SummerQuest 2016: There and Back Again
A 5 day Illinois – Missouri Excursion
Angling, for me, has often been an experience shared with good friends. I've been fortunate to have one of the best as my most frequent fishing companion, and over the years I have learned so very much and shared countless great times with JKnuth on the myriad of trips we've taken together. This year, for the first time, I decided to put the skills I've acquired from all our years fishing together to the test, and for the first time make an attempt at a solo journey during this year's species derby... to see what I can do when putting the knowledge I've gained to the test, as a sort of personal measuring stick. I wanted to see how far I've come, and how far I've yet to go, when it comes to what kind of angler and roughfisher I'd like to ultimately become.
So, beginning week 3 of the contest, I left civilization behind and headed south. I was originally planning on a southeastern strike into the Carolinas, but after deliberation on time and other factors, decided to try an Illinois / Missouri run. Turns out that it was the right choice, as the areas I was going to fish ended up getting blown out by storms.
Up to this point in the month, I had already been having what I felt was a good month. For the first time ever, I had already succeeded in capturing all five species of redhorse that can be found in WI (excluding the possibility of a sixth – the fabled Black Redhorse – until proven otherwise I think they are all gone from our state.) I was especially excited for the beautiful River Redhorse and Greater Redhorse I had been able to catch – with many thanks to JKnuth for the tip on location for the Greater.
I had also been fortunate enough to nab a beautiful Northern Hogsucker as well.
My success with these species on a brand new rod and reel prompted me to begin referring to my newly-minted weapon of choice as “Suckerslayer,” and the name stuck and will endure throughout what I feel will be many great adventures yet to come.
Suckerslayer and I struck out on a gorgeous, sunny day. My first stop before heading out of state was in some familiar southern WI waters to pay respects to on old friend, the beautiful and rare little jewel known as the Northern Sunfish.
Along the way, I ran into a big snapping turtle who was also there to see the sunnies – he parked himself right among their nests and nearly scared off my quarry before I could say hello to one.
On my way back, I discovered a swarm of feeding Chubsuckers, and my attempts to catch them resulted instead in this pretty little Logperch.
From there, I was off!
The trip south is a long hard drive when you are all by yourself. Seven hours later I found myself at my first destination, Horseshoe Lake.
I would soon discover that, par for the course, there are two Horseshoe Lakes in Illinois, and I had selected the WRONG one to catch the targets I was after... No big deal, though – After playing with some green sunfish and largemouth bass for a half hour, I just needed food and somewhere to sleep. A night in a hotel, and the next morning I was off and running again.
My southern run started in earnest when I reached Carlyle.
Here, using a double-jig setup, I was able to find many Silver Carp and a surprise Bigmouth Buffalo!
I also hooked into a few small Bighead Carp, but the were all foul hooked in the same place, right outside the mouth on the top jaw. Right next to me, there was a father-son duo who were hooking into some absolute beasts of Bighead Carp, and most were fair hooked as well – one of the biggest was a 38 inch monster who looked like he could have swallowed the kid that caught him! I wasn't too keen on staying too long at this location, and they didn't seem like they were going to leave anytime soon and relinquish the prime real estate they had for catching the huge ones, so I departed.
My next stop was at Rend Lake.
I've been to this location before, but I wasn't really ready for just how great the fishing here could be! Right off the bat, jigging along the side wall produced fish after fish after fish! Up came a Warmouth, followed by a lifer White Crappie (they DO exist!!) Then his cousin, a Black Crappie, and finally a little Yellow Bass – all in the span of about 15 minutes!
A local fisherman and I started up a conversation and we got to talking about all the things that can be found here. He pulled up a stringer that held a big, beautiful Striped Bass. I have yet to catch one, and later on would make an attempt at what ended up being an awesome run in the river. But first, my newfound friend and I decided to take a trip downstream together along the paths and trails around the river. I am glad we did! Although I have been to Rend Lake before, I had no idea that what was waiting along the trails was there – in contrast to the rather imposing and stark concrete spillway, here along the trails was splendid natural scenery... and more gar than you could shake a stick at!
I ended up with this tank of a Shortnose Gar and his little brother before heading back the way we came...
This stretch of river was prehistoric awesomeness. I could tell right away that there were Bowfin boiling under its surface.
It wasn't long before cutbait produced this beauty.
By this time, my water supply had run out and I was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration, so we went back to the spillway to try for Striped Bass.
We cast the fast water for a while. Doing so produced a surprise - a small but fair hooked Bighead Carp!
Suddenly, I got a huge hit from something that fought like nothing else I've ever experienced! It was SUPER spazzy, making screaming runs back and forth, totally out of control and it was all I could do just to hang on! Finally wresting control of the fight, I brought the fish close and started thinking about reaching for my net, and then to the surface it came – a big Striped Bass! He freaked out, and in two huge splashes he threw the hook and was gone. It was disappointing to lose him, but it was a fight that will stay with me for a long time – awesome fish! I tried casting again, and the river produced was a nice White Bass. Not the Striper I was looking for, but fun nonetheless.
It started to get dark. My fellow angler decided to call it a night, and so did I. This night, I decided to sleep in my car and the next morning try for Stripers again before heading out.
Turns out sleeping in your car is neither as easy or romantic as it first sounds. I was super uncomfortable, and about an hour and a half in was awakened by a park ranger who kindly informed me that what I was doing was less than safe. He graciously directed me to a remote campsite where I slept the rest of the night and awoke at 5AM.
Back to the spillway to fish beside the giant herons that line the shore, I had the place to myself. I paused long enough to catch one of the swarming Gizzard Shad with the tiniest hook I had – they didn't even need it baited, just slammed the shiny metal – and resumed my quest for Stripers.
What I got instead were several long runs and battles with Bigmouth Buffalo! I have always found it odd that these fish slam jigs, swimbaits, Rapalas, spoons and spinners, when there have been times that I'll see hundreds of them and not one will take anything you throw at them! Fighting these in the strong current was challenging and fun, and any fair caught Bigmouth Buffalo in your hand leaves you with a sense of accomplishment. At first, I saw the weird downturned mouth of the last Buffalo I caught and wondered if I had used all my remaining luck up in one shot to catch a Black Buffalo... but upon closer inspection and a message exchange with Josh, it seems I was a bit overzealous – it's a Bigmouth Buffalo with an unusual mouth, is all...
I left Rend Lake quite satisfied. No Stripers, but the River Gods had blessed me well. I drove south to the Horseshoe Lake I had originally intended on, thinking to capture a Spotted Gar.
When I got there, I was shocked to find the area I had intended to fish, COMPLETELY overrun by gigantic Bighead Carp!
Not only that, but bowfishermen had taken heavy liberties with them, and left countless corpses rotting on the shore everywhere. It was extremely unpleasant and I decided to go elsewhere. I visited another scenic spot on the lake...
,,,But it had changed from the last time we were there - no cover and no fish – so I departed.
My next jump took me to Cape Girardeau, MO.
Thinking of fishing the Mississippi River, these were totally new spots for me that I had never been to before. As it is sometimes, new spots don't always pan out the way you hope they will. I reached my destination and it turns out that it was on a cliff! Took some nice shots of the scenery and got out of town.
Stopped by a shallow stream connected to the Mississippi that was full of bass, sunfish, and more gizzard shad than you could count... and decided that I had had enough of the Cape.
My next stop found me at Block Hole.
Here the water was much lower than the last time we had visited. It actually is a really cool area that I could see holding a ton of fish on the right day. Unfortunately, today was not that day. Two anglers on either side of me found Spotted Bass in the rapids – good to know for the future – but here again there were no fish for me.
I arrived next at Duck Creek Conservation Area. This place is amazing.
The clear water holds a massive amount of creatures, and here I was able to find some gorgeous Redspotted Sunfish, one gargantuan Bluegill, some small and one monster Shellcracker – Redear Sunfish!
I also found and fought with some Spotted Gar, but alas it was not meant to be this day.
On my way out of Duck Creek, I discovered a large beautiful turtle. He told me what he thought of me in a loud hiss...
I left Duck Creek and went to try to find a place to spend the night.
I stopped briefly in Wappapello to try the spillway, but it was late and I was completely exhausted. I drove to Poplar Bluff to find a Walmart parking lot to sleep in. Mistake. Some dude and his kid were joyriding on a moped at midnight, doing laps around the parking lot yelling “WOOO!!! WOO HOO!!! WOOOOO!!!” Repeatedly. I drove to a nice little secluded park and went to uncomfortable sleep. Right on schedule, two hours in I was awoken by the police. Apparently the park was closed. Luckily they showed mercy on me and let me stay.
In the morning, I fished a little stream in the park made famous by our good buddy Tyler Goodale. Though the Grass Pickerel I was there for streaked off to Mars as soon as I was within 20 feet of them, the creek did produce colorful longear sunfish. UPDATE: I hae been informed that what I thought was a longear sunfish is actually my lifer DOLLAR SUNFISH!! I had suspicions that this is what it is, but I just wasn't quite coninced. Apparently like longears, there are different strains of Dollar Sunfish - this happens to be a Western strain Dollar. Many thanks - Jknuth, Tyler Goodale and FishingDude14 for the ID!
Here I got my best-ever Warmouth, with crazy coloration the likes of which I've never seen!
Realizing this Pickerel was not going to happen, I set my sights on his bigger brother. I traveled to yet another spot of Tyler fame.
After much sweating, swearing and general “I don't think this is gonna happen...” I ended up in the right place at the right time... Three Chain Pickerel appeared out of nowhere and surrounded my minnow like a pack of wolves. It was totally awesome!! One decided he was going to get it before the others, and struck like a thunderbolt! For their size Chain Pickerel really put up one heck of a fight – but before long he was in the net and my prize of the day.
Upon leaving this spot, I realized that the Black River was right there. Last time I had been in MO, this river was completely blown and was not fishable, so this time was quite a treat. I quickly realized that the Black River is completely amazing, beautiful and clear. I waded downstream and fished the stumps, trees, and rapids but ultimately came up empty. Sometimes water looks like it should hold a ton of fish, but at that time they are not there or not hungry. Thing is, for as clear as the the water was, I didn't SEE any fish, except for one lonely drum and a few hogsuckers, which I found odd. I think a trip to discover this river's secrets is in order one day.
Back on the road, I headed for the Current River.
Upon arrival I was greeted by this awesome water snake.
He slithered on by me and into a crevasse, never to be seen again. I fished for a while at the sacred stump – anyone who has been here knows what I am talking about – but all the Shadow Bass that I was after were not in the stump! I caught a few rock bass and then decided, what the heck? I waded out into the stream and climbed ON to the sacred stump!
There were fish EVERYWHERE – beautiful ones, too. Longear Sunfish, Rock Bass, Smallmouth Bass, some sort of crazy Darter... UPDATE: Ben Cantrell has informed me that my "Crazy Darter" is actually a "Gilt Darter" - thanks, Ben!!
and then suddenly out of the depths came a HUGE redhorse!!!! From what I could see of him, the fish had a dusky tail, not red, and was pretty stout. My best guess is that it was a very large Golden Redhorse – though in the water I cannot tell the difference between a Golden and a Black. By the time I had prepared a set up to try to catch him, he had slipped back into the depths and was gone. Then, I caught a Rock. No, not a Rock Bass... Just a Rock.
I went back to shore. My worm and sinker setup paired with throwing a small spinner was producing lots of longears, rock bass, and smallmouths but no Shadow Bass. A storm started to roll in, and I headed into town. I found a motel that had vacancy for the night (THANK GOD) and got cleaned up while the storm blew over. Afterward, I went back out to the river, and started looking around. I saw darker shapes in the water in deeper than usual – I realized that the Shadow Bass had moved away from the sacred stump and into deeper faster water. A cast into it with a worm produced one, and switching to a spinner really did the trick! I started catching Shadow Bass by the truckload, each one seemingly more beautiful than the last!
Finally, after satisfying my curiosity of the Shadow Bass, I moved into fast moving water and cast my arms off.
The River Gods blessed me one more time that night, and produced a gleaming, chrome Mooneye.
The night in the motel was a godsend. I can't imagine living out of a car for any extended period of time. The next day was to be the finale – and what I was really ultimately here for. I wanted to end the contest by catching redhorse out of the Current River. And not just any redhorse, mind you – I was here for a very specific reason.
Last year, I traveled to this place with three other intrepid anglers – Jknuth, TonyS, and Hengelaar. Magic happened on the Current River last July, and casting into a run that “looked horsey” produced what is to this day my most prized catch ever, the fabled Pealip Redhorse.
I was determined to find these mysterious and beautiful fish again, but this time not by blind casting, but actually FINDING them. So off I went.
My first stop, predictably, was the place I found them last year. A storm loomed on the horizon as I drove toward my destination. By the time I got there, it was pouring buckets. Undaunted, for this is what I was here for, I shrugged off the rain and went down to the water. It was clear, but I did not see anything in the water. Even though I'd rather sight them, I figured I was there, so what the heck – I tossed in to the same swirling eddy that produced last year. Nothing... then a tap, and another tap... Could it be? Could lighting strike twice?
Yep, I had just been Rick Rolled by a Drum. So I suppose you could say I'd been Drum Rolled? That's enough of that. And it was enough of the rain. I realized that if I were to succeed on this quest, I must go to places I had not been before. I packed up and headed out. The rain cleared. I started driving to destinations I'd found using Maps that looked like awesome gravel bar access to the Current River. All of them, every one, were privately owned – no access...
I drove into Doniphan. Here there is access in town under the bridge. It didn't look promising. On a sheer stroke of luck, I met a guy there who used to live in the area and was back visiting. We got to talking and I told him what I was there for. He talked about Grennels and Goggle-eyes. I asked him if he knew what a Redhorse was. His eyes lit up and he said, “Redhorse? Oh hell yeah! You want them, I'll tell you where to go!” He proceeded to tell me about locations far from where we were that were loaded with redhorse years ago, and swore if I'd go there that that's where I would find them. So without even wetting a line under the bridge, I thanked him and left.
A hour's drive deep into the Ozarks, long since leaving civilization and phone service behind, I found myself on a single lane gravel road that led THREE MILES back into the depths of the forest. I had to stop multiple times to move fallen trees and turtles from my path, and nearly bottomed out my car to the point of if I hadn't corrected my trajectory, would have gotten stuck right back there with no way to call for help!
Finally, a sign – Missouri National Scenic Ozark Waterway – I knew I wasn't on private property though it sure felt like it... A boat launch and mini campground greeted me. It was glorious. It was beautiful...
It was not “Horsey.” A wide, slow stretch of river greeted me after this long drive. I would not give up. I cast out into deep water and waited. Nothing. Longear Sunfish and Smallmouth Bass swarmed around my feet. I glanced upstream. What was it I saw up there? Way up there? Is that a gravel bar? Holy smokes, it IS! Now, how do I get there?!?!?!
Time for the jungle adventure. The shore was overgrown, completely impassable. I stuck close to it and inched upstream. It got dangerously deep not far from shore, and I had to climb over trees and logs and snarls and thornbushes that extended out into the water. But closer, ever closer I got.
Then, I realized that a path to the bar existed! And out I went!
The landscape got weird.
I climbed out over the rocky hill and on the other side... was THIS...
Mother of God... I had found the Promised Land.
This rocky gravel bar had it all. Flat stretches leading to deep water, swift runs and deep holes. The cliff on the other side just for that extra kick of glorious beauty. I started looking for fish. At first, there was nothing. I fished the swift currents and deep holes with nary a bite. Then I started walking downriver.
And there, like a phantom from the shadows, appeared what I was searching for all this time.
I was standing five feet from a Pealip Redhorse.
And it was FEEDING.
I knew what it was the moment I saw it. The bluish green flash from the brassy golden scales on its back, the orangey-red tail and that sloping little face. I didn't need to catch the fish to know what would be on its front lip when I saw it. I stood there for a moment in awe of what I had found. Then I tried to catch him.
The first drift I was a bucket of nerves. Suckerslayer overshot by a country mile. Good thing is, I was so far off that I could retrieve without spooking the fish. Second try was perfect. Perfect placement, Perfect retrieval, let the sinker drop, and the redworm came to rest about a foot in front of the fish's face.
It took one look at the worm and bolted.
Ok, where there is one, there are others, right? Turns out, there WERE! And not just Pealips, either! Redhorse with tails that were not red were mixed in with the colorful Pealips, and they seemed in general to be larger than the Pealips, too. Were they Goldens, or Blacks? I am not sure. What I became aware of, however, was that even though I witnessed feeding behavior from what were very active fish, no matter what I tried, they shied away from the worm I presented to them. The water was very clear – though for whatever reason the fish did not seem to be afraid of ME so much, they would not take what I offered. I stayed for several hours, and daylight and dehydration started to become an issue. The realization dawned on me that I would have to make the trek back what I came through in order to get out for the night, and I wasn't sure I could navigate the back roads in the Ozarks at night with no GPS without becoming lost. SO, with a heavy heart, I bid farewell for the time being to the beautiful redhorse on the gravel bar and began my journey back.
On the way back, the River Gods smiled one last time and gave me a parting gift to try to ease some of the sting of being so close to what I had come for, and gave me a sparkling Shiner and the most beautiful Longear Sunfish I've ever caught.
The splendor of this remote place cannot really be overstated. It is something that grabs hold of you and stays with you long after you've physically departed the place.
On my way out, many turtles bid me farewell. I stopped to get their photos and helped more than one off the road.
My drive back home was long but mainly uneventful – and the disappointment of not being able to catch the Pealip was soon replaced by what I carry with me now... I FOUND THEM. I found Pealip Redhorse and sight fished them!!!! Not many people can say they've ever done that.
Now, I have a new quest. I will go back to this place, with more time than I had this time. I will find these fish again, and Suckerslayer and I will catch them.
Better yet, I'm gonna bring a friend with me and we're going to catch them together. As fun as this all was, it's better with him than by myself. But I proved to myself that I have come such a long way since I started roughfishing, and though I still have much to learn and skills to improve – I know now that I can do this. And each year I'll just keep getting better!!!!
Be prepared. This is not over – Be it next year or the year after, there's a sequel coming. Stay tuned!
For a complete list of fish I discovered throughout the month of June ( and lots of pretty pictures of them) go here...