KW Morrow, White River

June 4th, 2007

A Good Kind of Sore
By Ken Morrow

The timing seemed perfect.

Daytime temperatures were hovering in the low and mid seventies. At night, it was still cooling off into the upper forties or low fifties. There was no rain in the forecast for several days. I had a full tank of gas and enough spare change to buy a few staple camping items like beer, fried chicken, pretzels, peanuts, and a package of bratwurst. The following weekend would be Memorial Day with all the attendant hordes crowding into every campground near a body of water in the Ozarks. And after that, the nights wouldn't be so cool anymore. And I had a craving to fish the Blue Ribbon section of the Current River at the north end of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway in south-central Missouri. I had heard many tales of trophy brown trout and rainbows coming from those first several miles below Montauk State Park. I had committed the maps to memory, read all of the websites I could find, and I was ready to go do some serious fishing.

Regional Map

I decided to take full advantage of my retirement status and head for Eagles Park campground at the Tan Vat river access on Sunday at noon. I would stay until Tuesday at noon. This would give me evening fishing on Sunday at Tan Vat, all day Monday to explore the river from Baptist Access to the edge of Montauk SP...a stretch of about 2.1 miles of Blue Ribbon trout stream. And there should be no crowds the first part of the week before Memorial Day weekend. I just couldn't envision a more perfect plan. Just me, my faithful Weimaraner, minimal camping supplies, and a lonely trout stream in May: this is the stuff an Ozark fly angler's dreams are made of!

I woke late on Sunday morning and my wife and I shared coffee and conversation. Then she made me some of her fantastic breakfast burritos to hold me over until dinner. I began packing the car at noon. I made a short shopping list, double-checked my gear, and rounded up Smoky Joe. We were off before 2 pm. It was a two hour drive to Eagles Park. That would put us there in plenty of time to set up camp and wet a line right across the gravel road at Tan Vat until sundown. The weather was perfect. So Smoky Joe didn't even mind sitting in the car while I shopped for our supplies.

We cruised down the highway listening to classic rock on the radio for awhile. Then it dawned on me that there was a Jimmy Buffett CD in the car stereo player. So we spent the rest of the drive Havana Daydreaming. The drive down US 65, east on US 60, and then north on Hwy 63 was easy and pleasant. Along the way, we crossed the Big Piney River a couple of times – another Blue Ribbon trout stream that crosses Hwy 63 a few miles north of Cabool, Missouri. I noted that there were several good access points to the river right off of the highway. Things like that are good to know when you are an Ozark angler. The Big Piney holds naturally reproducing rainbow trout in the Blue Ribbon section. But you are lucky to catch one over ten inches long. And on this trip I was dreaming of the big browns and rainbows of the upper Current River.

Arriving at Eagles Park right on schedule, I noted with great satisfaction that the campground was almost deserted. Other than Joe and me, there was one pop-up travel trailer in the campground. The park manager told me it belonged to two guys from Illinois who were fishing in the state park and they were leaving the next morning. Perfect!

Eagles Park is a little, non-descript campground with a few RV pads and about a dozen tent camping sites that is located right on the Tan Vat access to the Current River about one mile west of Montauk SP. There is a small fly shop, snack bar, restaurant, and firewood shed at the state park lodge if you need anything. They have camping gear, over-the-counter pharmacy items, minimal groceries, beer, soft drinks, fishing tackle, and flies. Of course, they also have a virtual menagerie of Montauk souvenirs as well. The snack bar has hot coffee, ice cream, soft drinks, and a limited menu. The restaurant is the full-service sit-down variety found at most Missouri State Parks. Lodging is rumored to be clean and comfortable, but over-priced...which is also typical of our state parks. Camping inside Montauk is crowded and pretty expensive. Pitching a tent costs $9 per night without a reservation and $17.50 with one. Eagles Park charges $6 for a tent. Eagles park has decent bathroom and shower facilities. And one or both of the owners, who live on property, is always there to keep an eye on things. And they don't tolerate the drunken orgies or ad hoc fireworks shows that sometimes one encounters in streamside campgrounds in the Ozarks. There is a general store on property too, but it is closed down and for sale. It's pretty remote. I could count the cars that pass each day on one hand. The place would make an ideal members only trout camp, using the store building for a lodge and keeping the campgrounds available for members. The owners do not want to sell the campground. They would prefer to only sell the store. The campgrounds are well maintained. The grass was cut low, there was no trash from the weekend, and there was plenty of shade in the afternoon and evening. And the panoramic view of the surrounding hills is phenomenal.

We paid cash for two nights and set camp. Well, I set camp while Smoky Joe explored the empty campground. I chose a well-shaded spot on one corner on high, flat, grassy ground with a commanding view. Pleased with my arrangements, I popped open a Boddington's Pub Ale and sat down in my favorite folding camp chair. It was a gift from the Executive Director of Boy Scouts of America after a particularly uneventful duck hunt on the Mississippi River.

With the sun beginning to kiss the treetops to our backs, it was time to rig up the TFO 9' 6wt Professional Series rod with a Red.Fly reel holding my Scientific Anglers Mastery Series Trout Taper floating line and head for the water's edge. I donned a pair of WilliamJoseph Dry-namic waders and W2O boots, my WJ Fusion Vest, and my trusty straw hat that purchased on sale last fall at Dan's Fly Shop in Lake City, Colorado. It was fishing time!

Tan Vat Tan Vat is historically more of a swimming hole than a fishing spot. But it provides good access and parking right at the top end of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway on the Current River. There is about a half mile of Blue Ribbon water upstream from Tan Vat to the border of the state park. Downstream, it is 1.1 miles to Baptist Access; which is the first realistic put-in for canoers. That is why I chose this section of the river on which to concentrate. I figured I would have little fishing pressure from the state park since most of the weekend crowd had left already, and that I would have no canoers mucking up the works if I stayed upstream of Baptist. As I approached Tan Vat, there was a family swimming. The father saw me coming and graciously announced to his kids that it was time to go. I was a bit shocked and very grateful for this level of hospitality and consideration. After they departed, I waited about twenty minutes for things to settle down. After I saw the third trout rise in the hole I decided it was time to wet a line. From the first cast until the light began to fail, I landed five respectable rainbows over 15" each. I lost at least that many fish and flies. I began to think perhaps 5X tippet wasn't enough in the strong current. But I didn't move up to 3X.

The dog and I walked back across the road to our campsite and started the campfire. Once I got it roaring and some coals underneath, I broke out the bratwursts, pretzels, another Boddington's Ale, and a few travel packages of French's Mustard. As we say in the Ozarks, I was in Hog Heaven! After whoofing down the first two brats, the next two fell off my telescopic fishing pole roasting fork. So then Smoky Joe was in Dog Heaven. That was OK. I had one more, and three would be plenty for me. The hound dog fates smiled kindly on the old Gray Ghost that evening. As the stars came out in full force under a clear sky, it began to cool off rapidly. So I pulled on an Eddie Bauer knit pullover sweater and listened to the songs of the Whip-poor-wills and did some star gazing while I polished off 2 more Boddington's Ales. About nine 'clock, we climbed into the tent and fell quickly to sleep. The next day was going to be a big one for us.

It wasn't an alarm clock or even a rooster crowing that roused me from my slumber Monday morning. It was the unmistakable gobbling of a Tom turkey no more than a hundred yards away. I had a thermos of hopefully still hot coffee and a Marlboro Medium 100 with my name on them just outside the tent. The night had been cool enough that I had to eschew the 50 degree thermal fleece summer sleeping bag and climb into my 0 degree Coleman mummy bag pretty early. I dressed quickly and exited the tent into the cool spring morning air. A light fog was rolling up through the trees from the river and the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky enough that I didn't need a light. I lit a smoke and reached for the thermos. The coffee was still piping hot. Thermoses are a modern marvel of technological mastery – man's triumph over nature in a most rewarding and practical way, affordably available to the common man at over 2,800 Wal-Mart stores nationwide…or K-Mart, or Target, or almost anywhere else you can buy a cooler. They keep hot stuff hot and cold stuff cold. How do they know which is which?

My plan was to walk upstream from Tan Vat toward the border with the state park in the morning. We would return to camp for lunch, and then drive down to Baptist and fish upstream in the afternoon. I hadn't thought any further ahead than that. I figured the river and the trout would tell me the rest. So I filled the hydration bladder in my WJ Fusion Vest, woofed down a couple of those Honey Nut Cheerio breakfast bars with the milk built into them, grabbed my trusty TFO 6wt, and headed upstream from Tan Vat.

The first half hour did not produce a fish. I was beginning to second guess my plan when I saw them. There were a few large browns goofing around under a huge deadfall beside a steep mud creek bank. The deadfall was gnarly. And it was going to be tricky getting those bruisers out of there. I briefly thought about retying with 3X tippet only before casting to them, but my impatience trumped my good sense and I stuck with the 5X. Two casts and drifts produced nothing. I thought I'd try one more time before changing the size 16 beaded Prince Nymph for something else – I knew not what. Bam! There he was! Fish on! Now to back this brute out of the timber...

Upstream

The water was pretty deep and swift right there. It had been tricky getting into position for the cast. But I managed to put enough side pressure on the big brown to make him dart out into open water... FASTER water. Uh-oh! He made a reel-screaming run downstream, but only about 50 feet. Suddenly, he came about and headed back toward the submerged logs. Before I could get the line back under full control, he had me wrapped around a twig of a branch from one of those logs and was gone. Damn you 5X tippet! Lesson learned. I retied with 3X and made several more casts, but the wily old browns had my number. They would dart out to the fly and then refuse it. This close to the park and in deep fast water, I thought a Glo-ball might be irresistible. So I tied one on and made several more casts to no avail. Reluctantly, we moved on upstream. Some days you get the bear. Some days the bear gets you. But it sure was fun to try!

Shallow Riffle Section We rounded the next bend in the river and saw a very, very long shallow riffle the full width of the river as far as we could see upstream. We were almost a half mile upstream of our camp. I knew we would hit the state park boundary line soon and I could see two anglers standing on the bank a couple hundred yards ahead of us. I decided it was time to turn back downstream and work our way back toward camp. We were walking the high bank and watching the stream for trout. We saw none until we were almost back to Tan Vat. And that's when we struck the Mother Lode!

Another deadfall submerged log was providing a deep pool with excellent overhead cover in slack water right next to a very narrow main channel. How had I missed that earlier in the morning? From up on the bank, I could see a couple dozen trout lying in wait in the hole. I stood there for a few minutes and watched the way they were feeding. They would dart out from under the logjam one at a time to ambush passing prey. The whole river was lousy with baitfish and crayfish. But these big rainbows were feeding near the surface. I couldn't tell for sure what they were eating. Local advise says Glo-balls are a "must have" in this stretch of river. So I figured I'd leave it on and see what happened. I approached from downstream as stealthily as possible. When I start sneaking up on a spot Smoky Joe lays back and gets very still. He watches me and stays out of the way…the perfect fishing companion. Well, he doesn't carry a flask of whiskey or an assortment of extra flies, but by gosh I could fix that if I wanted to! After a few minutes, I was in position to cast upstream and get a perfect drift parallel to the log that was deflecting the current. I reset my depth to match this pool as best I could guess it to be and made a nearly perfect 30 ft cast under overhanging trees. And that's when all Hell broke loose!

I stood there catching one 15" to 20" rainbow after another for almost an hour. The water here was very fast and I had to horse these fish away from that log and into the fastest water of the main channel. Then they would run downstream about 30 yards – stripping line almost to the backing before coming to a shallow riffle that ran all the way across from bank to bank just above the Tan Vat hole. Then the fight was on to keep them out of the submerged grass along the bank behind me and out of the timber they had come from and to which they so desperately wanted to return. Side pressure – it was all side pressure. And I was so glad I had beefed up to 3X! These fish were serious bruisers fighting at about twice their weight in the swift water. Several were incredibly acrobatic under the pressure of the 3X tippet and 6wt rod. Joe was getting a real show from all the somersaulting rainbows! Each time I landed one, he would ease over and sniff my dip net as I removed the barbless hooks. Then he would back off as I released the fish and resume his place out of range of my backcast.

By noon, I had worked up quite a sweat and my forearm was beginning to ache from all the fish fighting I was having to do. I caught over a dozen rainbows and one nice 17" brown in about fifty minutes. Sweaty and hungry with a tired right arm, I relented and the dog and I headed for camp for a much-deserved break. The fish had worn out 2 Glo-balls during this little episode. So I needed to restock them from by gear bag anyway. I don't really fish Glo-balls much at all. Occasionally, I'll tie one on during heavy flows caused by power generation on some Ozarks tailwaters. And I've used them during runoff season in Colorado. So I do keep a half dozen or so in my big gear bag. However, in my experience with trout, if they will take a Glo-ball they will absolutely hammer a 1/100th thread micro-jig. And I coat them with very hard clear nail polish when I tie them. They're almost indestructible. So I put two pink, two white, and two olive thread jigs in my nymph box as well. Seems the Current River oracles were correct. This was micro-jig water. All of the Glo-balls sold in the area come on a 1/100th or 1/76th micro-jig head as well. The water is fairly swift and the river isn't wide open for long casts and drifts. So you need to get down fast. Using the micro-jig instead of split shot above a more traditional fly lets you do that without near the risk of getting tippet wrapped around stuff on the bottom. And that is also a major concern on the upper Current River.

Lunch consisted of four pieces of fried chicken and two Busch beers from the cooler. I washed up first at the campground's bath house and discovered they actually had hot water and a shower in there! As I ate lunch, I watched the two guys hook up their pop-up camper and pull out for home. The campground was all ours now.

Joe took a nap in the sun on the grass and shared half a chicken breast with me to augment his Iams dog food and some Ozarka spring water. He had quite a big morning; especially when he stumbled across a Wood Duck nest with a hen and her hatch in there along the bank! He's a trained hunting dog. So he just gave them a good "fire drill" before I called him off. We sat on the bank and watched her regroup her brood upstream about sixty yards. She did a very good job from decoying Joe away from the youngsters to rounding them back up when the threat had passed. And Joe had swam HARD upstream against the current chasing her for about a hundred yards and then back to me when I called him off.

Then it was time to drive down to Baptist and try our luck from there.

The drive is easy and well marked. If you have committed maps to memory, you have no problem finding things. If you haven't studied the maps, you probably wouldn't have a clue where to look for anything. The roads themselves are narrow gravel affairs with no street signs at intersections. The only signs are for the actual points of interest.

Baptist
Baptist access has a good canoe or kayak launching type of gravel ramp and a large, partially shaded parking lot. It was deserted. We parked the car under a tree and began to explore the bank along the access area. I saw two trout lurking under cover. One behind a big rock, and the other was under yet another fallen tree. I tied on a hot pink micro-jig tied on a bright orange jig-head. If these fish were feeding on pink eggs, this would do the trick! I cast to and caught the fish behind the submerged rock. But the brown lying under the log wouldn't budge. No pink jigs in his diet! We began to wade upstream along the bank.

Every few hundred yards, we would come to another small pool near the bank with either fallen timber or large boulders creating an eddy. And we just hammered the rainbows at almost every one of them. By what I guessed later to be 4 o'clock in the afternoon, we were over a half mile upstream and had caught another twenty or so rainbows over 16" each. The biggest was about 19" though. Again, these fish were ornery and hungry. But after catching one to three fish from each lie, they would be put down. So we would move on upstream to the next holding cover. I knew I should be able to catch a few more of them in those same spots on the way back down to the car. We took a break at a big log that sat like a bench in the middle of a very shallow riffle mid-stream. I was a bit fatigued and it was pretty warm. I drank the last of the water from my hydration bladder in the vest. I looked at Smoky Joe and I could see that he was ready to turn back. The wading and swimming upstream had taken a toll on the 7 year old dog. When I stood up to stretch, he took a few steps downstream, stopped and looked off into the distance, and then looked back at me and snorted. He really didn't have to do much convincing. I was tired and we were more than a half mile wade to the car. We had caught a bunch of great fish. And I thought a break and some dinner and some more water would be a good idea. We could fish that evening back at Tan Vat.

I polished off the chicken for dinner, drank one more Busch beer, and had another one of those Cheerios breakfast bars for dessert. Joe whoofed down half a bowl of dog food, drank a full bowl of water, and crashed on the grass. I had a couple of smokes and cooled off in the shade. I refilled my hydration bladder again before we headed back across the road to Tan vat at about six o'clock. I figured we could fish for an hour or so, and then I could take a much-needed shower before dark. At the water's edge at Tan Vat, we met a single angler and a couple coming out of the water from upstream. That made five other human beings we had seen on the river all day…and only these three were close enough to speak to. The fellow from the couple had a very nice 25-26" brown trout on a stringer. I had seen about six similar fish in the approximately one mile of river we had fished that day. I had cast to three of them and had one break me off. I had caught one 17" brown. They are in there.

Joe and I waited about ten minutes for things to settle down and then we proceeded back upstream to that log I had caught several fish off of earlier in the morning. I wanted to see what they thought of my pink micro-jig. To make a long story short, they loved it. I stood in one spot and landed about eight more nice trout and a couple of 14" ones. I had about three more throw the hook on me. I used that one jig all afternoon and evening. And it still looked new. I retied several times to get rid of rough tippet, but always using the same jig. By now, the light was beginning to dim and my arm was beginning to burn. I decided we had had enough of paradise for one day. My thoughts turned to that hot shower back across the road at Eagles Park. So that's where we went.

I don't believe I have ever had a better shower in my life. I dried myself off, put on some Axe spray deodorant, and then covered that with Deep Woods Off. Then I put on fresh clothes. I felt great! I was worn smooth out from fishing. I had a couple more beers and few more Marlboros as we watched the stars begin their show for the second night in a row. We hit the sack early, planning to fish again the next morning from sunrise until we decided to pull camp and head back to Springfield. Inside the tent, I fired up the iPod and listened to a few ZZ Top tunes before settling in for the night. Once again, the Whip-poor-wills serenaded us to sleep, intermittently cheered on by distant Hoot Owl.

The next morning, Tom woke us up again. Smoky Joe was dead to the world. I had to wake him up. As soon as I moved to get out of the tent I realized there was a change in plans. My legs, my back, and my right arm were too sore to enjoy any more fishing. The rough wading, the climbing steep banks, and all the fish fighting to horse them off of the logs in the current had taken their toll. Fishermen tend to be eternal optimists when it comes to fishing, and I am no exception. I popped open a sugar-free Red Bull, lit a cigarette, and eased into my camp chair thinking that I just might loosen up in a few minutes. It never happened. Instead, I opted for breaking camp and heading to the state park lodge for a hot breakfast and coffee before pointing the car towards home. I was sore. But it was a good kind of sore. ~ Ken

About Ken:

Ken graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1988, and spent the next several years serving in the United States Navy as an intelligence analyst and Russian Language translator. He is a veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Leaving the nation's service in 1993.

Ken is also a published outdoor writer and historian, having penned articles and stories that have appeared in several national hunting publications like North American Hunter magazine, on GunMuse.com, in regional and local newspapers, and historical and literary journals. He has also provided hunting and dog training seminars for Bass Pro Shops and other sporting goods retailers nationwide. He volunteers his time to Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, as well as several local charitable organizations. He is also a REALTOR with Coldwell Banker in Springfield, Missouri; where he lives with his wife, Wilma, and their Weimaraner, Smoky Joe.


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