Bronzebacks Behind Every Bend

Bronzebacks Behind Every Bend

Winding though the hills of Phelps and Pulaski counties, a magical 20-mile stretch of water provides proof positive for the Gasconade River's reputation as one of the best smallmouth streams in Missouri. (May 2009)

The Gasconade River is home to more than 60 different species of fish, but much of its fanfare goes to the smallmouth bass that reside in its waters. The Gasconade is arguably one of Missouri's top smallmouth rivers, especially the Special Managed Area, a magical 20-mile stretch that starts at the state Route Y bridge next to the Riddle Bridge Access in Pulaski County and runs downstream to the state Route D bridge near Jerome, about one mile upstream of the Jerome Access in Phelps County.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Conservation are working to establish special regulations for smallmouth bass management on longer stretches of the Gasconade River.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

St. Louis resident and Missouri Smallmouth Alliance President Matt Weir believes the Gasconade is worthy of the title "World-Class Smallmouth Fishery." "The Gasconade is hands down one of our best river smallmouth fisheries," he said. "It's a very fertile, productive fishery."

Weir is not alone in his belief. Another Missouri Smallmouth Alliance member and longtime Missouri Game & Fish contributor, Bill Cooper of St. James, has been assigned to the Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel of the Missouri Smallmouth Alliance and also has strong feelings toward the Gasconade River.

"The Gasconade River is one of the top smallmouth streams in the state," Cooper said. "Only a few miles of it are now in the smallmouth bass management area. In the near future, I hope to see more of it included in some kind of special regulations. The Gasconade has a great deal of diversity and is capable of producing more large fish -- that is, if the proper regulations are in place to allow the fish to grow.

"However, we always have to take into account the people who want to take home a mess of fish. Bass are a renewable resource, too, and can sustain some consumption. It will take some time for the Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologists and the Blue Ribbon Panel to come up with a plan suitable to everyone."

TROPHY MANAGEMENT AT ITS BEST
The MDC has long been on the cutting edge in its stewardship of Missouri's waterways, and the state's Special Managed Areas are no exception. In the late 1980s, the MDC began looking at special regulations, such as closing bass season to protect spawning fish and implementing minimum length and creel limits on various stretches of Ozark streams.

The first rivers to receive special regulations were sections of the Big, Big Piney and Meramec rivers in 1991. These areas became known as Special Management Areas, and the impetus for the restrictions was to evaluate if the smallmouth bass fishing could be improved by reducing the smallmouth harvest. Tagging studies indicate that smallmouth bass are homebodies. According to MDC researchers, the majority of smallmouth bass are hatched, raised and die either in the same pool or less than a mile from the riffle or pool complex where they were hatched.

AND THE WINNER IS . . .
The results of these early restrictions were encouraging -- anglers caught more fish. "Anglers caught more smallmouth bass, faster -- about two-and-a-half times faster for all sizes of fish -- and the numbers of 12- to 14.9-inch and 15-inch-plus smallmouth bass caught by anglers doubled," wrote fisheries management biologist Kevin Meneau in an MDC report.

In January 1995, armed and encouraged with this data, the MDC looked at implementing these same restrictions on the Gasconade River. The length restriction was increased from 15 inches to 18 inches, and a daily limit of one fish was put in place. The smallmouth responded favorably and today the SMA located on the Gasconade is the kind of water on which smallmouth anglers dream of spending their waking moments.

THE GASCONADE: A CLOSER LOOK
Perhaps the success of the SMA on the Gasconade has something to do with having plenty of moving water. Nearly all of the Gasconade's twisting, turning 271 miles has good flow, due to the large concentration of springs that flow into it. Of course, not all anglers were immediately pleased with the restrictions that were placed on their "home river," but as the river's smallmouth population and the quality of fish increased, the revelers quieted and anglers began doing what anglers enjoy doing most -- fishing.

THE KEY TO BIG GASCONADE SMALLIES
"Depth and structure in the form of boulders or root wads and water flow are key ingredients for smallmouth habitat," explained MDC fisheries management biologist Nick Girondo. "The Gasconade River is a typical Ozark stream with plenty of habitat and the best growth rates of any of the Ozark streams for smallmouth bass."

Girondo believes that the Gasconade River could be the best smallmouth river in the state; however, human effects are hurting the river.

"The Gasconade doesn't have the water clarity that some of the other Ozark rivers have," Girondo said. "It has a lot more nutrient flow. Some of that is due to the farming practices, as well as the growth of both Pulaski and Phelps counties. This puts a lot of nutrients into the stream. However, those nutrients grow fish faster, so it's a double-edge sword."

The smallmouth seems to thrive in oxygenated water with good water flow. Girondo claims the water depth within the SMA varies from 6 inches to 14 feet in some of the deeper pools. "We have sampled some really nice smallmouths in as little as 6 inches of water underneath root wads," he said. "The guys on the jet boats are fishing the pools, and the fish a lot of times are lying in the riffles. You have to have the deep pools, especially in the winter, but the smallmouth lie in those shallow riffles, even in the middle of the day during the spring and early summer.

"The adult smallmouth diet in the Gasconade is made up of the spot­handed crayfish that is so abundant (here). Though, in the winter the smallmouth will eat any minnow that swims."

Girondo said that, compared with other Ozark streams, the Gasconade has many more 12- to 15-inch smallmouths. Annual (electro-shocking) surveys also show nearly every sample produces 20-inch fish in each sample area. Girondo feels that the trophy-managed area helps other areas of the river as well, making much of the river both up- and downstream a better fishery.

A PADDLING ANGLER'S DREAM
If you fish the same water day in and day out, you soon become an expert on that water. Whether you fish from a bass rig, from a canoe or by wading, the SMA on the Gasconade has plenty of fish

to go around.

Greg Richardson of Rolla, another advocate for the trophy management area, has several recommendations for anglers who want to experience the Gasconade's smallmouth fishing for themselves. Richardson, who grew up fishing the Gasconade, remembers struggling to catch a 12-inch smallmouth.

Now, he recommends the Schlicht Springs Access off state Route T in the Waynesville area all the way down to the Jerome access at the end of the SMA. Richardson claims that this stretch of river may provide the best river smallmouth fishing in the state. "The fishing on this stretch is absolutely awesome," Richardson said. "Today, in the trophy managed areas, 18-inch-plus smallmouths aren't uncommon."

(Editor's note:
Some of the float trips discussed are overnight floats.)

As far as tactics, early on, Richardson targets the explosive topwater strike that has made the bronzeback famous.

If the fish are uncooperative, Richardson switches to watermelon-colored crawfish imitations made by Chompers, rigged weedless on a 3/8-ounce jighead. He targets the deep holes around boulders, working the bait slowly across the bottom behind the rocks, root wads or other cover where a smallmouth may be hiding.

"There are a lot of good riffles up there with big boulders strewn through (them), and these areas seem to be the key areas -- good water flow that has these big rocks in the deeper holes," said Richardson.

According to Richardson, the females just coming off the spawning beds are aggressive. He has witnessed smallmouths charging lures from more than 15 feet before devouring them. Richardson also suggested fishing rocky ledges that drop off and taper to 3 feet of water with the current pushing off the bank. He believes depth plays little role in where the fish hold. "It's all about the moving water," Richardson said. "I seldom have to fish much deeper than 3 feet of water. Tailing waters off a ripple or a big boulder in the middle of a riffle where the water has made a hole behind the rock are excellent areas to fish."

Overcast days and days with intermittent showers seem to be more effective for catching Gasconade small­mouths. However, Richardson warns, "if it's a bright day, you have to make a more subtle approach and longer casts, as they will see you and spook if the water has much clarity."

Richardson prefers medium-action spinning gear and a 6- to 7-foot rod spooled with 8- to 12-pound fluorocarbon and suggests not overlooking traditional bass lures like spinnerbaits in black, white and white with some red on the skirt to dupe an unsuspecting smallmouth.

Richardson prefers the Hildebrandt Nugget, a twin-spin spinnerbait, for the big smallies as a change-up. He fishes the spinnerbait slowly, bouncing it off the bottom.

"Work it just fast enough to turn the blades," advised Richardson.

Richardson said his favorite section of the river is from Route T to Devils Elbow.

"Many of the larger boats avoid these areas due to the water depth," he said. This particular stretch has produced several fish in the 5-pound range for the angler.

Dale Goff of Rolla believes the MDC is on the right path with the trophy management area. Goff believes some of the best smallmouth fishing can be accessed in a canoe without a motor. His favorite area is off state Route W near Waynesville to Boiling Springs. This is not a trip for the faint of heart or the time-pressed.

"This float takes about six to seven hours to float, but it is some of the most awesome smallmouth fishing the Gasconade has to offer," said Goff.

While the quarry is the same, Goff's strategy differs slightly from Richardson's. Goff's first order of business begins with a pearl white Fluke rigged on a 5/0 hook. He works the bait by twitching it like a Spook and letting it sit. This imitates a dying baitfish until it is attacked by a nearby smallie. If the Fluke bite doesn't come, Goff switches to a 1/4-ounce jig rigged with a green pumpkin Chompers bait, which he also works around the boulders and ripples as he floats downstream. As the day progresses, Goff ties on yet another lure, a small crankbait like the Wiggle Wart in a crawfish pattern.

Goff claims that a flash of chartreuse really gets the smallmouth fired up. As the shadows lengthen and the float trip is nearing its end, Goff again switches back to the Fluke. "Early in the season, the smallmouths seem to roam a little farther, but as the water warms and summer wears on, they begin 'hijacking,' lying in cover and hijacking your bait as it comes by. Goff prefers medium-action bait-casting gear. When throwing the Fluke, he uses 12-pound-test line to keep the bait from sinking too fast and switches to 10-pound line when using jigs and crankbaits.

"Many times a fish will hit the Fluke or jig, and by the time you set the hook, the fish is already gone," he advised. "This means the fish are not actively feeding, so I switch over to a spinnerbait as a reaction bait." Goff's choice is a 3/8-ounce white body with a silver willow-leaf and a smaller gold Colorado blade. Goff switches to spinning gear later in the summer and is forced to downsize his baits to fool the wary smallmouths that have been subjected all spring to every lure known to man and fish.

Goff also suggests the float from state Route 28 bridge to the Jerome Access, or even above the SMA at state Route W around the Hazel Green Access.

"The water gets a little thin in this area, and you might need to drag the canoe or johnboat across some shoals, but there are some great areas for smallmouth bass up there as well," he added. "None of the jet boats can get up there. That is what makes the fishing so good up there."

For anglers without a boat or canoe, wading is an option. Goff recommends the access by the Route 28 bridge. An angler can gain access and wade upriver. "There are two big holes that always seem to hold smallmouths," he said.

GOOD ADVICE, BOAT OR NOT!
Girondo is a self-proclaimed wade-angler. He recommends beaching the boats or canoes and wading the heavy riffle areas with the good habitat, slowly fishing and targeting the riffles. Girondo's secret to catching Gasconade smallies: "Slow down. If the habitat is there, the fish are there. Whether they want to bite or not is the question," he said. "Take your time and fish the habitat."

TRESPASSING, NAVIGATING AND INTERPRETING THE LAW
The term "trespass" has different meanings for people of different perspectives. A landowner may have a different opinion of the term trespassing, whereas an angler wading along the bank may see no harm in what he or she is doing.

In 1954, the Missouri Supreme Court ruling of Elder vs. Delcour affirmed that there is a public right to fish the Meramec River. This ruling has been extended to other floatable waterways as well.

In accordance with this ruling and to remain compliant with the law, floaters must gain access to the river by way of public access or through permission of a landowner, and portages around unsafe waters are included in this ruling.

The fact that a river or stream is floatable doesn't give a wading angler the right to trespass without the landowner's permission, nor does the establishment of the SMA give anglers the right to infringe on the landowner's property without his or her permission.

The SMA has plenty of MDC-maintained accesses, as well as private assesses where a nominal fee is charged to launch your boat or canoe. The MDC produces a publication called A Paddler's Guide to Missouri that lists these access points. It is available at most area bookstores or through the MDC.

The SMA on the Gasconade is as close to heaven as a smallmouth angler might ever get, so hook up the boat, throw the canoe on top of the car and cut off those old jeans. You might find that "Heaven" is right in the middle of Missouri.

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