It was early October of 2010, and the first falling leaves were floating along the river beside us. Uncle Norten and I had enjoyed a great day of fishing. The bass had been hitting, and I marveled at how well he could cast and fish at his age of 87. He had begun to have trouble remembering how to get to the river, but he had no trouble remembering how to fish a spinner-bait, or bounce a jig along the bottom, or manipulate a topwater lure. Norten had made his last guided float trip in the middle of the summer. I put him and two clients in on the Niangua River that morning and picked them up that evening. His two fishermen were happy, they had never heard so many good stories, or caught so many fish. Admittedly, some of the stories had been repeated, but they didn’t mind. One of them confided in me, “I never knew anyone could handle a johnboat like he did… it was amazing!”
My uncle learned to handle a boat like that from his father, along the Big Piney River back in the late 1920’s. He was born in 1923, and I heard him talk about catching his first bass when he was 8 years old on a fly-rod and popping bug in the spring of 1931, there at the big eddy next to the old Lone Star Mill. He remembered it like it was yesterday, a smallmouth about 2 lbs., which strained that bamboo fly-rod. He caught several more and took them up to the old house along the river where they lived, and my grandmother cooked them for supper. Norten guided his first fishermen a year later right there on that same eddy, for 50 cents the entire day. He was a fishing guide of some sorts for a total of 79 years, missing only the two years in World War II when he was a paratrooper fighting in Europe.
On that sunny, cool day two years ago, the sun was beginning to dip down behind a high ridge when my Uncle leaned back on his casting rod, and set the hook into the jaw of a nice bass. He held it up and I took a picture of it. Thank God I did, because it was the last one he ever caught.
In the late evening, just before we loaded our boat, I made a cast or two around some old logs in deep water, and hooked a monstrous bass. My uncle cheered me on as I fought that huge fish, and eventually he netted it for me. It was the second largest bass I ever caught, 24 inches long and close to 9 lbs. He tried to get a picture of it for me, but it was pretty dark, and the photo wasn’t much good.
As I released it, he shook his head. “We would never have turned loose a bass this size when I was young, but I guess you are right, what good does it do to take it in.”
Page 2 of 2 - And then my uncle got a little nostalgic and sentimental, something I had never seen much of, except for when we were recalling his life, writing his book. “We sure have caught a bunch of fish,” he said, “I appreciate you takin’ me.”
“Me and you are pards,” he went on, “ The times we’ve had, ‘shinin’ times’, the old mountain men called ‘em… shinin’ times.
We guided fishermen together when I was in my 20s, up to a couple of years ago. There were hundreds of trips on dozens of rivers and lakes in Arkansas in the 70’s and 80’s, then back to Missouri to continue guided float trips on several more rivers.
That evening in October as we loaded the boat, I told my Uncle we would have a lot more fishing trips, even if he couldn’t find the put-in and take-out places. I could find them, and as he said, we were pards. I think he was happy about the prospect of more fishing trips, but there were no more. He took that last fish home to eat, just as he did the first one, nearly 80 years before. I know right where he caught his first bass, long before I was born. I know where he caught the last one because I took him there. I pass it on occasion, fishing alone. And I can hardly look at that spot next to an old rock bluff without fighting back the tears.