Fishing and filming on the Current River

Ken Kieser
Special to the Times
Billy Smith is a top guide on the Current River.

Casting lures in a gin-clear stream is relaxing. Our boat softly moved with the current, allowing ample time to cast for smallmouth bass and goggle-eyed perch that hid behind sunken rocks or logs. 

We joined river guide extraordinaire, Billy Smith, his father, Windy (82), and his uncle, Stan (70), to fish the Current River in southeastern Missouri. Windy and Stan are tough as nails and both look younger than their actual age. They both previously owned canoe rental businesses on the Current and spent their lives working and playing on this beautiful stretch of pristine waters. 

Kenneth Kieser

The weather was unmercifully hot, the first real high temperatures of summer. Several casts close to shore in tree-overhang shadows produced a light strike.

The line barely moved sideways, yet caught enough attention to draw a hook set. The medium action spinning rod had a generous bend when the smallmouth bass made its first run. Several slashing runs later, the 1.5-pounder was released to grow and fight again. Several more smallmouth bass were caught on this deadly swimbait combination.

Billy Smith smiled and pointed to an eddy of faster water. We made casts to this spot and his dad caught three smallmouth and a goggle-eye in minutes. The fish were laying by swift water to feed on passing gizzard shad, threadfin minnow or sculpin minnows.   

A movie camera caught all the action. The invitation to be filmed fishing in a movie was hard to turn down. Dr. Andrew Cline invited fellow outdoor writer Bill Cooper and me to join him filming the Current River in Shannon County, Missouri, while gathering fishing footage for “A Portrait of the Ozarks,” a documentary film being produced by the Missouri State University Libraries and the Ozarks Studies Institute.

The  Current  was once the site of four Civil War skirmishes at Pitman’s Ferry in Randolph County. This is a well-known river for canoeing and fishing. The 184-mile-long Current River begins in Montauk State Trout Park and ends in Arkansas where it receives the Little Black River from the northeast and joins the Black River. Many have made a living off this long stretch of water. 

“Dad and mom started Wendy’s Canoe Rental in 1969,” Billy said. “Stan, too, owned and operated a canoe rental business with his fishing tackle company. Stan is one of the best smallmouth fishermen on the river.” 

Windy and Stan both helped guide back in the day of the old wooden Jon boats while living and working on farms by the river. Their stories are amazing.

“I was just a boy when they were running wooden Jon boats down the river,” Windy said. “I would hire out to help cook, clean up the camp and pack when we were ready to go. The wooden Jon boats were 20-feet long. A couple of clients fished while the guide controlled the boat. Then at lunch crates of cooking utensils and food were unloaded and prepared on a gravel bar and later repacked for the afternoon fishing. At night tents were set up and then dinner cooked while the clients enjoyed cocktails and cigars or pipes. Those guides really earned their pay.”

Stan worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation and other organizations on the river, including rescue. 

“I was on rescue patrol when a woman and her husband were frantically yelling on the bank,” Stan said. “I asked them what was wrong and they said their baby was still in the river. So, I found the sunken canoe and pulled it up enough to see the baby was not visible. I went downstream and came back to the canoe, feeling really nervous. I knew that baby would likely be dead by then and probably floated away. I asked them what the baby looked like and they described their dog. Minutes later the dog came running down the bank to them, of course all dogs can swim. I was both angry and relieved.” 

Wooden Jon boat guiding was common on bigger Ozark streams like the Current River and White River. The Smiths found different ways to make their living until the next generation took over. 

“My folks operated the Powder Mill Ferry on Highway 106 from 1968 until it was taken out of commission with the completion of the bridge,” Billy said. “I started helping other guide services out of Van Buren, Missouri, in the mid 80s after working 35 years with the National Park Service in 2015, then I started my river-guiding business.”

The wooden Jon boats are gone and Billy has a big, comfortable fishing boat with a 90 horsepower outboard motor. He, too, has a 19-foot square-sterned canoe for fishing or running the upper Current River and Jack’s Fork River. 

This talented guide has learned the ever-changing river and channels where clean maneuvering is easy. Moving closer to the right or left of big gravel bars could be a costly mistake.

“Problem is, the river is filling up with gravel in many areas,” Billy said. “Heavy logging operations and other factors have increased erosion and big gravel bars are spreading across the river. We hope some of this gravel will soon be removed.”

They once wanted to dam this beautiful stretch, but the bill to build a dam was blocked. The Current River is now part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and protected by the National Park Service as a free-flowing stream. I am thankful it is. 

Later that day Billy and Cooper prepared fried fish fillets and potatoes at a campsite by the river. We enjoyed the amazing meal followed by a good cigar while watching the Current River flow downstream, just as it has for centuries. 

To fish the Current with renowned guide Billy Smith at Scenic Rivers Guide Service, call 573-225-3390.