By Brent Frazee
It was another stifling day in the Ozarks. The temperature steadily climbed toward the upper 90s, and the humidity made it seem even worse.
A bad time to go fishing, right?
Not in Dennis Whiteside’s eyes. To him, these were near-perfect conditions to take a float-fishing trip for smallmouth bass.
“I’ve had some of my best days of fishing on these Ozarks streams on days like this,” said Whiteside, 69, a longtime float guide from Springfield, Mo. “For one thing, no one else is out. You can make a float and not see another person.
“And this is the time of the year when their (smallmouth bass) metabolism is highest. They’re eating. You just have to drop the food in front of them.”
Minutes after launching his canoe on the middle stretch of the James River near Springfield, Mo., Whiteside was doing just that.
With a few strokes of his paddle, he maneuvered his 18 ½-foot canoe through a gurgling riffle, then positioned it to the edge of a pool.
He cast a topwater lure to a spot where slack water met the current and began buzzing it across the surface. But it didn’t get far.
The bait disappeared in a flash of bronze, and an angry smallmouth bass leapt out of the water, arching to get free.
The fish landed with a loud splash, then made a frantic run to escape. It wasn’t long, though, before Whiteside had the 16-inch fish in the canoe and was celebrating another day of fishing the old-fashioned way.
“This is how I’ve been fishing most of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being out on a big lake, in a bass boat, with a big motor and all, but that isn’t for me.
“I’d much rather be on moving water, where you’re practically alone and you’re fishing the same way as people have been for more than 50 years.
“I don’t even use a trolling motor. It just gets in the way. All I need is a paddle.”
Whiteside, 69, can do magic with that paddle. He can negotiate hairpin turns, find water that is barely deep enough to float his canoe, and display an uncanny ability of knowing where the smallmouths will be.
It was the James River on this day. But it could be countless others—the Current, the Niangua, the Eleven Point, Crooked Creek, and on and on. He estimates he has floated 300 streams in Missouri and Arkansas, some of them so small that they aren’t even on the map. And he has caught smallmouths out of every one of them.
He is part of a vanishing breed. In a day and age, where most guides take customers out on large reservoirs to fish for bass or crappies, Whiteside does things the old-fashioned way – with just a paddle, a couple of fishing rods and a small tackle box of lures.
Even on the hottest days of the year, it works. When Whiteside took two customers – David Gray and me – on the James in late July, the fishing was spectacular.
As schools of suckers scattered in front his advancing canoe, Whiteside continually searched for the shaded water with enough depth, current and cover to provide good smallmouth habitat.
Feeding the fish a steady diet of a variety of topwater lures, we got explosive hits throughout the morning. Most fishermen would expect the action to slack as the sun got higher. Just the opposite.
As noon approached, the fishing got even better. Casting to rocky banks in the shade, we watched as big smallies routinely emerged to attack out lures. By the end of our five-mile trip, Whiteside estimated we caught and released 40 smallmouths, many of them in the 14- to 16-inch range.
An unusual trip? Hardly. Whiteside expects good fishing on the Ozarks streams once summer arrives. There is one caveat. There has to be enough water. Some streams, especially those that aren’t spring-fed, will get too low to even float for long stretches. But those that have springs, will remain floatable.
“The big fallacy about topwater fishing is that you have to be out either early in the morning or just before the sun goes down to catch fish,” Whiteside said. “That’s not true. Even on these hot days, our best fishing will be from 11 (a.m.) to 3 (p.m.)
“You have to be accurate with your casts. But if you can put that lure within 3 feet of where you think that fish will be, and it’s in the shade, you can catch some big smallmouths.”
To reach Dennis Whiteside, call 479-692-3372.