By Larry Dablemont
It was one of the most beautiful smallmouth I ever saw… a deep chocolate brown, with a bulging belly full of eggs, and a length of 23 inches. I know it was bigger than six-pounds but no one ever weighed it that I know of.
The photo of that enormous smallmouth is old, and it has been in hundreds of newspapers and magazines that have told its story. I have used it to assure doubters that I really WAS guiding float fishermen on the Big Piney when I was only 12 years old. There I was standing beside a pretty young lady by the name of Katie Richardson, holding up that big smallmouth while my mom took a Polaroid picture.
A couple of weeks ago, Katie Richardson passed away in Houston Missouri, survived by her two sons Joe Jr. and Ross and her favorite fishing guide…me. Actually I was likely her ONLY fishing guide except for Joe. I took them on a couple of float trips that year on the Piney. On the first trip I dumped Joe into the river because we came upon a long limb in swift water that Katy and I could duck under but he couldn’t. He never held that against me! For all his life I knew Joe Richardson. He would come to all my swap meets and sometimes recall float trips he had taken with me back when I was a kid with a wooden johnboat and a sassafras paddle.
The big smallmouth that Katie Richardson caught was taken in late afternoon from a long stretch of deep flowing water with lots of big rocks and a high steep hillside to the west that shaded the water by two p.m. It was known as the Ink Stand, just above one of the biggest and deepest eddies on the Piney, the Henry Hayes hole. I guess the big brownie had come upstream from there looking for doughgut minnows, and when she saw that dark-colored midget-didget lure that was wobbling along on the end of Mrs. Richardson’s braided line she made perhaps the only mistake she had made in twenty years of patrolling the Piney’s clear waters. You could see the fish was a monster, and about all Katie could do was hang on. Joe kept telling her to just let the fish fight and keep the line tight. She did it right.
I had no dip net, so I crunched the back end of my johnboat on the gravel bank behind us and got out in the water about waste deep. I made a grab at the bass when it came by me the third or fourth time and got it. It was a miracle that a hook didn’t get caught in my jeans causing her to lose it. Miracles sometime happen.
That day Joe gave me the biggest tip I had ever been given as a river guide. But Katie Richardson’s smile was worth just as much. She was a quiet, sweet lady I never will forget, though I don’t think I ever saw her again after that summer until a few years ago when I visited her and Joe in a nursing home in Houston and you know of course, that the big smallmouth came up. Joe died soon after and now Katie has joined him, a great reunion in heaven I am sure.
I hope to gosh that I go to heaven too, 'cause I’d like to take her and Joe on another float trip on a river like the Big Piney was then, but never will be again.
In the years since that old photo was taken, I have taken hundreds of couples on river float trips on dozens of rivers in Missouri and Arkansas, but none ever caught a smallmouth close to that one.
Once, I once caught a smallmouth bass from an Ozark river that almost weighed six- pounds. She was 22 inches long and I put that big fish back in the water with no way to weigh it. I know that it was almost six pounds, but not quite. I have caught only 2 or 3 from the Ozark streams that weighed better than 5 pounds, but I have caught several in Canada. Someone like me never knows what a smallmouth weighs because I never keep one out of the water more than a minute or so for a picture. Back when I took Joe and Katy and others in the 1960s no one ever turned back a bass caught on the river that weighed more than a pound. Folks ate fish back then.
It’s funny but there are quite a few smallmouth caught in Canadian Wilderness Lakes that will weigh six pounds and they are like bulging footballs that never reach a length greater than 20 inches. But few people who catch them realize they were not in those Canada waters until they were stocked there about 120 years ago. Ozark brown bass are longer and never as round. They are as native to Ozark streams as mink and muskrat. But there are about half the number there were back when I was a kid, paddling Joe and Katy down the Piney.
What memories I have when I look at that photo of me standing beside that pretty lady and the big bass, not realizing then how fast 60 years would go by. This week I am going to float a river not far from my home, catch a few smallmouth and think about the time Katy fought the big bass and won, at a place where dark waters flowed, a place known then as the Ink Stand. If you want to see that photo, go to my website, www.larrydablemont.com or to the blogspot, larrydablemontoutdoors.
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