Chateau on the Lake – a grand hotel if there ever was one – recently hosted the 2012 Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) conference. Located in the Ozark hills of southwest Missouri and overlooking Table Rock Lake, this lodge, while extremely nice, seems a little out-of-place in my perceptions of the hill country of my youth.
On the drive up from our offices in Norman we traversed through the cross timbers and into the hill country. I peered out the window witnessing the trees, hills and rocks that I so loved as a kid growing up not too far from where the highway wound its way. And any of you that have driven through the Ozarks understand what winding roads really are.
More than the landscape, it was my daydreams that captured my attention in those days. As a youngster, my brother and I led typical 1950s, post-Korea, peacetime lives. Baseball in the heat of summer in wool uniforms; playground antics during recess and Saturday morning cartoons are among my more vivid memories. But the nostalgia peaks with recollections of my first fishing experiences.
Like most, I was mentored. Dad was a fisheries biologist but patience was certainly not one of his virtues and my earliest outings did not include his parental influence. Our grandfathers lived a long day’s drive away and were not around enough to offer much more than holiday company.
So it was my older brother that took up the task of teaching me the ways of fishing.
I have to think that none of this was Gary’s idea. We were raised in Siloam Springs, Ark., and just 12 miles east of town was the Logan Springs Fish Hatchery – Dad’s workplace and our frequent baby-sitter when school was out.
No, Gary had no desire to tend to little brother, but the assignment was his and he took the responsibility in stride.
Logan Springs erupts from a Ozark hillside cave on the north side of the hatchery, dividing the property in half, supplying water to the many ponds used for raising fathead and golden shiner minnows. The owner, Mr. McVey, lived in Tulsa, Okla., and I can’t recall ever seeing him at the hatchery, although I’m sure he made occasional visits. So Dad managed the hatch and supplied live minnows to bait shops throughout the region.
Tiny Logan Springs feeds into Osage creek between the levies of two huge ponds. Osage Creek eventually dumps into the Illinois River. The Osage and Illinois were home to some great smallmouth fishing; Logan Springs was packed with green sunfish and the occasional bluegill. Gary had one place in mind for me to fish, but quite another where he would head.
So everyday, the two boys – starting with me at 5 years old and Gary four years my senior – would leave Dad and the hatchery barn for a walk to Logan Springs between the levees of the many ponds. About half way to the Osage was a shorter, wider stretch. There I would be equipped with the latest in homemade cane pole technology and a can of worms. Gary would depart with specific instructions for me: “Stay right here; I’ll be right back.” Of course, he was headed down creek to the bigger water.
Earlier training in the art of worming the live wiggler onto the hook was not lost and I would sit and catch fish for
what seemed to be hours on end. Occasionally, Gary would return to make sure I had not found a copperhead to throw rocks at or fallen in. He would always quiz me on my success and any hint of frustration or disappointment was met with “let’s try this,” which could have been as simple a varying the bobber setting or moving a few feet towards the other end of the hole. He’d wait and watch till I caught the next gullible sunfish and, once again, give the instruction: “Stay right here; I’ll be right back.”
As remedial as it sounds, I did learn how to fish this way and I doubt Gary knew or cared how much the experiences would be etched in my brain. I learned patience, sure, but I would never shake the feelings of excitement that came from a tug at the end of my line.
Beginning with those long-ago days, Gary and I have since shared time on the water in probably half of the 50 states; we’ve fished far north into Canada and travelled south into Mexico and the Caribbean. In addition to our angling skills, the techniques and equipment have become far more advanced since our childhood years; our destinations these days range from exotic to familiar. But whether we’re casting flies over shallow flats for bones or waist deep in mountain streams trying to coax cuts and bows; whether we’re shoulder to shoulder on the front deck of an aluminum boat hunting for double-digit El Salto bass or sitting tandem in a Jon boat on Gary’s backyard lake, these days we relish the time more than the tug.
With a last-minute decision on our drive back from SEOPA, Tonya and I decided to make a visit to the old hatchery. We knew years ago the business and the property had been abandoned, but I simply wanted to see it again. Sure enough: tall weeds, trees and dilapidated structures were dominated the scenery so central to my prized childhood memories. But the water still runs clear and cold from the cave, and I have a hunch my honey hole still offers some great action.