Kenneth Kieser: Good memories of fishing in the Hills
The Ozarks are a mix of trees, hills and streams full of fish. My first taste of Ozark stream fishing happened in the late 1960s with a gentleman that had fed his family by fishing and hunting through the Depression, three wars and hard times when jobs were nonexistent. Land and water kept many alive in this region where row crops were scarce due to the rocky soil. Most grew hay or cut lumber.
Lee and Mable Odle raised their three sons to be successful and grateful for their blessings. The old gentleman who was in his late 80s had a Zebco spincast rod and reel by the time I showed up, a Christmas present from one of his boys. Prior to that he used cane poles and live bait as did most back then. He had a tacklebox with several lures still in the boxes, but he only used live bait.
A combination of dampening garden soil and spreading coffee grounds ensured they kept a good supply of big, fat earth worms, even during the hottest days of summer. Worms were like gold for catching plenty of fish for meals.
We fished the Big Piney River not far from Houston and Cabool, Missouri. The water flowed well in those days and the beautiful stretch had shallows, slippery shoals and a few deep holes where Mr. Odle fished, and for good reason. Bigger fish laid in wait for smaller fish in these holes, a lesson he had learned in the late 1800s when he was just a boy.
Mr. Odle used his Zebco outfit and I had a Garcia-Mitchel 308 reel on a Garcia Conlon ultralight rod. We both sat fishing on the bank, one of the best times I will ever know.
We passed a pouch of Redman Chewing Tobacco back and forth, then talked about the old times when horses and mules were the main transportation in those ancient hills.
Occasionally during our conversation one of our lines would tighten up and a goggle-eye perch or a smallmouth bass would be hooked and soon secured on a chain stringer. There was no catch and release in those days. Everyone fished to eat.
“Now you mind that stringer,” Mr. Odle said. “A pesky turtle will try to steal our fish.”
He was right and soon I was playing tug of war with a snapping turtle that smelled our fish and decided to angle in for an easy meal. I saved the fish and looked at Mr. Odle who had a slight smile on his face. He seldom laughed or even smiled, though he had a sense of humor. I wondered if fighting hard times with a fair-sized family was why he always seemed so serious.
“My folks and other families came down to the river and had a get-together,” he said. “We would swim in the summer while some of the folks brought ham, chicken, green beans and deserts. The river deeper holes were cool in the hottest summer days and we had a good time.”
Folks in those hills considered fish and game not sport like today, but heaven-sent food, especially when jobs were scarce. Nothing was wasted and few fish were thrown back. Fish hooks were homemade from old wire; bolts or old nuts were used as fishing weights. Bait could be found under rocks and in the softer garden soil. Grasshoppers, crickets, crawfish and small frogs were, too, considered suitable bait.
“I was fishing down yonder when my boys were small and hooked a big catfish on a frog,” Mr. Odle said. “I had a stout cane pole and that cat bent it over really good. I was a good deal stronger then and fought the catfish for quite a spell until it wore out. We had several meals from that big cat.”
Everything was used from a fish that could be. I once filleted a good mess of goggle-eye perch and smallmouth bass that Mr. Odle and I caught. His wife chewed me out for wasting all that good fish. She was absolutely angry and I should have known better.
Mr. Odle became an expert at fishing the Ozark rivers with live bait. He was somewhat intrigued by my tacklebox full of lures and asked where and when I used each type.
One bright October day I showed him a Countdown Rapala and he said, “Let’s take a walk downstream.” We stopped at an area where the current was swift.
“You see that little calm area just outside the current over yonder?” he asked. “Can you cast that sinking lure over into the calm water? There are always big fish laying there.”
I made the cast and it hit close to shore. Two turns of the reel’s handle brought on a huge strike, instantly bending my ultralight possibly farther than it was designed to bend. The big fish dove for the bottom and slipped out in the current, adding to the pull. About 10 minutes later the line broke, probably cut on a rock. To this day I wonder what took that lure.
Those Ozarks woods were full of squirrels that made many meals. Mr. Odle and his boys taught little dogs to tree squirrels. Then it was a simple matter of shooting the squirrel with one clean head shot from a .22 rifle. You could purchase two .22 rounds for a penny during hard times, an inexpensive price for fresh meat. Missing the squirrel was not appreciated and everyone from that region were good shots.
Mr. Odle, his wife and sons are gone now, but the Ozarks streams continue to flow and fish are still feeding families in these sometimes-challenging hills. The family had religion and are no doubt in heaven, or maybe their spirits are still in the hills – a beautiful place some consider to be heaven on earth.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.