Tommy Bench was following a crooked path to some of the best smallmouth-bass fishing in the Missouri Ozarks. He had just negotiated a hairpin turn on the Gasconade River, and he knew there were many more to come. Such is life when you fish this remote Ozarks float stream, known as one of the most crooked rivers in the nation.
“There’s a place on this river where you will cover twenty-five miles by water and be just a few miles from your put-in by land,” Bench said as he dipped his paddle into the clear water. “It’s so crooked that the current doesn’t get a chance to get too fast.
“That’s why the Gasconade isn’t real popular with canoeists and kayakers. This is a fisherman’s river.”
With its twists and turns, the Gasconade has plenty of the boulder-strewn pools, eddies, root wads, and rocky banks that river smallies love.
It also has the look of a typical Ozarks float stream. It is narrow and predominantly shallow. If you find a hole, especially one near current, you’d better fish there. That’s where the smallmouths will be.
“I look for three things: current, depth, and structure,” Bench said.
Bench, 37, who lives in Waynesville, Missouri, will tell you that there are big fish lurking in the shadows of that cover. And he has caught his share of them.
Consider a recent, unseasonably warm fall day. As he guided David Gray and me downstream in his beat-up aluminum johnboat, he cast a small bass jig that he makes to a brush pile at current’s edge.
He turned to position the boat and let the jig sit on the bottom for a minute. Of course, that’s when a big smallmouth hit.
Bench pulled back, then watched as the bronze fish shot to the surface and made an acrobatic leap. The smallmouth landed with a loud splash, then made a strong run.
But it wasn’t long before Bench had the big smallmouth in a net and was celebrating his latest success.
After posing for pictures, he placed the fish on a measuring board and said, “Twenty inches. That’s a trophy, especially in these Ozark rivers.”
He released the fish, and the casting resumed.
Bench occasionally paused to admire the beauty of his surroundings—the towering bluffs, the gurgling riffles, the deer at water’s edge in the distance, the suckers scattering through the clear water at the advance of the johnboat.
“Look at this,” Bench said in the middle of a four-mile float from Gasconade Hills Campground to the Hazelgreen Access. “We’re out here on a weekend, and we haven’t seen another soul.”
But we saw plenty of smallmouths. Casting Bench’s homemade bass jigs, flukes, and spinnerbaits to the shaded pools, we caught and released a number of smallmouths and goggle-eyes.
No, the action wasn’t enough to impress Bench, who typically wins or places high in buddy tournaments on the river. But it was enough to give visitors an idea of why the Gasconade has such a good reputation for its fishing.
“There’s no question that people underestimate the size of the bass in here,” Bench said. “A lot of people use small baits and only catch small fish. I’ll use big baits and big tackle, and I’ll catch big fish.”
The biggest smallmouths hang out in the prime spots, according to Bench. Those are often found at the head and the tail-end of pools.
Bench has fished the Gasconade since he was a kid, starting his own guide service, Gasconade River Guide, in 2007.
“I grew up just a quarter-mile from this river,” he said. “We used to ride our bikes to the river with only one pole and a pocketful of lures.
“I remember the day I caught a 17-inch smallmouth and thought I had just landed the biggest fish in the river. Since then I’ve found out there are bigger ones in here. I’m catching ’em.”