I kept telling myself, "It's just mind over matter, mind over matter." Meanwhile, a little voice in my head whimpered, "What matters is that you're freezing!"
My eyes darted back and forth, following the pattern of light and motion below the water's surface. I struggled to stay upright on the icy platform of the johnboat, pushing my hips into the metal railings while clutching a 14-foot gig with fingers I could no longer feel.
My shoulders were aching, and the sounds from the generator, outboard motor and water splashing against the side of the boat blended together. The cold, the dark, and the icy air threatened to overwhelm my spirit, but then a fish flitted around at the far corner of the lighted area!
I mentally reviewed the instructions of my gigging advisors, Tom and Drew Buersmeyer: Identify the fish, follow it with the stick, but, keep the gig a little ahead of the fish. Stab it in the head, letting the gig drop so the weight does the work.
After I'd gigged the fish, I was to bring it around to the side of the boat, lift it up and scrape if off on the transom.
I raised the gig. I struck. I missed.
I had always wanted to try gigging, a sport that has been passed down through generations. That's how I came to be on the Osage River in a johnboat in the dead of winter with the Buersmeyers of Westphalia. Tom Buersmeyer has been gigging for more than 20 years. His son, Drew, started gigging when he was 15.
"At first, I took Drew to the Maries River," said Tom. "I was leery of big rivers." Now they gig on larger rivers, including the Gasconade and the Osage.
People have been taking fish by gigging for many centuries. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition gigged for salmon in the Pacific Northwest, with guidance from aboriginal American tribesmen.
Before that famous expedition, which began in our state, native Americans sharpened sticks or fashioned spearheads of rock or bones and attached them with sinew to the ends of long poles to stab fish.
The gig has not changed much in design or principle. Blacksmiths once fashioned 14- to 16-foot gigs for friends and customers, but many giggers now buy their spears at sporting goods shops. The Buersmeyers have a friend who makes three- and four-tine gigs for them.