Family Affair

Posted on Thursday, June 1, 2006

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BERRYVILLE — A long and strong smallmouth bass with a mood to match its dark color wouldn’t tolerate the intrusion of a tube lure next to the nest from which it guarded its offspring. It charged like a mean streak to clamp down on the tube and virtually ignored Jim Fletcher’s hookset as it surged several feet away from the nest before releasing the lure unscathed. Seeing the brawny smallmouth make its move among the shallow rocks, Jeff Fletcher flipped his tube toward the nest. The brownie instantly snatched it up and leapt high to spit the intruder toward the sky. Picking up another rod and reel armed with a tube of a different color, Jeff cast back to the fired-up fish, which pounced on the bait like a cat on a mouse and once again sailed high above the surface to send the lure flying. Such was the aggression encountered during a recent float of the Kings River. It wasn’t long before it was my turn for rude treatment.

Reacting to something that chomped on my tube cast into a deep hole was like setting the hook on a log. The fish bulled its way toward the deep middle of the hole, continuously pulling drag with ponderous disdain. Angling upstream, the invisible brute tried to gain some slack, forcing me to reel furiously and plunge my rod tip into the water to try to keep the fish from jumping.

The bass had turned sideways for another line-stripping run when Jeff’s cell phone rang. It was his father, JD Fletcher, calling for one of his periodic checks on the progress of our trip.

“Can’t talk now, Dad. We got our hands full,” Jeff said, breaking contact.

Unfortunately, the fish also broke contact.

We speculated that the strongest fish I had ever hooked on the Kings River might have been a big carp or catfish — and that if it was a smallmouth, it was a monster.

Such was the power of some of the fish hooked last week between the Arkansas 62 bridge and the Grandview bridge near Berryville.

Yet the action of the five-mile float will be most remembered by the numbers, and I’m not talking just about fish.

An annual spring float on the Kings River with legendary fishing guide JD Fletcher has become an annual tradition, and one that has continued to grow in terms of the number of Fletchers involved.

In past years, JD has been joined by son Jeff to make the trips a two-Fletcher affair. Last week, however, the presence of JD’s “little” brother, Jim Fletcher of Louisville, Ky., made for a family trio around the breakfast table prior to the Wednesday outing.

From the perspective of local fishing history, here were three men whose lives had been shaped by a river.

JD, of course, is well-known for making a livelihood of guiding on the river since the late 1950 s. Now 74 years old, he is marking his 48 th year as a guide.

During those early years, Jim, 68, also got his start as a river guide. Barely out of his teens, he mostly guided out-of-town clients who had come to do business with the Daisy-Heddon Co. in Rogers.

Contacts with those clients led Jim to a sales position with a manufacturer based in Kansas City, Mo., which, in turn, eventually led to establishing his own successful company in Louisville. While his success has allowed Jim to indulge his passions for hunting and fishing throughout North and South America, he still regularly returns to his roots.

Following in the family footsteps, Jeff also got an early start as a guide on the Kings River, taking his first trip at the amazingly young age of 12. Within a few years, he was splitting his time between guiding and being a competitor on professional bass tours. Through sponsors met as a pro angler, Jeff is now able to combine guiding with representing manufacturers of fishing and hunting gear. At 37 years old, he is marking his 25 th anniversary as a Kings River guide.

Suffice to say, the legend of the Fletcher family has a river running through it.

Recent eye surgery would keep JD from joining us on last week’s float, but he might as well have been there because he would call often enough to be with us in spirit. Nevertheless, the family legend would grow during the float in a way totally unforeseen. NINETY-FIVE BY NOON Arriving at the put-in beneath Arkansas 62 around 9 a. m., we beheld a flow regarded near perfect, with the river gauge at Berryville reading just on the high side of 3 feet. The water appeared clear in the shallows but had just enough stain in the pools to make it easier for our lures to fool the sharpeyed smallmouths. The gravel and rocks on the bottom also appeared remarkably clean, thanks to two rises of 6-8 feet during early May. “The rises really cleaned up the river,” Jeff said. “Before that, there was so much algae on the bottom you couldn’t hardly fish a tube.” Relative to tube lures, the day would provide a test of tube sizes and colors, with Jeff and Jim 3 throwing 2 / 4-inch dark-colored tubes while I opted for standard 4-inch tubes of lighter colors. As it turned out, the different sizes and colors would make no difference whatsoever for the numbers and sizes of bass caught and released.

Setting off in an 18-foot aluminum johnboat with Jim in the bow and Jeff in the stern, we soon entered a shallow riffle where the sunlit water was bouncing prettily. However, except for a shoal area in the middle of the float, a rocky ledge area at the end and a few tight spots of narrow channel in between, the five-mile stretch was dominated by long, wide pools and was notably bereft of scenic highlights. As stretches of the Kings River go, it was all about fishing.

Below the first riffle, we entered a relatively narrow and meandering pool with slow current flowing between gravel on one side and chunk rock on the other. This so-called “run” is where I would normally concentrate my fishing efforts, but Jeff never slowed the boat there or in any of the other riffles and runs we would encounter downstream.

“It’s going to take two or three more weeks of hot weather before the big fish gang up in the current and the eddy holes to find cooler water and more oxygen,” Jeff said.

Even so, there were some scattered smallmouths to be caught in the runs, including three nice ones of 13, 14 and 15 inches.

Of those measurements, we were certain. Finding myself next to a measuring tape glued to the side of the boat, I began testing our estimates of the length of smallmouths brought to hand. We found we were consistently underestimat-1 ing the size by 1 inch to 1 / 2 inches, making the quality of our catches better than we realized. Before the day was done, I would measure dozens of smallmouth, spotted and largemouth bass of 14 inches or better. After passing through a wide, shallow shoal area of gravel bars and grass beds, we entered a short but deep, slow pool and hit a concentration of smallmouths for some fast action. For every smallmouth on the hook, we would often see as many as four fish following aggressively. We picked up more than a dozen measuring 12-14 inches 1 with a fat brownie of 16 / 2 inches being the prize of the bunch. Jeff had a “follower” estimated at 18 inches to raise our hopes for trophy fish. That first bout of concentrated action for larger bass set the pattern of the day, and Jeff explained why. “The bigger bass are concentrated in their spawning areas in the long, flat holes from about midhole to the lower end,” Jeff said. Some of the fish had already spawned and some were yet to spawn, but one and all, they were still hanging together. It showed when we entered a wide, curving pool stretching nearly a mile long with a line of shallow chunk rock and boulders along one side dropping off into water too deep to see the bottom.

“We’ll get some nice ones in this pool,” Jeff assured.

About one-third of the way into the pool, we started scoring smallmouths in bunches, causing Jeff to regularly use his anchor to hold us in hot spots.

Although many float fishermen tend to concentrate their cast at the banks, Jeff has learned to “read” the structure of deep pools as if they were small lakes. He regularly instructed us to cast to what he described as “points, humps and drop-offs.” For his part, Jeff almost exclusively fished behind the boat, either casting or dragging his lure to score consistent hook-ups. “We’ve already caught more than 40 bass from this pool so far,” he noted at about the halfway mark. The lower half was pretty good, too. Memorable moments included a double hook-up with 1 two 16 / 2-inch smallmouths and a triple hook-up with brownies of 14-15 inches.

Before leaving the pool, Jim scored a fine, dark-colored smallmouth just shy of 19 inches.

After a flurry of action in the next pool, we ran through a riffle and stopped on a shaded gravel bar for lunch.

Jim and I had long since stopped counting fish caught and released, but Jeff had kept close track.

“Ninety-five by noon !” he exclaimed. “I can already tell this is going to be one of the best [fishing ] years in a long time if we get some more water.” Except for several rock bass and big green sunfish, all the others had been smallmouths. Besides finding the smallmouths concentrated in spawning areas, Jeff theorized that we had two other factors in our favor. “I believe the year of low water we had could have caused a lot of smallmouth to move to the deeper part of the river. Plus, there hasn’t been much fishing pressure either,” he said. I’d have to say our lunch break was more relaxing for us than for JD, who continued to track the action from home.

BREAKING THE RECORD “We have a chance to break my all-time record for numbers of bass,” Jeff said as we shoved off for the final two miles of the float.

With the sun high overhead, our polarized sunglasses became increasingly important fishing aids because a good many catches would come from sight-casting, not to mention providing us visions of giants.

One unusual vision with a high “wow” factor was seeing a school of more than a dozen channel catfish in spawning mode. A couple of catfish appeared to weigh 15 pounds or more.

In an unusually deep pool with large, submerged boulders, we saw a giant and nearly black brownie of 20-plus inches come out from under a boulder to take a brief look at a lure. We also saw several smallmouths of 18 inches or more that were regrettably following fish already hooked. And of course, we lost some big fish of unseen size.

Otherwise, we also found two different concentrations of bass for more fast action.

I remember that the 126 th fish was the day’s first spotted bass — a nice, fat 14-incher that was soon followed by two more of similar size.

We also caught a big-bodied, 18-inch largemouth bass that was being trailed by a 20-incher.

At midafternoon, we dragged the boat through a bedrock shoal to reach the worst part of the float — the end.

“Well, we did it: 159 fish — the most ever,” Jeff pronounced.

As for the history of the Fletcher family on the Kings River, the record may still be to come.

During breakfast, JD was showing off a picture of his 7-year-old grandson, Riley, holding a 7-pound largemouth he had recently wrestled from Table Rock Lake. Interested anglers can contact JD or Jeff Fletcher at (417 ) 271-3396.

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