I’ve been sloshing around in creeks and streams since childhood, first probing for pumpkinseed, bluegill and catfish with a cane pole and can of freshly dug worms, and then later, with a graphite rod and boxes of fancy, hand-tied flies in pursuit of bass and trout.
A few fish are usually (but not always) caught. I eventually managed, somehow, to translate this child’s play into the guise of work. But work or play, worms or flies, bass or bluegill, catfish or trout, fish or no fish, few activities beat back the doldrums of August like wading and fishing a creek, stream or small river.
I’d never been on the Gasper River when my friend, Lee McClellan, called and suggested we go. It turned out that Lee hadn’t fished the Gasper, either, but he’d heard that the stream, which flows through Warren and Logan counties, held decent numbers of smallmouth bass, and that was all he needed to know. McClellan works for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and is a stream-fishing fanatic, particularly when the stream is of the quality to harbor smallmouth, which demand good quality, cool water.
The conversation went something like this:
“Ever fish the Gasper?”
“Let’s try it.”
“In this heat?”
“You don’t think the fish will bite?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. Maybe. They might. Yeah, probably they will, some. Let’s try it.”
August lands with the anvil of summer. Cloudless days unveil scorching heat. The nighttime hums with the mechanical labor of air conditioners straining to refrigerate the indoors. Humidity adds a wet, wool blanket effect to this sweltering slog.
Yet, through this summertime sauna flow miles of relief—cool, fish-holding water with names that reflect the Kentucky countryside through which they run. Beaver. Buck. Clear. Clover. Crocus. Eagle. Grassy. Hungry. Indian. Laurel. Locust. Marrowbone. Marsh. Otter. Pinchgut. Redbird. Salt. Spring. These are a handful of Kentucky’s designated smallmouth bass streams. There are dozens more, including the Gasper.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has, in fact, designated more than 100 streams, creeks and rivers as smallmouth bass waters, not including the lakes and reservoirs that also harbor these muscular, bronze-tinted fish. Lake fishing is fine, but for August smallmouth fishing, you want your feet in moving water.
Not all of these designated smallmouth rivers are wadeable, of course. For some you’ll need a canoe or kayak. For most you’ll need the landowner’s permission to reach the water’s edge. But they all share two common traits: relief from the temperature-fired season and ill-tempered smallmouth bass that seem to take encounters with fishermen personally.
In his story “Smallies,” author John Gierach writes that smallmouth bass “have the air about them of being all business.” Well, yes. But stream smallmouth also have the air about them of being thugs and bullies. This is a compliment. A creek-bred smallmouth bass won’t likely stretch a tape beyond 15 inches, but what they lack in size they make up in sass and attitude.
Like most of the state’s streams, the Gasper flows primarily through private property. We gained access by stopping at a local one-stop market for a soft drink and sandwich and asking about the fishing. The proprietor happened to own a strip of river property.
“What is it you guys want to do?”
We said we would like to wade the creek for a couple of hours and do some fishing. This might have sounded like a silly request from two adults on a weekday afternoon. But there it was.
He seemed agreeable and provided directions.
“Close the gate and let me know if you catch any fish” were his only stipulations.
I don’t recall how many fish we caught that day, but we caught enough. The river was low and clear, accented by sun-bleached rocks and enough exposed riverbed that traveling by canoe would have quickly dissolved into a boat-dragging chore. The heat would have been insufferable but for the sight, sound and feel of surprisingly cool, fast-flowing, ankle-deep water.
I was standing in a spot of shade at the end of a tailout, drifting a No. 8 Clouser Crawdad through the pool that swirled to the left, past a root wad. The spot had given up one smallmouth bass when I hooked another but lost it just as Lee appeared from around the downstream bend, where he was fully engaged in a lively fish fight. I watched him bring the fish to hand, unhook and release it.
We met on a tabletop-size rock. A small black snake slid into the water and vanished downstream.
Lee mopped his brow.“Hot, isn’t it?”
“I hadn’t noticed.” I really had not.