The smallmouth bass and panfish of the Ozarks may be the purest sportfish left in North America. They are not the result of strategic stocking programs or man-made alterations to ecosystems, and they do not exist in population densities which send weekend warriors into guided drift boats that crowd otherwise remote rivers. They do not require a size 27.5 zebra midge with three legs on one side and two on the other to be Czech nymphed with exactly eleven feet of 7x tippet.
They are either hungry or they are not. They want to smash topwater food sources with a spectacularly predatory showmanship, or they want to sip large underwater food sources with a deceptive delicateness. Some days, they simply do not want to eat anything you present to them at all.
Smallmouth bass can survive in streams which may drop down to ankle-deep in the dog days of summer or flood nearly twenty feet above “normal” levels during the spring monsoon season.
They grow remarkably slowly, which means that even a twelve or fourteen-inch specimen could be a decade old. A decade wise.
A decade resilient to brutal water conditions, hungry bald eagles and beavers, and other smallmouth bass feeding on the same crawfish and shad. They may not be the most impressive fish to hold at arm’s length for deceptively impressive Instagram photos, but they are almost certainly the strongest and smartest fish per inch on the planet.
And they are subtly, totally beautiful. The mottled pattern of a healthy, wild smallmouth bass camouflages perfectly against the pebbled streambeds they prefer to call home. Their undulating dorsal fins alternate between spiked and smooth and their eyes monitor the proceedings of an unhooking with an eerily human-like depth. Catching a smallmouth is a privilege and returning it to the water unharmed is one of the most primal and gorgeous ways to connect with nature.
The Ozarks are wrinkled mountains, worn down with time and shrouded in thick forests. At nearly every valley and crease, a stream tumbles towards a larger creek and then on to a river. Most are spring-fed and rainfall-augmented, which means they ebb and flow dramatically at the whim of the weather. They almost always have a startling turquoise hue, massive boulders, and pebbles which magically alternate between dull off-white and a pearlescent rainbow of color, a truly perfect place for fish to hide. The springs keep the water fresh and cold, and the rains make it murky and nutrient-rich. Smallmouth are hardy, but they also require a rather specific set of conditions to thrive.
The Neosho smallmouth bass is a genetic strain which is fully indigenous to the Ozarks. Another subspecies, somewhat contested in definition, is simply named the Ozark bass. Both are small but mighty and are stubborn signs of healthy, wild places.
In small creeks far from the nearest dirt road, where topo maps and long hikes lead to bends that rarely see human feet, every feisty longear, bluegill, and smallmouth exists in peace.
They hone their fitness and discernment in these waters; one of their primary survival mechanisms is that they do not grow impressively large, as it would prevent them from lasting through another hot August when the water gets skinny and the food gets scarce. Growing to trophy size would inevitably lead to their discovery, which would draw anglers from far and wide to chase their own opportunity to take a picture with a lunker. Instead, they grow stronger, more broad-shouldered, more well-camouflaged. The most impressive smallmouth is not the one with the best measurements, it’s the one with the most spectacular pattern and acrobatic fighting style, which upon release immediately disappears back into the shin-deep waters, shaking its head and nodding at the lesson learned and the gentlemanly spar.
Deep in the Ozarks, where there are no trails and no bait shops, are many of these streams. It is almost heresy to even allude to them, lest the mere mention of this fragile truth upset the balance and privacy that makes these places special.
But it is hard work to get to these short slots of water where the fish thrive and the people do not go. Some days you hike for hours and catch nothing. Others, you wade through chest-deep pools and slip on large rock slabs and lose your cell phone, but you catch a startling eighteen-inch fish in thirteen inches of water, and everything is right in the world.
The sun slips below the horizon while the truck is parked many miles downstream, and the only sounds are the whippoorwills plaintively cooing and the frogs and crickets alternating their pulsing hums from the corners of the woods. A large splash upstream tempts you further away from civilization, towards the promise that there might be a fish in the mood to eat, that darkness marks your best chance to catch one of the matriarchs of an unnamed stream where nobody ever goes.