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OSA - Free The Fighter

Mick Spaulding

My smallmouth education took its next step on a beautiful thin blue line that proved to be the most beautiful Ozark waterway I had seen to date. The plan for this trip was to gather a group of “fishy” folks who are committed to the protection of the smallmouth species and the environment they live in. I met up with my new smallmouth guru Ryan Walker at the takeout we would use 3 days later. We packed up all I needed for the 3-day excursion into his truck, which was trailered with his new River Rat 3 man raft, and we hit the road to meet the other members of our party at the launch ramp 17 miles upriver. Ryan began giving me a breakdown of the plan and some idea of what to expect. From the get-go the primary concern was the weather. We would be camping for 2 nights river side on the trip, so being proactive and preparing for the possibility of heavy rain was in our minds as we discussed what we had packed and how it would fit in the raft. I’ve been on numerous trips like this and experienced how an Ozark storm system can impact the adventure.

Once we arrived at the launch it wasn’t long until our new friends from Going Native arrived after a 3 ½ drive. To my surprise a good looking young couple exited the vehicle and began to introduce themselves to me. Cole and Justus are an amazing young couple who could not be more kind and courteous. In a world of weak handshakes, no eye contact, and lack of enthusiasm, it was immediately apparent these were special people. Being a proud father of two children, I can say that this young couple had a very proud set of parents at home. I really felt old when they told me their age, but their maturity was well past their time on the planet.

Cole and Justus were focused on telling the story of Ozark Smallmouth Alliance. It’s a story that needs to be told to educate everyone on how important and fragile these Ozark waters and smallmouth bass have become. This has become the mission of OSA and Ryan Walker and they’ve agreed to photograph, video, and use drone footage on this 3-day adventure to share this important story. Their work is phenomenal to say the least. Don’t be judgmental due to their young age, this couple tag team their adventures in the outdoors in a way that would eventually pleasantly shock all of us. They have developed a YouTube channel Going Native to archive their adventures and love of all that is nature. Make sure and check them out and subscribe to their channel, you will be glad you did.

Next to arrive was a normal sized man, like myself, standing well over 6 feet and put together like the guy you always want behind you in a fight. As he hopped out of the truck the first thing you notice about Jeremy Guest, is his wonderful demeaner and positive air surrounding him. I knew immediately, “this is my kind of dude”. After a handshake where you are glad to get your hand back, we began getting his new Smith Fly raft off the truck and in the water. I learned years ago, having many boats myself, that you let the owner set the boat up and get it ready for use. We had decided to get a couple of miles in the first day in order to give us as much daylight as possible to fish the following two days. It was about 4:30 p.m., so we knew we had to get everything 5 people would need into 2 rafts including the people and get to first campsite. The next 30 minutes would shame anyone who considered themselves Jenga or Tetris experts. We utilized every inch of space, balanced the rafts, lined up our rods, and selected our first flies of the trip. Once we all felt we were ready, we inched our little caravan into a river that was very low but carried just enough current to prevent push rowing.

We hadn’t gone 50 feet, after we decided to wet our flies, that lines were tight with our first smallmouth of the trip. The most difficult part was not fishing every nook & cranny, but we knew we had to cover the water a little faster than normal to find our first campsite. Well, that didn’t work. As happens any time you get 5 “fishy” people together, we fished later than we should and daylight had left the sky. We found a great place on a small island between two chutes of the river for our first night. Everyone understood what took priority when setting up a camp in the waning light and got to work. Ryan and Jeremy grabbed my new tent (new and never used), set out all the parts, and began putting it together with surgical precision. They possessed the experience built up over numerous nights on the river, so I contributed the best way I could; I got out of their way. Cole and Justus had theirs put up in literally 3-minutes and immediately began gathering fire wood, locating the best spot for the fire, and we had a beautifully executed camp fire in about 15 minutes from when we stepped out of the rafts. Seriously folks, it was a beautiful thing to see these folks at work. For the first time in my life, I didn’t mind being the old guy and just doing old guy contributions.

With the campfire lighting up the river bank, Ryan and Jeremy began setting up the camp stove and organizing everything needed for a meal in the dark. Ryan had premade some burgers that would rival any I’ve ever eaten. The aroma of pan-fried burgers and seasoned beans lifted over the light fog of the stream and blended with the smell of an Ozark camp fire. Knowing we had a place to sleep and full bellies, a tradition going back to the beginning of time began; humans engaging in fellowship and conversation around a fire. This was the first time we all really got to know more about our fellow adventurers; where you’re from, family, history, where you live, and of course we discussed fishing. It’s amazing how small a world we live in. After our conversations, it was obvious that the old “7-degrees of separation” had us all connected with similar friends and experiences. I had brought a few of my favorite cigars to share with everyone, so now the aroma of fine cigars blended in with the campfire to create an ambiance I wish I could bottle to open when I’m in the city surrounded by strangers and smog.

After an evening that would be hard to match, we all laid down for the evening. Rain was what was on our minds, so everyone water-proofed the camp as much as we could and full expected to get wet. To our surprise, we awoke to a dry tent, campground, and embers good enough to perk a fresh pot of coffee. With a great deal of anticipation and anxiety, we broke down camp and repeated the same steps of packing the rafts we had done the previous afternoon when we launched. Once we had the rafts packed, we began to discuss the flies and presentations that would work best for the day. This is where we all leaned on Ryan, as this was one of his favorite rivers, to give us the recipe for success. We were a team. Everyone was dialed in to the water, what to expect, and to not lose focus of the reason we were there; to tell the OSA story. This would mean we would dictate our day to what Cole, Justus, and Ryan envisioned in the final product.

Ryan and I took the lead for most of the day as it was the best setup for Cole and Justus in the second boat to photograph, video, and utilize the drone. After about 40 yards, I realized I was in Smallmouth Heaven! With Ryan on the oars navigating and being the great guide he is, I was always in perfect position to launch the cast to the discussed location. We really work well together. Having been in the raft with Ryan before, we already had the connection you always hope for when fly fishing on small waters. The first few hours of any trip are the most critical. Having two people who know how to read water, drops, brush, and current speed up the learning curve. In constant conversation about where are the fish in the water column, are they aggressive or not, do they want the fly fast or slow, are their baitfish, and many other things make up the strategy for the day. After we both bounced information off of each other, we committed to a plan on location, depth, type of fly and color.

As I was preparing to deliver my first cast, something in the trail boat caught my eye. I immediately had to do another double-take. Is that really what I think it is? Yup, Justus wasn’t just fishing. She was laying out 40-feet of the most beautiful looped fly cast you could imagine. I don’t know why, but I simply had to take a few minutes and watch her to believe what I was seeing. As I had just finished a cast that looked more like a drunken sailor throwing an anchor overboard, it was a reality check in just how graceful and elegant a fly cast should be. It was truly humbling to see how little effort could result in such a beautiful presentation. But, enough of that, it was time to get back to slapping the water with my broken delivery.

We were on the fish immediately. I had never been on a stream with so many ambush spots for the Smallies to hold. Every hundred feet we would see limestone flats, troughs with elevation changes, brush, cover, and enough chunk rock to fill a quarry. You literally picked a new shot after lifting every cast. The fish were coming consistently as long as the fly was light in color and pushed water. It was the true definition of team work as both boats, within shouting distance of each other, communicated with calm voices that bounced off the valley this beautiful Ozark stream had created. After about 2 hours of fishing, it was time to find a location to stop and have breakfast.

We found a perfect interior island with a long flat gravel bar and began to setup the propane grill. Directly off the rack on the back of the raft, Ryan had the impromptu kitchen ready to go in no time at all. Digging into a small cooler, he pulled out the pre-made ingredients that resulted in a wonderful brunch of sausage and eggs. As we were enjoying his culinary exploits, he and Cole found a location downstream for an interview where they could set up the video camera and begin to tell the story of Ozark Smallmouth Alliance. It was coming very apparent that Cole was a 24-year old renaissance man. Not only can he cast a perfect loop and is a very “fishy” dude, but without a hiccup he switched into a professional videographer. He knew the importance of Ryan being able to tell his story, his commitment to saving our waterways and smallmouth bass, so each question was placed in a way that goal could be accomplished. When the video interview was completed and our bellies were full, we packed up the raft and relaunched for the day.

The surroundings were absolutely beautiful and I could only imagine of how the fall colors would only accent it’s fantastic display. Bluffs extending hundreds of feet in the air, covered with trees of different shapes and sizes, and constantly being watched over by bald eagles and osprey’s. With it being September in the Ozarks, we could only imagine how the trees would be turning soon to create an amazing palette of colors. Then Mother Nature added an additional element we had all been hoping she would keep to herself. We could feel the barometer drop and the leaves began to turn, so we knew what she was preparing to deliver. The wind hit us first and made it difficult in some places to navigate the floating bobber that was only moments prior a raft. And then the rain began. It wasn’t a rain that would stop us from fishing, so we continued to enjoy success even though we knew we would be soaked be the end of the day. We had enjoyed a wonderful day, but now the concern was setting up camp and finding a location that would give us some sense of shelter. With only a brief amount of daylight remaining we found an ideal location where previous explorers had stopped before under a large grove of trees below the high water mark. The rain stopped long enough for us to take our time and set up camp for the night.

Having already set up the camp once before, we were worked like a well-oiled machine and teamed up to replicate our actions from the previous evening. Despite every piece of wood being soaked from the afternoons rain, Cole managed (through a great deal of commitment and effort) to create a strong bed of burned coals that we eventually turned into our campfire for the evening. It was on that riverbank that I ate the best cheesesteak sandwich I had ever eaten. Just like a seasoned chef, Jeremy had premade his ingredients, fired up the skillet, and dazzled us with an amazing meal. Once we had eaten our fill, I broke out some cigars from my personal stash for all to enjoy. It was a great evening with my new friends and one I will never forget. Everyone always wants to catch the “photo” fish and take bragging rights back to their buddies. But, I’ve caught enough fish in my life and now understand that it’s the “extras” that I’m interested in. Extra’s like getting to know the people who you share the experience with and find that common bond that can make it a lifelong connection. The Lord blessed us with a stoppage in the rain to spend that type of quality time with my new friends. But, after the full day of fishing and battling through the rain, we were exhausted and ready for some sleep.

Just after we laid down for the evening, the rain began. It rained, rained, and rained some more. As we began rustling around at daylight, our hope was that the weather would break enough for us to enjoy our final few miles until we took out more than 8 miles downriver. But, shortly after we had gotten around, the clouds broke and we were able to break camp and load the rafts with not a drop of rain hitting our backs.

We picked up where we had left off and the fishing was phenomenal. We had discovered that the larger fish were sitting in the areas where the bottom of the river created a trough. I had begun the day with a fly I had tied which was a baitfish pattern with more flash than what we had been using the previous day. To my surprise, the pattern seemed to be working even better than what we had experienced the previous day. What I had hoped to create was a pattern that would hold in the water column and push enough water to generate interest and fool the fish that it was a stunned baitfish. Just like the previous day, we were communicating from raft to raft the color, flash, size, and how we were fishing it. Then I did what you never should do as a fly fisherman who was having success with a fly. I asked Ryan if I should try a different color of the same pattern. “You know you should never change patterns that are working for another pattern, but go for it”, he said.

Well, to our surprise, the change of color actually improved and it was picking up bigger fish. As we communicated this to Jeremy in the trail boat, he hollered out; “you have another one of those?” I was very pleased that this new pattern was working, but even more excited to give it to Jeremy to fish. We pulled the rafts side by side and handed Jeremy the fly. It wasn’t very long until we heard, “this is a pig!” coming from the trail raft. Jeremy, who is a much more advanced and better smallmouth fisher than myself, had stuck a 19” smallmouth with my new pattern. As he was fighting the fish, he yelled out “the McNasty is on fire!” Even before his voice had stopped echoing off the bluffs, I knew that I had a name for the new fly pattern – the McNasty.

Cole and Justus immediately went into professional mode and we pulled the rafts over to begin filming the largest fish of the trip. She was a beautiful fish without a mark on her. It’s always a huge part of any filming endeavor when you can have a large fish in order to justify the anglers and give the process more merit. We had missed fish that were bigger, but that is also a part of every fishing story. I was very glad that it was Jeremy who had won the big fish for this trip and it made it even sweeter it was on my new fly pattern. We took the time necessary for Ryan to share more of his story and to ensure we released this beautiful specimen back into the clear water unharmed.

Not long after our highlight of the trip, mother nature decided it was time for more rain. The rain the previous day was light in nature, but this day we would not be so lucky. We had little phone reception during the trip, but we did manage to get service long enough to see that the storm would be significant. We all changed back into our rain gear. There was no fishing in this rain as it came down in sheets. This was a good time to be in the front seat of the raft and not on the oars. Once we realized we had a lot of river left before we would reach our takeout, Ryan turned the boat around and began back-rowing in order to move faster. It was more than 40-minutes of intense rain when we realized we needed to find some cover and drain the rafts which had taken on a great deal of water. Even in these conditions, everyone teamed up to get everything out of the rafts and help. There wasn’t a negative attitude or poor spirit in any of this motley crew of new friends. By the time the rain had stopped we all agreed that it would be best to push out and get to the takeout.

We made it to the take out and began the closure of our 3-days together. I think I can speak for everyone in that we all didn’t want to say goodbye. But, I knew that I had four new friends in my life. As I sit here finishing up this story, I have remained in contact with each person. Once I returned home I looked up Cole and Justus’ adventures they document on YouTube with the Going Native channel. I learned much more about these two amazing young people and I highly encourage anyone who has taken the time to read this story to go to YouTube and subscribe to their Going Native channel. Ryan continues to share his commitment to preserving Ozark waters and the health of the smallmouth bass that live within them. He is known as Ozark Smallmouth Alliance on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and his content is updated daily with all the passion you would expect. Jeremy returned to his home waters of the Illinois River in Oklahoma where he is one of the most respected fly fisherman on all the waters in that area.. We already have our next adventure planned and this old man can’t wait to see his friends again.

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