Friday, July 17, 2009

Smallies on the Gasconade

Pulling away from the cracked concrete boat ramp in the bright red boat, my colleague recounts his Saturday on the Gasconade: "Hundreds of jet boats, some of them tied together in blaring from the boats...lots of raucous drunkenness...girls baring their breasts...." He was vividly describing to me the details of one of my worst nightmares wherein I'm stuck on a Missouri river on a Saturday in July. But on the overcast early summer weekday we set out for a day of smallmouth bass fishing, I couldn't believe the scenario he created. There wasn't a soul around that day and I didn't see the rafts of beer cans commonly seen on a Monday river trip.

But I don't really fish. I fished a lot when I was a child and I loved it. I liked fishing for bream off the bank of a bayou with Mabel (sitting on a bucket with a cane pole). I once caught a truly enormous alligator gar that sent me running far away from the bayou, Mabel holding my Snoopy rod and reel looking at her dinner I caught on a worm. I guess at some point in my life, maybe between the ages 6-14, the concept of taking a live fish off a hook didn't make me nervous. It actually makes my stomach hurt when I think of the necessity of carefully prying a barbed hook out of a live animal's gaping mouth. Unlike plants, animals move around a lot. Fish flop around without warning, and I certainly couldn't kill anything like a fish. So, I don't fish. But my colleague wanted to take me fishing to distract me from a very negative source of stress that has actually caused health issues. He took me fishing to make me relax. I was nervous the whole time, not wanting to turn his open faced reel into a bird's nest or to lose his fancy $5 lures.

The Gasconade River banks remain relatively undeveloped, with rank second and third growth lining the shores for miles. Corn fields and pastures punctuate the landscape, and periodically, cows will find themselves knee deep in the waters of the Gasconade. Years of excessive motorboat use on the Gasconade has resulted in serious erosion problems. During flood events, acres of pasture end up in the river, resulting in steep, muddy drop-offs along the shoreline.

But despite all of that, the Gasconade is a river teeming with life. Mussel beds can be found near the big boulders up and down the river. On a quick sweep of a large gravel bar looking for mussel shells, I found burned out versions of five species. My colleague likes to fish the Gasconade because it's "loaded" with smallmouth bass. A game fish found primarily in nicer, less polluted waters, smallmouth bass are managed as trophy fish on the Gasconade.

Having floated several Missouri rivers with my colleague, I've learned some of the characteristics of a "good smallie hole"--near the shoreline, usually in a cove with big slabs of dolomite. But I don't fish, so I don't really know much about smallmouth bass. I know that when my colleague caught the first fish of the day, he wasn't very excited because it was a largemouth bass, what he calls a "trash bass," capable of living in crummy waters.

"So, why do you like smallmouth bass so much?" I asked as we hummed down the Gasconade. For starters, "they taste better. They usually indicate better water quality, and they fight when you catch them." Having recently completed Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, I understood what he said. Page after page of my Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway can be summed up in these three reasons.

Even though I went fishing to relax, I became almost obsessed with catching a smallmouth bass; I wanted to feel a fiesty, fighting fish on the line. We didn't plan to keep anything we caught that day. Nevertheless, neither of us spoke very much that day, focussed instead on casting and reeling, casting and reeling. Perch repeatedly nibbled on my wiggly brown worm lure. One, two, three clamped down, causing me to jerk the rod back. And every time, they got away. "You never really had them..." he tells me.

Cows bawled on a distant shoreline. The red boat quietly rested in a cove filled with blooming water willow. "Hand me your pole. I'm changing your lure. You need to catch a fish." Moments later, I find a highly engineered lure, jointed and brightly colored, plastic molded into a Paul Klee version of a fish. Cast, reel, cast, reel, over and over until I actually watch the lure move through the clear water. It moves just like a fish! How could a smallmouth bass resist it?

Well, one couldn't. Tucked away in the cove, I cast out into the eddy. As soon as I felt the first tug, I started reeling in, quickly and vigorously. What a fight! I gave up reeling in and pulled the rod back, dropping a flopping fish into the boat. The first smallmouth of the day! My colleague moved to the front of the boat to find that the fish had taken himself off the hook (so I didn't have to handle it). Grasping it by its mouth, my colleague offered the fish to me to hold. He coached me through the caught fish photography, showing me how to hold it, where to put my finger, where to put my hand. I stared into this large gaping mouth of an animal and really didn't want to put my hand anywhere near it.

So, the resulting picture is almost a joke. He told me that the fish would start thrashing about as I held it, instructing me to "hold it tighter" if that happened. I wanted to gently place the fish back into the water where he belonged, as quickly as possible. It was all very exciting, catching my first ever smallmouth bass--the only one we caught the whole day.


Beau said...

That was a fun story. I haven't caught a smallmouth in years, and that one far north into Ontario years ago- but it was a big one! Lots of other amazing fish in Missouri- but I need to explore a little more it seems. Thanks for sharing the story :)

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks, Beau. I really appreciated the fight that smallies put up to a simple little angler like myself. A few days after this, I went to the Niangua and fished for them again, ending up with little perch on jigs, nothing else. Missouri's great. Well, the Ozarks are great. You should see our darters when they're spawning! Brilliant!