The first step in my plan for smallmouth bass mastery begins with a solid plan to become as educated as I can as fast as I can. Already having the knowledge of fly casting and fly tying eliminates most of the time when trying to learn a new fish to target. I take pride in being able to accept the fact of not knowing or understanding things with a mindset of being open to the education that is necessary in the process. It is so refreshing to be the one who is being taught and not the one teaching. But, after assisting numerous first-timers, I know the characteristics that have to exist if that person is going to truly absorb the information in a way that leads to proper application.
Just like in our own scholastic education, the better the teacher/professor, the more likely you are to be successful when it comes to applying the knowledge you’ve acquired. Enrolling at Harvard over a community college increases the likelihood that you are getting better information from better instructors. Being in my 50’s, I don’t have time to be self-taught and accomplish my goal in time to fully master the mission. So, I’ve decided to begin surrounding myself with as many of “those” type of fly fisherman as possible to speed up the learning curve.
That brings me to my first ever experience in MISSION SMALLMOUTH and reaching out to Ozark Smallmouth Alliance. After a few text messages and phone calls, we set a date for my first experience and first step toward the mastery of this new challenge.
I plugged in the coordinates to my GPS and began the journey on a winding road through the Ozark mountains that led to the thin blue line glowing on my digital screen. Being the second week of September, just a slight glow of light was touching the tops of the trees as the raft was backed down the ramp for setup. This was the first time that I would meet Ryan Walker as he began setting up for the day’s drift. I had been observing Ryan and the Ozark Smallmouth Alliance from afar via their social media updates and by word of mouth. We were very fortunate as the day we had preselected gave us cooler temperatures in the 70’s, cloud cover, and little wind. A low pressure system had just passed through and the leaves were still wet from the light rain they had received only hours earlier. The river was extremely low as it had been some time since there was any rainfall significant enough to increase the water flows.
My quest for knowledge began immediately as I watched every step that was taken in launching the raft, rod set up, fly selection, and attempts to read the water conditions. We weren’t one minute into the drift and I knew this was completely different from any type of fishing I had done before. The flies he had selected were unique and stream specific. It was apparent that Ryan was a great fly tyer and had taken the time to develop the patterns that would work on his water. As I always do, I began to “over” analyze each aspect. What color is that? What hook is that? How did you do this? I can’t help myself.
Since I had not fished any water that was like this before, the line setup was also unique. It was definitely not your standard fly line-leader-tippet-fly setup, and it was obvious it had been fine-tuned after many years of experience. With this unique setup came a unique way to fish it as well. After my questions about the line setup, he dropped the anchor and class began. He broke down why the line was setup the way it was and a step by step demo on how I would fish it in correlation to how the fly needs to be presented. He allowed me a few minutes to “get my mind right” and practice his recommended technique before we pulled anchor.
I have to be honest, it did take more than a few casts to get the “feel” for how to fish this new style. But, it wasn’t long until my line was tight with the first smallmouth of the day. Also, being the first time fishing out of a raft, I was a little reluctant about the stability, space, line management, and water displacement. The raft was amazing! I am a very large human at 6’5” and 265 lbs., so I had some concern in all of theses areas. We were drafting in as little as 4 inches of water and Ryan navigated the small stream like he was driving a BMW through a cone maze.
Disclosure: I had just purchased my own raft, but this was the first time I was ever in one. Since this trip I have finished assembling my own raft and taken it on a successful drift and will be using it in all of Mission Smallmouth.
I continued to wear him out with questions about everything we experienced. Once we were about an hour into the day, it moved to more of a standard guide-client fishing outing as it became focused on catching smallies. We covered all kinds of water (shallows, frog-water, soft pockets, cover, etc.) and were picking up fish consistently throughout the morning on one of Ryan’s custom patterns. He had a supreme knowledge of the water, identifying the shots I needed to make well in advance. He did a great job of creating a “partnership” between guide and fisherman that evolved into quality shots and not just random casting.
One thing that really stood out to me was Ryan’s sincere appreciation for each fish regardless of size and species. It’s not lip-service, he truly appreciates each and every fish by taking some time after the fish is in the net to discuss it’s colors, shape, and uniqueness. He also takes the time to investigate the fish to try and understand what the fish is eating, what water column it came from, and the location in relation to rocks & cover. After numerous fish in the boat and Ryan taking the time to appreciate each one, I found myself doing the same thing. That may have been the best lesson I learned on the day. Now that I am chasing this new species, it is much different than the “trout game”. Smallmouth Bass take a very long time to grow and the chances of catching monster fish is far less than the success I had chasing brown trout. It’s also just a great mindset in life; take the time to appreciate the world around you.
As the day began to warm and the clouds gave way to a blue bird sky, we changed patterns and the deeper pockets of water. The fly was another one of Ryan’s custom patterns he developed to specifically fish this water. It only took a couple of casts until the line was tight with another smallie and we quickly realized it was more productive than the first fly with the fish being larger. After that quick success, we committed to push down stream until we found the deeper pockets and focus our shots on what was working. After we picked up a few larger fish, for some unknown reason, I morphed into Bill Dance. I lost my mind and broke off 2 different times because I was setting the hook like it was a freight train with a hookset that would rival any of the pros on the Bassmaster circuit. Thankfully, I got my mind right and returned to the typical hookset.
We were holding on a really good location when I felt the soft movement, set the hook, and saw the water explode. As we both looked to the location of the breach, it got really tense as we knew she was a nice one. After she jumped, she went straight down in an attempt to reach the rip-rap and cover. Once I got her nose up, Ryan had already dropped anchor and had the net in the perfect location, I steered her into the awaiting net. She was a beauty at 18 ½ inches in length and marked perfectly. Being new to this game, I still didn’t understand that in relation to the water we were fishing that this was a large fish. Ryan did a great job in breaking down the age of the fish and how difficult it would be to have grown that large in this small water with all the predators. After a number of photographs, we continued to push down river focusing on the type of water where we had success.
After we were about 6 hours in, I made the decision to pull the rods and push to the takeout. The main reason I did this was I knew I could pick Ryan’s brain for more information (and the fact that I’m old and my back was talking to me). I normally never finish any guide trips simply because I’m just not that focused on fishing every second. Once I’ve met my need to catch a few fish, learn as much as I can about the specific stretch of water, and hopefully gained a friendship I am ready to move on to the next chapter.
It was a fantastic day and experience with Ozark Smallmouth Alliance and Ryan Walker. The experience that Ryan created is, in my mind, the expectation of any guide trip by a client. Great customer service, education, thoughtfulness, preparation, and the patience. If you want the challenge of fishing some of the beautiful Ozark waterways, I highly recommend Ozark Smallmouth Alliance.
MISSION SMALLMOUTH continues on to the next blue line……………….