Fall is when hunting rules many outdoors schedules, but for some stream enthusiasts, this is the time of year to enjoy a form of fishing that has a long heritage in the Ozarks.
In addition to being a unique legal way of catching some species of fish, Missouri’s stream gigging season is a fishing remnant that dates back to leaner times when rural residents lucky enough to live near a river used a mixture of stream-floating savvy and quick reflexes to bring fresh fish home to tables where, in many cases, three meals per day was no guarantee.
Here are the particulars of the gigging season: It runs from Sept. 15 to Jan. 31 on streams and impounded waters, and the legal hours are from sunrise to midnight. It should be noted that fish can be taken with a gig on impounded waters (lakes) at other times in the year from sunrise to sunset.
Fish legal to be taken by gigging methods are species classified as nongame fish. This group includes suckers, buffalo, carp, gar, bluegill and several other species. Of these, suckers are the most popular among giggers. It is illegal to gig bass, catfish, trout and all other types of fish classified as game fish.
The main tool of fish gigging is the gig, a three- or four-tine device that somewhat resembles a pitch fork. Gigging requires teamwork: One person steers the boat while the gigger, perched at the front of the craft, watches the water around him or her and signals to the partner which way to go. When fish are spotted and in reach, the person at the front of the boat makes a swift, strong jab with the gig and, if his or her skills are good, he or she is rewarded with a gigged fish.
To add to the uniqueness of this activity, gigging is usually done at night. Some type of light (in the old days, it was often burning pine knots; now it’s usually a flood light powered by a generator or battery pack) is positioned at the front of the craft to help the gigger find fish and the navigator keep the boat on a safe course.
One reason for the nocturnal nature of the sport is stealth; it’s easier for a gigging boat to get within gig-thrusting range of a fish under cover of darkness than it is during the light of day. Interestingly enough, some veteran river runners also claim it’s easier to see and identify fish at night. The basic logic of this thinking is that, when the surrounding area is dark, whatever is under the beam of a bright light is easier to see than when the entire area is lit by daylight.
From a fish management point of view, the fall-winter timing of the season is favorable because spawning already has occurred. Other factors also likely played roles in fish gigging becoming a late-in-the-year activity. One of these was hydrology giggers of past generations knew streams tended to be clearer at this time of year than they are during the frequent rains and flooding events of spring and summer.
From the science side of things, streams also tend to be clearer in fall and winter because there’s not as much phytoplankton in the water. Yet another factor that likely led to gigging’s popularity at this time of year was the simple fact that there was more time available to go gigging. As fall harvests completed the yearly agricultural cycles, farmers had more opportunities to shift their energy from swinging scythes and steering horse-drawn farm machinery to thrusting homemade gigs and paddling johnboats in nearby streams. The abundance of streams and clarity of the water across southern Missouri further fueled gigging’s popularity in this part of the state.
The daily gigging limit for nongame species other than carp and goldfish (for which there is no limit), is 20 in the aggregate in most places. There are specialized regulations in some areas, and there are special management areas of some streams where gigging is not allowed. Consequently, anglers need to consult the Wildlife Code of Missouri or the nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office for details.
It should be pointed out Sept. 15 through Jan. 31 is also one of the two periods in the year when anglers can take nongame fish by snagging (also called grabbing) or snaring. Basically snagging, which in some parts of the country is referred to as foul hooking, involves hooking a fish in an area other than its mouth. The other part of Missouri’s snagging season for nongame fish is March 15 through May 15. The limit for nongame species, other than carp and goldfish, taken by this method is 20. As is the case with gigging, there is no limit on carp and goldfish.
More information about regulations pertaining to these and other methods of fishing can be found in the Missouri Department of Conservation publication “A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations, 2014.” This free booklet is available at the Department of Conservation’s Southwest Regional Office in Springfield, the Springfield Conservation Nature Center and at most places where hunting and fishing permits are sold. Fishing information also can be found on the Department of Conservation’s website, missouriconservation.org.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.