EMINENCE, Mo. -- Moments after launching his johnboat on the Current River, Billy Smith took a few seconds to admire his surroundings.
There are ugly places to cast a line, where you can catch fish like crazy. And there are beautiful places, where the scenery can connect a fisherman with what he or she is really chasing.
It's almost a spiritual experience, Smith will tell you, being able to float the Current River on a spring morning.
The woods glow with an emerald color, almost shouting that spring is here. The sound of gurgling riffles carries through the cool air. And deer pause to get a drink, and wild turkeys fly low across the surface.
The crowds? They will come later. For now, the Current is calm and showing its mild side.
For Smith, that translates to the perfect time to go smallmouth bass fishing.
"I grew up on these rivers, and I've fished them since I was a kid," said Smith, who lives in Piedmont, Mo., and works as one of the maintenance supervisors in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. "I was brought up fishing for smallmouths, and we had some good fishing back in those days.
"But I think it's better now than ever. We have a lot of big smallies in here just waiting to twist your arm."
Smith uses results of local bass-club tournaments as proof.
"Used to be, it would take five smallmouths weighing a total of 8 or 9 pounds to win it," he said. "Now it will take 14 or 15 pounds.
"That's pretty darned good fishing."
Smith chased some of that good fishing on a recent cool, overcast day. Floating the section of the Current from Twin Rivers to Powder Mill, he guided his boat through the swift current until he reached the end of a hole. He launched a large brown tube bait with purple flecks and let the bait drift along the current line.
The plastic bait hadn't gotten far before Smith felt a jolting strike. He set the hook and watched as a bronze-colored torpedo shot out of the water.
The fish fought for a few seconds, straining to use the current to its advantage. But it wasn't long before Smith had the 16-inch fish in the boat.
"I just love fishing for smallmouths," Smith said. "I don't think there's a meaner fish in the water."
Smith and I ran into plenty of those mean-spirited fish this day. As he used his trolling motor to keep from drifting through productive places too quickly, we steadily caught fish.
"We're only getting one shot at some of these places because of the water being up," Smith said. "But they're wanting to bite."
That came as no surprise to Smith. Several days earlier, he had caught and released one smallmouth measuring 20 inches, another 19 inches, two more 17 inches and two others in the 15-inch range.
His cousin Jeff Williams shared in that success. On a recent evening, he caught a 3-pound, 11-ounce smallmouth on a suspending Rogue. The following day, was casting for more.
"Right now, the Current has the best fishing," said Williams, who lives in Eminence. "The Jacks Fork is losing a lot of habitat. Some of the holes are filling with gravel, and that has an effect.
"Still, there are smallmouths in both rivers. You just have to catch it right."
Smith and Williams take a routine progression. They target smallmouths at the ends of holes in spring, then move to the backwater areas where the fish spawn. Later, they move to the cover along the current line.
They use big tube jigs, but they also use other crawdad imitations, crankbaits and topwater lures. High or muddy water can throw off the bite, but the fishing returns to normal a week later.
"We lived in St. Louis when I was growing up, but my dad decided to move back this area, where he was from," Smith said. "He was fed up with city life.
"I'm so fortunate he did. I've had a chance to move from here, but I've always stayed here. There isn't a place where I'd rather fish."
(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services