Thanksgiving River

by Sammy Hampton

The sky was gray above and spotted with darker clouds beneath. The Bull shoals dam stood tall and gray matching the sky above it. Ice hung from the ferrules of my fly rod as the green line played its way through them following my cast as it floated down stream. The river was quite and the few fishermen who were braving the cold winter and fishing that day, seemed each to be in a world of their own with the river.

The only warmth on the river came from the fish. They did not mind the cold, they seemed to relish it. Taking advantage of an increased flow from the dam, the fish in this tail water were feeding and taking almost any fly that drifted down the stream. If it were not my turn, a fisherman up or down stream would raise his rod and then lower it as it formed the arc and bent to fight a fish. I lost track of my strike indicator frequently and missed several fish while watching someone else bring one in. Each time someone caught a fish, it warm me up.

A fine mist started falling about ten o’clock. It was not really cold enough to snow and the mist made small dimples on the surface of the water. I changed my strike indicator to a bright red color so I could see it better. The trout would occasionally come up and hit my indicator. The falling mist had caught the trout’s attention and they started feeding closer to the surface. The glare off the water mixed with the falling mist and had glazed the surface of the river and the trout keep feeding closer and closer to where I stood. It is much easier to catch a trout if you do not have to make a long cast. The fly rod can be highsticked when fishing close in.  If a strike comes it is a simple matter of mending in line and setting the hook. My movement of fishing this way made me a little warmer. But the river was kind on this gray morning, just when I started to think about being cold, the strike indicator would pause, I would set the hook, the rod would arch and then bend as the hook found it way home. Each time it happened my feet felt warmer.

I had just hook into and was about to land a nice trout, when I heard the splashing of a fisherman approaching close behind me. Mary Kallemeyn smiled as I looked back to see just who was invading my stretch of the river.

“Looks like you got a good one.” She hollered.

“Good for nothing, you should have been here an hour ago.” I replied.  “I got a 21 incher on my second cast.” My mind wandered back for a moment to a few weeks before when I met Mary and her family.

Mary and her husband and three grown kids and son-in law came to the White River to fish for their annual Thanksgiving vacation. They normally went skiing. But this year Mary wanted to trout fish. They were from Minnesota. They had been on the river a week before I met Mary and her family.  The six fishermen had only caught three fish since they had arrived.

I was pulling in fish after fish when Mary approached me and introduced herself. She edged up beside me and asked the wrong question. “If you don’t mind me asking, what are you using to catch all the fish you are catching?” She continued. “My husband has not caught a fish in a week; he is just fit to be tied.”

“You are asking the wrong question.” I replied. “It is not what I am using, but how I am fishing that makes the difference. I am using a balanced dead drift rig.” She looked puzzled at my answer.

“A balanced what?

“A balanced dead drift rig. It sometimes does not really matter what kind of fly you are using, but how you fish that makes the difference.”

Mary was one of the first lady fishermen I taught to use the balanced dead drift rig. I proceeded to show her how I was fishing. I took and re-rigged her line. Let her stand beside me and cast. Within four casts she had hooked in to a nice fat twelve inch trout. She had not landed the fish before the rest of her family had formed an audience behind us.

“Way to go Mom.” Her daughter encouraged as Mary fought the fish. “What are you using?”

I turned to Mary as I raised my knowing eyebrows when she netted the fish, “She is asking the wrong question.”

The kids all gathered around Mary to marvel at and admire the trout that she had landed. Her husband stood back a bit farther downstream, but craned his neck to see the fish.

“Honey, come on down here.” She shouted to Frank. “This man can show you how to catch one.”

Frank, being a man of considerable decorum and pride, overcame his normal reserve. He wanted to catch a fish. The invitation, no matter that it came from his wife, he pulled in his line and joined us to look at and admire the fish. Success when fishing on the river has an allure of authority all of its own.

“Mary, now that is one nice trout.” He smiled at her. “What did you catch him on?”

I caught Mary’s eye and lowered my head and whispered, “He is asking the wrong question.” I said.

Mary smiled as she held up the fish for Frank to see. “It not what he is using, but how he is fishing that makes the difference.” She said. Mary was a quick learner.

It was like a bee hive swarm with the kids looking on, as I took Frank’s line and re-rig it. Showing them all how to balance the dead drift rig. Mary had had her lesson and was casting downstream as I took Frank under wing and let him fish the water where Mary had caught her fish. On his sixth cast He got a strike, but missed it.

“Got to set that hook quickly when the indicator pauses,” I said. Frank made another cast and connected with a small trout. His face lit up like a Christmas tree as he handily pulled in the little trout. He quickly released it, with a grin on his face like it weighed four pound. Somehow size just did not matter, He had caught a trout.

I later renamed the family, because I could not understand their name with my southern ears through their strong European accent, the Family Von Trout.

My mind returned as Mary splashed up beside me smiling. Frank and the rest of the Von Trout family spread out along the river upstream.

“I ended up catching sixteen trout yesterday,” She beamed with pride, “Frank caught nine, nothing as big as twenty-one inches, but nice ones. You know today is Thanksgiving. We have made reservations up at the little restaurant on the way to Mountain Home. We included you, if you will be our guest, please.”

 “I would love it,” I said.

“My son is flying in to join us this weekend,” She looked with expectation. “Maybe you could show him how to fish. He is not as good a fisherman as the rest of us, but when we told him how many fish we were catching, he booked a flight and is coming down.”

“Sure, I would be glad too,” I replied.

Thanksgiving dinner was a feast of turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and filled, too, with stories recalling the recent days of fishing, big ones missed and several that were landed. Mary Von Trout was in trout heaven with her family that Thanksgiving and her record sixteen fish in a day. It has always amazed me how the fellowship of fishing on a river can transform strangers into friends so quickly. I will always smile when I recall and think of the Von Trout family and the Thanksgiving River.

Mary sent me a nice package of pictures of her family and their vacation on the White River just before Christmas later that year. I did not hear from them again. Mary Von Trout passed away in 2006, but she will be remembered on the White River, by her family, sixteen trout and me.

Million Dollar Riffle

 Branson Missouri’s Million Dollar Riffle 

 by Sammy Hampton

The slate gray rocks on the gravel bank still held a glossy shine. A low mist hung over the entire basin of the river below the dam, although the sun was well above the tree line to the east. The late August weather had been holding true to its normal spire in the Ozarks. It had been hot. The cool water that trickled from Table Rock Dam cooled the surface air and was a welcome respite. Fishing in a tail water stream can be an unpredictable feast or famine during the late summer in Missouri. The water was at low ebb. Most trout fishermen, who frequent the headwaters of Lake Taneycomo for trout, live for the low water when the dam is not generating power. When the water is low, most wade fishermen consider it the perfect time to pursue the trout in this Missouri fishery. Many, however, do not realize when water is released for power generation and for the following hour, trout feed in frenzy on a tailwater fishery. A notion not lost to the many boat fishermen who live for the high water to flow.

Normally power generation takes place during peak electrical demand hours. This is usually in the late afternoon and evening. The high water starts between four to six o’clock in the afternoon and ebbs around midnight. If Table Rock Lake is above flood pool level the water released in to the headwaters of Lake Taneycomo can be around the clock for several days at a time.

It was going to be a good day for fishing. Imitations of the tan and gray scuds that populate the stream were the order of the day. After an hour of missing several fish and landing only four, the heat was starting to settle on the river. It was time for a break. Just having reached the bank near the parking lot up from the popular rebar hole, the loud sound of the horn from the dam sounded. The horn sounds just minutes before the water rises from the dam as it starts to generate power.

This was no time to take a break. Hectic minutes of tying on a longer size five leader, selecting a large San Juan worm pattern and locating a larger strike indicator on the line that could handle the bigger flow of water that was just minutes away.

When the water release from the dam comes, it bills into the bend and fills the cut just below outlet number three at the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery access point. The water forms somewhat slowly at first. Most of the flow follows the main channel as the river binds south into the rebar hole and then turns back east. It is hard to keep one’s heart beating slowly while watching the river change from a gentle little steam to a full fledged river. Not knowing how much water is going to be released it is a time to err on the side of caution. One should not just rush out into the river and fish the rising water. Full generation can in a matter of a few minutes make the river so deep and fast that wade fishing is impossible. It could end in disaster if one were caught in the middle ridge of the river and have, in a few minutes, no exit back to the safe north shore. The wise wader must first see if the water is coming on slowly; indicating that only one generator has been turned on. Or is rising like a mad bull; indicating that all generators have been activated.

A smile broke across my face, when after a few minutes, the water was building slowly. Only one generator was opened. Turning back to the river and heading for the first riffle that would develop as the water backed and overflowed into the cut, this middle riffle would hold fish before any other part of the big riffle that lay just down stream would. There would only be time to make about ten casts into the rising middle cut, before one needs to retreat to the north side of the big riffle. But those ten cast could mean as many fish. And a fish on every cast is in no one’s book bad fishing.

Several years before on a trip to northern Colorado, with a group of fishermen who were looking to buy a sixteen hundred-acre ranch which contained a nice tributary of the Colorado River, there was a riffle on that property that seemed to border heaven. When we were allowed to sample the wears and given an afternoon to fish the stream everyone took turns fishing the riffle. It was magic, just as if our realtor guide had conjured and poured some magic potion in the water. Cast after cast, no mater what the fly, no matter who the caster, no matter what position on the hundred yards of riffle that was fished, there was a fish on. After two hours there was four fishermen who were completely exhausted from landing fish. Other than the memory of the sparkling Colorado Riffle and each and every fish that was caught, is the memory of a phrase that echoed, over and over, all the way home. It does not matter how much they want for the property. The riffle is worth a million dollars.

The water had overflowed the middle cut and was building towards the longer lower riffle, when my first cast hit the water. The strike indicator has not moved three feet down the flow before it stopped solidly. By reflex action, just like the jerk when the kneecap is hit with a little rubber thong, the rod rose and the hook set. It was a deep brightly colored Rainbow sixteen inches long. The next cast produced a fish that was slightly smaller and the third cast produced one that seemed to be the twin of the first fish.

Three casts and three fish and the water had reached mid calf and it was building quickly. The surge of water has overflowed the large riffle behind me and had found its way to merge with the main flow a hundred yards downstream. It was time to retreat and fish the big riffle. Safely on the north side the first cast found its mark. In the next hour twenty-four more fish were landed and released.

Reflecting on a day that started somewhat slow, the surge from the generation had revealed the little riffle and the big riffle, which I had fished alone. The other fishermen on the river had given up when the horn sounded and retreated to wait for the low water to return. If they only knew, all the way home the thought echoed, over and over, through my head. I can not believe this riffle is in Missouri, It is worth a million dollars.

Table Rock Dam stands beginning the tail water fishery at Lake Taneycomo. Shepherd of the Hills Trout Hatchery is located just below the dam and adjacent to the headwaters access point.

Taneycomo

Seen here, the stream at low water provides the trout angler with abundant fish and three miles of stream to wade. The area between the dam and the mouth of Fall Creek has special regulation. It is managed by a slot creel limit to maximize the number and quality of fish available to the angler.

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Three quarters of a mile below the dam is one of the favored fishing holes. Locally known as the rebar hole, It derives it name from the protrusion of several lengths of steel rebar that spring from the bottom of the river. The stream makes a short jog south then turns back east. The riverbank that creates this bend hides the million-dollar riffle at low water.

The water swell when generation starts and the million dollar riffle come out of he mist much in the same fashion as did the mystical town in Brigadoon.  The million-dollar riffle lies quite and unassuming at low water. Its nooks and crannies can be studied in anticipation of the time it will be flooded by the generation of power from the dam located upstream.

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