MARION COUNTY — For most of its miles the Cottonwood River is narrow enough that a small child can nearly skip a flat stone from one side to the other.
What it lacks in size, the Cottonwood makes up for in looks and lore.
In places, the prairie-born river bisects grasslands changed little since the days of pronghorn and Pawnee.
Even where it snakes through some of Kansas’ best croplands, trees like gargantuan cottonwoods and stately, white-barked sycamores grow high and wide enough to seemingly lock limbs with trees on the other shore.
Through this arbor-lined tunnel, clear water bumps down shallow riffles and gathers pools scoured deep on the river’s outside bends when the Cottonwood is running wild.
The channel and flathead catfish within these pools have been legendary since the first metal hook was dropped into the Cottonwood pushing 200 years ago.
Last weekend I spent some time with about 20 friends gathered for their 25th annual time to camp and set lines along a fabled stretch of the river.
Alex Case, the camp’s organizer, or maybe ringleader would be a better title, has family roots that go deeper into the Cottonwood River valley than those of the tallest trees.
The Cases have been in the valley for nearly 150 years, and he’s a descendant of Ned Noll, a noted angler who fished the Cottonwood through much of the early to mid-1900s.
As well known as Noll, was his piscine nemesis, a huge flathead known as Ol’ George.
Shortly after lighting a two-day campfire, Case took a seat by the stone fire ring and talked of the great fish and the fisherman as he waited for other guests to arrive.
“Uncle Ned swore Ol’ George was at least 100 pounds, and he was absolutely obsessed with catching that fish. They had quite the war going on, with a bunch of busted lines and straightened hooks. The story goes that he finally had him on a line one time, in the middle of a storm, and as he was struggling to get the huge fish into the boat, the boat slipped. Uncle Ned ended up in the water and Ol’ George was gone. They say he fished for that fish for decades.”
Noll was dead before he and Case could share the Cottonwood, but the 51-year-old Case vividly remembers seeing his ancestor’s fishing equipment.
“He had these big, steel hooks made that were half the size of hay hooks,” Case said, spreading his palms to the size of a softball. “For banklines he had these giant bamboo poles wrapped in clothesline wire. I remember my dad and I used them.”
As daylight faded, the meadow near Noll’s time-honored fishing holes filled with tents and camping trailers.
Case explained the first such campout/fishing weekend was in 1989, a bachelor party with teammates from their rugby days at K-State.
Now many of the group are the sons of those original campers.
Augusta-raised Ben Riedel, 21, was in camp even though his father, Brian, had recently moved to the East Coast. “I’ve just been coming for so long,” Riedel said of his decision to squeeze in two days at camp before working the summer in Colorado.
Several of Case’s friends from Marion were also along. Jeff Richmond, a high school football teammate, brought the treasured bait of green sunfish.
Griffin King said it’s one of his favorite weekends of the year, and that he’d been attending “ever since I was a little kid.” That’s pretty bold talk for a 7-year-old.
Most of the original rugby crowd followed behind as the second generation fought mud, brush, trees and gravity to carefully lower a boat down a steep bank and on to the river.
Wading beside the boat that held their equipment, some jammed long metal rods into the bank’s soft mud while other lines were tied from branches overhanging the water.
Some of the sunfish baits were big enough to have warranted frying at many camps.
The biggest fish of the first night was a flathead of about 18 pounds, and a few channel cats were in the 10-pound range.
The weekend total was about 15 catfish, about one-third of the catch the inaugural weekend in 1989.
In between twice-daily line checks, hours were spent around the campfire that served as clothes drier and the source of the kind of huge breakfasts that provide job security for cardiologists.
First-generation anglers told stories of long ago weekends that second generation anglers had probably heard so often they could recite them by heart.
They talked of bandit great blue herons helping themselves to catfish, and flash floods that had swept a weekend’s catch away.
They reminisced the surprise of finding a very unhappy beaver waiting on one of the hooks and of the mysterious fish, or critters, that snapped stout lines or bent the best hooks.
Was Ol’ George still around, or a fish of similar size?
Case nixed the first possibility, saying the time was too long even for an ancient-living flathead to survive. These days a Moby flathead from that stretch of the Cottonwood would be 50 pounds.
But the biggest fish in the river could be five pounds, and the campers would return every May to swap the old stories, laugh loudly and stare silently into the roaring fire.
To them, the size of the experience is far more important than the size of the fish, and for that the Cottonwood River still doesn’t disappoint.