The timing seemed perfect.
Daytime temperatures were hovering in the low and mid seventies.
At night, it was still cooling off into the upper forties or low
fifties. There was no rain in the forecast for several days.
I had a full tank of gas and enough spare change to buy a few
staple camping items like beer, fried chicken, pretzels, peanuts,
and a package of bratwurst. The following weekend would be
Memorial Day with all the attendant hordes crowding into every
campground near a body of water in the Ozarks. And after that,
the nights wouldn't be so cool anymore. And I had a craving to
fish the Blue Ribbon section of the Current River at the north
end of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway in south-central Missouri.
I had heard many tales of trophy brown trout and rainbows coming
from those first several miles below Montauk State Park. I had
committed the maps to memory, read all of the websites I could find,
and I was ready to go do some serious fishing.
I decided to take full advantage of my retirement status and
head for Eagles Park campground at the Tan Vat river access
on Sunday at noon. I would stay until Tuesday at noon. This
would give me evening fishing on Sunday at Tan Vat, all day
Monday to explore the river from Baptist Access to the edge
of Montauk SP...a stretch of about 2.1 miles of Blue Ribbon
trout stream. And there should be no crowds the first part
of the week before Memorial Day weekend. I just couldn't
envision a more perfect plan. Just me, my faithful Weimaraner,
minimal camping supplies, and a lonely trout stream in May:
this is the stuff an Ozark fly angler's dreams are made of!
I woke late on Sunday morning and my wife and I shared coffee
and conversation. Then she made me some of her fantastic breakfast
burritos to hold me over until dinner. I began packing the car at
noon. I made a short shopping list, double-checked my gear, and
rounded up Smoky Joe. We were off before 2 pm. It was a two hour
drive to Eagles Park. That would put us there in plenty of time to
set up camp and wet a line right across the gravel road at Tan Vat
until sundown. The weather was perfect. So Smoky Joe didn't even
mind sitting in the car while I shopped for our supplies.
We cruised down the highway listening to classic rock on the radio
for awhile. Then it dawned on me that there was a Jimmy Buffett
CD in the car stereo player. So we spent the rest of the drive
Havana Daydreaming. The drive down US 65, east on US 60, and
then north on Hwy 63 was easy and pleasant. Along the way, we
crossed the Big Piney River a couple of times – another Blue Ribbon
trout stream that crosses Hwy 63 a few miles north of Cabool, Missouri.
I noted that there were several good access points to the river right
off of the highway. Things like that are good to know when you are
an Ozark angler. The Big Piney holds naturally reproducing rainbow
trout in the Blue Ribbon section. But you are lucky to catch one
over ten inches long. And on this trip I was dreaming of the big
browns and rainbows of the upper Current River.
Arriving at Eagles Park right on schedule, I noted with great
satisfaction that the campground was almost deserted. Other
than Joe and me, there was one pop-up travel trailer in the
campground. The park manager told me it belonged to two guys
from Illinois who were fishing in the state park and they were
leaving the next morning. Perfect!
Eagles Park is a little, non-descript campground with a few RV pads
and about a dozen tent camping sites that is located right on the
Tan Vat access to the Current River about one mile west of Montauk
SP. There is a small fly shop, snack bar, restaurant, and firewood
shed at the state park lodge if you need anything. They have camping
gear, over-the-counter pharmacy items, minimal groceries, beer, soft
drinks, fishing tackle, and flies. Of course, they also have a
virtual menagerie of Montauk souvenirs as well. The snack bar has
hot coffee, ice cream, soft drinks, and a limited menu. The restaurant
is the full-service sit-down variety found at most Missouri State Parks.
Lodging is rumored to be clean and comfortable, but over-priced...which
is also typical of our state parks. Camping inside Montauk is crowded
and pretty expensive. Pitching a tent costs $9 per night without a
reservation and $17.50 with one. Eagles Park charges $6 for a tent.
Eagles park has decent bathroom and shower facilities. And one or
both of the owners, who live on property, is always there to keep
an eye on things. And they don't tolerate the drunken orgies or
ad hoc fireworks shows that sometimes one encounters in streamside
campgrounds in the Ozarks. There is a general store on property too,
but it is closed down and for sale. It's pretty remote. I could
count the cars that pass each day on one hand. The place would make
an ideal members only trout camp, using the store building for a lodge
and keeping the campgrounds available for members. The owners do not
want to sell the campground. They would prefer to only sell the store.
The campgrounds are well maintained. The grass was cut low, there was
no trash from the weekend, and there was plenty of shade in the afternoon
and evening. And the panoramic view of the surrounding hills is phenomenal.
We paid cash for two nights and set camp. Well, I set camp while
Smoky Joe explored the empty campground. I chose a well-shaded
spot on one corner on high, flat, grassy ground with a commanding
view. Pleased with my arrangements, I popped open a Boddington's
Pub Ale and sat down in my favorite folding camp chair. It was a
gift from the Executive Director of Boy Scouts of America after a
particularly uneventful duck hunt on the Mississippi River.
With the sun beginning to kiss the treetops to our backs, it was time
to rig up the TFO 9' 6wt Professional Series rod with a Red.Fly reel
holding my Scientific Anglers Mastery Series Trout Taper floating line
and head for the water's edge. I donned a pair of WilliamJoseph Dry-namic
waders and W2O boots, my WJ Fusion Vest, and my trusty straw hat that
purchased on sale last fall at Dan's Fly Shop in Lake City, Colorado.
It was fishing time!
Tan Vat is historically more of a swimming hole than a fishing spot.
But it provides good access and parking right at the top end of the
Ozark National Scenic Riverway on the Current River. There is about
a half mile of Blue Ribbon water upstream from Tan Vat to the border
of the state park. Downstream, it is 1.1 miles to Baptist Access;
which is the first realistic put-in for canoers. That is why I chose
this section of the river on which to concentrate. I figured I would
have little fishing pressure from the state park since most of the
weekend crowd had left already, and that I would have no canoers
mucking up the works if I stayed upstream of Baptist. As I approached
Tan Vat, there was a family swimming. The father saw me coming and
graciously announced to his kids that it was time to go. I was a bit
shocked and very grateful for this level of hospitality and consideration.
After they departed, I waited about twenty minutes for things to settle
down. After I saw the third trout rise in the hole I decided it was time
to wet a line. From the first cast until the light began to fail, I
landed five respectable rainbows over 15" each. I lost at least that
many fish and flies. I began to think perhaps 5X tippet wasn't enough
in the strong current. But I didn't move up to 3X.
The dog and I walked back across the road to our campsite and started
the campfire. Once I got it roaring and some coals underneath, I broke
out the bratwursts, pretzels, another Boddington's Ale, and a few travel
packages of French's Mustard. As we say in the Ozarks, I was in Hog
Heaven! After whoofing down the first two brats, the next two fell
off my telescopic fishing pole roasting fork. So then Smoky Joe was
in Dog Heaven. That was OK. I had one more, and three would be plenty
for me. The hound dog fates smiled kindly on the old Gray Ghost that
evening. As the stars came out in full force under a clear sky, it
began to cool off rapidly. So I pulled on an Eddie Bauer knit pullover
sweater and listened to the songs of the Whip-poor-wills and did some
star gazing while I polished off 2 more Boddington's Ales. About nine
'clock, we climbed into the tent and fell quickly to sleep. The next
day was going to be a big one for us.
It wasn't an alarm clock or even a rooster crowing that roused me
from my slumber Monday morning. It was the unmistakable gobbling
of a Tom turkey no more than a hundred yards away. I had a thermos
of hopefully still hot coffee and a Marlboro Medium 100 with my name
on them just outside the tent. The night had been cool enough that
I had to eschew the 50 degree thermal fleece summer sleeping bag and
climb into my 0 degree Coleman mummy bag pretty early. I dressed
quickly and exited the tent into the cool spring morning air. A light
fog was rolling up through the trees from the river and the sun was
just beginning to lighten the eastern sky enough that I didn't need
a light. I lit a smoke and reached for the thermos. The coffee was
still piping hot. Thermoses are a modern marvel of technological
mastery – man's triumph over nature in a most rewarding and practical
way, affordably available to the common man at over 2,800 Wal-Mart
stores nationwide…or K-Mart, or Target, or almost anywhere else you
can buy a cooler. They keep hot stuff hot and cold stuff cold. How
do they know which is which?
My plan was to walk upstream from Tan Vat toward the border with the
state park in the morning. We would return to camp for lunch, and
then drive down to Baptist and fish upstream in the afternoon. I
hadn't thought any further ahead than that. I figured the river
and the trout would tell me the rest. So I filled the hydration
bladder in my WJ Fusion Vest, woofed down a couple of those Honey
Nut Cheerio breakfast bars with the milk built into them, grabbed
my trusty TFO 6wt, and headed upstream from Tan Vat.
The first half hour did not produce a fish. I was beginning to second
guess my plan when I saw them. There were a few large browns goofing
around under a huge deadfall beside a steep mud creek bank. The
deadfall was gnarly. And it was going to be tricky getting those
bruisers out of there. I briefly thought about retying with 3X
tippet only before casting to them, but my impatience trumped my
good sense and I stuck with the 5X. Two casts and drifts produced
nothing. I thought I'd try one more time before changing the size
16 beaded Prince Nymph for something else – I knew not what. Bam!
There he was! Fish on! Now to back this brute out of the timber...
The water was pretty deep and swift right there. It had been tricky
getting into position for the cast. But I managed to put enough side
pressure on the big brown to make him dart out into open water...
FASTER water. Uh-oh! He made a reel-screaming run downstream, but
only about 50 feet. Suddenly, he came about and headed back toward
the submerged logs. Before I could get the line back under full
control, he had me wrapped around a twig of a branch from one of
those logs and was gone. Damn you 5X tippet! Lesson learned. I
retied with 3X and made several more casts, but the wily old browns
had my number. They would dart out to the fly and then refuse it.
This close to the park and in deep fast water, I thought a Glo-ball
might be irresistible. So I tied one on and made several more casts
to no avail. Reluctantly, we moved on upstream. Some days you get
the bear. Some days the bear gets you. But it sure was fun to try!
We rounded the next bend in the river and saw a very, very long
shallow riffle the full width of the river as far as we could see
upstream. We were almost a half mile upstream of our camp. I knew
we would hit the state park boundary line soon and I could see two
anglers standing on the bank a couple hundred yards ahead of us. I
decided it was time to turn back downstream and work our way back
toward camp. We were walking the high bank and watching the stream
for trout. We saw none until we were almost back to Tan Vat. And
that's when we struck the Mother Lode!
Another deadfall submerged log was providing a deep pool with
excellent overhead cover in slack water right next to a very
narrow main channel. How had I missed that earlier in the
morning? From up on the bank, I could see a couple dozen
trout lying in wait in the hole. I stood there for a few
minutes and watched the way they were feeding. They would
dart out from under the logjam one at a time to ambush passing
prey. The whole river was lousy with baitfish and crayfish.
But these big rainbows were feeding near the surface. I couldn't
tell for sure what they were eating. Local advise says Glo-balls
are a "must have" in this stretch of river. So I figured I'd leave
it on and see what happened. I approached from downstream as
stealthily as possible. When I start sneaking up on a spot Smoky
Joe lays back and gets very still. He watches me and stays out
of the way…the perfect fishing companion. Well, he doesn't carry
a flask of whiskey or an assortment of extra flies, but by gosh I
could fix that if I wanted to! After a few minutes, I was in
position to cast upstream and get a perfect drift parallel to
the log that was deflecting the current. I reset my depth to
match this pool as best I could guess it to be and made a nearly
perfect 30 ft cast under overhanging trees. And that's when all
Hell broke loose!
I stood there catching one 15" to 20" rainbow after another for
almost an hour. The water here was very fast and I had to horse
these fish away from that log and into the fastest water of the
main channel. Then they would run downstream about 30 yards
– stripping line almost to the backing before coming to a shallow
riffle that ran all the way across from bank to bank just above the
Tan Vat hole. Then the fight was on to keep them out of the
submerged grass along the bank behind me and out of the timber
they had come from and to which they so desperately wanted to
return. Side pressure – it was all side pressure. And I was so
glad I had beefed up to 3X! These fish were serious bruisers
fighting at about twice their weight in the swift water. Several
were incredibly acrobatic under the pressure of the 3X tippet and
6wt rod. Joe was getting a real show from all the somersaulting
rainbows! Each time I landed one, he would ease over and sniff
my dip net as I removed the barbless hooks. Then he would back
off as I released the fish and resume his place out of range of
By noon, I had worked up quite a sweat and my forearm was beginning
to ache from all the fish fighting I was having to do. I caught over
a dozen rainbows and one nice 17" brown in about fifty minutes.
Sweaty and hungry with a tired right arm, I relented and the dog
and I headed for camp for a much-deserved break. The fish had worn
out 2 Glo-balls during this little episode. So I needed to restock
them from by gear bag anyway. I don't really fish Glo-balls much at
all. Occasionally, I'll tie one on during heavy flows caused by power
generation on some Ozarks tailwaters. And I've used them during runoff
season in Colorado. So I do keep a half dozen or so in my big gear
bag. However, in my experience with trout, if they will take a Glo-ball
they will absolutely hammer a 1/100th thread micro-jig. And I coat them
with very hard clear nail polish when I tie them. They're almost
indestructible. So I put two pink, two white, and two olive thread
jigs in my nymph box as well. Seems the Current River oracles were
correct. This was micro-jig water. All of the Glo-balls sold in the
area come on a 1/100th or 1/76th micro-jig head as well. The water is
fairly swift and the river isn't wide open for long casts and drifts.
So you need to get down fast. Using the micro-jig instead of split
shot above a more traditional fly lets you do that without near the
risk of getting tippet wrapped around stuff on the bottom. And that
is also a major concern on the upper Current River.
Lunch consisted of four pieces of fried chicken and two Busch beers
from the cooler. I washed up first at the campground's bath house
and discovered they actually had hot water and a shower in there!
As I ate lunch, I watched the two guys hook up their pop-up camper
and pull out for home. The campground was all ours now.
Joe took a nap in the sun on the grass and shared half a chicken
breast with me to augment his Iams dog food and some Ozarka spring
water. He had quite a big morning; especially when he stumbled
across a Wood Duck nest with a hen and her hatch in there along
the bank! He's a trained hunting dog. So he just gave them a
good "fire drill" before I called him off. We sat on the bank
and watched her regroup her brood upstream about sixty yards.
She did a very good job from decoying Joe away from the youngsters
to rounding them back up when the threat had passed. And Joe had
swam HARD upstream against the current chasing her for about a
hundred yards and then back to me when I called him off.
Then it was time to drive down to Baptist and try our luck from there.
The drive is easy and well marked. If you have committed maps
to memory, you have no problem finding things. If you haven't
studied the maps, you probably wouldn't have a clue where to
look for anything. The roads themselves are narrow gravel
affairs with no street signs at intersections. The only signs
are for the actual points of interest.
Baptist access has a good canoe or kayak launching type of gravel
ramp and a large, partially shaded parking lot. It was deserted.
We parked the car under a tree and began to explore the bank along
the access area. I saw two trout lurking under cover. One behind
a big rock, and the other was under yet another fallen tree. I
tied on a hot pink micro-jig tied on a bright orange jig-head.
If these fish were feeding on pink eggs, this would do the trick!
I cast to and caught the fish behind the submerged rock. But the
brown lying under the log wouldn't budge. No pink jigs in his diet!
We began to wade upstream along the bank.
Every few hundred yards, we would come to another small pool
near the bank with either fallen timber or large boulders
creating an eddy. And we just hammered the rainbows at almost
every one of them. By what I guessed later to be 4 o'clock in
the afternoon, we were over a half mile upstream and had caught
another twenty or so rainbows over 16" each. The biggest was
about 19" though. Again, these fish were ornery and hungry.
But after catching one to three fish from each lie, they would
be put down. So we would move on upstream to the next holding
cover. I knew I should be able to catch a few more of them in
those same spots on the way back down to the car. We took a
break at a big log that sat like a bench in the middle of a
very shallow riffle mid-stream. I was a bit fatigued and it
was pretty warm. I drank the last of the water from my hydration
bladder in the vest. I looked at Smoky Joe and I could see that
he was ready to turn back. The wading and swimming upstream had
taken a toll on the 7 year old dog. When I stood up to stretch,
he took a few steps downstream, stopped and looked off into the
distance, and then looked back at me and snorted. He really didn't
have to do much convincing. I was tired and we were more than a
half mile wade to the car. We had caught a bunch of great fish.
And I thought a break and some dinner and some more water would
be a good idea. We could fish that evening back at Tan Vat.
I polished off the chicken for dinner, drank one more Busch beer,
and had another one of those Cheerios breakfast bars for dessert.
Joe whoofed down half a bowl of dog food, drank a full bowl of
water, and crashed on the grass. I had a couple of smokes and
cooled off in the shade. I refilled my hydration bladder again
before we headed back across the road to Tan vat at about six
o'clock. I figured we could fish for an hour or so, and then
I could take a much-needed shower before dark. At the water's
edge at Tan Vat, we met a single angler and a couple coming out
of the water from upstream. That made five other human beings
we had seen on the river all day…and only these three were close
enough to speak to. The fellow from the couple had a very nice
25-26" brown trout on a stringer. I had seen about six similar
fish in the approximately one mile of river we had fished that day.
I had cast to three of them and had one break me off. I had caught
one 17" brown. They are in there.
Joe and I waited about ten minutes for things to settle down and
then we proceeded back upstream to that log I had caught several
fish off of earlier in the morning. I wanted to see what they
thought of my pink micro-jig. To make a long story short, they
loved it. I stood in one spot and landed about eight more nice
trout and a couple of 14" ones. I had about three more throw the
hook on me. I used that one jig all afternoon and evening. And
it still looked new. I retied several times to get rid of rough
tippet, but always using the same jig. By now, the light was
beginning to dim and my arm was beginning to burn. I decided
we had had enough of paradise for one day. My thoughts turned
to that hot shower back across the road at Eagles Park. So
that's where we went.
I don't believe I have ever had a better shower in my life. I
dried myself off, put on some Axe spray deodorant, and then
covered that with Deep Woods Off. Then I put on fresh clothes.
I felt great! I was worn smooth out from fishing. I had a
couple more beers and few more Marlboros as we watched the
stars begin their show for the second night in a row. We hit
the sack early, planning to fish again the next morning from
sunrise until we decided to pull camp and head back to Springfield.
Inside the tent, I fired up the iPod and listened to a few ZZ Top
tunes before settling in for the night. Once again, the
Whip-poor-wills serenaded us to sleep, intermittently cheered
on by distant Hoot Owl.
The next morning, Tom woke us up again. Smoky Joe was dead
to the world. I had to wake him up. As soon as I moved to
get out of the tent I realized there was a change in plans.
My legs, my back, and my right arm were too sore to enjoy
any more fishing. The rough wading, the climbing steep banks,
and all the fish fighting to horse them off of the logs in
the current had taken their toll. Fishermen tend to be
eternal optimists when it comes to fishing, and I am no
exception. I popped open a sugar-free Red Bull, lit a
cigarette, and eased into my camp chair thinking that I
just might loosen up in a few minutes. It never happened.
Instead, I opted for breaking camp and heading to the state
park lodge for a hot breakfast and coffee before pointing
the car towards home. I was sore. But it was a good kind of sore. ~ Ken
Ken graduated from Southern Methodist University
in 1988, and spent the next several years serving
in the United States Navy as an intelligence analyst
and Russian Language translator. He is a veteran
of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Leaving the
nation's service in 1993.
Ken is also a published outdoor writer and historian,
having penned articles and stories that have appeared
in several national hunting publications like North
American Hunter magazine, on GunMuse.com, in regional
and local newspapers, and historical and literary
journals. He has also provided hunting and dog
training seminars for Bass Pro Shops and other
sporting goods retailers nationwide. He volunteers
his time to Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited,
as well as several local charitable organizations.
He is also a REALTOR with Coldwell Banker in
Springfield, Missouri; where he lives with his wife,
Wilma, and their Weimaraner, Smoky Joe.