Somewhere in the Ozarks, a sleek boat was tearing across a reservoir, conducting a high-speed chase for bass.
But Dennis Whiteside was a world apart from that scene.
He was taking his customary route to the bass in life’s slow lane. Sitting in his canoe on the Niangua River, he was relying on paddle power to get to where he was going.
“Some people ask me why I don’t use a trolling motor,” said Whiteside, a float-fishing guide in the Ozarks. “But I don’t need it.
“I’ve had a paddle in my hands for most of my life. To me, a trolling motor is just an obstacle.
“I’d rather get down a stream the old-fashioned way.”
That’s the way Whiteside has been traveling for most of his 68 years. He is pure Ozarks and always has been.
He grew up on the Current River in a little town with a colorful name, Fairdealing, Mo. He started fishing at a young age with his grandmother (”My job was to get the bait. I would dig up the worms and get the grasshoppers”), and they would eat whatever they would catch.
But it wasn’t until he was 12 that he discovered his true fascination for Ozarks streams.
“My uncle would hire a guide to take him on a float trip whenever he would visit us and he would always take me along,” said Whiteside, who lives in Springfield, Mo. “It was a big 20-foot wooden johnboat, and we would float the Current River all day long.
“For a kid, that was a real adventure. We would catch big smallmouth bass that would fight like crazy, and sometimes we wouldn’t see another person all day long.”
All of this, for what now would be considered a bargain price.
“That guide charged my uncle $20 plus a sandwich,” Whiteside said with a laugh.
Those colorful memories are the foundation of Whiteside’s world today. In an era when most fishermen are seeing how fast they can get to a spot or how much electronics they can fit onto their boat or how much of the latest gear they can buy, Whiteside’s approach remains refreshingly simple.
He is part of a disappearing breed. He is a river man who can perform magic with a paddle and has an uncanny sense of knowing where the smallmouth bass hang out.
He can tell stories of how members of the Dablemont family, Ozarks legends, helped him build his first wooden johnboat. And he laughs when he tells about how he used that boat until he “flat wore it out.”
But eventually, he turned to a canoe for his float fishing, partly because of its stealth, partly for its ease of handling. He’s never looked back.
Several times a week, he takes customers on float trips through some of Missouri’s most stunning scenery, all the while concentrating on finding a fish that is a symbol of the Ozarks, the smallmouth bass.
“There isn’t a better creature swimming than the smallmouth bass,” Whiteside said. “Part of it is the places where they live.
“They love these clear Ozarks streams, especially the ones that have some stability. By that, I mean the ones that aren’t real prone to change from year to year.
“They like places where a big rock, a root wad, a hole has been there for years, as opposed to places where a big flood will fill in holes with gravel or change the stream bed.”
Whiteside was visiting one of those places on this day. During a Missouri Outdoors Communicators outing, he guided longtime freelancer Thayne Smith and me on an 8-mile float trip down the Niangua River.
Not long after launching his canoe, he began pointing out likely looking hiding places for smallmouth bass. And more often than not, those spots produced scrappy, bronze missiles.
“The smallmouth bass needs a place to ambush,” he said. “A cut bank, roots, behind rocks, cover along current breaks — those are all good spots.
“You have to be able to read the water. And then you have to be able to cast accurately and put that lure where the fish can see it. That’s the key to float fishing.”
Whiteside showed that prowess on a recent float trip. Using spinnerbaits and plastic baits, we cast to laydowns, boulders, rocky banks, root wad and swirling eddie holes, and we found fish there — lots of fish. We tangled with an impressive number of smallmouths in an array of sizes.
But that came as no surprise to Whiteside. After years of floating most of the Ozark streams in Missouri and Arkansas, he knows this is one of the yest times of the the year to chase big smallmouth bass.
“I don’t care how many times I have been on some of these streams, I still get excited when I get out again,” he said. “To fish for smallmouth bass in this kind of setting, that’s my passion.”
Three rivers to try
The Ozarks are filled with float streams that offer spectacular scenery and outstanding fishing for smallmouth bass. Here are three options.
CURRENT RIVER: The middle section of the Current, the stretch from Akers Ferry to Van Buren, is known for its beauty and its excellent smallmouth-bass fishing.
GASCONADE RIVER: The middle section features a special management area, where size and creel limits on smallmouth bass are restrictive. Surveys show the area has numerous smallies in the 12- to 18-inch range.
BIG PINEY RIVER: The stretch in Lower Pulaski and upper Texas counties also has a special management area, and it has large numbers of smallmouths in the 12- to 15-inch range.