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Stream of Consciousness

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

Summer has come down hard on Missouri, and I am ankle deep in a small stream, looking at an 18-inch fly leader and wondering what to do.

I forgot to check the leader before I left home, and now I am 40 miles away with a stub of monofilament at the end of my fly line. I dig in my pocket and come up with a spool of 18-pound test monofilament-hardly the filmy stuff from which tippets are made. It will have the subtlety of a concrete block when it hits the water.

I strip off a few feet and tie it to my leader. It is a sloppy contraption, but I am far from home and a million miles from care.

Missourians-more than most people-are in love with their rivers and streams, and I am in love more than most Missourians with these things. We have an estimated 10,000 miles of streams. Many are meandering little waterways that anglers rarely fish.

I'm on such a stream-never mind where. A good angler with bait could decimate these pools by keeping what he catches. But no fish needs fear more than temporary discomfort and panic from me. I'll release anything I catch. I'm not here for supper; I'm here for dessert.

The stream is a microcosm of bad things that people do to streams. Fields extend to the river bank, which is eroding because there is no protection against the gouge of floods. Cattle tracks pockmark the gravel bar, and there is a slime of green moss in the water, an indication that the water is fertilized by manure.

The gravel bar also shows vehicle tracks and signs of a party. A bald tire sticks up like a gravestone that could read, "Here lies a formerly fine stream." The gravel is so deep it sucks at my feet.

When only American Indians used this waterway, they not only could drink the water with safety, they probably couldn't have waded across it in most places. Then the bottom was bedrock with long, deep holes separated by ledge rock riffles.

Now the stream is shallow beds of gravel with the occasional deeper pool where a tree has fallen into the stream, creating a structure that encourages the current to scour a hole. You have to work to fish these creeks. The good pools may be 100 yards apart or more.

I am wearing polarized sunglasses that cut the glare on the water and let me see the secrets of the pools. Sunfish are suspended, motionless, some of fair size. Most are green sunfish, but there is the occasional longear, spattered with more color than an artist's palette. A hog sucker ambles over the bottom, and gray-colored shad dart willy-nilly. Squadrons of bass cruise deliberately, not feeding, but ready if something irresistible comes along.

I search my fly box for something irresistible. A yellow popping bug is as good as any bass lure. I tie it on, squinting farsightedly and jabbing at the tiny hook eye with the thick leader end. Finally it is secure, and I false cast for distance. The gravel bars are so wide you can throw a long loop with no fear of snagging a back cast. It's sad to think that once all this gravel was fishable water. If there are bunches of bass now, compressed into small pools, what must it have been like when there was a broad, deep stream?

The bass bug doesn't want to turn over and settle delicately. My leader is out of balance and collapses on itself, and the cast flops into the water with the gracelessness of a dying heron.

Bass scatter like soldiers under air attack. The pool, one second ripe with fish, is empty as the ripples subside from my dreadful cast. The bug floats nose up, and I tease it just enough to give it motion, a forlorn afterthought. No real point in fishing this pool for a while. Bass aren't bright in the cosmic scheme, but they're bright enough to recognize danger for a while.

I get the hang of casting the heavy bug with my awful leader and begin to drop it where I want it-next to root wads and alongside downed tree trunks. I can't do anything about the dark shadow of the falling line, which must look like the "Angel of Death Descending" to the bass.

One who fly fishes on a brilliant sunny day when the water is low and clear shouldn't expect much. The bass are a tantalizing promise. Ozarkers almost to a person would vote them the state fish (up north, though, channel catfish are viewed with affection and salivation).

The Conservation Department is studying smallmouth bass to see what can be done to improve fishing. One idea involves a 15-inch minimum length limit on three Ozark rivers: Big Piney, Meramec and Big River.

Another Conservation Department idea is a "trophy" size limit for smallmouth on 20-mile stretches of the Jacks Fork and Gasconade rivers. Anglers may keep only one smallmouth of 18 inches or more daily.

They can fill out the normal daily limit of six bass with largemouth or spotted bass but only the one huge smallmouth. Of course, if all anglers released all bass, fishing would improve dramatically.

The 18-inch limit will be in effect for at least several years. Fisheries managers studied existing size and populations of smallmouth bass on the two rivers for several years before the size limit went into effect. That way they can compare the effects of the regulation.

Years ago, the Conservation Department instituted a catch-and-release regulation on Courtois Creek, which resulted in a 12-inch minimum length limit on stream bass.

Mortality is high once fish reach legal size-it's 30 percent or less below 12 inches and 70 percent or more after they reach that size.

Smallmouth bass grow slowly. It takes 5 years for a bass on the Gasconade to reach 12 inches and 6 years on the Jacks Fork. The fish have a normal life span of 11 years.

Managers have found that a smallmouth that tops 11 inches is likely to be caught and kept. The result is few fish survive to larger sizes. There is a high mortality rate.

At the same time, Conservation Department biologists are studying crayfish, the favorite food of smallmouth bass, trying to tie in the health of the crayfish population with the growth and health of smallmouth bass.

I change the popping bug for a crawdad imitation, a hairy brown thing that should tear up the indifferent bass.

It sinks among them like a brick. A couple turn toward it with mild interest, the way you'd look at a clown car backfiring and lurching down a crowded city street.

I let the lure sink to the bottom then retrieve it with slight jerks, trying to imitate a swimming crawdad. The bass politely move out of the way. A couple of tiny green sunfish chase the moving fly, but they aren't big enough to take it.

When in doubt, I always turn to the woolly bugger. A friend once offhandedly promised me a lifetime supply of the fly, and I've been holding him to it ever since, despite his grumbling and threats to break my fly rods.

The olive-green fly has a couple of strips of flash material tied into the tail that glitter like gold in a miner's pan. I move to a new pool and this one, like the last two, is crammed with bass, swimming back and forth like teenagers cruising the square on Saturday night. Still, it's not what I would choose for an ideal smallmouth fishing situation. I'd like a substantial flow of water running over big rocks into a pool. I'd cast into the swift water, let my woolly bugger tumble down the run into the washout and retrieve it as it swings in the current.

The riffle would break up the shadow of my falling fly line, and the fly would move so swiftly that fish wouldn't have time to think-they'd have to react instantly or lose it.

But there's only a limpid pool filled with fish as suspicious as IRS auditors. And I am standing on the bank with my 1040 long form, tipped with some deductions that bring new meaning to the word "creative."

I let the woolly bugger sink among the fish, then deliberately retrieve it. A small bass, maybe 7 inches, follows and then nails it, possibly to beat a charging green sunfish. I set the hook and the fish makes a sidelong run that takes it to the end of the pool. It is no match for 18-pound test monofilament, and I slide it to the shallows, wet my hand and lip it. After I work the woolly bugger free, I admire the little red-eyed, copper-colored fish then free it.

It streaks back into the pool. I believe without any evidence that released fish go back and tell the others not to make the same mistake.

I make a dozen more casts, each time deliberate, each time watching the white end of the fly line for some indication of a strike. The line pauses-no dramatic twitch, just a hesitation. I raise the rod, and a 15-inch bass clears the water a foot or more. He hangs in the bright sunlight, then tumbles back into the pool, lashing the water. He makes a powerful run to the far side, ripping line through my hand, then darts first one way then the other, seeking reprieve.

I work it into the shallow water and kneel to release it. "All right!" I exclaim to the universe. There is no need to explore further. The late morning sun burns hotly through my shirt, and sweat trickles down my face. It is too hot to fish and enjoy it. I have caught my fish and justified my faith in woolly buggers, fly fishing, small streams and life in general

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