C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

This fish story will truly reel you in

Two friends and I – one of them accompanied by his young sons – had gone for an overnight at my Ozark cabin. The plan was for some fishing in the farm lake.

The boys were 7 and 13 years old. They’d fished a bit before, but never with any great success. This time, I promised, would be different.

There have been days on that water when the action was almost unbelievable. One weekend a few years after the stocking of the lake, a visitor from Kentucky and I caught and released an even hundred largemouth bass.

They were on the smallish side. But each succeeding season the growth was dramatic.

My dream was to create a trophy fishery in that lovely valley, and for a decade or more it seemed achievable.

One evening not so long ago, a daughter of mine caught an 8-pound bass and returned it to the water to keep growing. The morning after that, a guest landed a 10-pounder.

But then there came a setback we never could have imagined.

Our state’s Department of Conservation – an agency with a splendid record of wildlife management – made what, from my perspective, has been an awful mistake.

Wild turkeys, which Missouri has in abundance, were traded to northern states for river otters ( Lontra canadensis ) in order to restore a species that once had been native to our region.

Otters are charming creatures. But they do not stay in rivers. They can travel great distances, overland or following streams of diminishing size. Happening finally on the outflow below the dam of my lake, they found a banquet waiting.

They are ruthlessly efficient predators – one of the few creatures, apart from man, that kills not only to eat, but also for sport.

The first word of a problem came in a phone call from the resident in the house a quarter mile above the lake.

“We’re finding fish heads scattered along the shore,” she said. “Big ones, and lots of them.”

And it confirmed what the literature says. They target the largest fish, eat the soft parts and leave the bony heads.

I queried a fisheries specialist with the department.

The depth of my lake – 35 feet at the dam – should enable a good number of fish to escape predation, he predicted.

But that hasn’t been the case.

On this recent evening we caught some bass, a few, but all of a size – nine or 10 inches at most, not a keeper among them. All were products of last year’s spawn or the year before.

The following morning was much the same.

In an upland pasture there’s a small pond, one of several on the farm. It never was much good for fishing, so we use it for raising minnows, which we release through a pipe down to the lake to feed the growing bass and channel catfish.

In a different field there’s another pond we call “the horse pond,” from a time when we had four mounts that watered there.

It is tiny – hardly larger than a city yard.

On a day many summers ago we fished an evening in a creek nearby. The catch – a few sunfish, a small bass or two and some little bullhead catfish – we carried back in a wet burlap sack.

Deciding not to clean them, we just dumped them in the horse pond. And a miracle ensued.

By pure accident, the balance of species must have been exactly right, for that mixed mess not only survived but reproduced and prospered. And the otters, it seems, overlooked that pond.

On our last afternoon, while the boys’ father and I were fruitlessly beating the water at the lake, the other friend took the two youngsters up to try their luck at that humble puddle.

I hardly can describe the expressions of those boys as they came walking down to rejoin us, their faces split in grins of joy and amazement, each of them holding a “lifetime” fish – deep-bodied bass of 4 or 5 pounds.

I’m sure the memory will be with them always of a day when a lifetime passion was born – an event we were privileged to witness.