We first fished together fifty-some years ago, when we were teenagers in college. He was from the Current River country around Doniphan, and I had never been far from the Big Piney. Today Dennis Whiteside is becoming a very popular guide for those who want to float the rivers of the Ozarks to fish for smallmouth or just see the streams before they are only a shadow of what they were. I still guide a little on Ozark rivers too, but not nearly as often as he does.
We spent a day on the river a few years back when I did something I had never done… I sat in the front of a canoe made out of something like plastic, or Kevlar or some such nonsense. We floated not far from you, and the fishing was poor…until about 11:00 a.m. and then it got very good.
The price we had to pay for such memorable fishing was something lots of folks won’t pay nowadays…. we had to endure some mid-day heat that was pretty intense. But despite the heat, there are deeper holes in that river which have hungry bass, and we found them.
There was one spot where we left the canoe and I cast below a flowing chute into a deep pool with an old-time black Heddon tadpoly. I was using a spinning outfit with six pound line, and I felt a strike… missed him somehow. On the third or fourth cast, something solid nailed it, and I set the hook hard. I felt the fish lunge deep, and cross the current. I leaned back on him a little too strong and he snapped the line, taking my tadpoly with him.
Because I was doing so much moaning about losing the old lure, Dennis came up with the crawdad-looking jig and told me how much luck he had been having with it. I tied it on my casting reel, with 12-pound line, and began to catch fish on almost every other cast. Some weren’t so big, but some were, and I sat up in front of his canoe and had a ball.
I am seldom in the front of a canoe or johnboat. I kidded Dennis about how, when we were young, I taught him how to paddle. But some people figure it out easily and teach themselves, and they become experts at running any river. With the days and days that Dennis spends all over the Ozarks on many, many rivers, with paying clients he’s about as good as you can get.
He wanted me to go along that day in that 18-foot, plastic canoe. He said that it would float shallow, and slide over shoals that an aluminum craft would not easily navigate, something like the old wooden johnboats once did. It is a far different canoe than the narrow, unstable 17-foot canoes so common on our streams today. Whiteside’s 18-footer is much wider and more stable. It has no keel, and while that makes it float shallow water a little better, Dennis says that makes it difficult to hold in a wind, less capable of holding a true course because of the absence of the keel.
From that first experience I had in his canoe, I figure there will be no metal river-floating crafts made in future years, they’ll all be made out of plastic. I would love to see some small river paddle johnboats made out of the stuff, to see how they’d do. Or, if the companies just knew to put two small plastic keels along the bottom, and square off the stern, they could make an 18-foot canoe that would be great for serious fishermen and rivermen like Dennis and I who want to carry camping gear, camera’s etc, and want stability over all else.
Two days later we floated a long, long, 10-mile stretch of river in my 19-foot square-sterned Grumman and I did the paddling. At the end of the day, I had landed one 20-inch smallmouth and a dozen between 15 and 18-inches. The fishing was great, but we worked hard for it, and had to paddle through much of the water just to get there by dark.
The big smallmouth, long but much too slender, was probably short of four pounds, but not by much. It hit that jig before I had a chance to touch my reel handle, slammed it and took off with it before it began to sink. I fought it for quite awhile and then released it, as we did all the smallmouth. As the streams of the Ozarks decline in water quality and begin to fill in, smallmouth become fewer and smaller. If you keep one, you should be ashamed of yourself. Same thing for rock bass. If you want to eat fish keep the Kentuckies (spotted bass) and green sunfish (black perch).
But I kept a big channel catfish, which hit a small plastic grub about mid-day, and strained the spinning outfit I had gone back to at the time. It was a fighter, but I got over to a gravel bar and landed it. I figure it weighed about six pounds, and when I guess the weight of a fish, you can bet it won’t weigh much more than that. “Some things never change”, Dennis pointed out, thinking he had never seen me underestimate a fish’s weight. I reminded him that much HAD changed in more than fifty years. For instance, on that trip, he caught nearly as many fish as I did!
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