Fishing the Forks

“That acts like a smallmouth,” I observed, watching the way Scott’s fishing line sliced through the water and his rod tip pulsed crazily. Sure enough, a few moments later he led a sleek 10-inch smallmouth bass into shallow water, where sunlight glinted off its coppery flanks.

I took a few photos before Scott released the fish. With three deft flicks of its gossamer tail, it sprinted back to its hiding place beneath a flat rock.

Neither of us had any business fishing, really. Scott was getting married in less than a month, and his parents were in the process of selling their home and moving. I was swamped with work at the office and at home. Yet, here we were in shorts, T-shirts and sneakers, wading up a creek, flicking lures into shady pockets overhung with buttonbush.

We spent several blissful hours hiking upstream, casting as we went and taking turns in the lead. The water was never too deep to wade and seldom more than 40 feet wide. We caught fish more or less continuously, admiring bronze-backed smallmouths and longear sunfish whose outrageous colors put most tropical fish to shame.

Two weeks earlier and two creeks over, I watched another friend’s rod bend steeply toward the swirling, blue-green water of a slightly larger stream. He had to lift his arms high to keep the rod’s tip out of the water next to his kayak. After several minutes, he brought a pot-bellied, 16-inch smallmouth with tiger stripes on its sides to the surface.

I didn’t really have time for that trip, either, but the chance to visit with an old friend and fish a locally legendary stream were reasons enough to set aside responsibilities for a day. Again, after a few photos the fish went back to its watery home.

These outings took place on streams unknown to most Missourians. On both days, we never saw another person once we left the access. A few miles downstream, where these obscure streams flow into larger, more familiar ones, the water was jammed with anglers, paddlers and pleasure boaters. During the half-day float, I saw just two pieces of litter—aluminum cans—which I escorted to the recycling center.

I learned long ago that fishing is more to my liking on “The Forks.” That is my pet name for tributaries of major streams and lakes. Many are shallow enough to wade. Others lend themselves to canoes, kayaks and float tubes. None are