RURAL SHANNON COUNTY — Light begins to leave as my feet crunch the gravel, both sight and sound telling tales. The former speaks of another day’s departure, one of many in generations of time where Ozarkers have met the river. But for me, the latter tells another story. In the twilight haze, I joined the list of those who have been there in that very spot to go gigging.
It was my first attempt at the longtime Ozarks tradition of spearing fish, aided by lights, after dark and on a river — and not one I mastered. But I was fortunate to come away with more than just the two fish I can technically claim.
I took away a greater appreciation for and connection with what it means to truly be in the Ozarks.
Even though I’d thought I could not feel that connection even more deeply than I already did, I was not prepared for the sense of being enveloped by the clear, chilly darkness, shining diamond stars and the silence — and seeing the authenticity of generations of tradition. Witnessing a connection with a place that gives you knowledge and know-how that is seemingly part of who you are.
One of those people who helped in this realization was Rick Mansfield, a writer, historian, Ozarks preservationist and former education leader who was my host. Now 65, he has lived all of his life locally save a few years for military service. When I saw him dressed up in character at a Round Spring gathering a few months ago — personifying someone depicted in L.L. Broadfoot’s book of old-time Ozarkers — I did not imagine that I would be on his boat on a frigid February evening.
But after exchanging hellos a few times at gatherings over his way in recent months, he asked if I’d like to try gigging. I’m all for new Ozarks experiences, so I was thrilled at the opportunity: I jumped in the car on sunny Saturday morning for the nearly three-hour drive to the tiny town of Ellington in Reynolds County, where he lives with his wife, Judy.
A life impacted by educators
As we readied to head to the river, I learned a lot. Of his growing up thereabouts, and attending a rural school that saw kids grades one to eight. Of being on his own when barely a teenager, but yet managing to make his way in the world — supporting himself, and selling wood as he said others did back then — and of ultimately earning four academic degrees: bachelor’s, master’s, specialist and PhD, which eventually led to his position as superintendent at Eminence, the seat of nearby Shannon County. And all because he saw other teachers who made a difference from his eyes as a child.
Though not in the walls of a school these days, he still works to educate. One way is through a nonprofit organization called Ozark Heritage Project, which supports regional improvement initiatives such as annual river cleanups and cultural events at local historical sites.
“We have hosted the Lower Current River Cleanup for this will be the 14th year,” he says, and notes other events at Akers, Round Springs, Big Spring and Alley Spring that the organization has helped support. “We sell my dozen books to help fund OHP, but OHP annually gives away hundreds of books. The most recent book — ‘Ghosts of Dillard Mill’ — was written to help fund preservation of the mill, and we are about to release ‘Zoe’s First Pie Supper’ to help fund restoration of the Mt. Zion Church above Akers.”
And part of that effort is by sharing his love of the region with folks like me who have never been gigging before. For me — the person who is cold when it’s 80 degrees out — it also meant graciously lending additional layers to wear as we prepared for frigid temps. And after I don an extra layer beneath my jeans, another set of socks, sweatshirt, coveralls as well as my own heavy coat, hat, scarf and gloves, we head to the river.
Boat in tow, we drive to the river, curving between trees after turning off down a less-traveled road, and I hear about his own history with gigging.
“When I was 27 years old, I bought my first gigging boat,” he says. “In 28 days, I gigged 27 times. I had my own boat and I didn’t need to get permission.”
There, we pull up on the gravel, build a fire and wait for the arrival of John Moss, who is also tied to the region with invisible ties that can never be broken.
Family tree with deep Ozarks roots
Time was much younger when his grandfather’s grandfather first trekked hereabouts, and the family’s roots in the region have only deeped ever since.
“I’ve always been interested in history, and family is a very important thing,” he said. “This is kind of where my family is rooted.”
I learned, too, that his family owned at least 600 acres along the river that today is part of Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Even though the family was obligated to sell to the government for the Riverway’s creation, the water didn’t become unimportant in their lives — proven by the untold number of times John has been on the water in his 20-something years, and in light of his growing up in Ellington, a town with only a few hundred people.
“You either went someplace else,” he told me of things to do, “Or you went to the river.”
As the dark comes on more quickly, another group arrives to gig. It proves another layer of connection: turns out, they are relatives of John and clearly have also spent a lot of time on the river.
“We’ll kill about 15 or so and we’ll be back,” one said, followed by a reply: “So you’ll be back in about 15 minutes?”
We leave the light of their boat in the background as we move away from the shore, propelled by a small motor as twilight fades to dusk and dark.
I was not prepared for the sensation of moving on the water at this time of day. Even though it was likely in the 20s or teens in temperature — and again, I’m usually freezing when it’s 80 degrees out — it didn’t feel cold. It felt like a connection with a world more real than you can sense from a car or on the other side of a screen. A connection heightened by the crystal-clear water where you can see every stone and color like a collection of Ozarks jewels just beneath the surface.
Once we reached a part of the river where fish were likely to be, John and I stood on the front of the boat. Gigging season runs for five months — from September 15 through February 15 — and there are different advantages at different times of year. Earlier on, it’s more pleasant in temperatures, but the fish are more “wily” and are quick to move. Later on, you likely deal with cooler temperatures, but those also slow the fish — making them theoretically easier to spear with the long-handled gig gripped in your fists.
A cold, but successful and dry, trip
My skills, however, were not enhanced by this advantage. I ultimately learned that my technique is amazing — if you don’t want to catch any fish.
Most of the fish that swam by were lucky as I tried to machete-style catch them, all evading the forks on the end of my long wooden handle. My efforts were technically successful when John also grabbed onto the handle and helped spear two of them. (Thankfully, he also helped grab me several times when the boat turned, avoiding far more immersive experiences with the river.)
I was told I could claim that I caught all the fish that night, given that we were on the river and fishermen’s tales are allowed. But I won’t claim that, because it was equally rewarding to watch John gig fish after fish, proving a skill perhaps perfected over generations and in the same place where those roots remain.
Eventually, we buzzed back through the night, first to the shore and then to Rick’s house, where the fish were cleaned and fried and enjoyed.
The day ended, but won’t be forgotten: not by my memory, or in the progression of time and the continuation of a tradition that has stayed, despite a world changing all around us.