Dateline: May 31, 2016 – Mammoth Springs, Arkansas
I truly enjoy being in nature, and from time to time, I have seen some amazing things. But I haven’t seen 1% of the stuff Tyler has, and as it turns out, his major tool for viewing the wildlife of the Ozarks is not a pair of binoculars. It’s a chainsaw. You heard me. Before we get into the whole tale of backwoods wonder, I should probably explain who Tyler is and also make it clear that no animals were harmed in the making of this blog. (Some may have been irritated.)
It all began in September of 2015, at a Sonic restaurant in central Illinois. (More details HERE.) Martini and I had fished with Ben Cantrell, a top-notch Peoria-based species hunter. As I struggled to choke down a ghastly Sonic burger*, the discussion ran into other fishing opportunities in the region, and the one that sounded the most fascinating was the Ozarks. The place is loaded with species I haven’t caught, from a diverse array of micros to some larger trophies such as black buffalo, blue suckers, and paddlefish.
The first picture I ever saw of Tyler Goodale. Yes, that’s a blue sucker. It’s rarer – and tastier – than unicorns.
I couldn’t wait to go, but my schedule being what it is, it took eight months to set it up. Ben kept me in the loop on his travels, and when he planned an Ozarks trip over Memorial Day, I made arrangements to tag along.
This is when Tyler’s name started coming up. Every time Ben mentioned the Ozarks, he also mentioned Tyler. Tyler is a guy who grew up in the Ozarks and has managed to catch all kinds of rare stuff that most of us can only dream of. The first photo I ever saw of him also featured a blue sucker, one of the holy grails of the life-lister community. Tyler isn’t easy to reach – he’s pretty much always on the water – but Ben managed to get him to come along for our weekend. I was thrilled – Ben is an accomplished species hunter himself, but you can never have enough local expertise, and Tyler’s middle name is “Local Expertise.”
I was somehow on time to St. Louis, despite flying United, and Ben was kind enough to pick me up at the airport and do all the driving. He’s a road trip expert; the car was fully stocked for three days of intense fishing. I was thrilled – until I looked in the cooler and realized that Ben and I have somewhat different ideas on road trip cuisine. Whereas I am good with breakfast at Taco Bell, lunch at Taco Bell, and dinner at Dairy Queen, Ben had actually packed stuff like yogurt and string cheese. This was going to be an issue.
Note where we ate dinner on that first evening.
We met Tyler early the next morning. He comes across unassuming, even quiet, but it became very clear in about five minutes that Tyler has a deep knowledge and love of the outdoors and specifically of fishing. He seemed to know every body of water in the state, what lives in it, when and how it could be caught, and even the Latin names of the fish. (It should be noted that Ben has an extraordinary amount of knowledge himself. I was in very good hands.) We were going to need all of that knowledge, because the conditions had turned out to be challenging – heavy rainfall had blown out many of our prime destinations, but I was here and we were going to make the best of it. For me, it beat sitting at home and watching Marta put my fishing trophies in the garage again, but Ben had already caught most of the small stuff in the area, so he was much more cursed by the weather than I was.
Our first stop was a ditch. It didn’t look different than any other ditch, and there were miles of ditches in the area. But as soon as I could get a small hook and a bit of worm down, I pulled up a plain-looking sunfish. It was so plain, so homely, that it couldn’t have been anything except a bantam sunfish, which usually shows up in books with notes like “no strong distinguishing markings.” Identifying one is a process of eliminating all the other sunfish until you’re left with this one.
The bantam sunfish. That’s Tyler with the thumbs up and Ben in the background. (You are not the first person to notice that Ben looks like he is passing gas.) If you want to fish the area, Tyler is a highly qualified guide – I can put you in touch with him. He also guides hiking and birding excursions.
Next up, Ben and Tyler spotted some topminnows cruising the surface, which is how they got their name. We dragged nearly-microscopic bits of worm near them until they attacked, and I was up another species – the starhead topminnow.
I didn’t say these would be exciting species.
Considering that our main fishing spots were unavailable, we were doing well. Tyler spotted a snake right by where I had been fishing moments before and caught it for photos.
It’s apparently not poisonous, but I still would have preferred to have not known it was there.
Our next stop was an unlikely one – a municipal park in the middle of Poplar Bluff. Tyler swore the place had fish, but the only wildlife I could see were really, really bad softball players. We crept up on a small creek, and, I’ll be darned, it was stuffed with fish. We got some beautiful sunfish – some of the prettiest fish of the trip – and I added a red spotted sunfish to my species list.
Cousin Chuck gets three guesses as to why they are called “red spotted sunfish.”
We also got loads of longear sunfish – these were clearly the “dominant pest” of the trip, but they are beautiful.
We also saw swarms of brook darters, but these were less interested in food than they were in making little brook darters. I tipped my hat to Tyler for another spot I would have never guessed on my own, and we continued.
The final stop of the day was a state park about an hour outside of town. On the way there, Tyler and I cleaned out a gas station for snack food while Ben sniffed at us and ate yogurt. Who the heck brings yogurt on a fishing trip? We hiked in to a beautiful spring-fed pond – the first relatively clear water I had seen all day.
The pond. It contained an evil species.
On the way in, we heard at least a dozen different bird songs, and Tyler named every species. He also knew all the plants – this was very helpful in a place with abundant poison ivy. Tyler mentioned he had seen foxes and bobcats at this spot, and mentioned some rare birds that nested there. I asked how he had managed to see all of this stuff, and his answer surprised me. He mentioned that he had done a lot of work clearing land for construction, which involves chainsaws. “When you walk around the woods with a chainsaw, all kinds of stuff comes out.” I had never thought of it that way.
When we got to the pond, Ben started casting a spinner and nailed a beautiful chain pickerel.
I have caught one chain pickerel in my life, and it wasn’t this big.
It was in this pond that I encountered one of the most frustrating fish in nature – the creek chubsucker. These cyprinids, found throughout the eastern US, have a vile habit of congregating in plain view and then NOT EATING. Ben and Tyler tried to warn me, much as Martini had tried to warn me about the desert suckers, (see “Return to Salt River”) but I couldn’t believe something that obvious wouldn’t bite. But they wouldn’t. No matter what. It was horrible. (I quickly started calling them creek chub****ers.) Of course, I wasted a couple of hours pointlessly casting for them, and they spent a couple of hours ignoring me. Somewhere in this masochistic ritual, I hooked a fish. Flipping it up on the bank, I thought it had to be a chubsucker, but it wasn’t. It was, to Tyler’s great surprise, a hornyhead chub, a new species.
This took some of the sting out of the creek chub****er debacle.
On the way back to the car, we walked through a small, clear creek, looking for possible micros. A lot of micro fishing consists of poking small baits into likely-looking crevices under rocks, and there were a lot of likely-looking crevices. Moments later, a small fish pounced on my offering, and I pulled up my fifth new species of the day – the Ozark sculpin. Sculpins are cool, and before you start poo-pooing small fish, you should know that one sculpin species, the cabezone, reaches more than 20 pounds. The Ozark sculpin doesn’t get quite that big, but don’t change the subject.
The Ozark sculpin. They’re called that because they live in the Ozarks.
Tyler spotted a turtle and got it to pose for photos. This was less troubling than the snake.
That evening, as we ate dinner in someplace that was bad, but not Sonic-level bad, we got to swap fish photos. Tyler, who was already full of surprises, just stunned me. Apart from the fact he had pictures with some stupidly rare fish, his micro photos, especially on the darters, were flat-out art.
Orangethroat darter, Upper St. Francis River, MO.
Current Darter, Current River, MO.
Ben also takes some outstanding micro photos.
Tyler has been asked to do the photo work on a couple of books of midwestern species. When these come out, I’ll pass the information along – these photos show more than anything why we species hunters spend all this time going after minuscule fish. Some of them are simply beautiful.
The next morning began with a warning. The guys told me we would be go going to a great spot, but that I was going to have to be patient. That’s all they would tell me. I was intrigued, but as you all know, I possess a Gandhi-like level of patience, especially on fishing matters. (Perspective from Marta: “Not.”)
Before we got to the patience-requiring spot, we stopped in the park again and took another shot at the brook darters. They seemed a bit less reproductive, and Ben and I both managed to get one.
Good start. Ben took this photo, by the way.
No, Ben is not doing what you think he is. (He’s fully housebroken.) This is what micro fishing often looks like.
We then headed west to explore some different watersheds. Remember that we were limited to smaller, spring-fed waterways because of the rain, so the bigger fish were off the table. We pulled up at a remote creek later in the morning, and I added another species – the Ozark minnow.
They’re called that because they live in the Ozarks.
We were then off for the Zen spot, which they were now calling “the old swimmin’ hole.” We meandered through some beautiful countryside, getting on to progressively smaller roads until we ran into a beautifully clear river. Tyler explained it was spring-fed, and that we should have no trouble tracking down four or five new species. I was just asking him again why I would need so much patience, but then I saw the parking lot. All the cars were the same color – primer – and I could hear drunken howls and yelping in the distance. We stepped out of the car, and I could see exactly what they were talking about. It was a beautiful fishing spot, featuring everything from a deep hole under a rail bridge to some wonderful clear riffles. But it also featured about 100 partying teenagers, many of whom were stumbling through the riffles, jumping off the bridge, or barfing.
Tyler told me “Just be cool. They’ll start leaving around dark.” I was horrified. As soon as I started wading, I could see exotic sculpins and madtoms, but every time I tried to settle in and drop a bait to one, some inebriated local would splash through and disrupt things. I’m sure I was very patient with all this. (Perspective from Marta: “No. Apoplectic. Apoplectic would be the right word.”)
Revelers walk right in front of me while I try to get a sculpin. The woman nearly stepped on my bait, and when I mentioned to her that I was fishing, she burped and said “That’s stupid.”
Ben and Tyler just smiled and told me to relax. I almost never relax. After half an hour, I did get a knobfin sculpin, to the woozy cheers of those nearby.
A frustrating hour later, I got an Ozark madtom, again to more confused applause. These fish should have taken me ten minutes, and even though there were clearly more species available, I couldn’t handle the riffle crowd any longer.
The Ozark madtom. They’re called that because they live in the Ozarks.
I joined Ben and Tyler up on the bridge, but there were a lot of people jumping into the river, from the exact spot where we wanted to fish. Tyler told me to be patient and set me up with a small jig. I cast the rocks repeatedly, hoping for an Ozark bass, which is a rock bass relative supposed to be quite common in the area. Ben caught one. Tyler caught one. I got nothing but endless longear sunfish and a headache from some moron yelling “Woohoooo! Party!”
We went back down to the riffle for a while, and with Tyler’s guidance, I pulled up another new species – the duskystripe shiner.
Hey, it’s a species.
Ben was getting plenty of fish as well, but I could tell the fracas was wearing on him also – but let’s face it, they had just as much right to be there as we did. Slowly, the light shifted into evening, and the youngsters either ran out of beer or passed out in the bushes, and we could finally fish a bit more seriously. Back up on the bridge, I kept casting jigs into the rocks. Fish started jumping and feeding more actively. Redhorses started coming into the shallows, and even thought they wouldn’t bite, it was great to have some peace and quiet. Ben managed to catch the biggest striped shiner I have ever seen.
The striped shiner that ate Godzilla.
Moments afterward, I got a solid hit and reeled up an Ozark bass. We were some 15 feet above the water, and it seemed to take forever to handline it over the rail – but I got it. That was six for the day, so it was worth dealing with the madness.
The Ozark bass. They’re called that because they live in Ozarks. On a side note, I might have overcelebrated this one.
Ben reminded us that we had one more species to catch – a madtom that was supposed to come out after dark. I was hungry and out of Red Bull, but I refused to eat Ben’s healthy offerings. Malnourished and uncaffeinated, I stuck it out until around 10, when I got a small, sneaky bite and landed a beautiful checkered madtom – species seven to close out a great day.
They look a lot like the bumblebee catfish of Southeast Asia, but they are distant cousins at most.
Past midnight, we checked into some sort of Motel Fungus just across the border into Arkansas. If I could get a fish in the morning, Arkansas would be the 49th state where I had caught a fish, leaving only Oklahoma before I would have to start on another list, like all the provinces of Mongolia.
Dawn came early, especially as our motel had failed to mention that there was a railroad line IN THE PARKING LOT. We had just a few hours before Ben and I needed to head north and drop me off in St. Louis, but the guys had a few creeks in mind. I was just hoping to get something. Again, we were limited to small water, but shortly after we started, I pulled in a northern studfish, albeit in a somewhat unequal contest. I was up to 49 states and briefly considered going directly to Oklahoma and getting it over with. Ben shut that idea down very quickly.
A new species and a new state. The only thing that would have made the morning better would be Taco Bell breakfast.
We tried a few more isolated streams and got one more new critter for the day – the strawberry darter.
My darter photos were getting better but still not anywhere close to Tyler’s.
We tried a spillway for redhorses, but it was still too roiled for any larger species. We passed a pleasant hour landing solid longear sunfish, and then it was time to hit the road. (But not before one more meal at Dairy Queen, to Ben’s intestinal chagrin.) The two Arkansas species moved my total for the trip to 14 – stunning considering that the whole thing looked washed out only 48 hours before. Best of all, the original target species were still there, providing a perfect excuse for a trip later in the year.
But before I could plan my return to the Ozarks, I was going to have to deal with a looming emotional crisis. In just 10 days, I would be flying to Hawaii to fish with my teenage arch-nemesis, Jaime Hamamoto.
*And remember that my standards are extraordinarily low – I actually like Dairy Queen food. So trust me when I tell you to avoid Sonic.