Posted by: 1000fish | April 15, 2020

Black is the New Redhorse

Dateline: September 12, 2019 – Poplar Bluff, MO

This type of fishing trip could land me in a lot of trouble. I had promised Marta a weekend getaway in St. Louis, where we could see a baseball game, get plenty of local cuisine, and finally fulfill her deep, lifelong desire to visit The Arch. But me being me, and recognizing that St. Louis is only a few hours away from Poplar Bluff, I made a pitch to squeeze in some fishing, for a day … or two … in what has become a rewarding and yet frustrating destination for me over the years. Southeastern Missouri has produced 29 species for me, and yet each time I have gone there, I faced unseasonable heavy rain, and many of my main targets – black redhorse, pealip redhorse, current darter, and the elusive blue sucker – remained uncaught. My luck had to change sooner or later. It just had to. (Stop emailing me explanations of how probability actually works. No one likes a smartass.) So I begged and bargained, and Marta, with great reluctance but a huge windfall in shopping and meal credits, agreed to visit “The Gateway to the Ozarks.”

Any trip to Poplar Bluff is going to involve ace local guide Tyler Goodale. Tyler has spent years finding “Plan B” fish for me when “Plan A” got carried away in a flood. Could this finally be the time? The weather report looked good – suspiciously good – just as it had on several other trips. I also had to deal with Marta continually attempting to renegotiate the terms. Quite reasonably, she wanted to be in St. Louis rather than in the more rural areas of the state. She began exploring … “So what would you have to catch on the first day to cut things off and head to St. Louis early on Friday?” Recognizing that a lot of what I wanted to catch was just going to take time sitting by the riverbank, I cleverly tossed out what I assumed was an impossible list –

  1. Black redhorse
  2. Current darter
  3. Pealip redhorse OR blue sucker
  4. Any other new species
  5. Any other new species

I figured if I pulled off five new species anywhere, I was way ahead of the game. We left it at that, but I presumed we would be fishing late on Friday. Las Vegas had the odds somewhere around 100:1 against me. On the black redhorse alone, I have spent at least 50 hours casting to them without success. Still, call me an idiot, but I was optimistic about this particular trip. (This is when Jamie says “OK, Steve. You’re an idiot.”)

Bizarrely, the United flight was on time, and we started the three-hour drive to Poplar Bluff in late afternoon. Marta attempted to divert us into St. Louis for barbecue, but I was resistant to this concept, as it could take away fishing time in the morning. We compromised by finding an excellent BBQ place on the way down, starting a weekend where this genre would represent over half of our major meals, including breakfast.

Dinner on night one.

They had some interesting dessert options. Read to the bottom.

We got into PB around 9:30, giving me plenty of time to put my gear together and then lay awake because I was too wound up to sleep. Water levels looked perfect, and there was no rain in sight. When dawn finally came, I had already given up on sleep and was up rechecking my gear, to Marta’s great annoyance. (Note that she is completely wrong to be annoyed here. She is the one who sets a 5am alarm each workday, and then snoozes it for an hour, guaranteeing that I will not get back to sleep.)

Tyler was there at the appointed hour of 6:20, and we headed off into a beautiful morning. Our first stop was a daring one – Sam A. Baker State Park, a location where I had repeatedly struck out on black redhorse. Tyler reasoned that since we knew the fish were there, and that others had caught them in this very place, that we may as well eliminate those variables. This made me uncomfortable, because the remaining variable, angler skill, was firmly on me. Sam A. Baker is a special place, and the particular creek we fish on is almost always a fisherman’s dream – low, clear, full of structure and full of fish. It was gorgeous, and it struck me I had never seen it at the crack of dawn, with no direct light on the water. I threaded a redworm onto a #12 hook, and started walking the bank.

Sam A. Baker at dawn.

About eight steps later, I saw my first group of black redhorse, brazenly cruising the bank as they always do. I held my breath and cast, beginning what I assumed would be another long day of this ritual, but hopeful that it would go well for once. I landed the cast perfectly, three feet in front of the fish, directly in their path. They cruised right by it, but I could swear one of them hesitated and looked at the bait ever so briefly. I reeled up and cast once more, and while I’m no Martini, I got it right in their path again. They cruised along, happily feeding, and inched ever closer to my rig. Years of disappointment in my troubled memory, I waited for them to suddenly change direction.

But they didn’t. The biggest of the three was now just inches from the hook. He casually swam until he was parallel to it, perhaps three inches from the actual bait, and then he stopped dead. He seemed to get an idea. And just like that, he suddenly turned on his flank and went for the worm. The sound of my intestine knotting up echoed through the still morning, as the redhorse went tail up, flared his gills, and carried the bait about six inches. Operating on pure adrenaline, I gently reeled the slack out of the line and snapped back. There was a brilliant silver flash in the water as the fish felt the hook and started the fight. It was a good-sized black redhorse, and it pulled hard on six pound line, running out for the deeper water. I walked along the bank, backed off the drag, and let him get tired. Tyler saw I had a fish and raced for the net, but when I had the fish in the shallows, completely worn out, I could see it was solidly hooked in the upper lip, and I just slid it up onto the bank. I had caught my black redhorse, just 15 minutes into the day. I bellowed in primal triumph, took dozens of photos, and sent the first one to Martini, who congratulated me.

The sound of my intestine unclenching echoed through the still morning.

The black redhorse was the 1892nd species of fish I have caught in my career, and there are very few that have given me more trouble and taken more time and effort. I am rarely satisfied with anything, which helps in fishing but is more curse than blessing, but I had a moment by that riverbank where I was happy and thought of nothing else.

Tyler has been there for the majority of my failures on this species, so it was great that he was there for the catch.

Here’s another gratuitous shot of the fish just because I’m so proud of it.

We fished another 45 minutes or so, while I looked for a stray madtom and Tyler helped Marta work on her species list. With the redhorse in the bag, we needed to look for some other newbies, and the most obvious of these would be the current darter, an hour away in Van Buren. It took exactly one Red Bull and two bags of white cheese popcorn to get there, and, to my surprise, we set up in a small stream I had fished previously with Tyler. (Nabbing a redbelly dace and a fantail darter.)  We waded slowly up the narrow channel, and I started spotting rainbow darters, which are the most common animal in nature. After passing on a few of these, Tyler whispered from a few feet ahead of me “Current darter. Big one.” I crept up beside him, and there was a much lighter-colored darter, about rainbow-size, perched next to a rock. I presented a micro-bait to it, and after a few false starts, it hit.

Species #2 of the day.

Well ahead of any reasonable schedule, we went to the main river to see what was biting – I knew there were a few resident oddball darters, and there was always a chance at a pealip. We got set up, and Tyler, who has the best fish-spotting vision this side of Martini, found an Arkansas saddled darter. I missed it. He found another, and I missed that one too. They are a skittish species that lives in relatively deep, fast water, and it was not to be. Tyler helped Marta nab a few other cool fish, like Mooneye, while he was pointing out a variety of local birds, each of which he could identify by call alone. While this was going on, I managed to land a Mississippi silvery minnow – an unexpected third species of the day.

I had no idea these were even here.

It was tough to leave the Arkansas saddled darters, but we needed to get back to Poplar Bluff and the main event at Wappapello spillway. The water levels were supposed to be absolutely perfect, and I was going to give it a good, long try for blue sucker and pealip redhorse. Marta mentioned that we were 60% of the way toward an early departure, drawing chuckles from both of us – the blue or pealip would be a tall order.

As we drove across Wappapello spillway, I held my breath and looked down, half expecting to see the roaring, muddy conditions I have gotten used to. Instead, it was a faint trickle, and the channel was low and narrow – I could see every current break, every rock, every back eddy. After all these years, it was fishable. It was also blazing hot and windless, and as we scrambled our way down to the bank, it occurred to me that there were no comfortable places to sit – just hot, sharp rocks. We loaded up on sunblock and hoped for the best. Note from my buttocks – bring stadium cushions next time.

My normal experience at this spillway involves heavy weights and lots of snags, but with the delightfully low flow, we could cast to obvious current breaks and hold with very little weight. It was wonderful, like visiting my Aunt when she has laryngitis.

This is at least 20 feet lower than I have ever seen it.

The bites started immediately – bluegill, white bass, and then some more exotic stuff, like bigmouth buffalo. As the sun got lower and my buttocks got less roasted, the fish got more interesting. The buffalo got bigger, and I started getting stray oddities like flathead catfish.

A bigmouth buffalo. They get a lot bigger than this.

One of my larger flatheads ever. I need to correct this.

Steve and Tyler wait patiently for a unicorn.

Marta hooked what was likely a big gar, which she had to scramble a hundred yards down the bank to battle. Just before she got broken off, I got THE bite. It was a subtle pumping, not the frantic rattle of a bluegill nor the steady run of a catfish or buffalo. I let it go for a moment and set the hook. The fish took off, and it felt like the right size. I backed off on the drag and took my time, and moments later, I saw some red fins surface. I started to shout for Tyler, but he had seen the whole thing and was waiting there with the net. It was a redhorse – but which one? He netted it, and we scrambled to flip it over. And there it was, clear as could be – the pea-size swelling on the lip.

I had my unicorn.

For you sharp-eyed gear enthusiasts, yes, that is a Sportex rod, courtesy of dear friend Jens Koller.

As a bit of an afterthought, I weighed the fish. At two pounds, it would be more than enough to put in as a world record, which would put Tyler on the IGFA scoreboard as the guide. (I was able to get him the guide certificate on Christmas Eve, which hopefully made it an even better holiday.)

Gratuitous extra shot.

We stayed another couple of hours, Marta enjoying the action and me silently wishing for a blue sucker, which would have been quite a stretch.

For the record, my bigmouth buffalo was bigger than hers. She stole a page from Martini’s book and responded “You’re a bigmouth buffalo.”

Moonrise over the St. Francis River.

The day had been perfect. We took Tyler and his family out for a nice steak dinner,

From left to right, that’s Marta, then Tyler’s girlfriend Sarah, who is holding their son Barrett, then young and energetic Dalton, Ralph the Bear, Tyler, Steve, and Kelsey, Tyler’s daughter.

While we were chatting over dinner, Marta mentioned leaving early in the morning for St. Louis. “Hold your redhorses.” I responded cleverly. “That promise was based on FIVE new species, not four.” And that is how I found myself banished into the mosquito-filled night to search out another fish. Tyler and I ventured forth, headlamps at the ready, and explored a few local streams, looking for something, anything, that would allow me back into the Holiday Inn. Well past midnight, after missing a few odd-looking darters and shiners, we stumbled onto a small darter that didn’t spook in my headlamp. I hit in in the nose a few times with my bait, and then it pounced. I swung it up onto the muddy bank, where it flipped off the hook, leaving Tyler and I scrambling to tackle it. When we finally subdued the creature, Tyler was stunned. He explained it was a saddleback darter, definitely a new species for me, and as far as he knew, for anybody.

The saddleback darter.

I had my five species for the day – an almost impossible feat for me at this stage of my quest, and a tribute to Tyler’s amazing local knowledge.

To be fair, Marta did let us fish a little on the way up to St. Louis the next morning, but the Fish Gods made it clear I was pushing my luck. The next few days were what normal people might regard as a nice weekend getaway – we met up with dear old friend Steve Ramsey, toured St. Louis, watched the Cardinals, and ate more barbecue than anyone should ever eat in two days. It’s a great town, and I look forward to visiting again, because that blue sucker is still out there someplace.

Steve

Special Bonus Section – The St. Louis Photos

This is a very worthwhile town to visit, even if I didn’t do any fishing nearby.

The Arch at night. No, I did not go up in it. I am not good with heights.

Interestingly, Steve Ramsey does not own a smartphone. We tease him about this endlessly, but he claims he can get by just fine without one. I can’t wait to see him on a street corner, yelling “Uuuuuuuber! Uuuuuuuber!” 

Much barbecue was consumed.

The low point of the weekend – in blazing heat, Marta death-marched two disinterested males through the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is massive.

The Budweiser brewery tour was phenomenal. Try to book in advance.

We did not book in advance, and only got in through the good graces of Steve the guest services manager.

Sad but true.

The greatest soft-serve ANYWHERE. This includes Culver’s, and that’s a high bar.


Responses

  1. […] was thrilled to hear that 1000Fish friend and frequent fishing buddy Tyler Goodale has booked his first individual IGFA world record, taking a monstrous 5.25 pound spotted sucker […]


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