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Fish Gigging

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

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. Gigs can even be purchased online.

For early settlers, gigging was a means of putting meat on the table during lean times. Fresh fish also provided a welcome change from salt pork in the winter.

In an interview conducted by Dr. Robert Flanders for the Winter 1991 volume of Ozarks Watch, Swiney Rayfield provided a history of gigging. He said gigging was once called "fire fishing." This name came about because giggers would put two rims of a tire or wagon wheel on top of each other in the middle of a boat, making about a 16-inch circle. Then, giggers would pack clay mud into the center of the wheel and push torches into the clay, making "mud-jacks."

In "The Boat Builder from White River," which appeared in the July 1996 issue of the Missouri Conservationist, Jim Auckley described how native Ozarkers would gig from "jackboats." They called them that because in earlier years they burned "jack" pine knots in a metal basket to provide light for nighttime fishing or gigging. After lighting their torches, giggers would float their boats sideways downstream. Rayfield recalled that torches were used until the 1930s. Later, giggers used the Baker Burner, which was fueled by gasoline. Then came the incandescent gas mantle, the same light source used in the Coleman lantern.

Giggers in the olden days didn't just spear fish at night. Rayfield reminisced about gigging during the daytime, too. He told how fellows would run the boat upstream during the day, and then turn it around when the sun went down and float downstream. He said it wasn't uncommon for a gigging trip to last 24 hours.

Giggers used to either pull or pole their boats. Today's giggers prefer the convenience of the outboard motor, although most still take a paddle along in case the motor fails.

Tom Buersmeyer prefers a 4.5 HP motor, which is relatively quiet and works well in shallow water.

While Tom sits in the back, running the motor, Drew stands on the deck, a home-made platform at the bow that has a waist-high railing at the front.

Gigging requires teamwork. The person running the motor relies on signals from the gigger. The gigger watches for, and alerts the helmsman to, rocks, logs and other obstructions. The gigger either uses hand signals or motions with the gig in the direction he wants the boat to go.

Because their methods are so different, giggers and sport fishers have clashed in the past, even though giggers only target drum, gar, carp, suckers and other non-game fish. Back in the 1930s, gigging was even outlawed for short time.

Gigging finally was allowed after some vociferous meetings, but the hours were set from noon to midnight, during the last three calendar months of the year. Later, giggers were allowed to gig during the last two weeks in September, as well.

Presently, Missouri's gigging season for fish in streams and impounded waters runs from September 15 through January 31. On impounded waters, gigging is allowed between sunrise and sunset throughout the year. Gigging is prohibited in some Wild Trout Management and Trout Special Management areas. Giggers should consult the Wildlife Code for specific regulations and prohibitions.

Giggers don't really mind the late season or the hours. For them, it's a chance to get out on the river when the water is clear, and most giggers believe that the colder the weather, the clearer the water.

Freezing Feast

A late night fish fry is one of the great tradtions of gigging. We enjoyed an outdoor meal on our trip, but only after motoring downstream and upstream for several hours.

Tom's '67 Chevy pickup, now faded to a wedding-mint green and still sporting an "Impeach Nixon" bumper sticker, came equipped for a fish fry. After lighting the stove for the deep fryer, Tom pulled one of the floor boards from the truck bed, set it on the tailgate and began to clean fish, using the wood as a cutting board.

As Drew searched for campfire wood, I held a flashlight over the fish cleaning. I was shaking from the cold so much, it was hard to hold it steady. Tom often broke off from fish cleaning to warm his hands on the outside of the fryer.

First to go into the fryer were some frozen steak fries. When they floated to the top of the basket, Tom quickly removed them and dumped them into a brown paper bag and seasoned them liberally with garlic salt. He then folded back the sides of the bag to create a serving "dish."

Later came the hot fish, which were worth the wait. For dessert, Tom served the traditional "whomp-um" biscuits (those little dough circles in a can), which he made into doughnuts by poking his finger through each biscuit before dropping it into the hot oil.

As we were eating, other giggers started coming off the river. They sounded happy and tired. Some already had a fire and friends waiting to greet them on the bank.

When I recall that night on the river, I don't dwell on the cold and discomfort. What comes to mind is the camaraderie, the absolute silence when the motor is turned off, the winter sky twinkling with fairy lights, the quick jab of the gigger and, of course, the feast afterwards. As so often happens with outdoor trips, the good stuff far outweighs the bad.

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