Enchantment Slapstick

By Joel Vance | September 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 1996

It was the Mona Lisa with a mustache painted on her. It was Michelangelo's David wearing a thong bikini. It was "La Boheme" performed by Homer and Jethro.

Enchantment and low comedy. A man catching a large bass with his ankle. You should have been there.

I was.

Bright September day, finally turned cool after a long hot spell. Droughted leaves dotted the sluggish stream and cicadas rasped in the weeds. But the nights had been cool and the water now was cold through my thin waders.

I was stream fishing, a form of escape more precious than any. Streams are a constant adventure; every bend opens up new possibilities. Streams are wildlife arteries, carrying the lifeblood of the land. They wind far from roads, through the backwoods and the remote pockets of Missouri.

This stream is inconspicuous and, from the evidence, rarely fished except at the crossings. It is representative of many watercourses that aren't known for canoe floating or don't have trout or some other blue ribbon attraction.

They're merely back-40 tributaries that drain farms and woodlots, hundreds of miles of them, mostly murky, often muddy. I found this crossing in the Conservation Department's Atlas, an invaluable source of places to go.

I've fished such streams for 30 years and only rarely has anyone shared the stream with me, other than kingfishers, deer, turkeys, great blue herons, little green herons, basking turtles and the inevitable, noisy blue jays.

Blue jays nag everything. A blue jay never is happy. Life is a constant irritation. Blue jays would make good fans for a losing baseball team, long rows of them in the bleachers screaming at the umpires and the outfielders and the hot dog vendors.

Now they screamed at me. "Yah can't fish, yah bum yah! What're you doin' here anyway, yah ugly mutt! Yah oughta be back in the minors!"

And so on.

The stream crossing looked like an encyclopedia of everything that is wrong with Missouri streams. Someone had dumped a bunch of household trash on the gravel bar. The first flood would strew it downstream for miles. There was a graveling operation on the other side of the crossing, along with copious evidence of intensive beer parties.

Cow tracks (and other evidence of their bovine passing) littered the gravel.

This mid-Missouri stream once was as pristine as the deep Ozark rivers, but a century of careless use has turned it into a murky, graveled watercourse, slimed with algae and clogged with mud from erosion.

Still, largemouth bass are tolerant fish and a certain amount of fertilization can enrich a stream's food base. I hoped that once I got past the last beer can, the stream would take a shaky breath and reclaim some of its historic charm.

It did. I clambered over a gravel bank where the bulldozers had been, then slogged across a weedy gravel bar and waded around the bend. No tab tops here, no beer cans nor sandwich wrappers.

The long pool was shrouded with tall trees. A rank of rocky ledges guarded the left-hand bank and a wooded bench ran along the right side.

Four casts into the pool, a one-pound largemouth intercepted my spinner and threw it back at me as it cleared the water. Then I caught a 6-inch bass which also slipped the hook.

Obviously time for hook sharpening. I didn't mind losing the fish because I didn't plan to keep them anyway. Most of my stream fishing is catch-and release. Occasionally I'll get fish hungry and keep a few green sunfish or goggle-eye, but bass go back unless they're deep-hooked and injured so badly they'll die anyway.

The third bass was one of those. It swallowed the spinner and even though I gently backed the hook out of its gill, it streamed blood.

It was over the 12-inch minimum, so I filleted it on a streamside log. I replaced my sandwich in a sealable plastic bag with the fish filets, then sat on the log to eat the sandwich and watch the day go by.

Yellow butterflies jittered through the trees like errant sparks from a fire. Sycamores towered over the stream, and I hoped they would continue to shade and cool the water.

The NFL season was opening and most of America, at least the macho half, was home watching one bunch of glandularly-disturbed human beings pound knots on a similarly overmuscled bunch.

Me? I was sitting on a log listening to jays gripe, with my mind as empty as a desert at noon. I finished the last of my chips and soda, stuffed the trash in my fanny pack, and suited up again.

There was a cup of wooded land below a pasture in a bend just down the river. I heard a turkey yelping and another answering with the raspy voice of a jake. I eased down the stream, making no noise, and confronted a half dozen turkeys that instantly sprinted up the hill to the edge of the pasture.

They raced along the treeline with the panicky gallop of turkeys on the verge of flight. They didn't know what I was, but a turkey is not long on inductive reasoning. Anything it doesn't immediately recognize triggers fright and flight. Turkeys instinctively know they have few friends in the outdoors and many enemies.

Pretty good day - I'd gone a quarter of a mile, caught three bass, seen butterflies, songbirds and turkeys.

Four casts into a deep pool, the lure stopped with the heavy feeling that usually signals you've hooked a log. I'd already caught a half-dozen branches and a fist-sized rock, so it was time for a full grown log.

I started reeling my way toward the log when I noticed the log was moving. It then moved rather rapidly away from me, down the pool, and the drag sang like the bankside cicadas.

I gulped because I go years between catching large fish. And I remembered the dull hooks that I hadn't sharpened because my hone was where it always is - at home on a shelf, instead of in my wader pocket where it belongs.

The fish bulled around in the deep water like a big channel catfish, and I figured that's what it was. An eminently edible catfish. No catch and release on catfish. They were born to be eaten. They are chickens of the stream.

Then the fish rolled at the surface and I saw the dark lateral line of a largemouth bass. A LARGE largemouth bass. That lateral line seemed to go on forever, like the center line on a Kansas highway.

I put more pressure on, praying that the line wouldn't break. I couldn't risk the big bass gaining slack and spitting the hook, the way the first two had.

It charged me, just like a wounded grizzly. It raced the dozen feet between us and shot between my legs, just as I frantically lifted one foot to avoid it.

Buster Keaton never did slapstick any better. My wading boot caught the line, and the fish swam a loop around it like a rodeo cowboy. The weight of the fish threw me off balance and I went over backward, a torrent of water spilling into my chest waders.

There I was, sitting in two feet of water with a five-pound bass attached to my leg by about 18 inches of monofilament. I scooted backward on my rear end, dragging the bass with me.

Thanks to the miracle of modern fishing line, which has the tensile strength of steel and the diameter of spider web, I didn't lose that bass. I dragged it into a couple of inches of water and managed to lip it. The spinner fell out of its mouth.

It was that close to being free.

My first thought was there's no one here to see it. The big bass glared at me. It was heavy, had to go five pounds. I briefly entertained the uncharitable thought that I would keep the bass just so I could brag it up in front of witnesses.

But then it would be merely a big dead bass, never to be caught again.

I sighed and eased the fish into the water and let go of its lip. It vanished in the murky water. "I know where you live!" I shouted after it.

My fishing fever had cooled. But I thought I'd make another cast and, once again, there was a heavy stop and the weight of something big and nearly immovable. It didn't feel quite like a bass. Maybe a big flathead catfish or a turtle, I thought. I waded it back to a gravel bar, struggling to lift it.

It would slip one way, then the other, tugging and throbbing against the line. Felt even bigger than the bass. I got to shallow water.

A two-pound flat rock slid into the shallows and came to rest on the bottom. I backed the hook out of a hole in the rock and reeled the lure to the rod tip.

I considered keeping the rock because it was the biggest one I'd ever landed, but decided that one large bass, one large rock ought to be enough for any high drama, low comedy angler like me.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer