Dateline: September 19, 2016 – Poplar Bluff, Missouri
The Thing in Ben’s leg was there, quietly waiting to reappear. It had been there for 41 days, giving Ben a few hints to its presence and slowly working toward an unsettling outcome. The rest of us had no idea that The Thing was even there. We just wanted to go fishing.
The destination was the Ozarks – the same location as our now-legendary Memorial Day trip. (As immortalized in “The Old Swimming Hole.”) That adventure had rewarded us with a bunch of micro species – something of a miracle considering that all the main waterways were flooded after unseasonable storms. This time, we were hoping for less rain so we could get after some of the major species on my list, like the black buffalo, the blue sucker, the black redhorse, and the ever-elusive paddlefish. Ben had signed up to go with us, even though he was limping a bit. It seems that on an August trip to Peru, Ben dropped a catfish on his calf and spined himself rather impressively. The lodge owner did the right thing by pouring hot water on the wound – hot water “cooks” the protein in the poison. Unfortunately, the water was a bit too hot, so Ben ended up punctured and scalded in one golden evening. Photo below, but if you’re squeamish, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.
Oops. Too late.
In the month since, it hadn’t quite healed right. The doctors put Ben was on antibiotics a few times, so it sounded like he was on the mend. But he wasn’t, because Ben had brought an unintentional souvenir back from Peru, and we’re not talking about the obvious – he has a steady girlfriend. Get your mind out of the gutter.
This time, I drove myself from St. Louis to Poplar Bluff. It’s a few hours, but I had an iPod full of hits from the 80s and a nice dinner at Cracker Barrel – who could ask for more? I would meet Tyler in the morning, and Ben would join us on Saturday. The Weather.com forecast wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t look disastrous, so I was thrilled. Weather.com is a free site, and around 10pm, it proved again that you get what you pay for. Without warning, the skies opened up into an old-fashioned, all-night deluge. I settled in to the Holiday Inn, got on the internet, and watched the water levels rise at almost every place I had wanted to fish. The Fish Gods were making it known that they were in charge.
Still, I was here and I was going to find something to catch.
Tyler and I met early the next day at Taco Bell, for a marvelous breakfast and a strategy session.
Taco Bell breakfast is awesome. Nutrition? Digestibility? This is a fishing trip, people!
Of course, the unexpected rain had messed up the main rivers we wanted to fish, so we were going to have to scramble for smaller, clearer waterways. We headed about an hour away to the Current River watershed, and started working through some of the Tyler’s spots – this is a large inventory, as he has apparently fished in just about every body of water in the state at just about every water level and just about every season. He brought his girlfriend along, and she had the best line of the trip early on that first morning. When I opened my breakfast Red Bull, she turned around and said “That stuff smells like the breath of someone in a diabetic coma.” Wow. This needs to be their next marketing slogan.
Things started quietly in a small creek – narrow enough to jump across. In just a few minutes, we micro-fished up both a redbelly dace and a fantail darter.
The Redbelly dace. This passes for exciting in my world.
The fantail darter. Photo by Tyler Goodale.
We moved around the Current River area quite a bit. It hadn’t clouded up too badly, but the water was higher than Tyler wanted it, and he kept us going spot to spot looking for the fish he knew were there.
The Current River, Southern Missouri.
One by one, we started picking up small species. They all count the same on the scoreboard, and with high water, I was happy to be getting a few new ones.
The bigeye chub. But even with that big eye, it didn’t see me coming.
The Carmine shiner. Bizet’s favorite fish.
The telescope shiner. Yet I saw it with the naked eye.
Improbably, I had tacked on five species, and the total weight of all five wouldn’t tip the scales on a medium Red Bull. We headed for a bridge where Tyler had seen shadow bass and some assorted redhorses, and we finished the day there.
The shadow bass was quick. Now all I need is a Roanoke Bass to complete the Ambloplites genus.
I also caught one of those huge striped shiners. Yes, that’s a shiner, not a tuna.
I was up to six species – a good day by any measure. Tyler added a lot of interesting asides about the local fauna – his ability to name birds by their call still astonishes me. I am also unsurprised to report that Tyler’s luck with snakes finally ran out during the summer, and he got nailed by a cottonmouth. The good news is that it eventually healed, but if you are squeamish, you might want to skip the next photo.
Oops. Too late.
The next day, we connected with Ben bright and early and started heading off to a few of the locations they had scoped out. Ben was limping a bit – his leg was still sore from the Peru debacle – but we didn’t think much more of it. There was fishing to do. Or at least there would have been fishing to do if the water wasn’t high and muddy. We drove for hours and tried some classic spots, but the water was just blown out. As my old steelhead guide Ed Trujillo used to say “Too thick to drink, too thin to plough.” This put me in a foul mood.
Tyler tries to find worms or bury his head in the sand, I forget which. Note the water conditions behind him.
We finished the evening back at Wappapello dam, one of Tyler’s home locations.
Wappapello. A beautiful place, but the water needed to be five feet lower.
We got a few of the local critters, including a nice longnose gar, but none of the rare stuff wanted to bite.
Someday, I am going to get a paddlefish. Someday.
Ben’s limp had gotten worse, although he never said a thing. But that spine was in there, its barbed edges working its way through his calf. Still, he kept it to himself – an example of the “Don’t Ask / Cantrell” policy.
On the Sunday, our first task was a fool’s errand – pursue the creek chubsuckers in Poplar Bluff. Better known as creek chub****ers, these vile little fish flit about in plain view but refuse to bite. As long as you are stealthy, they will wander around a shallow pool right in front of you, nibbling toward your micro-bait, then spooking for no reason, then coming millimeters from your bait and needlessly changing directions. These fish are God’s punishment on microfishermen, and I am convinced the creeks in hell are full of them.
Ben and I both found small schools of them and set to it. This involves creeping up to the stream, then fishing from a prone position for a long time. Remember that this is in a public park, and people will point and stare and make unkind comments.
Steve and Ben pursue the creek chub****ers.
We put in a solid couple of hours on this with no success, and I discovered that the grass where I had bedded down hosted some sort of biting insect. Now and then I would hear Ben whisper an expletive as a fish came close to his bait. But then, around 10, I heard Ben in his outdoor voice – “I got one! I GOT ONE!!” I jumped up, and Ben indeed had gotten a creek chub****er. I picked his brain for what he had been doing, which depressingly turned out to be pretty much what I had been doing all along. I returned to my spot, and the guys knew I might be there all day. I became one with the chub****ers, as they grazed around the hole like a herd of playful but sadistic sheep. My entire world became four by six feet and 18 inches deep, and biting insects be damned, I just kept easing that teensy hook as close as possible to the nose of the hungriest-looking fish I could see.
90 minutes later, just as the cramps got really bad, one of the chub****ers drifted right up to my bait, examined it, backed up, eased forward, and ever-so-gently slurped it up. My reactions, honed by several hours of itchy frustration, were jungle-cat quick, and I snatched the poor thing out of the water, over my head, and onto the bank five feet behind me. I tried to stand in primal triumph, but my buttocks and both feet were asleep, so I staggered around a moment before taking the requisite selfies.
This fish is one of THE microfishing trophies, and I can see why.
The best thing about catching one is never having to face fishing for them again.
Ben and Tyler were both pleased, and we could finally head over to Big Creek at Sam A. Baker State Park, which apparently was loaded with much more cooperative species. Ben had talked about this place quite a bit, and was looking very forward to giving it a try. This is a spot I will remember forever – it seemed like every few yards held a different structure and a different set of species. We set up our gear and waded wet on a beautiful late summer day.
The steelcolor shiner was the first new one – this fish stayed in the faster-moving areas, so it was tough to present a small bait.
One of the more attractive shiners.
Moving upstream, Tyler spotted some whitetail shiners. This species tends to dart in to feed for a moment and then disappear. Tyler did a skillful job of stirring up sediment to keep them interested, and then, after fending off a few sunfish, I got one. After the chub****er, it all seemed like a bonus.
Note the white spots on the base of the tail.
While we were getting the whitetails, I noticed some relatively larger fish had come into view. In a moment when the surface got perfectly still, they came into focus. They were Logperch – the largest of the darter species, and one of the most beautiful. Most midwestern fishermen have gotten one, and this was my big chance. They spooked. Tyler told me to sit still, and magically, they came back. We had gone through a few cycles of this when I hooked my first one, and my day seemed complete.
I had seen these for years. It was great to finally catch one.
The triumphant anglers.
Ben was having a good day as well – he had added a gilt darter, which meant that I spent the next couple of hours trying to catch one. Unsuccessfully.
Ben’s gilt darter. I forgive him.
It was getting late in the day when Tyler pointed out another fish ahead of us in the shallows. “Ozark chubs.” he said. The fish were four inches long and 15 feet away. How does he do that? But a few casts later, I had my fifth and final species of the day.
Species #11 for the trip. Ben also got one.
I tried for redhorse as it got late, and while I got a beautiful northern hogsucker, that was it for the afternoon.
Northern hogsuckers are cool. The Hoover company should pay royalties to this fish.
It had been an unexpectedly great day. We said our goodbyes in the parking lot; Ben and The Thing in his leg headed north for home, Tyler and I went back to Poplar Bluff, and then Tyler headed out after dinner at Dairy Queen.
A few hours later, The Thing in Ben’s leg finally made its move. He was on the long drive home, still very sore, when he reached down to feel his calf. In what was certainly a horrifying moment, he could feel a sharp point under his skin – on the opposite side of his leg. The Peruvian catfish spine had broken off and had been there for 41 days. He went in for surgery the next morning and had it removed, and he’s been doing fine ever since. And yes, I am about to show you a picture of it. If you’re easily nauseated, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.
Oops. Too late.
On the Monday, I had a few hours to kill before I needed to get back to St. Louis for my flight. I considered a few options, but I knew that Wappapello was the closest and had the best shot at one of the bigger critters I had missed so far. After a hearty breakfast at Taco Bell, I got two dozen night crawlers and headed off to the spillway. I was the only person there when I arrived, and armed with knowledge from Tyler, I set to fishing for a few hours.
Action was quick. Just a few minutes in, I got a good run and hooked up, but it was a drum. Then the bluegill started. And the bluegill continued. But at least I wasn’t snagging up every time like I had in May, and I never complain about catching stuff. I went through most of the morning, and while I hadn’t gotten anything new, I was having a lot of fun. I caught a few more bigger drum – two and three pounds – which stopped my heart because I knew they weren’t bluegill and they could have been a sucker or buffalo. Just as I released one of the sheephead, my baitrunner drag went off and I hooked into what I thought was another drum. As I got the fish to shore, though, I saw it was a buffalo – presumably a smallmouth. I took a couple of pictures just to be sure, and texted them to Ben, Tyler, and Martini. I continued fishing – I only had a few minutes left. Before I could even rebait, my phone started chiming. I kept baiting and cast out, but the phone alerts kept coming. I finally checked it. All three of them were responding with something along the lines of “Holy ****, dude! That’s a black buffalo!!” By the time I packed up, Ben had checked it with a biologist – I had indeed gotten the elusive black buffalo.
Another very lucky moment.
I knew better than to keep fishing – this was a sign that I should call it a day. The drive back to St. Louis passed quickly – the countryside is beautiful, and I had 12 more species to think about.
As of press time, Ben’s leg has fully healed, and the lodge in Peru will not allow anyone to pick up their own catfish.
Bonus Feature –
NPR did a news story on microfishing, and our very own Ben Cantrell was the special guest star –
For an engineer, he handles the media pretty well.
I have been looking for an excuse to put this picture in my blog. Not sure what happened here, but it doesn’t look like Cora the cat is very happy.