‘OK fish, time to bite,” Michael Leach of Columbia says as he adjusts one of several fishing poles hanging over the side of his boat.
Leach is 57 and dressed in cut off overalls and a T-shirt. After all, “fishing on the river is dirty business.” He is wearing his lucky catfish hat that he bought at Wal-Mart 15 years ago. It was the hat he was wearing when he caught a 50-pound Blue Catfish on the Missouri River several years ago.
“The hat requires a turn around if it’s forgotten,” he said. “I’d die if I lost it.”
The fishing spot is one that Leach has had success with before, and the bait is Gizzard Shad, a fish he caught earlier that morning. Within a few minutes the pole begins to bob, telling Leach he has a bite. With a flick of the wrist he brings in the fish, making sure not to hurt it, so that after a quick examination it can be released. It is a small, glistening silver catfish that wiggles and flops on the line and in his hands up until the moment it is released.
Before the day is over, Leach will catch another 36 fish, but he will release all but three of them. His love of fishing and his ability to catch them has made Leach a local fishing legend.
“He’s the river guru,” Adam Wolf, owner of Tombstone Tackle, where Leach is a well-known customer, said. “He always knows what’s going on at the river; what the fish are biting on and if it’s running high or low.”
Leach’s fishing excursions began when he was only 2 years old. His dad, Verne Leach, would take him to the river or farm ponds on the weekends. Mike mostly played in the water. But after catching his first fish when he was 3 years old, he was hooked.
“As soon as the rod goes down, there is this surge of excitement, your heart beats faster and the adrenaline rushes,” he said.
Michael Leach fishes for the pure enjoyment of catching fish. He releases most of the fish he catches and it is not uncommon for him to catch 50 fish in one day.
“I like the solitude of being on the river,” he said. “And there is always that chance of getting that big one.”
Leach usually fishes three or four times a week. Often, he will spend all day out on the river, or he will start in the late afternoon and fish until early the next morning.
“There are a lot of places to fish and not enough time to fish them all,” he said.
Leach mostly fishes for catfish on the Missouri River. He often fishes alone, but is always happy to have company join him.
Tom Russell is one of Michael Leach’s many fishing buddies and also his former boss at the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“Mike is always willing to try new things when we’re fishing,” Russell said. “If he’s not getting any bites, he’ll try a different habitat.”
“He’ll try different depths and velocity’s,” Russell said. “He is inquisitive and wants to learn. He’s good at finding fish.”
Leach usually finds his fish on the river near Hartsburg, where he now lives. Before moving to Hartsburg, he spent most of his life in Columbia where he was born. He attended Hickman High School.
“All I wanted to do in school, was get out of school, so I could hunt and fish,” Leach said.
Luckily, while in high school, he landed a job that required him to be on the river. When he was 18, he was hired by the Missouri Department of Conservation, as “extra labor.” He worked on several rivers and streams including the Current and the Merrimac rivers, pulling boats up and down the channels to sample fish in the area.
“We got the heavy work,” Leach said. “But to me it was like a paid vacation being able to be out there on the river.”
After high school, Leach left the department and joined the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at Pensacola, Fla., during the Vietnam War. When he finished his commitment to the Navy he attended several years of school at Pensacola Junior College before coming back to Columbia and the Missouri Department of Conservation.
For the next 25 years he worked for the department until retiring in 1997 from his position as a fisheries research assistant. During his time at the department, he spent hours on the river, doing what he loves best — fishing. He was often involved in studies where he would have to catch or observe fish.
Russell was Leach’s supervisor when he was first hired in the department. He also worked with him after he came back from Florida.
“Everybody wanted Mike to work for them,” Russell said. “They knew he was dedicated and would settle for nothing less than high quality work.”
Although he is retired, Leach still works part time for the department building shocking boats, which are used to study how different fish react to different electrical currents.
His love of fishing spanned from his professional life into his family life. Leach married his high school sweetheart, Phyllis, 36 years ago, and they have two children, a daughter Wendy and a son Chris.
Like his father before him, Leach taught Chris how to fish at a young age. Chris’ earliest memories are of times spent fishing with his dad and his grandfather.
“It was a good time to go out and bond with dad,” Chris said. “It was something we could go out and do together.”
The time he spent with his dad and grandfather was so important to Chris, that he wants to make sure he has the same chance to build similar memories with his 2-year-old son, Russell, who has already gone on his first fishing trip with his dad and grandfather.
Michael Leach’s emphasis on family and respect for sportsmanship are things that Chris hopes he can hand down to his son.
When Leach isn’t fishing, he enjoys hunting. He hunts deer with a bow or a rifle. He also enjoys walking along the sandbars of the river looking for artifacts. He has found arrowheads, fossils and old bottle caps.
And Leach is always trying to recruit more people to fish on the river, which outdoor lovers and conservationists appreciate.
“As with any sport, its always good to have members of the community supporting it and encouraging it to grow,” said Tom Strother, the protection regional supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Strother said the department is always trying to get people out to enjoy the Missouri outdoors, so having community members striving for the same goal is helpful.
Leach has strong a desire to share his love of fishing with others. Spending hours fishing has taught him many life lessons.
“Fishing has taught me I need to fish more,” he said. “Once you start, you just feed on it.”