|Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992|
By Hugh Crumpler
I spent many of the golden, sunshine-filled days of my youth on the swift-water rivers and creeks of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. Fishing was the pursuit that sent me on a thousand treasured expeditions to a hundred sparkling streams.
I fished them all. I was tireless in my determination to catch more and bigger smallmouth bass, lineside bass, goggle-eye bass and rainbow trout; catfish, carp, drum, and buffalo; sunfish, sucker, jack-salmon and spoonbill.
I fished with cane pole, casting rod and fly rod; with trot-line, throw-line, and jug-line; with plugs and spinners and flies and worms and minnows and crawdads and grasshoppers and anything else that other fisherman or my imagination said would tempt a fish. I was a veritable wet-to-the-waist fishing machine.
Names alone of those cold, clear streams trigger floods of memories. And the names are descriptive enough to have been selected by the very rivers themselves.
The Gasconade River is a blustering braggart, a true son of the French verb--gasconade, "to boast"--from which the river takes its name. The Gasconade is the great all-purpose fishing stream of the country between Rolla and Springfield. It is big enough for 80-pound catfish, swift enough for five-pound smallmouth bass, and deep enough for ten-pound jack-salmon. Every man can practice his fishing style on the Gasconade.
Current River, the wildwater gem of the hills, is a single length of shoals and rapids that play a liquid melody against the never-ending banks, bluffs, and boulders. Float fisherman say Current River has only one flaw--it spoils a fisherman for all other streams.
Sinking Creek unexpectedly disappears--what else?--into its limestone bed, and just as abruptly reappears. Some say Sinking Creek is the natural spirit of an errant woman who has retained the right to change her mind.
Roaring River explodes from a great, mysterious hole in the earth, a gargantuan spring, and sends its thunder reverberating over the landscape.
Crooked Creek is just that. The Greeks gave the name Maeander to their own crooked creek in Asia Minor. We borrowed the name and turned it into the melodious "meander." And "meander" better describes the creek's random ramble than does "crooked." But by any name, Crooked Creek in Boone County, Arkansas, is a paradigm for the small Ozarks stream shaded by limestone bluffs and cooled by great stands of oak, hickory, black walnut, and flowering dogwood.
White River remains a turbulent, whitewater stream in its upper reaches. Dams have changed the wild quality, but have also provided recreational lakes across much of north Arkansas and southwest Missouri. The White River complex provides every kind of fishing that the modern fisherman could ask for.
Bear Creek, Beaver Creek, and Buffalo River were named for wildlife long gone from their shores. The names conjure up visions of roaring hairy beasts, of mountain men and their beaver caps, and the bison herds that once darkened the plains.
Spring Creek at the old Spring Creek post office in Phelps County, Missouri, is born of a spring and, in its course to the Big Piney River, and by so many more springs that its waters are cold even in the dog days of summer. Rainbow trout know the submerged rocks and cutaway banks of Spring Creek.
Big Piney River once boasted dense stands shortleaf pine along its banks. Tough, callous-handed settlers logged out the pine in the second half of the last century. When the spring floods arrived, the hill country lumberjacks floated humongous pine rafts down the Piney and the Gasconade to the Missouri River. Logs from the picturesque hills of Piney River were made into railroad ties and trestle-bridge timbers that helped the iron horse conquer the continent.
Those long-ago log rafts dug out the bank on the stretch of the river and scooped out the passage for a chute of blue water and white foam. In depths of that swirling hold dwells a giant, smallmouth bass. I know, for I had it at the end of my line on three occasions over five years. I never saw the fish. It was the one that got away. It was, in memory, through the handle of an imagined casting rod, I can feel the desperate (and successful) underwater acrobatics of that patriarchal bass.
Only a few scattered stands of shortleaf pine remain in Piney River country. But the lumberjacks are remembered at Devil's Elbow--named by rafters because the Big Piney at Devil's Elbow shifted direction so abruptly that it was the most dangerous spot on the river.
Backcountry sawmills are remembered, too, in the name of "Slabtown" on Big Piney. "Slabs," the outside, bark-on strips from milled pine logs were widely used in the hills for houses and barns. Slabs were by-products of the sawmills--home siding that was free for the hauling. Logging today is a minor industry along the Big Piney, but the river is still celebrated by out-doorsmen as one of the great, fast-water fishing streams of America.
Fishing is a timeless sport of small boys and grown men. In my time, like so many Ozarkers before me, I was obsessed with the transfer of fishes from stream to stringer. It comes as a lately-discovered surprise, therefore, to find that my memories of joy-filled days on Ozark streams contain few mind-photographs of the fish I caught. Rather, memories of my fishing trips are memories of sun-drenched days in the sharp, clear air of the hills--"air like wine," poets call it. Memories are filled with moments of small, revealed wonders.
On a scorching day of slow fishing on White River in Arkansas, my father, Hugh Densmore Crumpler (1894-1969), changed me--a discouraged, eleven year old bass fisherman--into a boy pearl diver. Dad explained to me that the freshwater mussel is an incubator of pearls when it lives in streams with sandy bottoms. A grain of sand inside the shell of the mussel is an irritant that the mussel fights by building another shell--a pearl--around the offending intruder.
We harvested the mussels by pulling them with our hands from the rocky shallows of White
River. Truly I exaggerated when I wrote that I was transformed into "a boy pearl diver." Only occasionally did we duck under the water to extract a mussel. Our mussel hunting was less like pearl diving than it was like mud-crawling with a purpose.
When we had filled a bucket with mussels we waded to the nearest gravel bar and began the search for pearls. We opened the mussels--remarkably ugly unopened, and remarkably slippery opened--with a knife blade. Then the trick was to run a thumb between the mussel and its shell. If the mussel had produced a pearl, that pearl would magically pop out of the shell.
I found out soon enough that not every mussel had a pearl, not by a long shot. In fact, I was fed up with messy, slimy mussels and ready to quit when--Open Sesame!--a pearl dropped into the palm of my hand.
A pearl? It was small and wrinkled and purple in color, not white or pink like the pearls of ladies' necklaces. In shape, my first pearl resembled a misshapen wart more than a precious gem. But it had the translucent, hypnotic glow, the hidden promise of antique seas, that emanates only from pearls. At the moment of discovery, I envisioned my first, free-form pearl as an ornament fit to be worn by the Caliph of Baghdad.
Those pearl fishing waters of White River were a mile or so below the mouth of my all-time favorite fishing stream, Bear Creek in Boone County, Arkansas. It was a fisherman's dream stream. I fished Bear Creek for endless summer days from 1926 until 1940. I saw another fisherman maybe every six or seven days. Bear Creek's clear, cool water flowing over white sand and gravel bottoms and across rocky ledges and boulder-filled rapids was alive with game fish. The fishing was fabulous.
But sometimes in the heat of August when the pools were as flat and as transparent as a sheet of glass, even the bass and goggle-eye of Bear Creek could not be tempted from shaded hideaways under rocks and banks.
On those days I stowed my fishing tackle inside the half-exposed roots of some creekside sycamore tree and went exploring along the streamside. It was something I had learned from my Uncle Gus Hunt Crumpler (1911-1989) of Boone County. Uncle Gus was a poet, novelist, and advertising man. But above all, he was a fisherman and hunter of Indian artifacts. Gus had explained to me that every time a field along Bear Creek was plowed or flooded, a new crop of flint objects was uncovered.
I poked around in the creek bottoms because they were treasure houses of riches beyond counting. On some days of gleaning across the workshops of ancient Red Men, I found more arrowheads than I wished to carry. I pocketed only the most perfect points and threw back the rest. Flint axes, blades, and scrapers were too bulky to bother with.
There were days of arrowhead hunting when I kept only "bird points," delicate marvels of hand chipping that were no bigger than the nib of a fountain pen. (We later learned that they were not for hunting birds, as we had believed, but were trading points, prized by Indians for miniaturization that would have brought pride to a Faberge and craftmanship that would have brought acclaim to a Cellini.)
The only permanent riches of youth are its memories. I remember the moment of cleaning away the earth and picking up a perfect, rose-colored, flint bird point. The sun gathered a rainbow of colors from its concave facets and scattered them in broken rays across my hands. Those magic, dancing colors stayed in my mind long after I forgot what I did with that perfect arrowhead from an ancient Indian camp on Bear Creek in Arkansas.
Fishing with rod and reel is said to be the way of the sportsman. But the rod and reel was not held in great esteem by many of the old-timers of the Ozarks. When they went fishing, it was to fill the skillet for their hungry families. So they set trotlines at dusk, slept all night by a warm campfire, and got up at dawn to run the trotline and collect its harvest of night-feeding catfish.
The oldtimers speared fish with long-handled gigs made by local blacksmiths. For illumination in night gigging they burned pine and cedar knots in a basket of steel straps mounted over the prow of the boat.
Many of yesterday's fishermen were as skilled as Osage braves with the bow-and-arrow. Fishing with "Bow-and-spike," they called it. The bows were made of cedar and had to be soaked in water before stringing, and kept wet while they were used. The spikes were two-barbed, slim, steel arrowheads made by blacksmiths. The spike shafts were usually of native cane, cut at water's edge.
Bow-and-spike fishing was most successful in clear, shallow water. Best results were obtained during the spring when suckers--the usual prey of bowmen--were running.
By far the most unusual fishing technique of the Ozarks was "noodling." rve heard it called other names, including "tickling." But after watching noodlers at work, I believe the most descriptive word is "noodling."
Several times while fishing on Bear Creek, I met noodlers wading the creek. Usually there were two or three of them, dressed in overalls. The noodlers surrounded boulders in the stream, ran their hands into the nooks and tunnels under the rocks, and "noodled around" until they felt a fish. The fish, noodlers told me, made no attempt to escape the mysterious hand that had suddenly appeared in their hiding places. The noo-dlers quite simply pulled fishes from the water and dropped them into gunny sacks that were tied around their waists.
Once on White River, I witnessed a noodling of Odyssean dimensions. Dad and I were floating in one johnboat; Uncle Gus and Hibbard "Hib" Matlock, a noted river man, in another. I had never known Hib to fish with rod and reel. But he had his own methods.
Far down the river, we heard two men hollering and waving.
"Look at those two old boys nekkid on a log," Hib said, pointing downriver.
They were indeed without clothes, and they were excited about something. As we neared the two men, one of them recognized Hib and shouted:
"Hey Hib, we got a big old catfish holed up for you."
While we were maneuvering the johnboats into position, the "two old boys nekkid on a log" told us their story. They had been plowing a river bottom field when they decided to cool off. They stripped and swam out to the log, which was a giant limb of a tree resting on the bottom of the river. The two plowmen had stretched out on the limb to enjoy the warm therapy of the sun.
Through the clear water they spotted a giant catfish, head upstream, in the sunken roots of the waterlogged tree.
The situation was tailor-made for Hib Mat-lock. Standing in the boat, he got his bearings on the sunken tree and the catfish. Hib took off his shoes and eased over the side of Gus's boat in his shirt and overalls.
We could see the top of his head, his hair standing on end, as he pushed himself toward the bottom. Then Hib disappeared and a cloud of sand, mud and swirling water appeared in his place. It seemed like he'd been underwater a long time.
"Do something," I said. "He must be drowning ."
Everybody laughed. One of the men on the log said: "Why, you couldn't drown old Hib if you held him under with a rock."
A kicking foot came into view. Hib righted himself and pumped furiously with his left arm. Underwater, everything appeared to be in slow motion.
Hib exploded to the surface beside the boat in a whirlpool of muddy water. He had the giant catfish in his right hand, his fingers in its gills and his thumb in the corner of its mouth. Hib gave a mighty heave and the catfish landed in the boat. Gus jumped on the catfish and ran a rope through its mouth and gills.
Hib's hand was still in the fish's mouth. It took some pulling and prying by the two men before Hib extracted his bleeding thumb. The thumb looked to me like it was almost bitten off. Hib said it didn't amount to anything.
When things settled down, I had a question. "Hey, Hib," I said, "what would you do if that old catfish swam out in the middle of the river with you holding on?"
"Never thought about that," Hib said. "1 don't know how to swim."
It was true. Hib Matlock, champion noodler of the White River country, couldn't swim a lick.
Back at Lowry on Bear Creek, where my grandfather, Thomas Newton Crumpler, and my grandmother, Phebe Dunlap Crumpler, ran a store and grist mill, we put Hib's catfish on the grist mill scales. It weighed 49 pounds. For the next two days, everybody who traded at the Crumpler store in Lowry rode in to see the catfish and hear the story about its catching.
Lowry, Bear Creek and much of the white water that gave White River its name are drowned now under lakes formed by dams on White River. Gone are the rapids under Bear Creek's Hawks Bluff where I could always catch at least one bass by casting on the downstream side of the huge boulders that stood like squat, silent sentries. Gone too, are the tree-shaded creek bottoms where stoic Indians patiently turned chert and flint into works of art. All are victims of rising waters. Changes, minor or cataclysmic, are reminders that every man's experiences are unique and can be re-lived only in memory.
In memory, I sometimes find myself standing knee-deep in a small, clearwater stream in Crawford County, Missouri. I hold the flyrod high and let out line slowly. My black gnat fly drifts into the pool below. A flash of silver illuminates the little pool. A smallmouth bass has turned on its side to take the fly, and the flash of the fish tells me the fight is on even before I feel the strike.
The stream in that memory is the Huzzah. The Huzzah? And what is a "huzzah?" A "huzzah'' is a shout of joy, an exultation so old that its origin is lost in time. None but an exuberant, boisterous, and happy people--like the folks of the Ozarks--could have hit upon such an inspired name. The Huzzah. Too big to be a creek, too small to be a river. Just the Huzzah, a swaggering stream carrying a message of wild joy wherever it flows.
Every fisherman who ever waded an Ozarks stream has a Huzzah in his experience and Huzzah in his memories.
Copyright 1991 by Hugh A. Crumpler
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