Catfish1 is an old friend of mine. He's a Roughfish Roundup veteran who spent ten great years as a young and overworked biologist in southern Missouri. Whenever he gets to talking, that man will invariably start rambling on about the Great State of Missouri. He told me he would love to wade and fish the cool clear Ozark streams of his youth again - and, of course to catch some goggle-eye bass and add them to his lifelist, formally, with photographs. Every year that he's able, he attends some kind of strange crayfish-munching festival down there. I was skeptical, but that man has crayfish antennae stuck in his teeth and a whole bunch of crayfish-themed T-shirts to prove his crustaceanous credentials. So we knocked off work, loaded the Black Shadow with all sorts of fishing and creek-stomping gear, and pointed the hood southward in search of goggle-eye bass. Soon we were in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. In the morning, we headed for the Spillway, a roughfishing Mecca the likes of which any angler worth his worms will dream about nightly.
I caught a very nice channel cat right off the bat, which put up a tremendous fight. The spillway was absolutely chock-full of channel cats. Among the vast menagerie of finny critters you might encounter here are some fairly rare fellows, like the blue sucker and the black buffalo, so we spent our first day trying hard to hook into them. Well, we caught about six hundred channel cats, most about eight inches long.
Catfish_1 caught a few nice white bass in between the hundreds of tiny channel cats. Then, while casting perilously close to the no-fishing zone under video surveillance, I hooked into a native catostomid of some kind or another.
Damn if I know what it was. I had high hopes for catching a black buffalo, and this weird ictiobid with the forward-pointing mouth and the narrow head came pretty close. But I didn't chalk it up for a lifer because I honestly couldn't tell what the hell it was. Experts have since confirmed that it's probably just a weird-looking smallmouth buffalo, or possibly a hybrid. It was a fun fish to catch, though! We fished this area very hard, but every time you cast out a bait, it was swarmed by channel cats. There were no shad to cast-net and the cut-bait wasn't getting any gar, so we headed up the road to the Great Mingo Swamp.
Mingo Swamp is a beautiful cypress wetland that stretches for miles, and every inch of it is full of ornery snakes and cool native fish. It's the stuff of legends; a natural roughfisher's paradise. We weren't looking for any particular fishes here; we just wanted to see this great pristine bootheel swamp for ourselves. Right away, we started catching sunfish, including this black beauty.
We spent a lot of time trying to catch gar. I lost my cast-net in a mess of cypress roots trying to catch bait. We caught a whole gaggle of panfish, including the awesome dark-tinted redspotted sunfish, which was a lifer well-earned for me - the first one of the trip! Pesky micros like the Dollar Sunfish harassed our baits as well, but Catfish_1 nabbed a warmouth for his lifelist here.
I also caught a very interesting species of turtle. But the gar were nowhere to be found and the sun was dipping low. Hoping to meet up with Tyler, we left word for him at the bait shop and bought some golden shiners. Then we headed back to the spillway for some night fishing.
I fired up the coleman lantern and we set out multiple golden-shiner rigs for gar. Catfish_1 wanted a white crappie for his lifelist, so naturally I caught a bunch of big white crappies while he caught none. This white crappie was a really gigantic specimen and a personal best for me. This was a nice update of this species for my lifelist photo. We fished until well after dark and caught no gar, although we lost a few baits to them.
The next morning, we stopped to buy a new cast-net and then headed out for the Headwater Diversion Channel, a man-cut waterway forged from the headwaters of the Castor and Whitewater Rivers. Here we hoped to find some spotted bass and possibly some gar.
Spotted Bass were an easy lifer to get for me here - although most were pretty small, they put up a surprisingly tough fight on the ultralight. I had bought another cast-net to use for catching bait, but once again there were no baitfish to be seen anywhere. In desperation for minnows, we drove all over the county looking for a bait shop.
It turns out, the only bait shop in the area was in a little back shed by this tiny little backwoods barbeque shack in Advance, Missouri. It's called "Highway 52 Bait and Barbeque." Hot damn, we hit the jackpot. They had rosy-red minnows and they smoke up seriously succulent barbeque with sassafrass wood in a big steel meat-smoking contraption out back. Bait and barbeque, all in one place, and friendly people, too. They scoop your minnows with one hand while serving up the best slow-smoked meat in Missouri with the other. We bought a bucket of minnows and went back to the channel to get after the gar again. But the little rosy-reds just caught us more spotted bass, so I captured some tiny sunfish and fished those under a float, hoping the gar would hit those.
I know it doesn't look like much, but this huge white bass ate a three-inch sunfish and fought me like hell. I will leave it as an exercise for your imagination how this white bass managed to eat a three inch sunfish. But we'd spent all day in the burning sun at the Block Hole and as the sun sank low we skipped over to Bear Creek to cool off and maybe find some more fish to catch.
We waded a half-mile of bear creek, looking for shadow bass but catching only longears and redspots. Catfish_1 caught a fine longear to update his lifelist photo.
On the way back, I unexpectedly ran across a surprisingly spry ninety-year old woman in a one-piece swimsuit covorting happily in the shallow creek among the hornyhead chubs and longear sunfish. The brush was so thick that Catfish_1 couldn't see who I was talking to, and the whole time I was talking to her he thought I was having some kind of crazy one-sided conversation with a sasquatch or something. Then he finally saw her, and realized that I hadn't gone sun-crazy. Yet. We decided to head west, to the Black River.
The Black River had good current. We fished for suckers. I caught this really cool turquoise longear. And, as the sun dipped below the trees, a sucker ... finally.
A Golden Redhorse. Not the pealip I was looking for, but a good start. The night got really dark and drunk river-folk made the landing a little crowded, so we grabbed some sleep so we could try for more redhorse in the morning.
We fished our way west, following the Current River. We put out multiple lines in heavy current at every place we stopped, but the only fish we caught were smallmouth bass.
The smallies were fun, but we wanted redhorse! We didn;t see any at all in the Current River, so when we found ourselves near a deep, slow pool with a giant root wad in the middle of it, we decided to switch gears and try for the elusive Shadow Bass.
It didn't take long. Whenever you got your bait right up under the rootwad, a pugnacious Shadow Bass would dart out and grab it. That's one of the coolest lifelisters I've scored in a while! Meanwhile, Catfish_1 put on a sunfish and studfish fishing clinic.
Then he finally got the elusive Shadow Bass to bite!
The next day, we crossed the divide into the North Fork watershed, where we found one of the most beautiful streams I have ever seen in all my days.
We had high hopes that we'd find some Ozark Bass here. Soon we were catching giant chubs and shiners, which was to be expected. Then we split up to explore different areas. I caught a small rainbow trout.
I also caught a big, beefy sixteen inch rainbow and lost another in the same pool. This had me worried - the big rainbow was clearly a holdover. Although the stream seemed warm, it was clearly cold enough for rainbows here, which in my mind meant that it might not be very good Ozark Bass habitat. Still, I soldiered on, looking for goggle-eyes.
The Striped Shiners were huge, and a real handful on the ultralight.
Beautiful Longear Sunfish were everywhere. Since this is in the White River Drainage, I expected the longears to look significantly different than the ones we had caught to the east. But the differences between these fish and the ones over the divide were subtle. Then, I found some deep water, with a grass-covered root wad surrounded by lurking fish.
After some fun smallmouth and spotted bass fights, a nice Ozark Bass grabbed my worm.
That's lifer number five for the trip for me! Thinking Catfish_1 might be missing out on the Ozark Bass, I waded the mile back to the car to share my goggle-eye spot with him. But the wily creek-stomper had already caught his own Ozark Bass in a different pool, and had moved on to catching pickerel bait. He caught two huge chubs on one cast!
The master plan was to catch some nice baitfish here, and then spend the evening chasing chain pickerel in a nearby lake that was supposed to be full of them. We caught stonerollers, small chubs, dace, and several species of cool-looking shiners. With baits like that, the pickerel could not resist.
The pickerel lake was a bust - nothing but largemouth bass took our shiners and casted spoons. So the next day, we headed to the Jack's Fork to try and find the elusive chain pickerel there.
We started at the Prongs and fished our way down the Jack's Fork, dodging kayaks loaded with yahoos in the lower river.
The Jack's Fork is a really beautiful river, and it brought back a lot of memories for Catfish_1, who had spent many days snorkling and studying crayfish populations on this river.
Finally, we found a promising area. A backwoods road skirts the river for several miles, with fishing spots aplenty. We found a wide spot in the road and parked the Black Shadow under a looming cliff overhang.
A big, weedy backwater intersected a deep river pool here. Before long, Catfish_1 saw a nice chain pickerel lurking in the weeds! It was our first visual confirmation of this species. The pickerel slashed at the tail of Catfish_1's curly-tail grub but he could not hook it.
This is right where the pickerel was lurking. We spotted her many times as she cruised through this area. As far as we could tell, she was the only pickerel in the area. But it was a fussy fish. Catfish_1 tried his whole arsenal, and I even twitched a Buggsy right past its nose several times without provoking a strike. Finally, I switched gears and caught some bait - a couple of 2-inch blackstripe topminnows seemed like they would do the trick. A longear took the first one, but the second one disappeared in an angry swirl. Pickerel on! After a dogged, splashy fight, I had to land the fish - from the top of a six-foot, steep bank covered in evil thornbushes. I crossed my fingers and lifted my prize esox out of the water to swing it onto the bank - and the inevitable happened. The 14-inch pickerel went berserk, threw the hook, and splashed back into the water. I watched it dart back into the weeds, and I knew that I would have to try for that lifelister another day.
With that final bit of excitement, our short Missouri sojourn was over. We pointed the shadow back north and went home satisfied. I caught five new midwestern species, and I learned a lot about this unique area. I found at least a dozen awesome fishing spots, refined my knowledge of some interesting midwestern fishes, and had an absolute blast in the bootheel and the Ozarks. I hope to return - and soon. That wily pickerel and I need a rematch!