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Fish story: chasing Byrdes and getting bit at Lake of the Ozarks

You’ll catch a fish or the trip is free with crappie fishing guide extraordinaire Terry Blankenship.

Homemade bread, backyard chickens, allllllll the Netflix. The forced domesticity over the last year had its high points. But somewhere between “Tiger King” and “Lovecraft Country,” the walls started to close in, and one thing became abundantly clear: We gotta get outta this state. So we took out for Arkansas’s borderlands to help you plan your next road trip. 

A child’s imagination is a great vessel for escape, sure. But after the pandemic kept us homebound for more than a year, the youngest boy in my house needed something less fanciful, more concrete. That became clear this spring when my 10-year-old son tied a metal washer to his fishing line as a weight, then stationed himself in the driveway to practice his cast for hours and days on end. The new reel he’d gotten for Christmas needed breaking in. And watching Puck toss his line down an asphalt river to hook imaginary bass made clear that we needed to break out.

After that odious legislative session, skipping the state never sounded so good. But Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi? Arkansas’s neighbors don’t offer much reprieve as far as politics go. Still, distance affords perspective. Southern Missouri is no hotbed of progressivism, but we heard the fishing was pretty good. Also, the chance of a Jason Bateman sighting was greater than zero. We packed our bags.

Bridal Cave in Camdenton, Missouri, stays a cool, wet 60 degrees year-round.

A key consideration with all road trips is the road itself. You could do far worse than the drive from Central Arkansas to southern Missouri, which routes you through some of the greenest and prettiest parts of The Natural State. Time it right and you can get lunch from the sandwich counter at Coursey’s Smoked Meats in St. Joe. You might need to stop there anyway to recover from car sickness that hits on that particularly wiggly section of I-65. It’s a 5 1/2-hour drive from Little Rock to Lake of the Ozarks, and patience wanes right around the state border. Puck turned down an admittedly lame challenge to look for interesting license plates, but was more than happy to pass the time by keeping eyes peeled for Uranus Fudge Factory billboards (“The best fudge comes from Uranus”).

Right when car sickness threatened a comeback and mutiny was at the door, we rolled up at our first stop. Bridal Cave in Camdenton, Missouri, is a series of limestone and onyx chambers with soaring ceilings and candle drip walls. Called Bridal Cave because of a Native American wedding ceremony thought to have been held there and its many wedding dress-like rock formations, the cave is still a popular wedding spot. The hour-long guided tour, well-lit and easy to navigate on textured cement walkways, is well worth the $15 price of admission. “Cave kiss” water drops rain down on visitors as they shuffle through in single file. It’s these water drops, which started as rainwater on the mountaintop overhead and seeped through the earth, picking up minerals as it went, that built up the cave’s rock formations over millions of years. The tour dead-ends at what’s known as Magic Lake, a deep blue pool that brings to mind a particular Horcrux hiding place from the “Harry Potter” series. The remains of a raft is visible near the lake’s bottom, an artifact from an unknown explorer from long ago. No bones, though, so it’s reasonable to assume Magic Lake was not the explorer’s final resting place. Our takeaways from the tour include a series of blurry pictures captured inexpertly with a selfie stick, and also a pro tip from our guide on how to finally remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. StalacTites have to hold on Tight to the ceiling so they don’t fall.

Unfun fact: Aside from some scenic shots of the lake and dam, none of the show “Ozark” is actually filmed in Missouri.

Once you reach Camdenton you’re ostensibly in Marty Byrde territory, but don’t get too excited. If your pandemic Netflix queue included “Ozark” and you’re anxiously awaiting the fourth season, you’ll be slightly disappointed to learn that very little of the show was actually filmed in Missouri. Aside from some shots of Bagnell Dam, built in 1931 to create Lake of the Ozarks (much to the Snell family’s chagrin) and some overhead footage of the lake itself, the show is filmed almost entirely in Georgia. Which is honestly surprising, because the series gets so many things about the region exactly right. Expansive glass-front compounds line the shore, but trailer homes hide back in the trees. A section of the lake known as Party Cove really does fill up with boats and party barges clustered tightly enough to create sprawling bacchanalian islands of underage debauchery. Those turkey vultures always circling overhead the Byrde family’s misadventures are indeed ubiquitous. At no point did we stumble on illicit poppy fields or sinister operatives for Mexican drug cartels, but the handful of locals I asked confirmed that yes, aside from the heroin storyline, the show gets more right than it gets wrong.

Missouri State Parks offers some reasonably priced cabins and yurts, along with regular campsites, but yurt and cabin reservations go fast. If you’re scrambling for last-minute reservations for a weekend trip, don’t bank on these bargain $55-a-night yurts to come through. A desperate online reservation for a treehouse with no bathroom at a pond-side RV park could have gone either way. It panned out for us. In fact, if you’re traveling with a 10-year-old sidekick, you’ll find nothing better.

Why stay in a hotel when you can stay in a treehouse instead?

The Sycamore is one of five treehouses at Cross Creek RV Park in Eldon, on the north side of the lake. The RV park is at the end of a long dirt road wending through a clump of trailers that exude what “Ozark” fans will recognize as a distinctly Langmore vibe. The road dead-ends at a village of campers, campsites, cabins and treehouses that feels a lot like an all-ages summer camp. Some of the guests keep their RVs there year-round, some stay for weeks or months at a time. Visitors can rent paddle boats to toodle around the pond and work out muscles knotted from a long drive. Fish off the dock, play 18 holes of the garden gnome-themed miniature golf course or commune with the ducks that waddle throughout. The showers are hot, the bath house is clean and social distance is a given. Every campground everywhere has a meemaw, an older woman who stays put in her campsite to man the fire and tend the grandkids. We were lucky enough to witness our campground meemaw flip herself over backward after settling in on a poorly balanced picnic table. It was great entertainment, as soon as we all knew she was OK (but honestly, also before).

Gnome-themed miniature golf feels just right for an Ozark vacation.

The treehouse itself offers a kitchen sink with cold running water, a wall-unit air conditioner, a ceiling fan and two full-sized beds. No ladder climbing required; the treehouse is accessible by stairs. It has a deck with two big trees poking through, a great spot to watch the pond (and any meemaw-related shenanigans). Sheets, blankets and towels aren’t provided, and guests are expected to sweep up and take the trash out when they go. The bathroom is an aerobic hill climb away, although enterprising young boys in treetop perches know some tricks to avoid the trip. There’s plenty of room for four if we want to bring the rest of the family next time. But after a year of constant togetherness against our will, no one complained about having extra elbow room.

An extensive network of fishing guides ply their trade on Lake of the Ozarks, and they stay busy nearly year-round. Luckily these guys all seem to know each other, and they’re so genuinely pumped to get you out on the water that they’ll make some calls to make it happen. James Dill was already spoken for when I inquired about an outing for my 10-year-old and me, having picked his name based on nothing but a Google search and pictures on his website of happy customers gripping largemouth bass. Dill was booked but promised to figure something out and call me back. And he did! Half an hour later, I had one on the line.

Anyone with an eponymous website is either wildly overconfident or legitimately badass. Terry Blankenship of terryblankenship.com is among the coolest people I’ve ever met. Featured multiple times on the covers of every crappie fishing magazine out there (surprisingly, there are quite a few), Blankenship spends most days on the water in his high-tech, hyper-branded boat equipped with depth finders, fish sensors and multiple monitors to help ensure his customers get their money’s worth. If you don’t catch anything, the trip is free. All of his customers have paid in full since 1978. You’ll pull in a few bass, but crappie is Blankenship’s specialty. “Crappie fishing is my passion,” he said. “I’ve done it since I was a kid, and I’ll do it until I can’t cast again.” He throws back most of what he catches, but counts crappie as the tastiest of freshwater fish, and he eats it for dinner once a week. His perfect recipe: filet the fish, coat in a 50/50 mix of mustard and sour cream, then dredge in fish batter mix and deep fry.

Puck reeled in 11 crappie and two bass over four hours.

The fishing guides at Lake of the Ozarks all charge about the same, with $350 getting you a 4-hour tour for one or two people, and the average tip is $50. Six- and 8-hour tours are available, but 4 hours gave us enough time to practice our casts, sightsee a good bit of the lake and reel in 16 fish (Puck easily beat his all-time record of seven fish and went on to claim 13 catches, all before noon. I gave it my all but landed only three). Be prepared to pay with cash. Blankenship supplies rods, reels and know-how. He’ll show you how to cast, where to cast and how to close the deal when you “get bit.” The niftiest trick we picked up is called “dock shooting,” and involves precision slingshotting your bait under boat docks and into the clouds of fish hiding there.

Blankenship also provides lots of star power. His flashy boat with a branded wrap and thousands of dollars worth of gadgetry attracts loads of attention. People on other boats took pictures of us while we fished, and a pontoon full of bros whooped and raised their Bud Lights to help my son celebrate a catch. It was 10 a.m. at the time; maybe they were headed to Party Cove.

Before we set out that morning I fretted about the price, worried that dropping a few hundred dollars for a half a day of fun was too indulgent. By the time we stepped back on dry land I was proud of myself for minting a memory for a lifetime; I would have gladly paid more. “I was not expecting that,” Puck told me. He figured we would be puttering around in a poky old jon boat, not zooming along on a glamorous speedboat and having paparazzi snap our pictures with a freshwater-fishing superstar. “My expectations were high but it was better,” Puck said, all glittery eyed and clearly elated. “He’s a really nice guy. He knows his way around the lake and he knows where to find the fish.”

Randy’s Frozen Custard, the second-best part of the trip.

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