On a River in a Plastic Boat - Larry Dablemont

It was a poor day to be fishing, because the wind was strong. But there are never any whitecaps on an Ozark river, and if you can keep any tree limbs from crashing down on top of you, and if you don't get bit by a cottonmouth or hit by lightning, you have a chance to have a good day. It helps if you can catch a fish or two, and we did. In fact we probably caught twenty or so, mostly smallmouth. Most folks who float down the river with fishing guide Dennis Whiteside would be happy with that, but I did a lot of complaining. He expected I would. Dennis and I have known each other since we were about 18 years old, living in a dormitory at the University of Missouri. He had grown up on the Current River at Doniphan, and I grew up on the Big Piney. Since the Big Piney was closest, and I had a wooden johnboat back home to float in, we went back to fish and hunt my river most of the time. When we graduated, Dennis had my dad build him a wooden johnboat, and he said he was going to float every river he could find. Eventually, we both ended up working as Naturalists for the State Park system in Arkansas and we found a bunch of new rivers to float, the Kings and the War Eagle and the Illinois and best of all, Crooked Creek. I came back to Missouri twenty years ago, and Dennis stayed in Arkansas, but now he too is headed back to the Missouri Ozarks, and in retirement, intends to do what he has loved all these years, float the rivers as a float-fishing guide. I wasn¹t a customer; I was just there to teach him all I know. After all, I was a float-fishing guide when I was only 12 or 13 years old on the Big Piney, and I figured he could use some advice. Turns out, I learned more from him that day than he learned from me. Most of the fishermen I take are fairly good at it, Dennis told me. They want to see new streams and catch fishŠ they aren't so much into bird watching and nature study. I give those people a chance to see rivers they haven't seen and catch a trophy smallmouth bass. You can't name many rivers in north Arkansas, west Arkansas or southern Missouri that Dennis hasn't floated. I doubt anyone alive has put more miles on a canoe than Dennis, except for Uncle Norten of course, who has about 25 years more age and about 50 years more experience than either of us. No one nowadays keeps a smallmouth when they float with me, he said, unless it is a youngster. We keep the Kentucky bass we catch because they are competition for the smallmouth. About that time, he set the hook into a largemouth bass on the other side of a submerged log and had quite a fight before he lifted him up for a photo. The bass was a little better than two pounds and would be the biggest of the day. Make no mistake, Dennis has landed his share of lunker bass. He recalls a 24-inch largemouth from the mouth of Point Remove Creek near the Arkansas River which he thinks may have weighed ten pounds, and a smallmouth which would have gone well over five pounds from the Current. He released both of them. As for four-pound smallmouth, he has caught and released a half dozen or more. But his real goal is to get smallmouth of that size for his clients, and it happens every now and then for even the least experienced fishermen. Now, with his float fishing business commanding his full attention, he thinks he can make a lot more fishermen happy. We both commented on how pretty and clear the lower Eleven Point was. In Missouri, it is cold, with lots of trout. In Arkansas it warms up a little, grows in size from several tributaries and harbors all three species of black bass, plus some really nice goggle-eye. Dennis has much better streams to float in that area, but he made me promise not to name any of them. And then I had to promise not to tell the name of his favorite lure. It makes sense. If anyone wants to find the best of the streams, they should do it like Dennis has done it, by floating, exploring and fishing them. I never thought I would say this, but he has the best canoes I have ever seen for floating the smaller Ozark streams, made of some kind of space age plastic. We used a flat-bottom 17-footer which was fine for two fishermen, and if he takes two anglers, he uses an 18-footer. The canoes are not much like the kind of capsize-and-chaos canoes you see at the rental places, because they have some width and stability. They need to have squared sterns, which would make them much easier to handle, but Dennis says they haven¹t figured that out yet, and because few river floaters have the slightest idea what they are doing or how to paddle from one side, there isn¹t a demand for the increased efficiency a square-sterned canoe offers. The plastic canoe floats in less water than a metal canoe and slides over rocks and gravel in just a few inches of water with almost no friction or noise. The bottom of his is scarred and scraped, but it still is holding up well and who knows how many thousand miles of river it has traversed. Without it, Dennis would never be able to float some of the small Ozark streams all over the Ozarks that he visits with two anglers in the summer, when water levels fall. But the thing of it is, it looks bad for two old grizzled river veterans like Dennis who once tackled the rivers of the Ozarks in wooden johnboats, to be seen out there in a plastic canoe. I think if someone would have seen us I would have introduced myself as John Doe. But I do that a lot anyway, just for safety¹s sake. After last weeks column there are lots of women really mad at me. If you¹d like to see a picture or two of Dennis and some of his fish and clients and his canoe, I expect you can do that by seeing his website, Well, we are going to have so many wild raspberries up here on Lightnin' Ridge in a week or so it may be an all time record. I think I will put on my chest waders, which are impervious to copperhead strikes, and spray tick repellent on them and go out in the briars and get me a couple of five gallon bucketfuls, take them to town and try to trade them for some gasoline, so I can take another fishing trip. Life has gotten difficult but the berry pickin' is good. The summer issue of my outdoor magazine, the Lightnin¹ Ridge Journal, is here! If you want to find out how to get your own copy, just call my executive secretary, Ms. Wiggins and ask her for a special reader discount. But please don¹t get into any kind of extended discussion with her, especially about religion or politics or gas prices. We need to get some work done up here! Call her at 417-777-5227. Or you can e-mail me at [email protected] or write me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. My website is