DORA, Mo. - Kyle Kosovich was taking a trip into the Ozarks’ rich past.
With his yellow Lab Sedge at his side, he paddled his wooden johnboat through a riffle on the North Fork of the White River and took in the float stream’s timeless beauty.
It’s a special place, Kosovich will tell you - a place filled with Ozarks history and lore, a place that is linked to the past. Maybe that’s why Kosovich feels at home there every time he launches the johnboat he built by hand.
“This is where some of the first Ozarks float trips took place,” said Kosovich as he paddled through a swift run. “Years ago, Jim Owen (who ran a thriving float fishing business from the 1930s through the 1950s) would take customers down the river in boats like this and they had some fantastic smallmouth bass fishing.
“A commissary man would go ahead and set up camp, put up the tents and fix the meals, and they’d stay out on the river for days. To me, that’s just a fascinating part of Ozarks culture.”
The White has changed over the years, with dams built in several locations to form larger reservoirs such as Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfork. But there are still extended sections of floatable river. And that’s where Kosovich is busy trying to recreate history.
Each week, he launches his 20-foot longboat and guides customers to some of the finest trout and smallmouth bass fishing in the Missouri Ozarks.
“I’ve been fishing this river since I was a kid,” said Kosovich, 28, who lives in Springfield while he finishes up his graduate work at Missouri State University. “Back then, we would use our bikes, hike, wade, do anything we could to get onto the river.
“We were just hillbilly kids and the river was our place to play.”
Kosovich remembers how he would catch insects, put them in a jar and take them home. Then he would inspect them and try to imitate them as he tied flies.
“I’ll never forget the first trout I caught on one of my flies,” he said. “I caught it on a Prince Nymph and I was as proud as I could be.
“From there, I had the bug, no pun intended.”
When Kosovich got tired of merely wading, he wanted a boat. But not just any boat. He wanted one long enough to accommodate fly fishermen, one that would easily glide over riffles, one that was easy to maneuver.
That’s when he came across plans for building the old Ozarks johnboat He and a friend worked one winter to fashion that boat out of mahogany and it was ready to go by the next spring.
“At first, it looked way too long,” Kosovich said. “I wasn’t sure how it would handle.”
But those worries vanished after that first trip. Kosovich was able to use a paddle to easily maneuver the longboat into prime fishing spots. And he set up a guide service, Longboat Outfitters.
Many of his trips start at his in-laws’ resort, the River of Life Farm, which features unique treehouse cabins built into the hillside overlooking the river.
From there, he often takes his customers on a four to five-mile trip filled with gurgling riffles, bluffs, and fish-filled water.
That’s where he was on a recent weeknight, taking refuge from the heat. As he neared an eddy on the backside of a run, he used his flyrod to whip a nymph fly to the swirling backcurrent.
The moment it landed, a trout rose and slurped it in. The fish fought hard in the current and Kosovich’s flyrod bent sharply.
But he had the fish to the boat momentarily, and showed the brilliant fish to his dog.
“That’s what we’re looking for, Sedge,” he said.
A second later, the rainbow was swimming free and Kosovich was using his spinning rod to cast an olive-colored marabout jig. He cast it along the current line and let it tumble over the submerged rocks below. When it got halfway down, he felt a tap and he set the hook. Then he watched as a chunky smallmouth bass burst out of the water.
Within seconds, he had the 15-inch fish in hand.
“That’s the nice thing about this stretch of river,” he said. “You can catch both trout and smallmouth bass.”
And with the springs that dump cold water into the river, a good flow is virtually ensured, even in times of heat and drought.
Most of the guide trips Kosovich does now are day trips. But he looks forward to the days when he will do overnight trips, camping on gravel bars, fixing meals over a campfire and floating several days.
“I’d like to do those multiday trips like they did years ago,” he said. “That where people really get an idea of what the Ozarks are really all about.”
FLOATING THE OZARKS
The Ozarks have many streams that offer great fishing in a beautiful setting. Here are a few options:
BIG PINEY RIVER: This 110-mile tributary of the Gasconade River in central Missouri offers outstanding smallmouth bass fishing. Fishermen in recent years have reported catching large numbers of fish from 12 to 15 inches.
BIG RIVER: This 145-mile river in east-central Missouri also is known for its big smallmouths. A survey indicated that more than 30 percent of its smallies exceeded the 12-inch mark.
GASCONADE RIVER: Known as one of the world’s most crooked rivers, the Gasconade flows through central and south-central Missouri. It is 280 miles long and has plenty of good smallmouth habitat.
JACKS FORK RIVER: This 47-mile stream, located in south-central Missouri, is part of the National Scenic Riverways. It is one of the most primitive rivers in the region, with less access than surrounding rivers. It offers outstanding smallmouth bass fishing.
NIANGUA RIVER: This 125-mile river in south-central Missouri is one of the closest to Kansas City. It gets plenty of activity from canoeists. But it also has plenty of fish. Fishermen can find smallmouth bass in the section of the river above Bennett Spring and rainbow trout below.