The Master Owler Award by Gordon Chrisman

The river has always been in my blood. I grew up on a sandy bottomed river in Nebraska named the Platte, and have always held the outdoors and fishing in the highest regard. There is just something special about being out there on the open water watching the sunlight or the moonbeams dancing atop the waves and hearing the cottonwood leaves rustling on a hot summer night. You simply cannot experience the sheer awe of nature and not believe that there is so much more to life than what we can see! If you do a great deal of night fishing for catfish, you can see many unusual things. Sometimes, you experience things that you can hardly believe, even though you did see it!

Thus was the case one hot Nebraska summer when I planned a week long boating trip down the Platte River to camp and fish. I loaded up my flat-bottomed jon with the barest of necessities and berthed the boat from a launch 25 miles upriver on a beautiful, sunny morning. I floated down river, quietly and gracefully, soaking in all the wonders of the outdoors. Every so often, I would test the depth of the channel with my oar. Whenever I would find a productive looking location, I would toss out my anchor and fish. I caught a few here, a few there, but only enough to make a light meal.

The daytime temperatures grew increasingly hotter with no sign of relief in sight. By the third day, my portable thermometer was reading 106 Fahrenheit in the shade. With no breeze at night, even sleeping was becoming a sweaty chore. To top it all off, the fish just didn\’t seem to want to bite. I was having better luck catching soft-shell turtles (cooters) than fish! One turtle even managed to entangle all four of my fishing lines into the greatest rats\’ nest knot I had ever seen! I spent the hours from three a.m. until dawn just trying to save as much of my line on each reel as I could. Needless to say, the cooter didn\’t live through the ordeal.

The next night, I thought my luck had turned more positive. I landed a nice four and one-half pound flathead. I stringered this fish the next morning and moved on to the next hole. Upon arriving at this next stop, I checked my fish, only to find that the brass ring on the nylon stringer had pulled apart and the fish had gone free. This special stop I made was to check out a creek which the river had cut through an island. A couple of years before, I had boated into this creek out of curiosity and found that the creek meandered through the entire island for a little over a mile. A den of beavers had constructed a dam near the outlet. Their dam had created a lake which was full of catfish and the depth was averaging five feet. This year was a very dry one though, and the opening to the creek was sanded shut. I hiked down the dry channel with my pole and bait, thinking that the lake had to still be there. You probably guessed, it was totally dried up too!

As I made my way back out through the steamy, sweltering heat, in-between the jointed snake grasses and breeze stifling willows, a buck whitetail caught my scent and wasn\’t very happy with my presence. He chased me through the loose, soft sand of the creek until I made it to the open river and jumped over the jon boat and into the deepest water I could find! The buck just stood at the edge of the timber and snorted and pawed the ground. I gathered up my rod and bait and slid my boat off the sandbar and made a humble get-away.

What lay down river for me was not pleasant. The water level in the river had dropped so much due to the dry weather and I was entering into the widest and shallowest part. I had to get out and portage the boat over many a sandbar. Even if I were to find and stick to a channel, it would soon branch out so much that there was nothing left to float the boat in. I had to scuttle all the ice in my beer cooler and in the cooler which I had filled to keep the fish fresh (heck, I wasn\’t using that ice anyway).

I finally reached the home stretch near dusk, about 3/4 of a mile from the cabin. With no fish to show for my efforts, I was determined to give it one more try. I threw out all my lines and waited… and waited… Disgusted as heck, I curled up on my sleeping bag and sacked out. About 2:30 a.m. I awakened to the sound of bells! Bells!? I thought it was Christmas and Santa and his reindeer were landing on the sandbar! Every one of my poles had a fish on and I didn\’t know which one to reel in first! Wouldn\’t you know it! The best fishing spot was right there close to my cabin! I had just spent an entire week traversing 50 miles through a winding river channel (which would have been only 20-25 miles if the river was flowing), getting sunburned and fighting the river and the turtles and the deer! And all I really had to do was walk out in front of the cabin and cast (well, pretty close to that, anyhow).

I ended up with nearly 50 pounds of cleaned flathead catfish that night. I was so impressed with this hole that I talked my brother into going out again the next night. We sat there and fished the same hole, with the same baits, for hours. Not even a nibble. I tried to convince him that they were not going to bite until the wee hours of the morning, but I don\’t think he ever believed me. I thought I would try an old trick on the flatheads by presenting a very large minnow on top. I took off all my weights except a small split shot and let the line go out and out. Then put a bell on the pole. We finally sacked out and curled up inside our sleeping bags. Our fire went out eventually and the night went on.

Sure enough, near 3:30 a.m., the bell on my pole rang like a four alarm fire was at full blaze! My brother was yelling at me to get up and I was yelling at him to get the net! I was so excited that I couldn\’t even unzip my sleeping bag, so I did a potato sack race to the pole with the ringing bell! I knew the fish had already set the hook or swallowed it by now, so I reared back and pumped the pole for leverage. There was NOTHING! I revealed to my brother that I had lost him, and just then, my drag began to whine! Half asleep as I still was, I couldn\’t figure this riddle out. The pole was bending over behind me. The fish had gone up river? You might think… The river turned away from us. There was nothing but sandbar behind me for nearly one-half mile and then it was river bank, bluffs and trees.
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I fought this great flying catfish for nearly 30 minutes until we heard a great splash in the shallow water near the sandbar. By then, my brother had managed to get the Coleman lantern lit and walked toward the splashdown area. And there it was, a Great Horned Owl, nearly hip tall to me, and clutching my minnow in his/her talons. We assumed that it had to be hooked after all that fighting. We then attempted to free the uncooperative bird of prey from the hook. We were pecked and clawed and beat with its great wings. The old bird just finally unclutched his great talons and let the minnow and hook drop! It was never even hooked!

Totally soaked, tired and confused, the owl just hopped across the sandbar and into the darkness, leaving us with an empty stringer and shaking our heads in disbelief. Just to top off this story, there was no moon on this night, only starlight, so you tell me how great the eyesight of an owl really is!

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