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The three of us, all newly acquainted, had one thing in common when we met to fish the Grand River last August: We were eager to catch catfish. Until that day, I had never tossed a lure in northern Missouri. I am not the only one. Many anglers turn south to Missouri's big lakes and rivers to catch their limits. A day on the Grand River with Howsman and Gray convinced me that northern Missouri has a lot to offer an angler.
We slipped Howsman's 14-foot johnboat onto the smooth water of the Grand just after 7 a.m. After Howsman got the aging outboard motor running with a carefully placed tap from some old pliers, cool air whipped around the hair poking out under my new ball cap, which bore the name "Ardent Outdoors." That is the name of Gray's company, based in Macon. With Howsman's years of experience and Gray's high-quality bass fishing reels, I was smelling a fish fry in my future.
By 7:15, Howsman had his boat wedged among some logs, and we were getting rigged up. Sunshine finally hit the river, striking sparks from every ripple. Howsman grabbed a fistful of plastic worms, which glowed red in the morning sun. I caught a familiar, pungent aroma.
Looking for the source, I spied a plain white bucket filled with a peanut butter-like substance. I knew better than to have a taste. It was Sonny's Dip Bait. Howsman has been using it for years. We took turns dunking our red worms in the goo with a stick until a sizable glob stuck.
While we waited for the first bite, Gray showed off his new reel, which already had logged quite a few miles since leaving the Ardent factory in Macon. He had taken the reel to a trade show in Florida. I would have expected the owner of a company that makes bass reels to test his product with a professional bass angler at the Lake of the Ozarks. Instead, he was testing new waters.
"Bass fishers like catfishing too," he explained.
We made our second stop abruptly at 8:45 a.m., when Howsman slammed his boat against some flood debris. It was a bit disconcerting getting rammed into logs in a 14' boat, but I was more concerned with catching a fish. Just then, Gray got the first bite. His new reel got its first fish. "Your reel works," Howsman said as he landed his first catfish of the day. "That's a nice smooth reel," he said, cranking in his catch.
I picked Gray's brain about his company. Anything made in the USA is worth talking about these days, but bass reels manufactured in Missouri, now that's cause for conversation. Ardent Outdoors employs 35 people, mostly in Macon. Gray explained that when he started Ardent Outdoors, there was no manufacturing of general bass reels going on in the United States. He set out to make high-performance fishing reels for American anglers. "Most anglers feel our reels work the best. It's certainly rewarding for all the work I've put in," Gray said, not noticing a little bend in the tip in his rod. He said more than 30 professional anglers use Ardent reels.
"We have the work ethic that made America great. Everyone in the plant is concerned with making the best fishing reels in the world." He discussed his company with such enthusiasm he missed at least two more bites. This didn't seem to bother him. He was happy just to be out fishing with a first-rate guide. "I take a lot of people fishing but I don't consider myself a guide," Howsman said modestly. I felt a tug and instinctively gave my rod a yank. The fight began. Gray quickly adjusted the drag on my Ardent reel and then, smoother than butter, I reeled in my first catfish of the day. "We're going to catch us a mess of fish," said Howsman.
When the bucket was full, we stopped fishing so Howsman could dress the fish for us. He performed the operation right there in the boat, using a board and a knife whose blade was almost worn through from cleaning countless fish. Age apparently is no obstacle to efficient fish cleaning. The mess of fish was ready for the skillet in astonishingly little time. "I can clean 30 crappie in 30 minutes," Howsman said matter-of-factly.
Howsman's fishing knowledge extends well beyond the Grand River. He let us in on a few of his crappie-fishing secrets and followed them up with some good fishing stories from the area. This further whetted my appetite to check out northern waters.
"What's the most important thing to know when fishing?" asked Gray. "Where to fish," said Howsman. And Howsman knows where to fish.
After only one trip with Howsman, I didn't really know much about where to fish. To learn more, I contacted Conservation Department Fisheries Management Biologist Greg Pitchford. He said the Grand River owes its productivity to Northwest Missouri's fertile soils. Despite the good habitat, channel catfish grow slowly in the Grand River. A channel catfish takes about 5 years to grow to 11 inches there.
Flathead and blue catfish are most common in the lower river, where the water is deeper. Channel cats are found consistently throughout the Grand.
There are no dams on the Grand, and plenty of places to reach the river on conservation areas and boating accesses. Besides the 13 formal public access points, there are bridges where anglers can slip a canoe or kayak in the water. Pitchford suggests concentrating fishing efforts around deep holes with little current and around woody debris.
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