the perfect cohort for a weekend trip to Missouri I was planning. As luck would have it, he had nothing going on that weekend and was even able to take a few days off of work. Our plan was to pack my van Thursday night and head out the following morning for the Missouri River near Kansas City. After the seven hour drive, we planned to fish the Missouri River for the remainder of Friday, before heading south to the Spring River drainage.
Thursday night found us both in a frenzy rounding up last minute supplies, and tying up loose ends. By the time we had the van packed it was eleven PM and both of us were much too anxious and excited to even consider sleeping. We decided that rest was not what we needed now: we would make our escape under the cover of darkness, taking advantage of the empty freeways only found during midnight travel. This is my favorite time to drive and (besides being mid coitous with some finned beast) flying down an all but deserted freeway in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night is when I feel happiest to be alive. There is a unique feeling of freedom and well-being I experience racing down an open rural highway in Nowheresville America. Nothing matters besides eating up the miles between me and my target, all the horse shit that doesn’t really matter anyway disappears and leaves me with a very simple world. Lock in the cruise control, stay in between the lines, don’t hit any cars, crackers or critters. Simple as that.
Goldberg seized control of the jukebox somewhere near the edge of The Twin Cities and provided a steady stream of The Blues, setting the mood perfectly for our meeting with the muddy Missouri. After stopping for gas once and chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes, we rolled into the Motel 6 parking lot that was our intended lodging for the night. We had made great time and I was ecstatic that I would be waking up within fifteen minutes of the Missouri River. The birds were already calling out their morning greetings by the time we got into our room, and we passed out promptly; both of us exhausted and worn from fatigue.
We woke up late the following morning to overcast skies and a bit chillier weather than I expected. We hadn’t gotten very much sleep but the muddy Missouri River’s call was too great to ignore. With one eye open, I groggily collected my belongings from the room and made my way down to the van. We had gathered a good amount of crawlers before the trip so we were set on bait, but we both needed fishing licenses before we could begin our quest. We headed over to the local Wal-Mart only to find that the license machine was out of order until further notice. Luckily, we had seen a small bait shop on the other side of the divided highway on our way to Wal-mart so after procuring some sandwich making supplies, we headed over to get our Licenses.
The small bait shop was in an ancient building stuffed full of gear, bait tanks and old fishermen. Goldberg would later comment that the shop’s smell was uncannily similar to that of his grandmother’s closet. The bait tanks were made from large stock tanks with homemade aeration lines above them and were filled with an assortment of minnows. There were small Rosy red minnows for Crappie fishing, big shiners, and even a large tank full of Goldfish.
A large “stock tank” usually used for watering livestock full of Goldfish to be sold as fishing bait.
We wouldn't be needing any minnows today but I definitely took note for future trips. After oogaling the bait tanks for a few minutes, we made our way back to the front of the shop past tables full of dusty sinkers and tackle. There were five older gentlemen B.S.in’ in the front of the store who had hardly noticed we came in. The one who was obviously in charge was sitting at a cluttered desk helping one of the other old men with something and hadn’t even looked up since we came in. We asked one of the guys standing off to the side and were told they didn’t sell licenses but could find them down the road at a different shop. A little disconcerted, but ever determined, we set out for what we hoped would be our final stop before battle with The Muddy Mistress.
The next shop was the polar opposite of the last. It was in a new building that was clean, orderly, and well stocked with new gear. It was a pretty nice place but didn’t have the same magic the old bait shop we first visited possessed. There is something about an old, dirty, Ma and Pop bait shop that really gets me. When we inquired about licensure, we were told they could help us but had never sold an out of state license before. The process was made painfully slow by this and we were there at least a half an hour before we both had our licenses.
After finally resolving said license fiasco, we were on way back to the van when we noticed two old ladies in the parking lot attempting to peddle ancient fishing gear to one of the guys who worked inside. With a mixture of amusement and intrigue, we went over to investigate the old womans wares that filled the inside of her small car. All of the gear was really old, covered in dust and looked like it hadn’t seen action in ages. I have an obscene amount of fish gear as it is and forced myself to step away soon after I started looking, fearing what would happen if I looked too long. Goldberg, on the other hand, was standing closer to the old hustler and, before he knew what hit him, she had his arms full of fishing gear and was trying to push more. She explained that it was her husband's and that she was trying to “save her marriage” by selling his ancient fishing gear to us. “Take more!” she urged, thrusting a dry-rotted bent up fishing net in Goldberg’s face, his arms barely able to hold the gear he already had.
I had taken cover near the back of my van and was eating some breakfast fried chicken with hot sauce while I giggled at the scene that was playing out before me. She must have sensed my feeling of having escaped and broke away from Goldberg to try her hand on me again. She quickly realized I wasn’t going to buy anything, but still somehow got me to take a “Slide Machine” for free that I have no idea the use for. As I was putting the strange machine in the back of my van, I broke free from the woman’s spell and realized just how powerful she was. I knew we had to get out of there quick before we had this old man’s entire arsenal jammed in the back of my already crowded van.
The ancient hustler was back on Goldberg already who had a far off look in his eye and was trying to fit more tackle in his overloaded arms. I approached them cautiously and announced loudly that we appreciated the deals but we had to get going. My first attempts were ignored, but I eventually broke through to Goldberg after finally making contact with him and repeating our need to go. He shook his head while muttering something about “deals” before his dazed look was replaced by one of confusion and fear. He realized what was happening and made a break for the van as quick as he could after paying. We left the old woman in the parking lot with the poor employee still fully under her spell. I was thankful we had gotten away as easy as we had, but felt bad for the man left behind who would surely buy the entirety of the junk on the store’s dime and lose his job. With all of our necessary credentials in order, we pointed the van toward the river- finally able to begin our quest for slimy glory.
“Vanny” prowling the banks of the mighty Missouri.
When we arrived at the boat launch it was deserted and the water level looked prime. There was some debris in the water and it was moving a lot swifter than most spots I like to fish, but for this particular spot that was a hell of a lot better than I was used to. I had been coming to this spot for years; always after the same fish yet always leaving with an empty space on my camera's memory card where I had hoped to put its’ picture. The first time I visited this spot, I had seen one of these ghostly unicorns captured and a lust to catch one of my own ate at my soul from that day on. The last time I tried, I watched the river swell to the point of eating the entire boat launch; losing a rod to a giant tree ripping warp-speed down the river in the process. The Missouri River is a seriously mean spirited old witch who doesn’t give two shits about anyone’s feelings, especially yours truly. That being said, I’m a glutton for punishment and couldn’t help coming back, yet again, to try for this phantom fish who has haunted my dreams for years.
After a cursory inspection of the bank, we got to work rigging up and getting lines out. There was a very nice current-seam on the downstream side of the bridge and we took advantage of it, focusing our efforts near its’ edge. Even with the nice break, we still had to use 6 oz. leads to keep our baits pinned on the edge of the current. For the rest of my rig, I decided to use what I normally use for Shovelnose sturgeon: a size two octopus circle and a ball of crawlers. By this time, the cloud cover had started to break apart and the sun warmed up the early afternoon to a perfect temperature for fishing. It wasn’t ten minutes later that we were getting our first bites and within fifteen, Goldberg had his Lifer Shovelnose sturgeon on the bank.
Golberg with his lifer Spadeface.
I was the next to hook a fish and right away I knew it wasn’t a Shovelnose; this fish was heavy and quick, like a Carp or Buffalo. I was really hoping for the latter but was still happy to see this nice little Carp appear out of the muddy water next to the bank.
A nice little Missouri River Carp.
Goldberg commented that he was a bit jealous of the Carp, as it would be a Photo Lifer for him. I assured him that it would be an easy catch and that he would probably have his Carp by the end of the day. Not long after I said that, he got a more aggressive and persistent bite than most that we had that day. He set the hook and the fish curled his rod nicely, revealing that this was a sizeable fish. We were both certain this was another Carp until a big gray Drum came thrushing up into the shallows.
Goldy’s personal best Mid-West Red (Freshwater Drum)
We were both a little disappointed it wasn’t a Carp, but were definitely impressed by the proportions of this Drum. It was now mid afternoon and as the sun heated up, so did the bites.
The majority of the fish we caught were Shovelnose, some of them pretty nicely sized.
A beauty Hackleback caught by Goldy.
A decent Spadeface for yours truly.
The biting was red-hot, and we were having a ball hauling in the cool little Sturgeons one after another. It was only a few hours into the session when, during what I thought was a routine scuffle with a spadeface, I saw a finned apparition materialize out of the murky abyss. No f^%kin’ way, I thought to myself, it can’t be. My pulse raced, my mind whirred, and I began to sweat. Goldberg, sensing something was up, had come to my side to see what was afoot. The pale beast breached again, this time only five feet from the bank “Do you know what that is?!” I asked, my voice quivering with madness and panic. Before he had time to answer, I had it on the sandy bank and was unhooking it in a state of mind that was half frenzied and half dazed. I had my ghostly unicorn that I had dreamed about for so long; I had captured my “White Whale”. Goldberg immediately got out my camera and started snapping photos, while I marveled at the rare beast I held in my shaking hands- Scaphirhynchus albus; The Pallid Sturgeon.
Scaphirhynchus albus- The Pallid Sturgeon.
This fish definitely had a tough life- there was a large chunk missing from its’ nose and both of the pectoral fins were curled up toward its’ body. After a few quick photos, I got My Whale back into the water and watched it swim away full of piss and vinager the second I let go.
I had been too stunned to process what had happened until I stood up and saw the look on Goldberg’s face. We both let out loud whoops that echoed through the valley and embraced in a celebratory hug on the banks of the muddy river. After all of this time, my muddy mistress had finally given it up; she finally gave me a piece of that sweet love I had pined for all those long nights. I couldn’t have been any happier! It was a good fifteen minutes before I even thought about getting my rigs back out.
The bite stayed steady all afternoon: a constant stream of Shovelnose, mixed with a few drum.
Goldy with the nicest Spadeface of the day.
I caught another small Carp, but Goldberg couldn’t seem to will one to his line. I felt bad now for saying that it would be an easy catch, wondering if I had inadvertently cursed my poor pal Goldy.
As the evening wore on, the bite began to slow, and soon Goldberg asked how long I wanted to stay. I told him that it was up to him at this point, but that we should probably move on by no later than midnight. He looked thoughtful, then asked about a Gar spot I had mentioned that wasn’t far from where we were fishing. “Sounds like a plan to me” I replied, happy to agree to just about anything after the insane day of fishing I just had. Goldberg held out until a little after dark before he threw in the towel and we began to pack up our gear. The last thing we loaded were our rods; left in the water until the bitter end.
The Gar spot we wanted to fish is a muddy creek that zigzags through farm fields and under dirt roads, before flowing into the Missouri River. It’s usually loaded with Gar and just so happens to be where I caught my first Shortnose many years ago on a hot and sticky September night. I was a little worried because tonight wasn’t hot and sticky at all, it was downright chilly- not the prefered conditions for Gar fishing. I wasn’t especially concerned with catching a Gar that night, but I really hoped that my partner in slime could at least manage one.
We stopped at a smaller creek up the road from where we planned to fish in an attempt to net bait, but came up empty handed. Strike two for the night. I have caught Gar from this area using crawlers before, but was worried with the cold weather that they might be a little more picky than usual. That’s if they were hanging around at all.
After another short drive down the narrow white gravel road, we arrived at the bridge in a cloud of dust with Hank Williams The Third crooning out a sad song on the radio. We hopped out of the van with just our head lamps and went to inspect the area directly below the bridge. At first, I didn’t see anything and was worried that it was still too cold for the Gar to be very active, but as I neared the opposite bank I spotted two Shortnose lurking just under the surface of the murky water. I pointed them out to Goldberg before we scurried back to the car to rig up.
We both tied up with my go-to Shortnose rig: a sharp, size six hook with a small split shot about two feet up. On to that, we carefully threaded three-quarters of a night crawler, kind of like you would if you were using a soft plastic Bass worm. Once we were ready, we headed out onto the bridge to try to spot another Gar.
After a few minutes of not seeing anything, I was starting to get discouraged when a little Shorty came skulking out from under the bridge. Goldberg saw it as well and I stepped aside to let him give it a go. After a little bit of the usual run-around, the Gar snatched up the crawler Goldberg was swimming about its’ face, and we both let out muffled cheers. He opened his bail and let it swim away, while I scurried across the bridge toward the steep rocky bank to try and land his fish. After a few seconds, he set the hook and started fighting the fish toward shore, but it came unhooked only a few feet from the bank. We were both disappointed but I assured him he did nothing wrong and that losing fish was a normal part of Gar fishing. He nodded in agreement but the look on his face told me that he was far from consoled by my pep talk. I could sense in him a desperate madness only brought on by one’s first experience with losing a Gar, and slowly edged away from him as he re-baited his hook.
I have seen a lot of Gars over the years and to this day I still get all sorts of hot ‘n’ bothered when I see one patrolling just under the water’s surface. Something about their prehistoric aesthetic is mesmerizing and the first time most people watch a Gar snap up their bait, it’s usually followed by a tiny bit of pee running down their leg. Shortly after this is when everything usually goes wrong. The hopeful Noobie, their heart full of excitement and hope, thinks that they have they gar dead to rights and set the hook before starting to haul it towards the bank. Their excitement builds as the fish comes closer and closer, until suddenly, feet from the bank, it goes completely insane. Violently shaking its’ armor plated body, the Gar opens its’ bony jaws as its’ head breaches the surface, sending their hook flying back at them and crushing Noob dreams as easily as you flip on a light switch. All you can do is watch in stunned horror as the fish turns around and swims back to its’ feeding grounds, seemingly unfazed.
I watched this very scene play out a half-dozen times that night, and was starting to fear we would have to move on without a Gar. I was making a ham sandwich at the back of the van when Goldberg yelled that he had another one. With my sandwich in one hand, I ran toward the bridge, hoping that this would be the one. Goldberg reached the shore well before me, which concerned me greatly. I was expecting to hear a splash from the bank and a loud groan from the top of the bridge at any second, but Goldberg had managed to flip the wily little beast up onto the grass a few feet from shore. I cleared the rest of this distance between me and the Gar and Goldberg had his Lifer Shortnose at last.
Goldbergs well earned Shortnose gar.
It was almost mid-night at this point and we still had quite a few hours to drive before we got to our campsite so we hastily packed our gear and got on the road after a few quick pictures. Our drive south was for the most part uneventful and past quickly in a haze of smoke and Hank The Third. We had selected Robert E. Talbot Conservation Area in Jasper County as our home base for the trip and when we arrived there was only one other group taking advantage of the free primitive camping. After we set up our tents, we had a small fire and recounted the insane day of fishing we had just had. As the fire died, a well earned exhaustion came over us both and we made our way to our tents for some shut eye. In the surrounding forest, a chorus of whippoorwill’s called out to each other as I lay in my tent; decompressing from the day’s events before drifting off to sleep.
Early the next morning, we heard the other campers wake up and noisily get ready to go Turkey hunting. How do I know they were Turkey hunting? I know because they spent fifteen minutes loudly talking about their plans to bag a large Tom that day. We both fell back asleep once they had left and didn’t wake up until after we had a few more hours of much needed sleep. Both of us woke mid-morning with a very urgent need to use the bathroom in a capacity you can’t accomplish standing up. Being that this was a primitive campsite that meant no latrine besides the one the animals use, we took turns heading off into the woods to do our business and, in the process, probably started rumors among locals about Sasquatches in the area.
I had gone first, being that I’m the old man of the party, and was a little surprised when I heard what I thought was Goldberg coming down the trail back into camp soon after he had left for his turn. I was even more surprised to find that it wasn’t Goldberg, but the family of Turkey hunters who were camped next to us. Our loud neighbors turned out to be a father, son and daughter trio all decked out in camo with shotguns and slightly strange looks on their face. I greeted them and asked about their morning hunt which they informed me was not a success. We made small talk surrounding hunting and the weather during which they maintained a slight air of apprehension. Sensing this I made the conversation short, excusing myself to ready my fishing gear. Goldberg returned shortly after this and we loaded what we would need for the day into the van and left the campground.
As we were leaving the campground, Goldberg began to laugh hysterically and turned a little red. I had no idea what I had missed and began scanning the immediate area for the punchline; wondering if he was starting to crack or if there was a small monkey riding a dog somewhere. As he gained composure he explained to me that as he was positioning his manhood out the back of his legs that morning in preparation for his morning dump, the family of turkey hunters had taken him by surprise from his rear flank. When he finally noticed their approach it was much too late- the teenage daughter already bright red with her eyes averted to the ground. He had given them a full moon fruit basket in broad daylight and I had stopped to shoot the breeze with them only a minute or two later. Yikes. On the bright side, they were packing to go when we had left so we wouldn’t have to have any more awkward moments between campsites.
Our mirth over the incident eventually faded and I began to notice some that the landscape was quite different than other places I had been In South Missouri. It was much flatter and more open than the central Ozarks, but there were more hills and high gradient streams than the SE low lands. It was beautiful country with rolling green pastures and large tracts of forest. Scissortail-Flycatchers, a very cool bird I had never seen before, buzzed about the sides of the highway snatching up insects. We also saw a lot of road-killed Armadillos, which excited Goldberg as he had never seen one of the crazy little creatures. He commented that he wanted to see one of the armor-plated critters badly before we left and I told him it was a really good possibility.
For the first half of the day’s fishing we would concentrate on micros and began our day on a small creek not far from where we were camping. It was on a dirt road, surrounded by pasture, dotted with deciduous forest; quite small and perfectly gin-clear.
Beautiful crystal clear creeks such as this one are the norm in this part of the world.
We waded into the creek and found a cornucopia of species swimming in this small shallow stream. Colorful darters skitted across the bottom from rock to rock, hiding and looking for food. Schools of dace and shiners patrolled the deeper pools above formations of stone rollers, rooting through the gravel. It was a typical Ozarkian stream and I was ecstatic to be wading through its cool, clear water with a fishing rod in my hand. We immediately got to work and in no time we had pulled a number of micros from the chilly creek.
Goldberg’s lifer Southern redbelly dace
We had a lot of ground to cover that day, so our stay at the creek was short and we were soon off down the road again. This time our plan was to head to the spot furthest west on our list of areas: a small creek just across the border in Oklahoma- one of the scariest places on Earth. After a short drive through hostile territory, we came to a nice sized river that flowed gin- clear through a crushed limestone bed under a large bridge. This was the spot we had come to fish: both of us were chomping at the bit to get a line wet the moment we saw this sexy piece of agua. When we reached the bank we saw that it was full of fish, including one of our intended targets; the Redspot chub. It wasn’t long before we were both happily snapping photos of Lifers.
We had originally come to this spot to catch Sunburst darters but they were, unfortunately, nowhere to be found.
We saw large groups of Cardinal shiner in their full spawning regalia but they were unwilling to let us take their pictures. Large groups of them swooped back and forth through the current chasing each other and totally ignoring our baits. Feeling slightly beaten by our tiny opponents, we made our way back to the car after fishing a bit too long.
Once back in the great state of Missouri, we turned on The Dukes Of Hazard theme song by Waylon Jennings to celebrate and stopped at a creek near the border where I had “forgotten” a few things before entering Oklahoma. We stuck around and fished a bit, catching Redbelly dace and Fantail darter. We saw tons of inch-long juvenile Sculpins zipping in between the rocks as we waded upstream. It was late afternoon by now and time for the second leg of the day’s plan: fishing the Spring River for Pealip redhorse.
We had chosen an area on The Spring where it widened at bridge crossing near the Kansas border. A few Pealips had been sampled here some years back and, from the satellite photos, it looked like a real likely area.
Goldberg fishing a tasty riffle on the Spring River.
I set up on the downstream side of the bridge to fish a tasty current seam and Goldberg made his way upstream to a gravel bar to fish a nice riffle. I didn’t even have my second rod in the water before I was reeling in my first fish. When it got close I could see that it was a Longear sunfish, the scourge of sucker fishing in the Ozarks. Though they are some of the most beautiful sunfish in the world, they make fishing for anything else in their immediate area impossible because of how aggressive they are.
These Great-Plains longear sunfish were abundant in The Spring River.
While I fought through an army of Longears, Goldberg was having a little more luck from the gravel bar; catching a nice Crappie and a Spotted bass on a small spinner he was chucking around while waiting for bites on his bottom rig.
Goldberg’s Lifer Spotted bass
After sitting on the rocky bank for awhile, I started to notice fish breaching just upstream from where I was fishing. At first I couldn’t quite make out what they were, but eventually I spotted a nice Longnose gar creeping along the bank a few feet away from me. As I was watching the toothy beast slink past, I got a bite on my far rod that was different from the typical sunfish bite I had grown accustomed to. I tightened up my line; setting the circle hook as I slowly swept back my rod and felt the weight of a fish. It wasn’t very big but was definitely not a Longear. With bated breath, I gingerly fought the fish toward shore and soon had a sucker in my hands. To my disappointment, it wasn’t the sucker I was looking for-it was a small Northern hogsucker.
Even though it wasn’t my intended target, I am always happy to catch a Pugamoo, so I was only halfway salty when I sent it on its’ way. Goldberg had seen me taking pictures and came over to see what was up. I filled him in as he made a few drifts with a crawler around the bridge pilings. During one of these drifts, he caught this sweet looking Shadow bass- another Lifer.
As darkness closed in, my faith in catching a Pealip dwindled to almost nothing and I started to become more and more distracted by the gars who were feeding up and down the river. Eventually, I couldn't take it any more and rigged up one of my rods with a plain hook and split shot under a small float, with the intent of capturing one of the armored rabble-rousers. After crossing the bridge, I made my way to a large slack area downstream where I had seen the bulk of the breeches. I had originally planned to fish with a crawler because that was all I had, but as I approached the shore I noticed some small frogs hopping through the grass near the bank. They were pretty wily little guys but I soon captured one and sent it out into the river under my float. About five minutes later, I spied a decent Longnose cruising on the outside edge of the eddy. I quickly reeled in and recast my float just past the subsurface fish, slowly reeling it in near its’ face. As my float and frog approached the gar, it sank below the surface out of sight and I feared that I had spooked it. Seconds after it disappeared, while I was still cursing myself for spooking my quarry, my float stood upright out of the water and started to move upstream and toward the opposite bank. I turned on my bait feed with a mixture of shock and excitement, allowing the fish to take down the small frog before setting the hook. The fish was heavier than I expected, and put up a nice tussle before coming bankside.
I didn’t see anymore gar surface for quite a while after that, but as twilight turned to darkness, my float went cruising upstream again. I waited a little bit longer before setting the hook, as I was using a slightly larger frog, and was surprised to feel a smaller fish this time. It was another Longnose, but quite a bit smaller.
We stuck around until dark and were just about to walk back to the car, when Goldberg popped this nice Crappie on his crankbait.
Goldberg with an eleventh hour Crappie.
It was a great fish to end the night with and we were both quite happy as we made our way to the city of Carthage for some much needed grub. Missouri is known world-wide for its barbeque, so we opted to go to a local smokehouse that had rave reviews online. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the worst BBQ we ever had- a total shock to us both, considering we were in the heart of cattle and BBQ country. With bellies full of sub-par brisket and boo-boo burnt ends, we decided to try for some consolation Darters on our way back to our campsite.
Micro-fishing at night with a head spotlight can be a lot of fun, as well as very productive. Sometime when a species of micro is nowhere to be found during the day, they are abundant at night- offering a shot at unique moonlight minnows. The little creek we chose to fish was loaded and we had a ball snapping up dozens of Darters (one species was a lifer), as well as some other cool oddballs.
My Lifer Sunburst darter.
Juvenile Northern hogsucker
It was starting to get pretty late by the time we were able to drag ourselves away from this awesome little creek. I was definitely ready for bed when we finally reached our campsite for the night. After a short debriefing and hashing out a loose itinerary for the following day, we both retired to our tents, exhausted from another great day of fishing. I passed out almost immediately; lulled to sleep by the fresh, cool air and lullaby of the whippoorwills.
We woke up the following morning to a beautiful, but quite breezy, day. The wind was sure to make micro-fishing tough, and I was a little worried it might become a serious problem as we made our way through the curving mountain roads towards our destination.
Our first stop that day was a small creek where PMK00001 had caught his lifer Autumn darter. We hoped to replicate this success and set out wading upstream; kicking rocks as soon as we arrived. We caught tons of micros from this cool little creek, none of which were the Autumn darters that we had come for. Luckily, the Orangethroat darters in this area were recently split into a new species, the Ozark darter, which we easily caught plenty of.
I also caught this Ozark sculpin in full spawning colors; something I had never seen before.
As is usual with me and my half Hebrew homeboy, we took longer at this spot than we intended, unable to pull ourselves from the beautiful Ozarkian waters. We eventually got back on the road and this time, found ourselves at a really cool looking low-water bridge crossing in the middle of nowhere. All of Southwest Missouri is pretty rural, but this place was definitely off the beaten path; far down a winding mess of gravel roads, through pasture and forest.
There was a slackwater area on the downstream side of the bridge that was full of topminnows and mosquito fish, both of which Goldberg needed for his Lifelist. He wasted no time after seeing them, and soon had a nice specimen of both in hand and photographed.
Meanwhile, I was kicking around the upstream side, trying in vain to catch the skittish little Darter I kept spooking from under rocks. I suspected they were Speckled darters, the species I had come here to try for, but will never know for sure. Luckily, while I was chasing around the incredibly quick and spooky darters, I noticed a group of Cardinal shiners going through their spawning ritual just below a small riffle upstream. I was not very confident about catching one after getting snubbed so badly the last time, but I couldn’t help but try again. At first I was having much the same luck as before, but eventually I got a few nips and then finally hooked one of these fired-up finicky shiners.
By this time, Goldberg had made his way over to where I was and when he saw what I had caught, he had to try for one himself. After a bit of a struggle and some swearing, he had one as well and we both celebrated our victory of the cursed Cardinal shiner in the middle of the small creek. We stuck around for a little longer, trying for the tiny unwilling darters, but besides them being assholes, the wind was picking up, greatly making sight fishing impossible. We finally became fed up with the wind, and decided that this would be a good time to cut over east and try to get Goldberg an Ozark bass.
It was about an hour drive to a creek that Jknuth had told me about years ago, that I knew to be a veritable Ozark bass honey hole. I was a little worried to fish this spot, since the last time I had come here I was nearly run out by two burly Ozarkian women who had been drinking heavily: I decided to take my chances and give it a try.
We had been in the car for about a half an hour when the roads became more curvy and we slowly started to climb to higher elevations. Not long after we got into this more Ozarkian territory, we came around a corner to find two young mules up on their hind legs fighting each other in front of a small, dilapidated farm. I told Goldberg that I believed this to be a good omen and he wholeheartedly agreed.
We arrived at the creek to find the local Sunday Funday in full-effect, with quite a few groups of people swimming or fishing near the bridge crossing we used to access the creek. This was not a problem for us, since we planned to wade downstream to a deep hole below a riffle where I knew there was usually an abundance of Ozark bass.
The bed of this particular creek is largely made up of solid sheets of limestone, covered with a slick slime. This made for a long and slippery wade down to the small gravel bar in front of the hole, but we eventually made it- high and dry. I pointed out some areas that Goldberg might want to try fishing, and waded into the small side channel protected from the wind to look for micros while he worked the hole. We both worked our areas diligently, but after an hour of fishing had only come up with Longear sunfish and Ozark darters.
The Orangethroat darter and it’s splits are ever present throughout the Ozarks.
The river had changed a lot since the last time I was there, and it seemed the fancy Rockbass we were after had moved out of this particular hole for greener pastures. We felt a little beaten, but decided to try up near the bridge now that everyone else had left. After tediously navigating our way back up the slippery creek, we reached the bridge to find a good sized school of redhorse feeding in a broken line amidst a deep crack in the limestone. We both began working the hole in hopes of a redhorse, but I was almost immediately hooked up with another Longear.
I love Longear sunfish; they are one of the coolest-looking sunfish around, highly variable and willing biters. That being said, I also HATE Longear sunfish when I am trying to fish for suckers in the Ozarks. Longears are everywhere in this area and act as bodyguards to all of the suckers who live here, heroically snatching up your crawler before the bottom dwellers even get a chance to see it.
A little annoyed but not at all surprised, I released the scoundrel Longear and tried again. This time, my bait made it to the bottom and a dark-colored fish swooped out of a crevice in the limestone, engulfing my crawler. After a short but spirited tussle on ultralight tackle, I had a gorgeous Ozark bass at hand.
Goldberg’s eyes widened as I pulled it from the water, and he sent his next cast closer to the edge of the limestone boulders where the fish had struck from. It wasn’t long before another one of these beautiful fish was being photographed, this time by Goldberg.
I love these fish, and couldn’t help staying put and catching as many of these awesome and highly variable Ambloplites as I could. We absolutely hammered them- both of us pushing into the double digits in numbers, greatly exceeding our expectations.
In the midst of the flurry of photos and fish, I looked down to see a large, banded water snake swimming between me and Goldberg- a large Greenside darter in its’ mouth. It was a sight I won’t soon forget and feel extremely lucky to have seen it.
The bite tapered off and the sun started to hit the trees, signaling our need to exit the creek and hit the road. We had spent hours at this small creek that could have been spent chasing down more Lifers, but I couldn’t have cared less. Catching that many quality Ozark bass was one of the highlights of the trip and, in retrospect, I’m really glad we took the time to do this.
The sunset was incredible that night as we made our way back west, and I felt extremely lucky to be alive, experiencing this little slice of space and time.
Going back to camp, our celebrating was cut short when we realised a large storm cell was on its way toward where we were planning to stay. We looked at hourly forecasts for a few areas east, weighing our options before deciding to cut losses and head to the hotel in Kansas City, where we had stayed Friday morning. We returned to our campsite with heavy hearts, and began to pack up our gear in preparation for withdrawal.
As we were breaking down our camp, we started to notice rustling noises in the forest next to our tents. It sounded like raccoons or possums rooting around the brush, but we couldn’t see anything when we shined our lights into the thick cover. This went on the entire time we were packing and just before we were done, a small Armadillo sauntered out of the woods and into our campsite. It took one look at us and, deciding it had made a big mistake, turned around and scurried back into the underbrush. Goldberg was in hot pursuit, with hopes of a better look. The squat, and extremely ungraceful, creature was quicker than he expected. Though losing him shortly after the critter reached the forest, Goldberg seemed satisfied with his brief Armadiller encounter.
By the time we reached Kansas City late that night, it was down-pouring and I was happy we had decided to pull out when we did. We had a late dinner of Waffle House near our hotel and hit the sack soon after we ate. It felt good to sleep in a bed after a few days of hard ground, and I slept like a stone that night while visions of fishes danced in my head.
The next morning, we woke up refreshed and wholly unready to end our adventure. We decided to take our time on the way home, stopping to fish a few places in Northern Missouri for some last minute finnage. Once you get on a nasty, days--long fishing bender like me and Goldy had maintained since we left home, it’s best to slowly wean yourself back to normalcy, as opposed to quitting cold turkey. Going directly back to reality after running a serious roughfishing campaign for days straight can have seriously adverse effects on one’s health. I highly recommend a decompression regimen on the trip home for anyone who takes on such a mission.
We decided on the Grand River drainage for our exodus area of operations, and before long, we were pulling off the freeway onto dirt roads again. On our way to the main river, we stopped to fish a feeder creek for micros, where Goldberg was able to capture three more Lifers: the Green sunfish, Red shiner and Bluntnose minnow.
Goldberg’s lifer Bluntnose minnow
Goldberg’s lifer Green sunfish
One of many Red shiners we caught. They were by far the most abundant
Species in this creek.
After we felt we had thoroughly harassed the resident minnows of the small creek, we made our way further east to a bridge crossing on the main river. The river here had high banks and was the color of coffee with too much cream in it. Just downstream from the bridge was a hard bend followed by a sandbar, which made a nice current seam; the perfect place to set up. Where we stopped was mostly sand, but the last two to three feet of bank before the water was covered in a thick, slippery mud that made fishing a bit tricky for two not so graceful guys.
Goldberg preparing for battle on the muddy banks of the Grand.
While we were rigging, we noticed quite a few fish surfacing in the muddy river, and were both hopeful casting out our baits. The first bites came before we had all of our rods in the water, but they were only half-hearted, crawler-stealing taps that yielded no fish. A dozen or so frustrating, fishless bites later, one of us landed a Drum: revealing the identity of the scoundrels who had been stealing our bait. We were both a little disillusioned by this, but decided to stick around and fight through the gaggle of Gaspergou for a little longer.
Things were looking pretty bleak when I finally got a series of feisty taps on my far rod. I set the hook and could feel the fish was much heavier than the small drum I had been dealing with all morning. The rowdy fish made a few spirited runs before coming bankside, showing itself to be a Carp of the three-to-four pound variety. It was covered with mud before it even left the water, so I decided to release it without a picture and get back to fishing. While I was walking back to my bag to grab a fresh crawler, I noticed Goldberg looking at me with a slightly horrified look, and remembered his unsuccessful attempt at a Carp earlier in our trip. We didn’t say anything about what had just happened, but I knew by the wild look in Goldberg’s eye that this could mean trouble.
I was getting tired of fighting the mud and tiny Drum, and opted to only fish one line: relinquishing the command of my extra rod to Goldberg for his eleventh hour battle for a photo-lifer carp. An hour passed as I watched Goldberg catch drum after drum, slipping and sliding in the heinous mud that covered the shoreline. I had given up by this point and was sitting on a log in the shade, smoking, while hoping with all of my being that he would catch a Carp soon. I had mentioned a while back that we should probably get on the road, as we still had a long way to go. Goldberg looked at me with those wild eyes and informed me that we weren’t leaving until he had his Carp. I have experienced the flavor of madness that he was experiencing many times and knew trying to reason with him was useless.
I watched Goldberg become more and more grizzled with each round of hand-to-fin combat that passed. Eventually he was barefoot, covered with mud, and sweating profusely while he franticly slid between his rods under a barrage of drum bites. Another hour of this sad, slightly frightening scene passed, and I was worried I would have to tackle my poor friend and forcibly remove him from the muddy beach.
I was deciding if I was going to try to overpower him, or steal his rod and run back to the van, when he got a bite on his middle rod that threatened to take it into the river. As my delirious fishing partner scrambled across the bank through the otherworldly mud, he gained such speed and momentum that he went into an out of control skid, overtaking his rod by several feet before coming to a stop. After narrowly avoiding a wipeout, he doubled back and seized his violently shaking rod from its’ bank stick; immediately putting the screws to his rambunctious quarry. He was able to turn the fish toward shore after a few short runs and, as it neared, it came to the surface.
It was a small Carp, maybe three or four pounds which is not something either of us would usually get too bent out of shape over, but this little fish caused as much anxiety and created more excitement than any Carp its size ever has in the history of the earth. I was horrified watching the small fish violently thrash in the muddy shallows, as Goldberg tried to wrangle it without losing his balance in the bewitched grease that covered the bank. After a man versus fish struggle that probably only lasted seconds but seemed like an eternity, Goldberg had his prized Carp subdued, securing his victory. We both cheered loudly as I ran back to my bag to get the camera, Goldberg clutching the tiny carp like a briefcase full of diamonds. Carp are very common in our area and Goldberg has caught many much larger specimens than this, but I doubt he has ever been happier to catch one.
A muddy footed Goldberg with his prized Carp.
This little Carp may not look like much, but that day on the muddy banks of the Grand it was a
gold medal of honor, and we both treated it that way. After a few pictures, he released the small fish back into the cloudy river, and we began our withdrawal back to the van. Once we were back on the road, I noticed that Goldberg was unusually quiet and looked next to me to see if he had fallen asleep. To my surprise he was wide awake, a crazy grin spread across his face, scrolling through pictures on his phone. He had scored over twenty Lifers on this trip, exceeding both of our expectations. I chuckled to myself, knowing my friend had crossed a threshold that you can’t come back from. He had experienced too much fishiness too quick and it had done things to him that you can’t put into words.