“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of that which is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”
- Author Unknown
The fifth Andy Hart Memorial fishing trip took place in late June on a new river. For the first time we took our memories of Andy to the Gasconade River. It was the 14th annual trip overall. Each year I have cast a wide net of invites to friends of our departed friend and for the first memorial trip we had 11 attendees float and fish on the Buffalo River. For the last several years, this memorial trip has become a father/son affair with at least 3 pairs but our group of six has remained solid and we have really settled into a nice routine that has made this trip fairly easy to prepare for as we all have an understanding of who is bringing what in terms of shared gear and meal prep. However, this year with COVID-19 throwing a wrench into everything in our lives, I decided to keep this year’s trip plan limited to our standard group and not send out a wider invite. A few days before our scheduled departure, our pair that drives down from Kansas City backed out of the trip, leaving just 2 pair on this trip. With a few strategic moves, we were able to revise our plan to have all of our bases covered for gear and meals. So we headed out on a Wednesday morning for Gasconade Hills Resort just south of I-44 and East of Lebanon, MO.
As this was my first trip on the Gasconade River, I spent a great deal of time trying to prepare and understand everything I could about the river. The first decision to be made was what section of river to cover. The fact that we had to rely on an outfitter to provide canoes and transportation, we were limited to certain sections of the river. Because of information consumed on the Ozark Anglers Forum, I tried to get us on the river as far upstream as possible. We ended up using Gasconade Hills Resort to put us on the water at Anna Adams access for a 20 mile float back to their resort. Since there was little information to be found online about this part of the river, I peppered those working at the resort as well as our driver with questions about the river. None of them had any information whatsoever about the first 10 miles of our float because they had not put anyone on the river at the Anna Adams access in quite some time and I’m not sure if any of them had ever done that stretch of river personally. Feeling confident in our ability to handle whatever an ozark river could throw at us, we kind of enjoyed the feeling of trailblazing. It also made me confident that the waters we were about to navigate had experienced little fishing pressure.
Many years ago, I made the decision to buy a canoe for these trips. I had seen how Al and others set their watercraft up to maximize ease of use and organization that makes piloting and fishing easier and more comfortable. However, after bringing my canoe on a few trips on the roof of my SUV, I decided it didn’t make much sense due to the fact that the other trip participants did not have canoes themselves and we were therefore still reliant on outfitters on whichever river we choose. So, in my planning for these trips I always ask about the canoes available and when possible, try to specify what we are looking for. Often times we have choices but on the Gasconade there are far fewer choices to be had. I was not looking forward to the fact that we would be in aluminum canoes for this journey but I did like the idea that the Osagian cargo canoe Gasconade Hills Resort had available were large with plenty of room for all the gear and supplies we bring on a 3-day trip.
When we arrived at Anna Adams access, we began to load up the cargo canoes and chatted with our driver and a couple of other people nearby who were puttering around in kayaks. Once again, no one had any idea what lay downstream from that access point. Those kayakers had no intention of traveling more than a few hundred yards. As it turned out, we would not see another human outside of our group for the first 10+ miles of our journey. Upon stepping into our newly rented conveyance, I was immediately amazed at the stability of the cargo canoe and after navigating through our first downed tree in the first riffle we came to, I was also surprised by the very slight draft of our fully loaded vessel, not bumping a trunk only a few inches beneath the water’s surface. I am not about to try to make a case for an aluminum canoe on a fishing trip but the stability and space was very nice and comfortable.
“Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopher’s salary.”
- Patrick McManus
In the first mile or two of our journey, the river quickly revealed it’s circuitous nature as it wound through every riffle which were not infrequent in the early-going. Most of these bending riffles were fraught with challenging obstructions that required careful maneuvering and analysis. I relied heavily on ferrying through the turns, often slipping the nose of my canoe into the only navigable spot in the middle of a downed tree and then putting the canoe into forward with strong strokes and then bumping our way through and over limbs and trunks.
The bite was slow early in the day and it took us a little longer than expected to start catching any fish. Starting our day in the early afternoon, it wasn't until later in the afternoon before the bite began to pick up. A few shouts of “Andy!!!” were heard occasionally, usually after a fish got off of someone’s hook. As we noticed a lack of good camping options at the riverside of the Gasconade, we made an early stop to set up camp when we found a decent gravel bar. By the end of day one we had caught (and released) a total of 22 smallmouth.
Our early retirement on day one, coupled with the extended daylight that comes with late June gave us plenty of time to leisurely set up camp, eat dinner, clean ourselves up, play some dice and watch our campfire. We also toasted our departed friend who inspires us to keep coming back to the river each summer.
I am always surprised how this trip brings me closer to Andy without even trying to make it so. It is always natural to talk about him when I am on a river. Whether it is the tradition of bringing oatmeal creampies as a snack, gravel bar waffle ball, or just getting tangled in a tree, there are always reminders of my friend when I am on the river. On night one of our camping trip I found myself telling my companions about something Andy would always do that I now find myself doing and I couldn’t even explain why. One of the things I typically bring on the river is fresh corn on the cob - already buttered, salted and peppered - to heat in the campfire. For whatever reason, I would never say “corn”, I would pronounce it “karn”. I found myself explaining that I pronounced it that way out of habit now just because Andy always did just as he would refer to Interstate 44 as “the farty-far”, and subsequently I often do so as well. We come on this trip to have fun and catch fish but it is the little things (sometimes very little) that make it truly special.
The night was very cool for late June, even a bit chilly, which made for comfortable sleeping conditions. After a good night’s sleep we got our morning routine in motion, eating some breakfast burritos, drinking cold, canned coffee and breaking down camp. We were back on the river a bit earlier than normal and the conditions were very cool and comfortable with a partly cloudy sky. As we moved downstream the Gasconade slowly transitioned to fewer riffles and longer and slower pools. As the pools seemed to slow, and required more effort to move along, the big cargo canoes tipped their hand so to speak. I quickly realized why they have that squared off transom in the back. I certainly would have loved to have a small trolling motor to push that heavy beast through the frog water!
The fishing began slowly again on day two but began to pick up about mid-morning with a string of nice fish in the 15” range. My son hooked one that had to be at least 15” that I netted for him as he brought it towards the back of the boat. As I removed the lure and pulled it from the net, I explained that he needed to hold the fish firmly so I could get a photo of him with what was surely his best smallmouth of his young fishing career. As I was attempting to make the handoff to him, the fish shook its way free of my grip, landed on our cooler and plopped back into the river. I was devastated. I didn’t even think to measure it first and now it was gone! My son was sweet enough to console me and tell me that we would just have to catch a bigger one. Almost immediately, I hooked one of very similar size which I landed and he took a photo of me with my fish.
“Nothing makes a fish bigger than almost being caught.”
- Author Unknown
A great run in a short period of time, where all four of us caught several very nice smallmouth from 12-16”, came to a crawl so we stopped for a lunch break on a nice gravel bar where we played some wiffle ball home run derby. It was a fun diversion that kept us busy for a little while on a clear and hot afternoon. After an enjoyable lunch stop, we hopped back in the canoes and tried to pick up where we had left off. However, my son and I experienced a significant drought, not landing a fish for at least a couple of hours. On one occasion I hooked into another very nice fish. I had her within a few feet of the boat when she broke me off at the lure (I was using 4/15 power pro green braid with an 8# fluorocarbon leader of roughly 8’ tied with a uni to uni knot). I really hate losing any lure, hook, weight or line in the river but when I know that I have left a hook in the mouth of a smallmouth it is simply devastating. I spent several minutes rubbing my head and wondering what had happened. How could that fish break me off in open water? I should have had more than enough strength in my line to horse that fish in. My drag was set fairly loose. I regularly check my line for any abrasions near the end. I just couldn’t grasp what went wrong. After retying, I got back to work. It wasn’t long before I felt a bite and set the hook…immediate snap and my line was broken again. Now I certainly was not sure if this was a fish this time as I never felt anything but the bump that just as easily could have been the bottom but when I saw that the break was in exactly the same spot, I began to doubt everything. Was my fluorocarbon line old? Yes. Was it brittle due to its age? Was it my knot? I have used a Palomar for decades but the squiggle left at the end of my line had me even doubting my favorite knot. I wish I could say that was the last lure I lost on this trip but unfortunately that is not the case. I did make the decision to lose the leaders and go straight to only braid and that did seem to help. I also tried other knots but I am leaning towards old brittle fluorocarbon as my scapegoat.
A very frustrating stretch for boat number one with no landed fish resulted in boat number two stretching their fish count lead to double digits over ours and no one could claim to have the apparent big fish of the trip as both boats landed fish over 15”. Our drought finally came to an end when my son made a relatively short cast into a deep pool with moving water and many downed trees as we were navigating a bending riffle. He thought he was hung up but we quickly saw a flash of a large fish and I immediately reached for the net. Subsequent to a short but intense fight, I netted his 18” largemouth. This time, I was sure to measure the hog on my cooler before trying to hand him his catch. Just over 18”! A real beauty of a fish. I then went to hand him his catch so I could get a photo of him with it and…I dropped it…onto the dry box…and into the river. I did it AGAIN!!! This time I was crushed. And once again, it was my son consoling me for the missed opportunity. Every time I apologized, he would tell me, “How can I be upset? I got to catch the fish!” He really is a great kid and there is no one on earth I would rather share this time with.
The afternoon was similar to the previous one but this Thursday afternoon was a bit hotter than the previous day and the fishing may have been a little slower as the river itself certainly was. This required more time with a paddle in hand and a little less time with a rod in hand. As shadows began to grow on the Gasconade, we knew we needed to start looking for a good spot to camp as good spots are far more sparse than on other Ozark rivers. We paddled through long, slow pool after long slower pool finding nothing but sand and mud banks with heavy tree cover. While this section of the Gasconade did not have towering bluffs and inviting gravel bars or even particularly clear water, it has a different kind of wild beauty. At times the trees over-stretching the river from both sides created what seemed like a tunnel stretching downstream. That, coupled with the complete solitude and sizable fish made the choice of the Gasconade worthy of our efforts.
“One thing becomes clearer as one gets older and one’s fishing experience increases, and that is the paramount importance of one’s fishing companions.”
- John Ashley Cooper
We had every intention of setting up camp early once again and enjoying a leisurely evening, but the lack of suitable camping spots caused us to paddle for what felt like miles looking for a decent gravel bar. Once we found one that was decent (at best) we made the decision to set camp. Once again, we were treated with a cool, comfortable evening with stars out in force. A waxing crescent moon rising late, gave us plenty of darkness - a great vantage point for star gazing. I quickly noticed a satellite moving across the sky from right to left, then noticed one moving overhead and away from our vantage point, then another followed the same line, then another and another and another. A train of satellites that were perfectly spaced one after another continued a procession that lasted for at least an hour! I had never seen anything quite like it.
The comfortable sleeping conditions resulted in a very restful slumber for our whole crew and gave me time to have breakfast ready for everyone as they finally showed themselves. We were on the river again in no time, happy to leave behind the small, weed-covered gravel bar we called home for the night. Of course, behind the next bend in the river we came across a beautiful, big, flat gravel bar with partial tree cover that looked like it was made for river campers. All we could do was shake our head and commence fishing.
Again on our third day the pattern of longer, slower pools continued. We had some decent runs here and there but, by all accounts the river was very slow in this section despite the fact that the water levels were noticeably above normal. The cargo canoes required application of significant elbow grease to slip through the nearly dead pools that came with the addition of headwind on this particular Friday. We came across the only other canoe on our entire trip with less than 5 miles remaining on our 20-mile journey.
Fishing was slow but steady on Friday with few of notable size. I did get another 15” smallmouth with a white jerk bait as well as a 30”+ gar that took the same lure. The shout of “Andy!” rang out on an handful of occasions, a way of thanking our friend for the gift that continues to give, years after his departure. The time you spend on a river with friends is special. When that friend is your son, it is priceless!