I was firmly hooked on fly fishing and, specifically fly fishing for trout, ever since that first trip up into the Big Horn Mountains in 1975. For the next few years I really didn’t get much opportunity to go fishing except maybe three or four times a year and then only for a few hours at a time. Most of those were hours stolen away on weekends or after work when I’d go to to my local lake and fish for bass or pan fish and pretend they were trout. Maybe once or twice I’d go to one of the trout parks and fish but these were not very satisfying. In Missouri, there were four parks were there would be daily stocking of trout from nearby hatcheries and fisherman would take them out, probably within a few hours.
There were a few streams with trout populations that were stocked a few times a year. I could get to Roubidoux Creek in about an hour and a half and fish for the day. Roubidoux (Ruby-Doo) had a good population of Rainbow Trout and a respectable group of larger trophy-size Brown Trout. More often than not, fishing on the Roubidoux was a solitary experience….a far cry from the trout parks. It is a pretty, spring-fed creek with several access points along the state highway that ran alongside the creek. I learned how to fish with nymph patterns on the Roubidoux and the Browns seemed to really like bead-head patterns. Dry flies and attractors seemed to be good for Rainbows on most days but I enjoyed hooking into a nice sized Brown. The Roubidoux also had a population of beavers so each year there would be a beaver dam somewhere — you never were sure what you would find once you were on the creek. That’s one reason why I liked the place — there was a good variety of conditions.
Deep in the Ozarks there are larger spring-fed rivers with trout populations. The Current River has a stocked trout population but the river is often so crowded with canoes that it is hard to get a peaceful spot. The Eleven Point River also is stocked during summer months. These two are national scenic rivers and get a lot of visitors. I always wanted to fish them in the winter but never got the chance since they were some distance from my home. The Meramec River, downstream from the Meramec Springs trout park, holds a population of escaped Rainbows and stocked Brown trout. It is a good sized Ozark river full of snags and sandbars with lots of riffles. I fished there several times but never had much luck. Being adjacent to the trout park brought in a lot of fisherman who could fish both places in a single day.
That was about the extent of my fishing for the next ten years. I was busy being a married guy and a dad and I had a job that kept me extra busy. I lived about 35 miles from Lake of the Ozarks so we would spend weekends there a couple times a year but fishing was not very high on the list of things to do. I remember a week-long vacation on Bull Shoals Lake with several days of bass fishing with my wife hunkered down in the boat with a couple books. We took a trip to Georgia and I fished on the Chattahoochee River up in the mountains but I don’t recall much of that experience other than it was as slick as snot…as they say. I think I caught two fish and hooked a couple more between falls.
Sometime around 1985 one of our friends married a guy who became my best friend and fishing companion for the next twenty years. In this narrative I’ll call him Fred. He wasn’t much of a fly fisherman at first but improved quickly. Fred was a fast learner on just about everything…except fishing knots. We ended up travelling, scuba diving and doing a lot of stuff together besides fly fishing.
One of our early trips was a canoe float trip down the North Fork River in Missouri. We caught some trout and some bass and some fish we had no idea what they were. We went almost two days without seeing anyone else on the river. The North Fork is a wild and scenic freestone river with a few hazards…like a small waterfall and some washed-out bridge pilings. We turned the canoe over once or twice but that is to be expected on most Ozark streams. We camped on a sandbar in the middle of the river. Fred went out to gather firewood and encountered a small rattlesnake in a brush pile. No harm done to man or snake but we were more careful after that. That night we crawled into out tent and slept soundly while a mink ate the cork handles off our fly rods. Apparently the cork absorbs the smell of fish from your hands and attracted the mink. We were unhappy the next day but made the best of it. I still fish with that rod sometimes — it was the one I bought up in Sheridan, Wyoming, back in 1975.
Our two families took vacations together for several years. Fred and I fished in New Hampshire and a few other spots. We ventured down into Arkansas for a couple of trips. On one trip, Fred and I decided to hire a guide for a day and float the White River and fish for trout. Nobody seemed to know anything about fly fishing. We ended up with our limit of fish…hauled in on hooks baited with corn and stink-bait while we cooked in the sun in a flat bottomed Jon boat. Our guide seemed quite pleased — we were catching fish. I was wondering about what the fish ate naturally if there was no corn or stink-bait around. I guess what we offered was a step up from the trout chow that they get in the hatcheries because they gobbled it up.
On another October trip we stayed at Greer’s Ferry Lake near Heber Springs, Arkansas and Fred and I fished on the Little Red River. It took a while to find a place to fish so we asked around at the local trout docks. No one we talked to seemed to understand the concept of fly fishing — they were corn and stink-bait fishermen. We finally found out what we needed to know. The Little Red River is a tailwater fishery and grows huge trout. The world record Brown Trout was taken on the Little Red River. Our contacts pointed us to a place called Cow Shoals so we bought our licenses and headed that direction only to find that the Corps of Engineers was releasing water from the lake and there was no way to wade and fish — we had to wait for another day.
The next morning we were up early and already at Cow Shoals by 6 AM. It was a cold morning – but manageable. There were a few other early arrivals at the parking lot and we all headed for the water before the sun was up. The water level had returned to normal and Fred and I moved downstream slightly while some of the other fishermen moved in above or below us. We tied on nymphs and began flailing the water. ”Sow Bug” patterns seem to be the common nymph that fisherman use here. Sow bugs are roll-poly bugs where I grew up — we didn’t have sows. The sun began to come up through the trees and we could make out the river conditions a little better. The river bed was made up of moss covered boulders with intermittent patches of smaller stones and gravel. In some places the water pressure and the mossy bottom made footing treacherous. We fished with not much luck, changing flies occasionally, for the first hour or so. Fish were not active at this point and we could not see any feeding trout. Other fishermen were having pretty much the same luck, with an occasional fish getting hooked, mostly upstream from where we were fishing.
Before long we noticed a fisherman (named Jerry, we discovered later) running in our direction with his bent fly rod held up over his head. He had a fish on the line that was so big that he couldn’t slow it down without breaking the line. As he went by he called to us for help. Apparently he didn’t have a net and the fish was heading for deeper water downstream. Fred and I reeled in our lines and chased after him. Running in thigh deep water in clumsy waders is no easy task and I slipped on a mossy boulder and fell face down in a pool of water. I was up again like a gazelle – the water was about 50 degrees and very unpleasant inside my waders. We finally caught up with Jerry and the fish and I was able to maneuver downstream from the trout and got it in the net. It was a terrific hook-beaked 26 inch brown trout that must have weighed eight pounds or more. It was nearly exhausted from the fight but still looked like it could run some more. Never having seen a Brown Trout of that size up close we were quite impressed. It was a beautiful fish. I almost forgot that I was cold and soaking wet.
About that time things began to turn sour. Jerry decided to take it back to his car since he didn’t have his camera with him. Once we got to the car he didn’t have a camera there either so Fred, who had his camera all along, took his picture with the trophy fish. About that time the fish started releasing hundreds of eggs. This was a sobering climax to the excitement of netting the fish. Catch and release fishing makes a lot of sense usually and this was one of those times. Jerry offered us money for helping him with the fish but we refused. He gave us a couple of egg pattern flies which were the same pattern that he used to catch the monster fish. Several important points were learned from this episode. If you are going to try to land a big fish you ought to remember your net. Remembering your camera is also important if you want to photograph your catch and release it. Also, it might be a good idea to watch out for the Jerrys on the river.
Meanwhile, back at the parking lot, I was still drenched and the water from my wet clothes was responding to gravity and slowly filling up my waders. I was getting colder as the water rose. Fred was still excited about the fish and continued to visit with the other fishermen and finally strolled over to ask if there was any thing he could do. I answered, politely but a little coldly, “You could open the van and start the heater”. Once in the van we realized that there was no towel so a handy blanket had to do the job. I brought along extra dry jeans, underwear and socks but didn’t bring a dry shirt. Fred offered his sweater – “the shirt off my back” – which was a little oversized for him and much undersized for me. Since there was no other alternative, I put on the sweater – which almost met the top of my dry jeans. It was still early in the day and I decided to run into town and buy a shirt and sweatshirt at the local Wal-Mart. No one said anything about my nice sweater. People are very well behaved – or perhaps my outfit looked pretty much like everyone else’s in Wal-Mart.
When I got back to Cow Shoals, Fred reported that fishing was slow and he still hadn’t hooked a fish. I got back into my waders, now dry, and the two of us headed back to the river. Fish were becoming more active and visible in the water. Fred fished by the Sycamore Tree hole and I moved down stream a little toward the outlet of a small side creek. There were a number of other fishermen both up and down steam and a few were catching fish. After a while, Fred caught a good sized Brown trout but it turned out to be a snagged catch. Apparently the fish had taken the fly but spit it out just as he set the hook, catching it on the side. I changed flies fairly often, changing from nymphs to sow bugs and then to the pink egg pattern. The creek outlet had a section of very still water with several fish visible. There was also a large hole in fast water by an old fallen tree which was becoming the upstream anchor for a small island. The fast water chute on the far side of the island also had several fish jumping. Still, I wasn’t hooking any fish. The currents were complicated and it was hard to get a natural drift for the nymph. After a while I moved up stream to fish closer to Fred. Amazingly, Fred was busy giving pointers to a novice fly fisherman who was sitting on the bank watching him cast. Before long Fred had another Brown trout on the line and he decided he wanted a picture of the fish. He found his camera and while handing it to me, the batteries fell out into the water. Using our landing nets we worked for several minutes before we finally were able to collect the batteries and get them dried off and back into the camera. All this time the fish waited patiently on the line swimming back and forth in the river. The novice fisherman sat nearby making mental notes about our fishing and photography skills. We finally got the fish in the net and took the picture before releasing the fish.
By this time, the fish were becoming more visible in the stream. We were apparently attracting quite an audience. Some even jumped out of the water to get a closer look at us. Some were seen swimming away shaking their heads. I noticed that the fish were feeding near our feet where we scuffed up the gravel on the river bed. It was now possible to cast to individual fish or to pods of 3 to 5 fish swimming together. I cast a “Prince” nymph to one fish which grabbed it and took off down river. It was a fifteen inch Brown that put up a fight and got the hook out of its mouth just as I got it in the net. We fished for a couple hours and caught a few more fish but all were smaller than the 15-incher and we released them all. During these trips Fred and I considered ourselves to be post-modern fly fishermen — we didn’t practice catch and release — we usually didn’t catch them in the first place.
Next: A couple trips to Colorado