By Larry Dablemont
One of the ways I made money as a boy on the Big Piney was digging and selling night crawlers. Those were earthworms that averaged from eight- to 12-inches long as big around as a pencil. I got three cents apiece for them but provided them free to the clients I took on float trips. With a good potato fork in specific spots in the bottoms, you could dig a hundred or so in about 30 minutes.
Of course we used minnows and crawdads and hellgrammites too, but a night crawler was the best bait a kid could get if he was after rock bass, the Ozark river species we referred to as goggle-eye.
Old-timers in the pool hall often said you could start catching goggle-eye when oak leaves were “the size of a squirrels ear.” My grandpa was a trotliner and he always said when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrels ear the flathead were really active. Of course you could catch all species before then but that’s about the time, in early April, that my dad and I would float the river before the spawn, using small spinner baits we called shimmy flies.
Those were the hottest lures there were in early spring when the water was clearer than normal. Shimmy-flies were made by a fellow named Varney from over around Salem, Mo. They were small spinner baits with brown- or black-haired jigs wrapped around a yellow and black core that looked a lot like a bee’s body. If you hopped ‘em over the substrate of the right places in the river you could catch big goggle-eyes, from eight- to 10-inches long, 20 or 30 a day.
I had a cousin by the name of Dwain McNew, who was a year older than me. His dad had a farm on the river and when I was 13 or 14 he and I roamed all over the bottoms there, after goggle-eyes and black perch mostly. Actually, black perch, were known to most local folks as green sunfish. Back then they often got just as big as a goggle-eye.
One of my granddad’s wooden johnboats was always on the river down at the sweet tater eddy and we’d paddle it upstream past the mill eddy nearly to the paw-paw bottoms and then back down river through the Ginseng hole to the McKinney eddy. We fished that mile or so of river with old fiberglass rods, casting reels made by Pflueger and Shakespeare and South Bend, all with braided line and a two- foot monofilament leader. Most fishermen called that clear leader line “cat-gut.”
My dad protected his shimmy flies, and well he should have. Dwain and I would have left a lot of them on submerged logs and snaggeldy rocks in water too deep to get them loose. We did fish some old Lazy Ikes and Flatfish lures, but when we wanted to bring in a big stringer, we took the potato fork along and dug a coffee-can-full of big fat night crawlers. Then we looked for root wads and log-jams, where goggle-eye and largemouth hung out.
Smallmouth hid beneath and around big boulders, and they liked the night crawlers too. But there weren’t as many bass as there were black perch and goggle-eye. They were really plentiful. Then there was the nemesis of the night crawler fisherman pesky little, long-eared sunfish we called punkinseeds. They were thick as tadpoles in a spring branch and could take a night crawler off a hook without getting caught. When you did hook those tiny-mouthed pests, there were never any big enough to eat.
The Piney had so much water back then, and deep holes where big rocks protected all kinds of river life. Today I can show you where they were, but most are partly or completely covered by sand, silt and gravel.
The deeper waters where smallmouth and goggle-eye and flathead are found are still there on lower portions of the river, but more rare today than I ever would have believed, in that day of plenty. If you didn’t live in that time, you would never believe that most Ozark creeks and rivers have about 25 to 30 percent less water today. But there isn’t 25 to 30 percent less goggle-eye today in the streams of the Ozarks. It is more like 60 percent less.
I wonder if they can ever come back, if maybe our conservation folks would just try a rock bass catch and smallmouth catch and release program for about three years. I try to convince all the folks I come across who are fishing any Ozark streams in Missouri and Arkansas to release ALL smallmouth and rock bass, but there are still so many local folks that you just can’t reach with that message.
And I understand them. While I seldom eat fish anymore I recall how happy dad and I were to take home a stringer of fish from the Piney for supper. BUT, back then there were about five percent as many fishermen fishing the river and that’s what makes the difference.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.