By Bill Cooper
I’ll never forget taking my nine-year-old grandson, Ronnie Cooper Austin, on a recent fishing trip to the Gasconade River near Vienna. I suspect Ronnie will long remember the trip as well. He caught a trophy size smallmouth bass that would make any veteran smallmouth bass fisherman envious.
The day dawned hot and still, one of the hottest July days we’d seen thus far this month. We prepared well. A small cooler pack contained plenty of water bottles and snacks. We wore shorts and took along plenty of sunscreen and towels for those dips in the river that were sure to come as the day warmed even more.
Ronnie spends the summers with me and we are on the constant lookout for a new adventure. He had never ridden in my jet boat and seemed anxious to do so. We made our plans to go to the Gasconade. We readied our fishing rods, straightened the fishing tackle and cleaned the boat. We also made sure that our life jackets were on board.
I prefer to hit the water at daylight, before it gets too hot. Ronnie, on the other hand, is not so much an early riser. We compromised. I woke him up about 7:15 a.m. He had a bowl of cereal while I made our lunches and put all the necessary gear into the bait and truck.
I live about 30 minutes from the popular Bell Chute access provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation. A small primitive campground is maintained underneath a grove of giant sycamore trees, which provide excellent summertime shade. Pit toilets and a grand boat ramp round out the few facilities at the access.
We arrived at the Bell Chute Access at 9:30 a.m. The campground was empty and the parking lot only contained one compact car. We had the river to ourselves. It looked to be a great day on the Gasconade.
After I launched the boat, Ronnie guarded it while I went to park the truck. He insisted on shoving us off, so he could get in the water and get a little wet. He commented on how good the water felt. The air temperature already hung around 90 degrees and there was not a breeze.
The Gascosage BassMasters had held a tournament at the access the previous Saturday. I told Ronnie that the tournament participants had released over 120 bass at the boat ramp. We motored just a short distance downstream from the ramp before we began fishing.
I picked up a bait caster rigged with a YUM Dinger five-inch Mardi Gras colored worm. Ronnie trapped a spinning rod rigged with an Arbogast Buzz Plug. We wanted to catch his first bass on a topwater plug.
I dropped to the trolling motor and headed to the shaded east side of the river. A steep bank with rock rubble sloped to the water’s edge. I flipped the worm to the edge of the water and allowed it to sink. I fully expected a strike on my first cast. Didn’t happen.
Ronnie flung his topwater bait with impressive accuracy and sputtered the frog across the surface. He continued his efforts with the enthusiasm of a nine-year-old boy.
Several casts later, I felt the familiar tick, tick of a bass picking up my worm. I tried to set the hook. Ronnie had switched to a rod rigged with a blue/black fleck YUM worm. A few casts later he began yelling, “Pawpa, I’ve got one. A few seconds later, he swung a chunky 13-inch smallmouth bass into the boat.
“I caught the first fish, Pawpa.” he said with obvious pride.
I hooked a couple of decent fish, but both got off. It quickly became obvious that tiger fish that had been released at the access earlier in the week had already dispersed. We tightened our life jackets and headed the jetboat upstream. We came to a gliding halt after a gorgeous seven-mile ride upstream. Towering bluffs, draped in bright blue skies and puffy white clouds lined the river banks. Black turkey vultures spread their wings while perched on ancient cedar trees high atop the dolomite bluffs.
Once we reached our destination upstream, we grabbed our worm rods and began casting. I immediately began getting hits in the rock rubble near the shoreline. I hooked a couple of bass, but both got off. Shortly, my line began mocking off quickly. I set the hook and my seven-foot rod arched heavily. I told Ronnie I had a good fish. We wished for a net.
Momentarily the fish wore down, and I slid a chunky 18-inch largemouth bass into the boat. The big fish had come off of a sand bank. I ran the boat back upstream to repeat the drift. Less than ten feet away from where I caught the big largemouth, Ronnie yelled as his riot bent over, “Pawpa, I’ve got one. It feels really big.”
Ronnie handled the fish well. He soon wore it down and I lipped his 18-inch smallmouth bass and swung it into the boat. He was thrilled and we took many photos before he released the gorgeous fish.
A lengthy swim break refreshed us before we returned to fishing. We managed to catch two more 17-inch bass and a host of smaller ones, but nothing under 13 inches. I hooked one more big largemouth, but we only enjoyed the show as the big bucket-mouth went airborne and flung the worm back at us.
It was a marvelous day on the Gasconade for Ronnie and me, one we will not soon forget. He summed up the day when he asked, “Pawpa, do I Get bragging rights for my trophy smallmouth?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at www.facebook.com/OutsideAlways, www.aoutdoorstv.com and www.espn1073.com.