By Bill Cooper
Billy Smith is the owner and operator of Scenic Rivers Guide Service and Tours based in Eminence. A local legend, Billy spent his working life with the National Park Service, but the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers have been Billy’s lifelong passion. I’ve been on the rivers with Smith numerous times, but a recent day I spent with him on Current River shall remain one of my favorites.
I met Billy at Shady Lanes Cabins in Eminence as we have done for a decade. He greeted me with his usual broad-faced smile and laughter. If I never caught a fish with Billy, I would always enjoy his company. He is one of the most jovial people I’ve ever met. Positive and upbeat, I always part company with Billy feeling uplifted and positive.
Billy and I were out to catch smallmouth bass and get a little work done, too. Billy and I both are acquainted with Gayle Julian, the owner of Jewel Bait Co. in Midway, Arkansas. Scott Pauley, of the Missouri Division of Tourism, introduced us to Julian at different times.
Jewel Bait Co. is a great American success story. An innovator and a highly motivated individual, Julian has done well in the fishing industry and brought many superb products to market, which has upped many anglers fishing game.
As Billy and I headed out of Eminence towards Log Yard access, southeast of Eminence, on Current River, he kept a steady monologue going about the surrounding area. He pointed out several areas of interest where he had recently seen the wild horse herds and elk. Too, he noted a field near Powder Mill, where a black bear had been sighted recently. It’s always fun to be in the truck with Billy. He is a virtual encyclopedia of information.
Billy began rigging several fishing rods before we put the boat in the water. I worked on filming an episode for Outside Again Adventures, featuring the Current River and Jewel Bait Co. lures. Billy proved to be the perfect spokesman by first showing how to rig specific lures, and then demonstrating later how to fish them.
Billy first tied on a Jewel Ned Head jig and rigged a TRD peanut butter and jelly Ned worm, one of his favorite smallmouth baits for Current River. The second jig he tied on included a Gem Shad 2.0 jig head coupled with a Ki-Tech swim-bait. Next he demonstrated how to rig a Texas-rigged bait with a Jewell Rock-Crawler weight. It is flat on one side and flips over in the water, making it easy to slide across the river bottom.
After rigging a half dozen rods, Billy headed the boat upstream through spectacular scenery along Current River. Billy knows the river like the back of his hand and soon stopped at one of his favorite fishing holes. True to Billy’s form, he hooked the first smallmouth of the day on his second cast on a Jewel Gem Blade 2.0 Spinnerbait. “This bait is great,” Billy said. “It’s more streamlined than most spinnerbaits and glides through the water with ease.
Billy had guided Gayle Julian and Scott Pauley on the river a few weeks prior and was thoroughly impressed with their casting abilities. “I thought I was an accurate caster,” Billy said. “But those two guys could consistently put a bait on a dime. They were incredibly accurate.”
As anglers we continually eyeball one another. Billy was obviously taken with the casting abilities of Julian and Pauley. In turn, I am equally impressed with Billy’s abilities. I suppose if I fished as much as those guys, I’d be fairly accurate, too.
Billy steadily caught fish at a variety of his favorite spots on the river. He often uses YUM Dingers, and I brought him a bag full of the popular plastic worms in a variety of colors. He broke out a Jewel Squirrel Head jig and I suggested he use a Mardi Gras colored Dinger with it. I’d had great success with it over the summer. Billy caught a nice small mouth within his first few casts. “That Mardi Gras is a good color for the river,” he said.
When we discussed the trip over the phone, Billy indicated that he might cook me a shore lunch. I watched in amazement as we beached and Billy quickly went to work setting up a new portable stove, which Dave Murphy had sent to him after a fishing trip.
I’ve been known as the “Gravel Bar Gourmet” on Ozark streams for a couple of decades and have cooked untold numbers of meals for others on float, camp, and fish trips. I’ve got nothing on Billy Smith. He sat in a comfortable camp chair while organizing his cooking gear and food. I watch closely as he dropped walleye filets into bubbling hot oil.
Billy soon handed me a palate of deep fried potatoes and onions, golden walleye filets, with a dill pickle and tangy peppers. It was one of the most beautifully plated meals I had ever seen prepared on a riverbank. I quickly dubbed Billy my Gravel Bar Gourmet Brother.
Billy and I relaxed, enjoyed our meal together, and once again voiced our opinions and thanks for the lifestyles we are able to live in the Ozarks. And we pondered the future, wondering aloud what our grandchildren will inherit from us. Billy and I both have been heavily involved in protecting the Ozarks. Yet, we wonder if we did enough.
Billy recently toured Sarah Parker Pauley, the direct of the Missouri Department of Conservation, and an accompanying fisheries biologist, down Current River for a few hours. They listened intently as Billy expressed his concerns about the health of the river and the future of the smallmouth fishery. I’m certain Billy tossed in a few stories about area history, Ozark culture and big fish of the past. No doubt they were entertained as well as educated. That’s what Billy Smith does.
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.