We carried on tradition Thursday.
A skilled float guide took Johnny White and me down the Kings River, adeptly handling the paddle to maneuver our johnboat through hairpin turns. He placed pinpoint casts to root wads and boulders along the current line. And he caught hard-fighting smallmouth bass that rocketed out of the water and tugged hard when they sounded.
For a moment, I felt like I was frozen in time. I was back in the boat with my favorite guide, ol’ J.D. Fletcher, and we were enjoying another day in the solitude of a beautiful Ozarks float stream.
But there was a footnote to this chapter. There was a Fletcher guiding this johnboat down river, but it wasn’t J.D. The Ozarks fishing legend — float-fishing guide, resort owner, comedian and self-professed hillbilly — died at age 83 in 2014.
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This time it was his 47-year-old son, Jeff, guiding us down river. And it was another great chapter.
Yeah, I missed that old hillbilly dressed in his bib overalls, spitting tobacco juice and cracking jokes as we floated through Ozarks beauty. He was a one-of-a kind character.
He opened a bait and tackle store near Table Rock Lake and the Kings River in 1959, and he quickly became known as the face of fishing in the region. That same year he started guiding fishermen down the Kings and he became known not only for his fishing ability, but also for the entertainment he provided.
I met him in 1980, my first year on the job at The Kansas City Star. I didn’t know much about Missouri at the time other than what I had read about Ozarks hillbillies. When he called and invited me to go fish, I jumped at the chance. He took me down the Kings, catching fish and laughing along the way, and we quickly became friends.
I fished with him until 2013, the year before he died. I was with him when he took his last trip, which was arranged by Jeff and White, his longtime friend.
J.D. was crippled by arthritis, and had to rely on a cane and help from his son and White to get into the boat.
But on one of his first casts, he caught a largemouth bass and said with a smile on his face, “Ol’ J.D. still has it.”
He died a year later, and he is greatly missed.
But Jeff is carrying on family tradition. He grew up on the water, with his dad. He proudly points out, “We have pictures of me in diapers, out floating the Kings with my mom and dad.”
He started guiding when he was 12, taking fishermen many times his age down the river and on Table Rock Lake. He’s been at it ever since, guiding whenever his job as a manufacturer’s rep for a boot company allows.
When Fletcher is on Table Rock, he’s in a shiny Bass Cat boat, rigged with the latest electronics that his dad never had and zipping across the lake with a motor about 175 horsepower more than J.D. ever used.
But when he’s on the river, he step back in time. He fishes out of J.D.’s old johnboat and uses a paddle to get him downstream.
It’s not a fast ride. He generally figures on covering one mile per hour.
But the Kings is a place where you don’t want to speed. It’s still filled with big smallmouth bass, much the same as it was in J.D.’s days.
I’ve been bringing people down this river for 35 years and I plan on doing this to the bitter end,” Jeff said.
In a way, he is part of a dying breed. There aren’t a lot of float-fishing guides around anymore, at least not compared to the past.
But there are still fishermen who would prefer the romance of taking a slow float down an Ozarks float stream as opposed to roaring across a reservoir in a high-powered bass boat.
“I still guide family of fishermen who floated with J.D. and me,” Jeff said. “Up until five years ago, I guided the first customer J.D. ever had.
“He’s gone now, but we had some great times.”
White, the longtime owner of Johnny’s Bar-B-Q in Mission, also fits that bill. He floated with J.D. for years; now he fishes with Jeff. The two have become good friends and fish together whenever time allows.
I guess I’m part of that tradition, too. I fished with Jeff for the first time when was only 12. J.D. wanted to get his son some media, so he sent him out with me to fish for bass at Table Rock. We caught the heck out of them, and a friendship was born.
We carried on that tradition Thursday. In a seven-mile float from Grandview to Stony Point, we caught fish, told stories about J.D., laughed like kids and caught fish at an impressive clip. Time and time again, we cast tube baits to root wads and the shade of boulders and caught big smallmouths.
Ol’ J.D. had to be smiling.
By the time we were done, the clicker Jeff was using to keep track of our catch showed 47.
“It was a good day,” Jeff said. “But I’ve had a lot of good days on this ol’ river.”
To contact Jeff Fletcher, a guide on the Kings River and Table Rock Lake, call 417-847-7434 or 417-271-3150.
J.D.’s wit and wisdom
J.D. Fletcher, who died in 2014, was known as an excellent guide on the Kings River and Table Rock Lake. But he was almost as well-known for his wit. Here’s a sample.
▪ A fisherman caught a big bass on Table Rock Lake that was rumored to weigh 8 pounds. He took the fish to Big M Marina to have it weighed and he found that it was only 7 pounds. He quickly said, “I’m taking it to J.D.’s place (on Table Rock Lake). It will weigh more there.”
▪ Fletcher had a quick response for anyone who asked him what his initials stood for. “Just Dumb.”
▪ When J.D. was guiding customers down the Kings River, he often said, “I wonder what the poor people are doing today?” Then he would pause and answer his own question. “I know what’s one of them’s doing. He’s back here a’paddlin’ this boat.”
▪ One day J.D. was out fishing with a whiskey distiller. J.D. had flask of his moonshine with him and begged the distiller to take a swig. “I’m not going to drink that stuff,” the distiller said. “That will kill you.” After J.D. pestered him, he finally asked J.D. to pass the flask to him. He then proceed to drop a nightcrawler into the moonshine. When the worm curled up and died, J.D. didn’t miss a beat. “At least you’ll never get worms when you drink my stuff,” he said.