Volume VI, No. 2, Winter 1978
by Gala Morrow
"Did you ever accidentally gig a snake?" I asked Ron Delcour one dark, cold November night as we were on our way to the Gasconade River for my first gigging trip.
"No, but I've gigged a water dog before. I've had cottonmouths try to get in the boat with me, especially in early October when it's still warm. They come to the light." Sensing my fright he added, "By the last of October they're all gone."
I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. All the apprehensiveness I had felt at home before we left returned in full force. I had been sitting in my room dressed in almost half the clothes I own, when I realized that in approximately ten minutes Ron would arrive and I'd soon be headed for the river. The whole idea had seemed suddenly outlandish. It was well below freezing outside and there I sat, ready to brave that icy wind to go gigging. Of course, I had dressed warm--long underwear, two pairs of jeans, an undershirt, a flannel shirt, three pair of wool socks and boots--but all that preparation would prove worthless if I should fall over-board--a quite realistic possibility.
Even though I'd never been gigging, I knew the gist of the sport stabbing fish with a long forked pole while standing in the front of the boat--but I would have to rely on Ron's wisdom for how to do it. I had always liked the river--camping out, canoeing, swimming and picnicing. However, I had never ventured out to the banks during the winter. The closest I had ever come to that was an early fall float trip.
Now, snugly crowded in Ron's pickup with his daughter, Kim and friend Craig Southard, I wondered exactly what gigging was like. The conversation during the drive flowed easily as Ron talked about his gigging experiences. "One night I was out gigging and I was kind of getting in the notion to fish. Just that one sucker I killed and another one I saw were decent to gig. You know where the old swinging bridge used to be? Well, there were some old boards and stuff laying out there and an old treetop, and there was a board laying just over an old log. That old fish would come out and lay on top of that. And when the light would hit him, he'd come off and go in under the other boards. He did that three times. We never did get him. He was smarter than we were--or faster one."
"What's the biggest fish you've ever killed?" I asked. "Oh, about so big," he answered and indicated four feet. Then laughing he explained, "I guess I've killed fish that would weigh about eighteen to twenty pounds." He also told me of a time when he and a group of friends went on a gigging trip near the Twin Bridges. "We took two boats, and in one hole of water, we killed thirty-two redhorse and seventy suckers. And the boys in the other boat killed about twenty-eight redhorse and forty suckers."
We turned off the paved highway onto a narrow gravel road. The boat bounced slightly in the back of the truck, reminding us of its presence. I had almost forgotten my uneasiness until Ron began relating his more unpleasant experiences. "I was with some guys one night and they turned their boat over in a riffle. It was about ten degrees below zero and one of them fell in about seven or eight feet of water. By the time we got back to the pickup where we had a fire, his clothes were frozen stiff. Another time I saw two guys turn a boat over in about ten feet of water. It was about twenty degrees. We took our boat and pushed theirs up against the bank so they could climb up it. But it was a steep bank and they couldn't crawl out."
Visions of a capsized boat and icicles forming on my clothes invaded my thoughts. Ron must have known how I was feeling, for he began a humorous gigging tale involving his son.
"It was about thirty degrees below freezing, and I had killed a great big carp. It was flopping around in the bottom of the boat. I was just kidding around, and I said, 'Kevin, why don't you just sit on that fish?' So he just jumped right down a-straddle of him. He got the seat of his britches wet and I had to take him back to the fire on the bank to dry out."
Eventually the gravel road we were traveling forked, one lane disappearing under a steep hill and the other diminishing to a cow path through the underbrush. Craig turned the pickup around as Ron gave him directions to back down the bank to the edge of the dark, mirky water of the river.
We all fell out of the truck into the moonless night, stumbling along a narrow rutted path. Ron and Craig laboriously unloaded the boat and began preparations for putting in. The boat was a regular aluminum river boat--a fourteen foot johnboat. Ron mounted the light on the front of the boat and bolted it in place. It was a strange looking contraption--a six mantle propane light made out of lantern parts. The mantles were mounted on a board with a metal reflector arched over them. Then Ron attached a hose to the light and connected it to a twenty-five pound gas pump which he placed in the center of the boat. He and Craig lit the mantles. The lights sputtered and eventually burned brightly in the cold night air. The yellow glow which illuminated the surrounding area gave me much needed comfort.
Ron explained that some people use electric lights and some use lanterns. He used to have an electric light, but when he got tired of keeping the batteries, he built a gas one. He picked up the long gig that lay in the bottom of the truck and inspected the sharp prongs. "My gig is crooked," he said. "I laid it up in the barn. It wasn't on rafters, just a couple of stringers, and it got a sag in the middle of it."
Finally we carried the boat to the river and Kim, Ron and I climbed in. I took the center front seat, Kim the center back and Ron stood in the front with his gig ready. Since the bottom was flat, it was relatively easy to stand. But the gigger still must have good balance to keep from rocking the boat or falling overboard.
Craig pushed us away from the bank and into the deeper water, soaking himself to the knees. He then climbed into the boat, almost capsizing us. Things were beginning to liven up.
Sitting ever so quietly on the cold metal seat, I listened to the night creatures and the gently swirling water. We made few comments as Craig paddled us upstream. Ron was standing in the front ready to gig an unwary fish while Craig paddled silently from the back. The gig rested in Ron's arms as he searched the deeper waters. He looked along the banks and next to logs and rocks for the bigger fish like carp. Kim was all eyes as she peered over the sides of our boat hoping to be the first to glimpse a large fish.
After several minutes, Ron made a slight arm gesture and Craig responded by paddling where he indicated. I realized Ron must have seen a fish eligible for gigging. Taking a firm stand with his legs spread out for balance and power, Ron adjusted the gig in his hands. His muscles tensed as he raised the gig above the water, and then thrust it about six feet into the water. My stomach jumped as I felt the force of his effort jar the boat. When he brought the gig out of the shimmering water, I saw the huge fish struggling on the end. It was hit in the midsection, just below the dorsal fin. I winced at the sight and then choked as the bloody carcass came back almost into my face. Ron raked the fish off his gig into the boat bottom by dragging it along my seat. The fish flopped several times, then lay still. I looked at the fish, blood oozing on the seat next' to me and began to feel ill. I realized that I had taken the wrong side of the seat behind a right-handed gigger. I gratefully accepted Kim's offer to change places.
After my queasiness had passed, Ron explained that fish usually die instantly if they are gigged as
close to the head as possible. Sometimes a fish may fall off of the gig before it is put in the boat.
But if that happens and "you've hit them good, you can usually just turn around and pick them up
again. If you hit them in the tail where they can still swim, they'll get away."
Five other fish joined the one in the bottom of the boat before an unexpected light shower cut our trip short. We headed back to the pickup and loaded all the gear. Damp and chilled, I rode home reliving my first gigging expedition.
* * * * * * * *
The gigging season begins on October first and continues through December 31. Hours for gigging are from noon until midnight every day. Few people gig during the daylight hours because the fish tend to be in hiding. They come out at night to feed and are therefore more readily available to the gigger. Many seasons are unfavorable for gigging. Factors such as water level, snow and wind affect the river and gigging aspects. Rising water from rain and melting snow muddy the river and make visibility poor. High winds cause riffles on the surface of the water which decrease the depth of vision.
The best time for gigging is on a still, dark, moonless night. The darker the night, the better for gigging because the fish are usually lying on or near the bottom. The Ozark rivers are normally clear, and cold weather tends to make the water even clearer. However, the water doesn't usually get clear enough for a successful gigging trip until the middle of November. "If the water is real clear, you can see up to twenty feet of water," Ron said. "I have gigged in up to sixteen feet, but it's got to be a good year. You may go one night and not see anything, then go the next night and there'll be fish every place. Fish are more or less like the other wildlife. If you can't see any wildlife stirring, the fish usually aren't either."
The gigging season in impounded waters is year round. However, few people gig in the area lakes since the lake water isn't as clear as that in the rivers. Also gigging there is more difficult because of the greater water depth. In a river the gigger will usually float over an area of one or one and a half miles, circling the eddies (the quiet water between riffles) and then return to the original spot. Sometimes the group will put in at one place and float downstream about four miles to take out at another place.
The limit for giggers is twenty-five pounds plus one fish per person. Since no game fish is legal to gig, the rougher or poorer quality are caught. Suckers, redhorse and drum are the most popular fish. If prepared correctly, they are very good eating. What makes them less desireable is the presence of many tiny bones. Ron said, "I think fish are a lot better cooked on the river. We deep fry them. Really, as far as taste is considered, I think sucker is about as good as you can get. They're real boney, but you've got to know how to fix them. You score them then get your grease real hot and deep fry them. That gets rid of all those small bones."
There are only three basic pieces of equipment needed: the gig, a light and a boat. There are no laws to specify the type of gig to use. Most people use a three or four prong gig, usually with a sixteen foot handle. The artificial lights must be above water. Most fishermen mount reflectors behind the light, partly to keep the glare out of the giggers eyes, but mostly to light more surface water. Lanterns and battery powered lights are most commonly used. Many people, such as Ron, prefer to make their own lighting equipment. Flat bottom johnboats designed for fishing the Ozark streams are the traditional style boats used. The long narrow design allows passage through narrow riffles; the flat bottom makes it float high in the water, preventing dragging over shallow gravel bars as well as permitting the fisherman to stand without capsizing the boat.
Gigging fish in the winter has been a tradition on Ozark rivers from early settlement. As a sport and a way to provide the household with a needed change from the ever-present pork diet, men and boys welcomed the rather slack time of year when the weather got cold enough to clear the water so they could spend many nights gigging on the river.
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