White River combines gratitude and awe


I read a good article online the other day while sipping my morning coffee. The writer’s point was that the pandemic should have taught us some valuable lessons. If not, it was a wasted opportunity to learn something.

For one thing, all the isolation and anxiety should have made us adopt more of an attitude of gratitude. Yes, some things have been temporarily taken away. It’s often true we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. We should also value the little things that we often overlook as being truly awe-inspiring if we but just take a moment to really notice them.

When’s the last time you took a minute to appreciate a beautiful sunset? Or really examine a cloud formation? Or pondered why worms want to head out across a dry hot sidewalk or street? Don’t they know they probably won’t make it? What’s on the other side that they want to see? Why are hummingbirds fighting over one feeder when there are two others close by? These things are the lovely mysteries of nature. But we often are too busy to notice. How about being grateful for the many blessings you have rather than bemoan what you don’t have? If you’re like me, much of the time I’m way too distracted by life’s concerns and cares to feel true gratitude for all I’ve been given or to really notice nature’s bounty and wonder.

But when I fish the White River below Shoals, I always take a few moments to just look around at the astounding beauty of the area. Rivers in some other states are so picturesque. In Indiana not so much, but the East Fork of the White in Martin County and in some parts of Dubois County can be quite scenic. If you find yourself winding through Shoals, take a look at the Bluffs of Beaver Bend. As you cross the bridge heading east, take the first right hand turn, right after the bridge. Go about a mile down a county road that borders the river. You’ll cross a small bridge over a creek, then take the next right onto Spout Springs Road. It’s a bit rough, but in 100 yards, you’ll come to a small circular parking area that the state has improved recently. Park there and go around the gate and down the road.

The gate prevents sportsmen or hikers from driving down the road, which leads to a private farm, but walkers are permitted. Off to your left you’ll see magnificent sheer cliffs and a trailhead leading up the cliffs. The high wall explains why the river takes such a sharp bend. It also explains where all the boulders in the river came from. Crayfish and hellgrammites love to hide under rocks in or near the river. River fish, especially perch, love to nudge them out for lunch.

My middle son, Aaron, joined me recently for an afternoon of wade fishing at a spot we’ve been using for maybe 20 years. It’s a 200-yard walk down a gravel road to a prominent shallow area which we use as our base of operations. Getting from the road down to the river is a challenge. It’s steep, slick, and loaded with all manner of poisonous plants. Wearing pants is a must.

After you’ve negotiated the slippery slope and arrive on the riverbank, the next step is finding hellgrammites. These nasty two-inch creatures, the larvae stage of eastern dobsonflies, live under certain rocks that are near the water’s edge. Turn over five likely-looking rocks near the water’s edge, the larger and flatter the better, and you might find one hellgrammite.

I’ve learned over the years that you don’t want these guys to grab you with their front pincers, so when I catch one, I quickly snip off his tongs. That makes them harmless. It only takes finding two or three of these to set one up for a couple of hours of casting. As they’re very tough and have a convenient hard collar for the hook, fish have a hard time stripping them off.

A Bitsy Bug 1/16-ounce jig with one of these black beauties on the back makes a fine bait, a T-bone steak to a river fish. I caught around a half dozen perch and used two hellgrammites.

As Aaron had to be back in Spencer in the early evening, we opted for starting about two o’clock, which is normally not an ideal time as the sun was hot and bright. But he was into nice perch quickly, and I eventually caught my share. It can be tricky wading the rocky river when the water visibility limits what you can see in front of you. More than once, I’ve banged my shin on a big boulder. If one takes small steps and stays very careful, the worst that can happen is that you take a tumble into the warm water of the White, and that’s not so bad, as long as you don’t lose rod or gear. I’ve found a walking stick attached to a belt is a good idea.

I really enjoy this type of fishing: I make a cast upriver and work the bait skimming the bottom as the jig tumbles downstream. It’s a delicate art of not letting the jig sink too long, otherwise hang-ups in the rocks result. The trick is allowing the jig to just tick the bottom. The perch, facing upstream, want to be in a slight depression or behind a rock to deflect some of the current. When a strike comes, it’s a definite contrast to bumping a rock. The perch we caught probably averaged two to three pounds, and they’re a handful in the fairly swift water. They don’t jump but just thrash powerfully. When we land them, we extract the single hook jig and gently release our catch back into the river. The perches’ mouths are small for their size—I’ve never had one take the hook deeply. If hellgrammites or crayfish are not available, small crankbaits will work too, though the treble hooks are much harder to extract. But you just can’t beat live bait in almost any fishing situation, especially on the White River.

In October, the smallmouth bass also become more active. They actually prefer faster moving baits like small crankbaits it seems, but I’ve caught some on the jig too. Wherever you’re fishing or hunting this fall, set aside a few moments to really take a good look around and appreciate all you’ve been given.

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