Story by Tom Loeffler | Apr 28, 2015
Guided tours by Ozark Sweetwater encourage anglers to relax, make a catch and enjoy the surroundings.
We’ve all been on guided tours. Some are quite good, but others are, well, something else. Inevitably, you get stuck in the back of the pack and can’t hear. If you can hear, the guide is either new or nervous and doesn’t know what he or she is talking about it, or the guide has done it so many times that he or she is one adjective away from falling asleep.
But that’s not the case on this guided tour. If you’re bored, it’s your fault. And though your guide is certainly knowledgeable, this is more about what you’ll do and see than what he has to say. You’ll get to experience the thrill of the catch, all while surrounded by some of the best scenery nature has to offer.
“I’m just a local guy who knows how to catch a lot of fish and usually does pretty well with it,” says Chris Gates.
Gates has been a guide on fishing tours for six years, the last six with Ozark Sweetwater, a business founded in 2012 in extreme south-central Missouri on the Arkansas border. Accompanied by either Gates or Jeff Trigg, owner and head guide of Sweetwater, you’ll float the crystal clear waters of the North Fork, White, Niangua and Norfork rivers while fly fishing for trout in the spring and smallmouth bass in the summer. The pair takes anglers on about 80 trips a year, with Trigg guiding the majority of those.
“With my family and career, I just don’t have as much time to spend with it as Jeff does,” Gates says. “If I guided as much as he did, I’d be single.”
Both Gates and Trigg have local roots and live in central Missouri. Gates, 40, is a graduate of Jefferson City High School and earned his degree in psychology from Westminster College. These days, he’s a commercial Realtor for Kolb Properties. Being a guide is his hobby.
“I love to fish the North Fork and the White,” he says. “That’s where I spend the majority of my time fishing in Missouri. They’re rivers I love because you have wild rainbows. They don’t stock any in the river. They do stock brown trout, but they don’t stock rainbows.”
The North Fork, which is a tributary of the White River, has approximately 13 miles of officially designated trout water extending from Norfolk Lake upstream to Rainbow Springs. One of the largest springs in Missouri, Rainbow pumps nearly 140,000 gallons a day into the White River and, aided by smaller springs along the way, provides an optimal habitat for trout.
“It’s the best experience there is in Missouri, in my opinion,” says Gates, who’s called a specialist on the North Fork on the company’s website, ozarksweetwater.com. The site says he will “employ every technique necessary to put fish in the boat.”
Although he’s fished all over the country, including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska, he was a late arrival to the fly-fishing party, taking it up at age 26. “I cut my teeth down at Bennett and Montauk and the different trout parks around Missouri,” he says. “I fell in love with it.”
His passion can now be found on the river, where he directs anglers to the water’s hot spots.
“We take all different kinds of folks,” Gates says. “Most of them are novice to intermediate fishermen. If you’re an expert, you may not feel the need for a guide. This is for people who love the sport but can only get out a few days a year, and when they do get out, they want to have a quality experience.”
All the rods, reels and tackle you’ll need are provided on the tours, and the flies are custom tied specifically for those rivers. The trips, which last most of the day, are catch and release and include lunch on the river. The majority of the fishing is from the boat, but they do occasionally strap on waders and get in the water.
“Most novice and intermediate anglers can catch fish easier from the boat,” Gates says. “You have a mechanical advantage because you’re sitting on top of the water. Plus, you’re floating the speed of the current, so it’s easier to give the proper presentation that the fish want to see.”
These trips can be instant memory makers. Last year, a father-son venture turned into Dad catching the biggest trout of his life, and the family had an oil painting done as a Christmas present to commemorate the moment.
“What I enjoy most about taking people fishing is letting them experience the great rivers in Missouri,” Gates says. “We live in a busy world, and for a few days, people get away and decompress from the hustle and bustle of life. Also, when most folks think of trout fishing in Missouri, they think of trout parks such as Bennett Spring and Montauk. There is nothing wrong with those places, but that’s only the beginning of trout fishing in Missouri.”
The guys at Sweetwater are thinking big for next year, including outfitted trips to the Patagonia region of South America and other destinations. “It’s a region in Argentina and Chile that’s similar to what you have out west, like in Montana and Idaho,” Gates says. If those trips are a hit, future adventures might include the Amazon River in a quest to catch peacock bass.
Whether it’s a guided tour in Missouri or South America, you won’t be disappointed by what you see or do or with the Sweetwater guide who’s leading your venture.
“A lot of guys who are guiding are on the water 200 days a year,” Gates says, “and they know the river well. But they really don’t care; they’re just out there to get your money. But my thing is, I’m doing it because I love it. We’ll go catch a lot of fish and have a lot of fun. Most days in life don’t stand out, but life is about those days that do.”
Photography provided by Dave Hosler, Ben Levin and Jeff Trigg.