Archive for Sunday, September 6, 1998


September 6, 1998


You won't find all that much in libraries or bookstores about the Kaw River. But there is a walking, talking encyclopedia named Tom Burns.

The 79-year-old retired commercial fisherman and fur trapper has been dubbed King of the Kaw. Area outdoorsmen and admirers of the living legend say he earned the nickname by catching more fish in the Kaw than any other person in the 20th century.

``He's probably one of the most knowledgeable living people on the Kaw River,'' said Tom Swearingen, a friend of Burns and curator at the Kansas University Natural History Museum, where there is an exhibit that includes a wooden fishing skiff and hoop nets used by Burns before he retired from commercial fishing in 1991. ``He's been through a lot of the floods and knows a lot about happenings on the river, about the wildlife and especially the fish and how they travel on the river. He also knows quite a bit about decoys and duck hunting. He used to trap a lot and knows about fur-bearing animals. He knows a lot about building (wooden rowing skiffs and other) boats and even has used some of the designs passed down to him.

``He knows how to build boats that can ride up the river against the current and have great buoyancy and control,'' Swearingen said.

Burns rebuilt an 1895 Kaw River craft on display at the Watkins Community History Museum.

Genius outlaw

``He's one of those intrinsic geniuses of the outdoors,'' said Ned Kehde, a friend of Burns and fellow outdoorsman. ``He's seen it all so often that he has that sixth and seventh and eighth and tenth senses that most people don't have. He can tell by the flow of the river and the stage of the moon what's going on.

``Most of the things Tommy's done have been illegal,'' Kehde said. ``Netting fish commercially on the (Kaw) has been illegal since the 1920s. But he had a commercial license to operate on the Missouri,'' which allowed him to sell fish taken surreptitiously from the Kaw.

``I don't think he ever got caught. He's a sly old dog at the same time,'' said Kehde, who helped Burns publish a small memoir of his life on the river titled ``60 Years on the Kaw River.'' ``He's never been in debt in his life, never taken a mortgage to buy a car or a home. He's made it all off the river. He's a self-made man. You ought to take a look at the videotape he did when he quit in 1991; the last illegal fish catch on the Kaw.

``He used to be a taciturn old son of a bitch when he was working the river because of what he was doing,'' Kehde said. ``Now he talks more.''

``I never talked much about it,'' Burns said in a recent interview at his home near the river east of Lawrence. ``There was a fisherman lived across from me for 10 years and never knew I was a fisherman.''

Enough time has passed since Burns fished the Kaw commercially to immunize him from prosecution by fish and game officials. If not for the statute of limitations, there probably is enough confession of illicit river escapades in his memoir to convict him.

The book is a combination of outlaw river exploits, monster fish stories, close calls, and other bits of river lore.

In one chapter Burns tells of an ex-slave he knew as a child showing him how charcoal was made to fuel the steamboats that once carried people and goods on the river. Steamboats stopped working the Kaw in the 1860s after railroad lobbyists convinced legislators to declare the stream unnavigable.

Burns said he first fished the river in 1928 when he was eight years old.

He stopped harvesting and selling furs long ago. Still, there are about 250 spring traps in various sizes hanging from interior walls of his barn.

In the 1940s, he said, during his trapping heyday, he would set lines of traps along the river between Lawrence and Desoto. The traps would yield muskrat, beaver, mink and raccoon.

He would walk the trap lines, first the south side of the river and then the north from Lawrence to Eudora or from Eudora to Desoto and back. On one memorable foray he said he took 108 civet cats, a mink-like spotted skunk now thought to be extinct in Kansas.

In his memoir he describes them as ``stinking little rascals'' that fetched $1.80 a hide.

``I wore a pair of gumboots out in one year walking them traps,'' he said.

Respecting nature

Burns is modest about his fishing prowess and Kaw River savvy. It is others who call him expert.

``I fished some on the Kaw,'' Burns admits. ``I caught a few fish. I don't know much. But I'm trying to learn.''

Kehde said Burns' self-deprecating humor and modesty are natural results of his many years out of doors.

``When you deal with the outdoors that makes you naturally modest,'' Kehde said. ``You can always be fooled by Mother Nature. Nature makes you naturally self-deprecating. The fish and all those damn critters will always surprise you.''

But they surprise Burns less often than they do others.

Burns said catfish have paths they follow in the river just as deer travel regular trails. The trick to catching catfish is knowing their pathways. And the only way to know their pathways is to spend a lot of time on the river watching.

``It is a fact they only travel on little paths,'' Burns said. ``When they're feeding, they feed all over. But when they travel it's on little paths.''

He has caught blue catfish weighing in excess of 100 pounds, he said. And he once caught a 91-pound ``muddy'' or flathead catfish, his favorite type of fish to catch because ``it's the goodest eating.''

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is

Commenting has been disabled for this item.