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Smallmouth QBs: Angler lands Hall-of-Fame fish roster

by Bryan Hendricks | May 25, 2023 at 1:59 a.m.
Rusty Pruitt prepares to strike camp Monday on the Buffalo National River. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

HARRIET -- Kayaks greatly outnumber canoes on the Buffalo National River these days.

It makes sense. Kayaks are more durable and a lot more user friendly for casual paddling and especially for day trips that don't require overnight gear. Kayaks are faster, and they are easier for outfitters to haul and wrangle. They are also harder for inept paddlers to damage.

The kayak revolution was apparent Sunday at Spring Creek Recreation Area where Rusty Pruitt, Bill Eldridge, Matthew Eldridge, Ed Kubler and Richard Phelan gathered for our annual May outing on the Buffalo. We bucked the trend, opting as usual for canoes. We prefer canoes. We are comfortable in them, but mostly we need them for hauling our ostentatious array of camping gear.

Our floats are traditionally three-day, two-night affairs that follow an established itinerary. We launch midday at Spring Creek and spend the first night on a particular gravel bar about a mile and a half upstream from the Highway 14 bridge. That night's meal is always hubcap-sized ribeye steaks. Corn on the cob and baked potatoes are wrapped in foil and cooked in the campfire.

The second day is long and is devoted to fishing. It at ends at another gravel bar where we dine on cheeseburgers. From there it's a half-day float to Rush.

Because of weekday obligations back home, Pruitt and I floated on Sunday and took out Monday morning at Highway 14. We usually paddle solo, but we were tandem on this trip, which meant we had to cram all of our gear into one boat. From a distance, my canoe looked like a South Dakota class battleship.

"The problem with camping only one night is that you still have to bring as much gear as you do for two or more nights," I said.

Complicating matters was Pruitt's newfound devotion to comfort. The days of small one-person tents and a standard size air mattress were over for him. He brought a palatial Coleman Sundown tent and a queen-size air mattress that, inflated, elevated him 2 feet above the ground. He even had a little welcome mat at the door.

"The only thing missing from that abomination is a couple of plastic pink flamingos and a mailbox," I said.

The stylish Phelan had his rakish REI tent. Eldridge, a traditionalist, had the same Coleman tent he's been using for at least 17 years. A nightlight burns inside. Kubler's mansion has a small sitting room with a chair beside the bed.

I'm the guy that stubbornly holds out in his little bitty house on Taylor Loop Road, while the big estates gobble up the neighborhood. My abode is a tiny Mountain Hard Ware tent that's just big enough to house a standard air mattress. It goes up in minutes and comes down just as fast. Utility and convenience are everything to me.

The river was high and fast when we launched, making for a very quick trip to the campsite. Most of our group took that option and concentrated the day's fishing from the pool at the mouth of Water Creek to the gravel bar.

Pruitt and I paddled upstream and fished the more lightly traveled water between Spring Creek and Maumee. Hard current made for hard paddling, but we found relief hugging the ribbon of relatively calm water along the banks. Or first stop was a small mid-stream gravel bar about a quarter of a mile from Spring Creek.

"Let's beach it there," Pruitt said. "I'll take the left side of that shoal and you take the right."

Using a Zoom Tiny Brush Hawg in watermelon red, I thoroughly worked the darker water along the bank. It was a veritable shooting gallery of rocks and wood cover. Most anglers don't fish it because it because you pass it so quickly. The best way to fish a stream is on foot. Cast at everything you see at every angle. Fish are there, but it takes work to figure out how they'll bite.

I caught one after the other, including a couple of 12- and 13-inch smallmouth bass. In the current, they pulled like pickup trucks.

"They'll only bite an upstream presentation today!" I shouted as Pruitt nodded enthusiastically.

I always lose track of my fish count, so I've resorted to a different way to count. I go by NFL quarterback numbers. Fish No. 7 was John Elway. No. 8 was Troy Aikman.

"Yo! Jimmy McMahon on the line!" I yelled.

"Fran Tarkenton [10]!"

Eleven. I had to think fast. Who's 11? "Phil Simms!"

Roger Staubach (12) was the last fish from that hole.

I landed Kurt Warner (13) and Craig Morton (14) on the way to the next shoal where again we beached. I fished upstream of the shoal and Pruitt fished the downstream side. Earl Morrall (15, and one of the most fascinating players in NFL history) fell for a Zoom Baby Lizard, as did Joe Montana (16). Then I caught Billy Kilmer and Roman Gabriel.

I faced a real dilemma because I was running out of numbers. I thought the problem was solved when the fish quit biting at the shoal, but they picked back up as we continued downstream. I caught Johnny Unitas, and then I caught No. 20. The only No. 20 I could think of was University of Arkansas great Chuck Dicus, who also played for the San Diego Chargers. Dicus played quarterback in high school. Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have found a provision to make him count.

With John Hadl (21), I ran out of quarterbacks and had to go to different positions. Not far from the campsite I hooked "Bullet" Bob Hayes. Devin Hester was my last fish of the day. This caused a bitter argument because not only had I broken position, but also eras. Pruitt insisted that I stay in the 1960s and 70s. Frankly, John Hadl triggered his sudden ill humor. There's something about a quarterback wearing No. 21 that triggers everybody. An oddball like that should never have gotten into the NFL, let alone been as good as Hadl was. It's easy to be great throwing to Lance Alworth.

Problem was that neither of us could remember another player that wore 23. It took awhile.

"Fine," I huffed. "Mike Wagner. You happy now?"

Pruitt was happy for a different reason. He had a dandy (Don Meredith) time catching smallmouths on the Lucky Craft topwater plug that he got for $3 at a local bargain basement sale.

As usual, the steaks were delicious, and we all slept magnificently except for Pruitt, who wandered about the campsite recording the symphony of snoring on his cellphone. He was mildly surprised and more than amused in the morning when nobody else was amused.

He threatened to send the audio file to us all.

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