For more than 50 years, catching goggle-eye in the Gasconade River has been one of my most enduring passions. After just one tussle with this colorful panfish in this picturesque river, you'll understand why.
The Gasconade begins peacefully in Wright County, just north of Highway 60, near Hartville. Narrow and rocky in its headwaters, the river grows quickly as it picks up the flow from Woods Fork, Lick Fork, Whetstone and Beaver creeks. Before long, it changes from a tame wading stream to a formidable river. It grows even larger when it picks up the Osage Fork, Roubidoux Creek and the Pineys.
Flowing generally northeast, the Gasconade River has many great bends, some of which almost connect in places. The Gasconade flows 300 miles to cover 100 miles, making it the most crooked stream in Missouri. In all that distance, there are but a few riffles. The Gasconade is a placid, flatwater stream that holds little attraction for whitewater enthusiasts.
However, the river is full of attractions for anglers. It contains sunfish, smallmouth and largemouth bass and offers good fishing for crappie around brushpiles below Highway 32, but goggle-eyes are what make the stream truly remarkable.
The scientific name for rock bass, or goggle-eye, is Ambloplites rupestris. Three different species of rock bass have been identified, but anglers generally refer to all three as goggle-eye.
These fish grow longer than the various sunfishes and are heavy-bodied, but they almost never weigh more than three-quarters of a pound-and that's a really big one. Anglers love them for the fight they provide on light tackle, and also for their fine flavor.
About the middle of April, goggle-eyes begin spawning. For about four to six weeks you can catch them in the same areas that produce consistently year after year. Over time, my friends and I have identified a great number of spots that produce fish consistently, and we can always count on catching six to 10 on every visit. In the spring, it's not at all unusual for two of us to catch 50 or 60 in a day of floating and fishing, but we keep only enough for dinner.
There is an 8-inch minimum size limit on goggle-eye on Osage Fork from Skyline bridge in Laclede County to its confluence with the Gasconade River, and on the Big Piney River from the Highway 17 bridge to Sand Shoals bridge.
Although you can float the Gasconade from Hartville to its mouth, I think the best floating is in the middle section. That would be from the U.S. Forest Service access (Mayfield) on the east side of the stream, about one mile below Competition, to the Schlict Spring Access, east and south of Swedeborg. That section would take about a week to float at one time, and it offers plentiful fishing opportunities.
In the fall, if the river is low, the best fishing is downstream from the I-44 Bridge because of the inflow from the Osage Fork.
For those who wish to float and camp, the Gasconade has suitable gravel bars, but they are not as large, nor as numerous, as gravel bars are on other streams.
Because it has so many tributaries, the Gasconade can sometimes be unfloatable because of high, muddy water. This happens mainly in the spring, but heavy rains anywhere within its watershed can make the river unsuitable and unsafe for floating.
Once you find goggle-eyes, catching them is fairly simple. During the day you can find them in deep water near the bottom, usually near boulders and snags. They are most active at night, when they will often take noisy surface lures. Any small plug will catch goggle-eyes, but a deep-running crawdad imitator is one of the most consistent.
Another time-tested lure is a simple, broad spoon with hook soldered onto it. Attach a trailer hook to the shank of the main hook. Thread about three inches of plastic worm on the trailer hook. Fish the spoon with a ball-bearing swivel. Let it sink, and then retrieve it slowly for 10 or 12 feet. This is a highly effective technique for goggle-eyes, but it will also catch bass. Unfortunately, you won't find this spoon in stores, but it is easy to make.
Goggle-eyes are also very fond of three-inch, curly-tailed grubs, especially those that have been impregnated with salt. Best colors are pumpkinseed with red metal flake or green metal flake.
Any sort of light tackle is fine, but I prefer an ultra-light rod matched with an open-face spinning reel spooled with 4-pound test line.
Once you've learned how to catch goggle-eyes, you can then discover another delight of my long and happy life-eating goggle-eyes. Try my long-cherished Canadian recipe. Dip the fish, either whole or filleted, in a mixture of egg and evaporated milk, and then roll it in flour.
It's important to make the flour gray with black pepper. Add five times more than you might usually add. The pepper adds piquancy but doesn't scorch the tongue, and it really improves the flavor of the fish. Don't overcook goggle-eye. In really hot oil, five minutes is sufficient to thoroughly cook both sides.
Corn oil is ideal because it doesn't absorb other flavors. You can also filter it and use it repeatedly without refrigerating it.
Poaching is another low-calorie recipe. It is particularly good for small fillets, which provide two or three delicious bites and go wonderfully with vegetables and salads. Poach the fish five minutes in boiling water that contains white wine and lemon juice. Serve with a low-calorie mayonnaise mixed with fresh or dried tarragon, which is a pleasant alternative to tartar sauce.
Remember that many of the goggle-eyes you'll catch during spawning season will contain large egg sacs. These are delicious eating. They fry even faster than the rest of the fish. Prepare them the same way, but add them to the pan last.
Once you've experienced the joy of goggle-eye fishing, from the water to the table, you'll be a fan of these pint-sized brawlers.