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Little creeks

Al Agnew

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This isn't a fishing report.  It's a celebration of all the little creeks I've ever fished.  Small waters, waters you can jump across at the riffles if you're athletic, or wade across without getting the tops of your high top Chuck Taylor tennies wet if you aren't.  Waters where, hopefully, you'll be the only angler fishing them that week or that month (and you better hope you are, or at least that anybody else fishing it is as much a catch and release guy as you are, because it only takes one or two meat fishermen to ruin it).  Waters where you keep a low profile, take onlly photos and leave only your footprints in the gravel, because most of them are owned by somebody who doesn't need the headaches of people who don't value the land and water as much as they (hopefully) do.

You pull up to the access, usually a low water bridge out in the middle of nowhere, hoping that the county hasn't decided to improve it and put up no-parking signs since you've been there last, or the landowner hasn't spray painted purple swathes on the sycamore trees.  You tie on a topwater lure, because why bother with anything else when you know the fish are there and that they are going to always be within vertical reach of a surface lure.  Upstream or down?  That's the only real decision you have to make, because any one of the three topwater lures you have in your little box, along with a little buzzbait and a spinnerbait you almost certainly won't use, will work.

If you don't catch your first fish in the first pool, you're disappointed.  If you go two or three pools without a fish, you're concerned that some meat fisherman has been pounding it.  But if all is right with the world, by the time you've waded a mile you've caught a couple dozen at least. They'll mostly be smallmouth, most will be under 12 inches, but a couple will be 15 or 16 inches.  By the time you've waded 2 miles, you've probably caught a couple of those 16 inchers and seen or hooked or maybe even caught a 17 or 18.  By the time you've waded 3 miles, you're tired and you're dreading the hike back to car, but you're still wondering what the next pool would produce.  But you start back anyway, finally, as good sense and aching legs tell you to.  You maybe put on that spinnerbait just to fish the best spots on the way back, and maybe, just maybe, it provides you with the best fish of the day.  Otherwise, you walk across the gravel bars, and try to find easy paths along the banks instead of doing the more tiring wading, and a wide open path leading into the willows beckons and lures you into it, before petering out in a tangle of brush and stinging nettle.  But finally you make it back to the vehicle...and think seriously about going the other way just for a short distance, even though the sun is low and the legs are telling you you're an idiot.

Some creeks:

It's the headwaters of a creek that eventually becomes barely floatable before running into a larger, more famous Ozark stream.  It's all gravel everywhere, public parking area, nobody there.  The water is air clear, the pools you remember from 30 years ago are now 6 inch deep flats.  The only smallmouth you catch are 6 inches long.  30 years ago, you had waded up it for the first time, and found nice pools spaced 100 yards of riffle apart on average, but every one of them held a half dozen smallies up to 16 inches long, and you probably caught half the population that day in the 3 miles you waded.  Sometimes you can't go back to the way it was.  What happened?  Bad land use practices in the upper watershed?  Otters?  Who knows.  Maybe in 30 years you'll return.  Maybe it'll be better again.  Nah, you'll be dead by then, or so old and decrepit that unless a jet-powered pontoon wheelchair is invented, you won't be wading creeks.

Nope, sometimes you can't go back.  You fished another creek 50 years ago, with a bunch of other boys your age, a church group whose adult leader's family owned land along it.  You camped out for three days, built a swimming hole by dragging rocks big enough that it took four of you to move them to form a dam, and fished.  You caught smallmouth and goggle-eye in this creek, but you were, even as a kid, impressed more with the sandstone cliffs that lined it, the narrow canyon, the towering rock outcrop that loomed over the creek at the swimming hole.  Ten years later, as a young adult, you backpacked into that same creek from the other direction and the scenery was as good as you remembered and the fishing even better.  You fished it once every couple of years after that, hiking three miles into it and fishing much of the day, hiking back out as it got dark. It was always good.  But last year you did the hike for the first time in several years, and the fish just weren't there. Otters were.  Did they decimate the fish population?  Oh well, you still cherish the experience.  The sandstone cliffs and the pines are still there, and you collect a bunch of chanterelles on the hike back out.

Sometimes you wonder if you can go back.  This creek was once wiped out by a tailings dam break, before you'd ever fished it.  You waded it for the first time 15 years after the disaster, and had it ever recovered.  Smallmouth, lots of them, and some of them pretty darned big, 18 inchers.  You fished it several more times, and it was always good.  But the dreaded purple paint showed up at your best access, and you reluctantly avoided it from then on.  There's another access, further upstream, that could get you into some of the good water with a little longer wade.  You remember the fish and the towering, pinnacled bluffs of dolomite, and you wonder if it's still as good as it was.  One of these days...

And sometimes going back is a pleasant surprise.  The creek wasn't much when you prowled it as it kid, it was just close.  It was polluted and choked by mine waste, and all you ever caught from it were sunfish.  But 50 years later, the pollution and mine waste has finally been mostly cleaned up, and somehow the smallmouth and largemouth and a few spotted bass have reclaimed the creek.  It's surrounded by houses now that weren't there back then; it's become even more of a city creek.  But the kids don't seem to play in it like they did when you were their age.  You still feel like a bit of an invader as an old, grizzled adult; when you prowled it you never saw anybody over age 14 on it.  But the 18 inch smallmouth you hook tops a day where old, old memories combine with new and gratifying experiences.

Old memories.  You grandpa first brought you to this creek.  He was a crappie fisherman who trapped his own minnows--why pay for something you could get for free?  Never mind that the creek behind the house was full of minnows, he liked to "go for a drive" to trap his minnows, back to a couple of creeks where HE grew up, revisiting his own old memories while introducing you, as a snot-nosed kid, to the wonders of clean water and smallmouth and goggle-eye.  He told you to go catch a couple crawdads, and when you brought them to him, he rigged one up on an old rod he kept in the car at all times, and told you to just let it drift into the box culverts carrying the water under the low water bridge.  You did.  And got so excited when the 14 inch smallmouth nearly jerked the rod out of your hands that you forgot to reel and just turned and ran away from the upstream side of the bridge with the rod over your shoulder, trying to drag that fish out.  "Reel it in, don't drag it in, ya goldurned idjit kid!" your grandpa shouted, and you calmed down and reeled and held up your first smallmouth you ever caught.  And you think about that every time you park at that bridge, these many years later.  The smallies are still there, though the bridge has been rebuilt and the box culverts aren't.  It's still one of your favorite creeks, and you've introduced a couple of nephews to it, keeping the tradition alive.

Creeks.  They vary so much.  Creeks in the granite country, shut-ins with huge, slick granite boulders everywhere and waterfalls and the fish are scarce but you don't care because it's so beautiful.  Creeks flowing over limestone ledges, shallow water, bedrock bottom, and at first you think there can't be fish there, but they are holding in the crevices and in the shade in the shallow pools and under boulders, and it's amazing how many there are.  Creeks very close to home and so surprisingly good fishing that you guard their secrets religiously, only visiting them a couple times a year, and never telling anybody what creek you caught those 18 inchers on.  

But you don't ever name any of these creeks except to people you know well and trust explicitly.  They are too fragile, both in their fish populations and in their access.  Too many people, or just a few of the wrong kind of people, people who don't appreciate small water smallmouth for the precious resource they are, or who don't appreciate small creeks for the precious places they are, will always ruin it.  The fish will disappear or the purple paint will appear.  And you continually hope that the landowners along the creek will not do something stupid to ruin it; won't bulldoze the creek bed or cut down the bankside trees or use the creek as the watering hole for a hundred head of cattle.  And you wish that you could win the lottery on one o those times when it's hundreds of millions of dollars, just so you could make a bunch of landowners on one of these creeks an offer they couldn't refuse, not because you want the creek to yourself, but because you want to preserve it and improve the habitat and, some day, turn it over to someone who loves it as much as you do.

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WOW VERY COOL READ AL!!!!.....It's obvious we share the same passion for little waterways.....they are always changing and never the same usually.


   I LOVE CREEKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Al - I enjoyed the post very much. Small creeks are special places and I wish that more folks appreciated these places. I have the opportunity to bring my kids to places like you described to develop their appreciation.  Thanks.

Of course there could have been more darters written into your post. Just saying.

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