Remembering Tom Burns: The King of the Kaw

Remembering Tom Burns: The King of the Kaw

Julie Tollefson of Tonganoxie, Kansas, is a freelance journalist who is writing a story for the Lawrence Magazine about  a time,  place and character that has utterly vanished from northeastern Kansas. Her work also parallels  a wonderful exhibit at The Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas, entitled "The Kansas Riverkings."

The focus of her story is on the late Tom Burns of Lawrence, Kansas, who traipsed up and down a 30-mile stretch on the Kansas River for 60 years. Burns is also featured in "The Kansas Riverkings" exhibit.

From the time that Lawrence was settled in 1854 until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began creating reservoirs in the 1950s into the 1980s,  the Kansas River played a prominent role in the outdoor lives of northeastern Kansans -- especially for those who hunted and fished, such as Burns.  But for a variety of reasons, the Kansas River no longer plays a significant part  in the outdoor and recreational life for the folks who reside in and around Lawrence.

Tollefson came to our house on Feb. 28 to talk about Burns and his many years of plying the Kansas River, which many Kansans call the Kaw River.  And our conversation, as well as the "The Kansas Riverkings" exhibit,  provoked me to think about posting a blog that would  reacquaint veteran In-Fisherman's readers  and acquaint newcomers to Burns' world.

One of In-Fisherman's early encounters with Burns occurred around the turn of the millennium, when Steve Hoffman, In-Fisherman's publisher, was a young contributing editor.  Hoffman came to Lawrence and visited Burns.  During their get together,  Burns told a few tales about the good old days and showed Hoffman many of the artifacts  that Burns used across his years of floating and traipsing up and down the Kansas River in pursuits of its denizens.  After that visit, Hoffman said he was spellbound by Burns' insights. For several hours, Hoffman marveled at Burns knowledge about the behavior of the flathead catfish that abide in the Kansas River.  Hoffman proclaimed that he had never seen a man who was so physically and psychologically attached to a river as Burns was.  In Hoffman's eyes,  Burns' particular genius and exploits surpassed that of Toad Smith and Zacker, which  Doug Stange, In-Fisherman's longtime editor-in-chief,  has penned thousands of words  about across the years.  But unlike Smith and Zacker, Burns was a fishmonger rather than a recreational angler and most his outings were clandestine endeavors.

Here's a  synopsis of Burns' world:

Thomas L. "Tommy" Burns  was born on Sept. 1, 1919, in Lawrence, Kansas, to Thomas L. Burns, Sr. and Angelena (Barnes) Burns. During his lifetime, he knew the ways of the Kansas River better than anyone ever has,  and it is likely that no one will ever know as much about it as Burns knew.  And when he died on June 23, 2003, a grand chapter in the annals of fishing in northeastern Kansas came to an end.

When Burns was 72 years old in 1991, he decided that he no longer possessed the wherewithal to negotiate all the travails that the river can muster. So instead of spending his days on and around the river, he and others tried to chronicle and illustrate his piscatorial passion and oeuvre. But no one, including Burns,  has been able to find all of the words that adequately describe all of the richness of Burns' genius and accomplishments. This lexicographical deficiency is a pity, because what Burns knew about the Kansas River and it is denizens would enlighten anglers and ichthyologists for decades to come.  Yet in spite of these deficiencies, many of Burns words and tales are marvelous, entertaining and illuminating.

He plied the Kansas River and its tributaries and riparian borders almost daily for 60 of his 83 years. Some of those days involved the Herculean task of rowing a wooden boat, which he handcrafted,  upstream from Stranger Creek near Linwood, Kansas,  to Mud Creek near Lawrence. The eternity and solitude of such a task put Burns in a unique state of rapture with the river and its inhabitants.

On his riverine adventures, he crisscrossed countless sandbars, navigated around a multitude riffles, torrents and whirlpools, and perilously traipsed across miles of ice, as well as tangling with  the many perils that Mother Nature created.

Ultimately, he became cautiously at ease with the mighty vicissitudes of the river and Mother Nature. The combination of this ease and his other uncanny skills for interpreting the goings on of the river's inhabitants allowed Burns to develop a sixth sense.

It is that sixth sense that separates the great angler from the good ones. And Burns' intuitive abilities about the ways of the river became so keen that he could gaze at the moon, note the angle and velocity of the wind and then determine with amazing clairvoyance the number of fish he would catch that night.

He could also glance at the river's surface and describe the composition of the riverbed, resting six or more feet below the surface. In a wink, he could detect the whereabouts of such things as mud balls, logs, boulders and other obstacles that lie on the river's floor and alter its flow. And by being able to determine the make-up of the riverbed, he could also pinpoint the location of his favorite quarry -- the flathead catfish, which he affectionately called muddies.

Burns always shunned braggadocio. What's more, he was such a taciturn sort that for many decades only his family and a few confidants knew about Burns' wizardry as a fisherman, hunter and trapper.

But after he put up his oars and other paraphernalia for the last time in December of 1991, other folks became aware of his mastery, and they often dubbed him "King of the Kaw."

In 1994 Burns published a 97-page autobiographical rhapsody about his 60 years of meandering up and down the river. He titled his publication "60 Years on the Kaw."

Some folks speculate that Burns' pithy stories,  if they were written 110 year earlier,  might have been grist for some of Mark Twain's tales. In fact, several observers have found some wonderful similarities in the Burns' adventures to that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Even though Burns' 97-page memoir doesn't chronicle all of his 83 years, readers can easily deduce that the river played a significant role in his first 11 years of life and his last 12. His memoirs also reveal that the river flowed through the bulk of his reveries from the 1920s into the new millennium, and aside from his family, the river was his lifeblood.

After the publication of "60 Years on the Kaw," Tom Swearingen of Lawrence, Kansas, and some of his colleagues at the Natural History Museum at Kansas University mounted a permanent exhibit about Burns and his days on the river. But for some bizarre and absurd reason  that exhibit has now been dismantled.

Some of Burns insights were included in a story published in the Atlantic Monthly. And throughout the 1990s, profiles of Burns and stories about his prowess on the river periodically appeared in some Kansas newspapers.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the art and science of fishing revolved round his observations about the flathead's spawning migration out of the Missouri River and up the Kansas River every June.

In the February 1997 issue of In-Fisherman magazine, Burns recounted the spawning migration of June 1954:

"I saw a school of muddies bigger than a football field. For a long spell, they lollygagged about, slowly rolling over and swimming around on top of a sandbar, as if they were playing a game. When a boat oar was put into the water, a muddy or two would take a swat at it, as if they wanted to knock it out of the water. All the while, the school was moseying upstream. When this school of muddies got to the upper end of the sandbar, reaching a big river hole, the configuration of the school changed. It was no longer the shape of a football field, but it became a long narrow line, no wider than 18 inches, and the school began traveling at a fast clip."

In that 1997 story, Burns also noted that "a school of migrating muddies travels about five miles a day. As they come upon spawning sites, some muddies leave the school and commence with the preliminaries of their reproductive rituals."

This extraordinary observation by Burns about the nomadic nature of the flathead catfish contradicts many of the scientific studies and professional wisdom of fisheries biologists. It also demonstrates why Burns is a seminal figure in the history of  fishing on the  Kansas River.

In 2000,  Burns confessed that he couldn't divulge everything that he knew about the ways of the Kaw's flathead. One explanation for his reticence was that some of his knowledge was so intuitive that there were no words in our language to describe it. But even if the appropriate words were readily at hand, Burns said that he didn't possess the heart for revealing several of the secrets that he spent nearly a lifetime garnering.

During the last two years of his life, and as his hearing and health deteriorated, Burns reticence increased,  and  he rarely talked about his days on the Kaw. But he did write several tales, which are now preserved in the Kansas Collection at Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.



(1)  The  exhibit at The Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas, entitled "The Kansas Riverkings" will be up until the end of April.  The curator of the exhibit, Barbara Higgins-Dover, says that with the help of a  grant from Kansas Humanities Council and several other state and local non-profit organizations, she will be taking the exhibit onthe road to towns along the Kansas River, such as Eudora, Lecompton and Perry. In addition, she will also speak about Tom Burns, Richie Higgins, Dolly Graeber and other anglers who relished the Kansas River and its denizens.  For more information about Barbara Higgins-Dover's exhibits and speeches, readers can make inquires at  bhigginsdover@gmail.

(2) More information about Burns can be found at the Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.  For a description of the records see:

(3) The Clean Water Act of 1972 seems to have helped to improve several of our waterways across the nation, but the water that flows down the Kansas River is polluted significantly by agricultural chemicals. The pollution factor also keeps scores of northeastern Kansas from venturing along the river and its riparian borders.

(5) Stories about Toad Smith and Zacker can be found in Doug Stange's book entitled  "Life and Times in Catfish Country."

(5) Back in 1996, we worked with Tom Burns on a story for In-Fisherman magazine. It was titled   "Tom Burns: King of the Kaw."  It appeared in the February 1997 issue on pages  106-109.

(6) Several of the words written above where extracted from my columns in the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World and Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal.

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