Big River Bassin'
September 30, 2010
Big River largemouths: low in density, high in quality. Anglers can hook fish up to 20 inches on this Eastern Missouri stream. (June 2006)
Imagine a place where you can catch 4- to 6-pound largemouth bass in a day of fishing without seeing another angler on the water.
That scenario's certainly more likely to come true if you're fishing a remote farm pond or have permission to fish strip pits on private property. But it can also happen on a river within easy driving distance of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Descending from Council Bluffs Lake in Iron County, Big River offers anglers plenty of opportunities to catch high-quality largemouth bass before it flows into the Meramec River near House Springs. Despite flowing through a heavily populated section of Eastern Missouri, this meandering stream generates plenty of action for both plus-sized largemouths and garden-variety keepers.
"We typically collect some pretty big largemouth when we do our fall surveys," said Mike Reed, the Missouri Department of Conservation's fisheries management biologist for the Big River. "It's not uncommon for us to get fish over 20 inches."
The largest bass that Reed collected last year was a 21-incher picked up near Cherokee Landing, and in previous years the biologist has found bass 21 to 22 inches long. He estimates that a 20-inch Big River largemouth usually ranges between 4 to 6 pounds.
The river also contains a good-sized population of keeper-size largemouths (a "keeper" being defined as a fish 12 or more inches in length).
"It's not uncommon at all to catch legal largemouth there," reported Reed, who has experienced days on the river that saw him and his partner catch 80 to 90 bass. "If you are lucky enough to get a cloudy day when the fish are biting and stay on topwater baits, you can catch 50 fish if you are good fishermen. That's not unusual."
The middle and lower sections of the river support a wealth of spotted bass in the 10- to 16-inch range. Big River also accommodates a solid smallmouth bass population with fish up to 20 inches long, but Reed believes that the river actually produces better largemouth action.
"It is a reflection of the habitat," observed Reed. "The largemouth like a big pool with a big tree in it, and it seems like there is more of that slack-water backwater kind of habitat in Big River."
The stream has felt the effects of mining over the years, having lost several of the rock shoals in which smallmouths thrive. However, those areas have been replaced by scour holes filled with downed trees and rootwads and have become largemouth havens. Most of the pools are about 6 or 7 feet deep, although those on the lower river will be as deep as 10 feet. The area affected the most by mining is a stretch of a couple of miles from the MDC's Leadwood access to Cherokee Landing, a private campground and outfitter near Bonne Terre.
"I believe the river gets a little bit better for largemouth as you go down stream," Reed stated, "because a lot of material has come out of the mining sites and filled a lot of the upstream pools so there aren't as many deep pools there."
The river's appearance begins to change though as it nears the Meramec. "When you start getting towards Jefferson County, those pools get deep darn fast," said Reed. "The lower river has got way more big pools and bluff pools. The habitat is more suitable for smallmouth, but you can still catch largemouth down there."
According to the MDC biologist, the pools contain plenty of big logs and large boulders that attract hefty smallmouths and largemouths both. He selects the stretch from River Mile 110 at the Washington County Road 511 slab to Cherokee Landing as the best section for largemouths. The river has a lazy gradient of about 2 feet per mile, which makes it attractive for float-fishing. Numerous MDC public accesses and private put-in spots are available for anglers who want to launch their canoes or johnboats for a float on the river.
Reed recommends floating from the Washington County Road 511 slab to the MDC Leadwood Access for an 8-hour day of largemouth fishing. "You can put in and float during the week and not see anybody until the hole above Leadwood, where there will be some people swimming," he said. "I've done that float in the morning, fished it real hard, took a lunch break and taken out in the evening at Leadwood."
This float also offers anglers public access at both put-in and take-out locations.
A float from Leadwood to a private crossing near the U.S. Highway 67 bridge can be stretched into seven or eight hours of fishing. For shorter floats, Reed recommends putting in at Leadwood and taking out at the St. Francois County landfill or from St. Francois State Park to Cherokee Landing.
"A hardcore fisherman could probably milk that float (St. Francois State Park to Cherokee Landing) for about four hours if they fished everything as hard as they could," said Reed. "It's got some pools and water that they would want to fish."
Other bridge crossings along the river enable you to put in and take out a canoe, but you must gain permission from landowners first. "There are some landowners who will give access, but you'll have to talk to these folks and just see what kind of arrangements they have," advised Reed. "There are some who will charge to park your car, and some who will let you in without a charge but might not give someone else permission."
The river also offers some serviceable places to wade or fish from the bank for largemouths. "You can wade fish Leadwood going down stream very easily," suggested Reed. "St. Francois State Park can be waded quite a ways. You can wade upstream, but the better water will be the pools downstream."
If you can gain access at Cherokee Landing, you can also wade in the pools above and below the landing. The pools below Cherokee Landing are loaded with large rootwads and downed trees. Other wading possibilities include the pools upstream and downstream from the Washington County Road 511 slab, the Bone Hole Pool and pools below the Bone Hole.
River levels dictate how good or bad the largemouth fishing will be in early summer. "June can be a funny month, because if we have high water that blew out nests earlier, the fish could still be trying to spawn," Reed observed. "If it is a low-water year, the spawn could already be done, and the bass could already be hanging around the big sycamore logs and rootwads."
June can be one of the less-stable months for water levels on the Big River. "You get those flashy rain events,
" said Reed. "Sometimes fishing can be a little more challenging in June because there is a little higher water then, and there is a lot of forage."
If the river floods and knocks out bass from their spawning sites, the fish will try to nest again when the waters recede. Reed noted that the larger bass usually have expended too much energy to attempt another spawn, so most of the bass trying to repeat the procreation process will be 12- to 13-inchers. "You will see spotted bass and largemouth in the shallows more than you will see smallies," said Reed.
The beds should be visible, because the largemouths will make their nests a couple of feet deep. "In a normal year there is going to be a little higher water in June, so the fish are going to be more spread out," noted Reed. "You might find fish on both sides of the channel when you have higher water like that. There might be an extra 8 to 10 inches of water so those water willows on the inside bed, which are normally in about a foot of water, are then in 18 inches to 2 feet of water. You will have to cast there because bass will be in those weeds."
A dry spring prevented the river from flooding last year, so the stream's base flow was below normal. Reed found bass in their summertime patterns last June and experienced some of the best floats of the summer then.
Show Me State anglers will discover that a noticeable difference exists between locating bass on the Big River and finding them at Missouri's major reservoirs. "I think current is critical, because it is going to determine what type of fish you catch on Big River," suggested Reed. "You are going to catch smallmouth on the upper and lower end of the pools where there is some current.
"If you've got a couple of feet of water and a boulder, you are going to find smallmouth. On the other hand, if you can get into a pool where the water is slow, or the fast water is to one side, go to the other side of the pool where the downed trees and logs are along the undercut bank -- and that is the largemouth water."
Largemouths will also cruise around in eddies and other spots affected by light current.
Spotted bass can be found just about anywhere on the river. "You are going to catch a lot of spotted bass while you are fishing for largemouth," said Reed.
Fishing around wood cover is a key to catching Big River largemouths in June. "The only time I fish the shallow wood would be the early summer and the fall," Reed offered. "The rest of the time I try to fish wood in 5 to 10 feet of water."
If the bass are still in the spawn or post-spawn stage, you can still catch them in the shallows. "You may see the largemouth cruising around about 3 to 4 feet deep," Reed said.
The edges of milfoil beds are also havens for stream largemouths. "They will be in that most of the summer, because it is an ambush site, and the water is cooler in the weeds," Reed explained. "If we have scouring floods in the winter and late spring, weed growth may not be real thick in June. If you do get into weed growth, you want to fish it, because there are always largemouth around it.
"When the weather is right I catch some really darn nice largemouth along those milfoil beds on spinnerbaits and buzzbaits."
Reed knows of a couple of pools below the Leadwood access that contain stands of milfoil in water about 6 feet deep. Water willows also provide shallow cover for bass. The biologist stated that largemouths will be cruising around any of this vegetation that's in about a foot of water.
Reed checks out four variables -- cloudy or sunny skies and high or low water -- to make his lure choices for fooling Big River largemouths. "On a clear summer morning, a lot of times, you can see the bass lying in the logs," he said.
Reed entices these fish into biting by throwing a buzzbait or a soft-plastic jerkbait. "I'm a buzzbait fisherman," offered Reed, "and I throw them until November if the water stays warm.
The biologist prefers a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce buzzbait, but has no preference in colors for his buzzer. Last summer one of Reed's partners caught a 19 1/2-inch largemouth on a buzzbait.
Since bass have a tendency to short-strike buzzbaits, Reed makes some alterations to insure better hookups "There are days when they will hit everything short, so I will trim the skirt and put on a trailer hook," he offered.
A 1/4- or 3/8-ounce chartreuse-and-white spinnerbait is another favorite lure of Reed's for Big River largemouths. He has no preference in blade types for his spinnerbait. "A stream fish doesn't take near as much time to make a decision as a lake fish does," he explained, "because it has water moving by and it has to either make a go or no-go decision fast. So I think it doesn't matter to the fish as much as it matters to us as to what blade to use."
Another topwater lure on which Reed relies during the summer is a light-colored Heddon Zara Spook Puppy that he likes to retrieve in a walk-the-dog fashion.
When bass are hugging tight to the wood cover, Reed opts for a 6-inch plastic worm in dark hues -- black, olive green, grape or tequila sunrise. He occasionally uses 4- or 8-inch worms, but most of the time stays with the 6-inch version, rigging it Texas-style with a 1/8-ounce slip-sinker. He favors the lighter weight because it allows his worm to fall slowly to tempt any bass suspended above the branches of a laydown. Soft-plastic jerkbaits such as Slug-Gos and Zoom Super Flukes are also effective baits for largemouths suspended above the wood cover. Reed chooses these lures in bubblegum, white, pearl or gray-and-black hues; he inserts a nail weight into the bait to make it fall slowly into the tree.
When he wants his lure to imitate a crawfish, Reed goes with a 1/8-ounce skirted jig in dark brown or green colors that he works along the bottom. This, he's noticed, attracts the attention of all three bass species as well as that of goggle-eyes.
Using baitcasting equipment allows Reed to throw all of his favorite Big River baits except the tiny jig. Since he's frequently fishing in cover and stained water, he picks braided line in 10- to 14-pound-test. "When you are fishing in a tree you can't let that fish hang around in that root wad," he remarked on using heavier line on the river.
The river expert uses spinning tackle for casting his lightweight jig.
A few summers ago, this writer got a chance to fish the Big River with renowned wildlife artist Al Agnew. The first part of the day we floated a section of the river above Washington State Park and caught several smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass despite fishing on a sweltering summer day during which the temperature soared above 100 degrees. Later that evening, we waded some pools around Desloge; there, Agnew caught a 2-pound smallmouth.
I caught smallmouths by running a 1/4-ounce chartreuse-and-whit
e spinnerbait with double willow-leaf blades and a brown Rebel Crawfish crankbait along riffles, laydowns and big rocks. A pumpkin-chartreuse or motor-oil Fat Gitzit tube bait attached to a 1/16-ounce jighead also produced bass for me around laydowns.
The most pleasant part of our trip was the lack of fishing pressure. We never saw another angler on our float and met only a couple of fishermen while wading around Desloge.
For more information about access areas and floating the Big River, call the MDC Southeast Region office at (573) 290-5730.