Ozark Mountain Fishing Adventure
Seven days of chasing trout and bass in one of the wildest regions in America
Editor’s Note: This classic story originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Field & Stream.
Nate Hagen is feeling the pressure. It’s 6:29 a.m., and in less than 60 seconds the trout siren at Montauk State Park in Salem, Mo., will sound. Dressed in flip-flops and a T-shirt with the arms cut off, Hagen, a small-town preacher from Illinois, is watching over a small army: his wife, Vicki; their three sons, Jarrett, Patrick, and Brandt (all under 10 years old); and longtime pal Bill Holeman. They’ve claimed a coveted position at the Social Hole, a slick, mossy pool just a few hundred feet from where the Current River bubbles out of the ground.
“Come on, honey,” Nate says to Vicki. “We just got one minute left.”
“Calm down, honey,” Vicki replies. Her face shaded by a straw cowboy hat, she sits in a camp chair surrounded by kids’ fishing rods, boxes of Little Debbie Nutty Bars, and a block of Velveeta. White-bread crusts are heaped at her feet. Her mama cut off the bread crusts for her own cheeseball baits, Vicki tells me, so it’s only fitting that she do the same for her kids. Vicki simultaneously unsnarls a fish stringer from Jarrett’s legs, rigs three hooks with cheeseballs, and ties a “gut bug” to another line. At Montauk, trout are cleaned streamside and the heads and entrails flung back into the water. The gut bug, a small jig tied with red and white feathers, mimics, I learn, a piece of trout bladder or a chunk of stomach.
As this revelation sinks in, the trout siren screams, and the Hagen family launches into action. “Go, go, go!” Nate hollers to his kids. It’s the first of a series of instructions and exclamations:
“Watch your bobber, Patrick!”
“Jarrett, he’s on! Pull, buddy, pull!”
“Vicki! Patrick needs more cheese!”
“Watch your hook, Brandt! It’s gonna stick in Jarrett’s coat!”
“Vicki, can you get that hook out?”
The feed is on. It’s easy to poke fun at a trout-park scene—grimy water ringed with anglers whose fishing permits flop from hat brims like hounds’ ears. I came to Montauk with a full load of hang-ups and prejudices about what a trout park could possibly offer. I was soon shamed. It takes just a few minutes of hanging with the Hagens to wash away my misconceptions in the Ozarks’ healing—and slightly discolored from all the rotting fish carcasses—waters. In fact, during a weeklong Ozark smallmouth and trout road trip, hardly anything turned out the way photographer Colby Lysne and I thought it would.
Sandwiched between Branson, Mo., and the Mississippi River, this region of rolling, wooded hills and spring-fed rivers seems to live by its own set of rules. Lysne and I would fish with one guide who preached the virtues of a flyfishing technique from the former Czechoslovakia. We would witness a wild and scenic river be transformed into a streaming hoedown by thousands of hard-partying weekend paddlers jamming the water. And I would develop a sinful case of jealousy of the Ozark natives who live smack-dab in some of the best freshwater fishing on the planet. But first I would have to change my mind about Velveeta.
Combat Fishing in a Trout Park
At Montauk, $5 buys you a day pass, and for every pass sold, 2.25 trout are stocked that night for the next day’s frenzy. The Hagens are joined by hundreds of anglers who line the Ozarks’ famed Current River, rods loaded, waiting for the 6:30 a.m. siren. The fishing, to say the least, gets a little crazy. The Social Hole is particularly known for combat fishing. “Ten minutes past the buzzer and it’s like a big cheese and corn casserole flowing through the woods,” one old-timer warned me a few days before my trip. “Wear a helmet.” When I shuffle up to the Social Hole there’s a crowd waiting: white-haired old men and tow-headed toddlers; anglers in camouflage pants, and one in a Curious George T-shirt; a young man without a shirt who has a bass rod in one hand and his girlfriend’s hand in the other. Four feet away stands a fellow in Gore-Tex waders and a fishing vest rattling with nippers, scissors, knot-tying tools, and fly floatant. After the siren screams, every other cast brings in a fish. Within a half hour, heavy stringers of trout snake into the water. There’s a four-fish limit at Montauk, so the Hagen clan can walk away with 24 trout. They’re in no hurry.
“We scratch some money together and come down for a week each year,” Nate says, reaching over to help 2-year-old Brandt hold his Finding Nemo rod. “We camp right here and hit her hard–on the water from siren to siren unless we’re eating lunch.” It’s only later, after the cheese froth has died and breakfast has lured most of the Social Hole’s anglers back to the campground, that I rig up my own rod. Preacher Hagen wanders over for a chat. “Fishing is biblical, you know,” he says, as I thread monofilament through the eye of a ridiculously small treble hook. “First thing Jesus ate after He arose from the dead was broiled fish. Book of John, I believe.” It’s a gently delivered bit of the Gospel, but here at the Social Hole, where folks tend to lay their differences aside, Nate has no intention of a hard sell. “But at some point, you know, God invented beer batter. Nothing’s been the same ever since.”
Czech-Nymphing on the White River
I’m starting to feel a bit of cultural whiplash. In just a few hours I’ve gone from down-home, trout-park wholesomeness to heavy-metal flyfishing with our guide, Brian Wise, a former rodeo kayaker who is about to school me on an Eastern European nymphing tactic. These hills, I’m learning, are a place of extremes. “This is what keeps me up at night,” Wise says. Wiry and energetic, with a crewcut and a soul patch puffed out with Copenhagen, the 28-year-old guide stands in the pulsing flow of the North Fork of the White River. “Nymphing in this river is hardcore, technical, up-close-and-personal. It gets in my head and it’s all I can think about.”
The North Fork’s deep, swift runs, Wise explains, are tailor-made for Czech nymphing. Born in the secretive warrens of competitive angling, the technique came to light in 1986 when a Czechoslovakian named Slavoj Svoboda won the World Fly Fishing Championship in Belgium with a fast-sinking, multiple-fly rig anchored with a heavy Hare’s Ear nymph. Over the last few years, Wise has made the technique a mainstay of his fishing. Early in the day he gives us a lesson. With Czech nymphing, a heavily weighted nymph bumps along the bottom, dragging the other flies behind. Wise’s rod is loaded with a garish threesome: a San Juan Worm up top, a big Red Fox nymph tied to the worm’s hook shank, and a heavy Golden Stonefly nymph as a dropper fly. I raise my eyebrows.
Wise ignores any hint of moral outrage. “You lead the rig with a rod held low, keeping direct contact with the anchor fly,” he says. “You feel everything. I know it looks crazy, dragging all that crap through the water. But how else are you gonna get all the way to the bottom? Think about it like a fish, and suddenly nothing makes more sense.” I wade to the edge of the run and dredge Wise’s Czech rig a dozen times. A dozen times I come up empty. Then, on a drift that looks exactly like every other drift, a fish strikes so hard it nearly jerks the cork out of my hand. The rest of the rod bends toward a fat wild rainbow. Wise hoots in delight: “That’s the beauty, man. You think you’re wasting time, then bam! You can’t see down there, but all hell’s breaking loose underwater. Those flies are going somewhere a little bit different with every drift.”
For the next four hours we pound the North Fork, wading deep runs as we dredge for rainbows. Lysne loses two big fish and spirals down into that dark place anglers go when they’ve been bested by creatures with brains the size of pinto beans. “I feel like a dry-fly fisherman turned inside out,” he says. “This is every bit as techie as trying to match the hatch on a glass-slick run.” With daylight fading quickly, I want to get it exactly right–and I want to do it by myself. At a place called the Rock Garden, the North Fork braids through a helter-skelter of ledges and boulders. I pick the gnarliest run and pound it with a Czech rig weighted with split shot. After two dozen casts I’m ready to quit, but Wise sidles up behind me. “Keep at it,” he says. “Just a couple more. Trust me.”
I shake my head in frustration before lobbing my mess slightly upstream, exactly where I’ve been fishing for 15 minutes. Nada. I pull the flies out, flick them back into the run, and lean so far out that I’m sure the next sensation I feel will be a face-plant into the North Fork. I can feel the stonefly tic-tic-ticking over rocks and pebbles, then— doink! I wrist-snap the rod straight overhead and pull a 15-inch rainbow out of its hideout. Wise whoops it up. “Casting junk into the junk, that’s what some folks call it,” he says. “But that fish don’t look like junk to me.”
A Floating Party in the Ozarks
Despite the world-class fishing found in the Ozarks, the pursuit of trout and smallmouth bass may not be the region’s favorite pastime. The Current River has been called the most popular canoe river in America, and on summer Saturdays a so-called canoe hatch of thousands of rental boats clogs the river south of Montauk State Park. So far, Lysne and I have avoided the worst of it, but we can’t shake a certain sick urge to catch a glimpse of the tawdry side of the Ozarks.
We’ve been fishing hard since an hour before dawn, so we’re already a little monkey-eyed when we pass the Lula Full Gospel Church and turn into Pulltite Landing at 4:35 p.m. on Saturday. Lysne hits the brakes and sends an open box of Cap’n Crunch spewing. Neither of us says a word. Pulltite is a zoo. I count 13 old school buses lined up, each one pulling a huge canoe trailer. In the shallows, waves of hard-partying paddlers crash onto a gravel parking lot. Scores of sun-blistered boaters stumble onto the beach, some so drunk they can hardly walk. It looks as if a train loaded with inflatable pool toys, water cannons, beer coolers, and straw cowboy hats has wrecked and tumbled into the river a few miles upstream. I open the car door and hear the hip-hop grunt of the rapper Nelly blasting from a boom box shoved into the bow of a rental boat: “ It’s gettin’ hot in here, So take off all your clothes!”
By the looks of it, a few folks have taken the hint. Beer guts, teeny-weeny string bikinis, and some highly impressive lobster-red farmer’s tans seem to be the Pulltite dress code. I’ve read about this scene. Revelry on the Current River got so out of hand that in 2007 the National Park Service banned beer kegs, beer bongs, “Jell-O shots” made of grain alcohol, and all other “volume-drinking devices.” Mardi Gras beads were nixed as well. (They’d been used to entice women to shed their tops.) Park officials insist the cleanup is working, but I’d say there’s more ground to plow.
I try to chat up a few paddlers, but it’s pretty apparent that I’m the only nerd at a frat-house rush party. Instead I buttonhole Marcus Maggard, who’s shouting orders to a couple of guys throwing 80-pound canoes on their shoulders as if they were empty bags. In 1945, he tells me, his grandfather, Buck Maggard, bought five canoes from the Sears, Roebuck catalog and started Akers Ferry Canoe Rental. These days, Akers is permitted to put 418 canoes on the Current River each day, and it’s just one outfitter among many. “What would your granddaddy think of this scene?” I ask Maggard, who shakes his head. “Not in his wildest dreams,” he says. My chances for scoring introspective interviews about the value of wild waters in modern society are exactly zero, but Lysne smells blood. “Hey, y’all!” he hollers. “We’re from Field & Stream, and we wanna take your picture.”
A chorus of rebel yells and “Hell yeahs” puts Nelly’s music to shame. I outline a square with river rocks. “Step in the box,” I shout, “and tell me about your childhood!” Within seconds, we have a line of willing models. A few can actually stand up. About an hour later Lysne and I pull away, howling with laughter. Lysne shakes his head and says, “So that’s what it’s like after they tighten the rules?”
Fishing for Smallmouth Bass in the Ozarks
The first big pig spits up a dead crayfish as I reach for his lip. He’s a 4-pound chunk of wet bronze that hit a tube jig plunked like a depth charge into a tangle of sycamore limbs. As I wrestle him out of the branches, a half dozen other smallmouths swarm the bass, striking at the jig dangling from his mouth. Lysne grabs a rod and runs for the head of the pool.
We’ve been on the Eleven Point River for all of half a day when we paddle into a left-hand bend where a pair of springs empties into the river. Recent floods have tumbled trees into the water against a steep 12-foot-high bank. We divvy up the structure and send tube jigs bouncing over the boughs. We’re into smallies like nobody’s business. Every other cast brings a strike, and we snatch smallmouths out of a heap of limbs and trunks and sodden leaves. Within a half hour we lose a dozen jigs, then wade shoulder-deep into the treetops to untangle our precious remaining lures.
“What a pig trough!” Lysne shouts from upstream. “These are Canada-size smallmouths! What are they doing here?” “Living the good life!” I say. “Until now!” Alone—finally—in the Ozark wilds, Lysne and I keep score by laughing and screeching each time we hook a fish. Suddenly, I hear a shriek. Lysne’s spinning rod has snapped—simply split in two at the third rod guide. He storms to the canoe, shaking his head, and mounts an ultralight spinning reel to a 6-weight fly rod. The catching never stops. For an hour and a half we swap smallies, the smallest one larger than any other fish we’ve hooked in a week of Ozark madness.
It couldn’t have happened on a better stream. The Eleven Point River changes personalities every few miles, going from a trophy smallmouth stream to blue-ribbon trout water as frigid springs dump cooling flows. Paddle a few more miles, and it’s back to smallies again. We leave the pig trough with three dozen fish landed and precious little time to find a camp. We pinball back and forth between 100-foot rock bluffs and wooded ridges rounded like the coils of a verdant snake. Stroke by stroke, fish by fish, Lysne and I inch across the Ozarks.
One Last Cast
I’m not sure I could devise a more perfect ending to a week in the Ozarks. It’s our last night on the Eleven Point, the tents are up, and as the light falls, black-crowned night herons wing overhead to roost. My arms are sore from paddling, loading and unloading canoes, hauling bags over gravel bars, and casting tube jigs, Czech nymph rigs, and even a shrimp-colored spoon fly I offered to the Eleven Point when the storms came and the bite went flat after yesterday’s breakfast.
Just downstream of our 2-acre gravel bar, a hard current seam cleaves the river. Tendrils of fog swirl off the water like cigar smoke. Lysne cinches down his belt and waves a fly rod. “This is the sword,” he declares, “with which I will rule my kingdom.” I wave him off with a spatula. For the next half hour I trade rainbow trout and smallmouth bass nearly cast for cast, running back and forth between the river and a frying pan. Cast, strip, run, flip. Then suddenly, as if turning off a switch, it’s over for me. I’m done. Fished out, plain and simple, after seven hard days on the water.
I lean my rod against the canoe and sprawl out on the ground, firelight flickering on Ozark stones, gnats pelting my face like a hard rain. A symphony of crickets trills in a chorus almost as loud as the sizzling fish, which is almost as loud as Lysne’s cackle as he stands in the dark water, two-handing a trout. It’s almost dark, and I can barely make him out in the fog, like some figure in a photograph that’s faded in the sun.
A few stars wink overhead, and for the first time in a week I think about the fish and the fishing behind me, instead of plotting and planning and fretting about the fish and the fishing ahead. I lie on the gravel bar, deep in the Ozarks, listening to the water that has taken all I had to give.