Go Low For Largemouths

Go Low For Largemouths

The lower ends of many of Missouri's southern streams can be great for some bassin'. (June 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Brown bass and gin-clear running water are a match made in heaven -- there's no doubt about that. In fact, the smallmouth bass fishing to be found in the upper and middle reaches of most of the state's Ozark Plateau streams is so well known that even non-anglers and river otters know all about it.

What's not so well known is that these same streams don't simply disappear into the bass fishing mist when they tumble off the plateau to become lowland streams. To the contrary, conversations with the fisheries biologists responsible for managing each of the rivers this article will cover stressed that bass fishing opportunities become more diverse farther downstream as largemouths and spotted bass mix with -- and eventually supplant -- the cool-water-loving smallmouths.

The green bass are there, but there's a simple yet essential "trick" to catching river largemouths consistently. That trick is to never forget that a largemouth is a largemouth whether the water it lives in is flat or moving. That means seeking out submerged wood, weed beds, backwaters, and other structures that largemouths prefer. It also means using the same types and sizes of lures that work well on flat water. Finally, it means being patient enough to make multiple casts to the same cover object just as is often necessary elsewhere.

With those thoughts in mind, let's take a closer look at five rivers. Three of them are close to major population centers, and two are not. Two are large, one is medium sized, and two are small. Three flow north and east, and two flow south. Despite these differences, all of one very important thing in common -- they're great places to "go low for largemouths."

THE ST. FRANCIS RIVER

Wappapello Lake forms an impossible-to-miss dividing line between the upper and lower St. Francis River. Be forewarned, however, that the St. Francis changes from an Ozark Plateau stream to a lowland river begrudgingly. From the Wappapello Dam downstream to near Kennett, the river is a classic series of pools, runs, and riffles. Some of the pools are impressively deep to be sure, and they're loaded with submerged logs much beloved by largemouths. On the other hand, some-of the riffles -- most if the river's level is at or below what now passes for normal during the summer months -- are shallow enough to "polish" the bottom of a canoe or a jet boat. Boaters who insist on running prop boats on this part of the river should be prepared to disembark and push their craft through more than a few riffles in the course of a day's fishing.

Access to this part of the river is fairly good. There's a US Army Corps of Engineers boat ramp at Spillway recreation Area, located at the base of Wappapello Dam. The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains Chalk Bluff Trail CA (south of Campbell on Highway 62 then right on County Road 232 and left on 228) and Frisbee Cutoff Access (south of Frisbee on highway 25 then west, north, and west on County Roads 410, 411, and 407 respectively).

From Kennett south, the St. Francis River is a true lowland river with slow currents and plenty of deep water. Woody habitat abounds. An experienced river runner can get along with a prop boat on this section of the river, but there are good reasons why jet drives are far more popular with local anglers.

MDC-controlled sites along this part of the St. Francis include the Ben Cash Memorial CA/Largent Annex, which is located southwest of Kennett on Route A, and the Fisk Access, which is located east of Fisk on Old Highway 52. Numerous bridge crossings also provided access to bank fishermen and to those who wish to launch lightweight boats.

In all fairness, largemouth purists need to know that spots are the primary black-bass species in both the St. Francis and the next-to-be-discussed Black River. Southeast Missouri is, after all, the part of the state in which spotted bass were found in pre-settlement days. That's not say that there aren't catchable numbers of largemouths ranging in size up to 6 pounds or more, because there are. It's just that it may be necessary to "wade through" a lot of spots to find them -- not the worst problem an angler can have.

As of press time, there were no special restrictions on black bass fishing in this part of the St. Francis River. For more information, call (573) 290-5730.

THE BLACK RIVER

Like the St. Francis River, a lake (in this case Clearwater Lake) is the demarcation between the upper and lower Black River. Most of the Missouri portion of the lower Black River is characterized by pools, runs, and riffles. Although most of the river has typically slow lowland currents, there is some swift water. Given the water level is at or above normal, prop boats are a practical option on the lower Black River. Nevertheless, river experts still give the nod to jet drives.

Butler County is the place to be for anyone hoping to spend much time sampling the Black River's many charms, and Poplar Bluff is the hub of both pre- and post-fishing activity. Moving from north to south down the river, MDC sites include Hendrickson Access (10 miles north of Poplar Bluff at the Highway 67 crossing), Hilliard Access (two miles north of Poplar bluff on Route W), Sportsman's Park Access (near Poplar Bluff at the Highway 60 crossing), Dan River Access (three and a half miles south of Poplar Bluff on Highway 53 then left on County Road 616 and then left on County road 608), and Coon Island CA (southeast of Poplar Bluff on Highway 53 and then eight miles south on Route HH to County Road 224).

A "good" Black River largemouth will weigh from 4 to 6 pounds. However, a true lunker is far from out of the question.

As of press time, there were no special restrictions on black-bass fishing in this part of the Black River. For more information, call (573) 290-5730.

THE MERAMEC RIVER

MDC fisheries biologist Kevin Meneau sets the town of Pacific as upper terminus of the lower Meramec River. From this point downstream, the river has fewer -- but larger -- riffles, deep holes, and large submerged wood. In addition, several old gravel pits are connected to the river anytime the river is even slightly above normal. These pits have lots of vegetation and thus provide some bass fishing challenges not normally associated with Missouri streams. Meneau has observed that, when these pits have been cut off from the river for an extended period of time, they tend to hold bountiful numbers of small bass. Conversely, when the pits and the river have been connected for an extended period of time, larger bass are the norm. If that's not enough structure for you, don't overlook the numerous bridge abutments in the St. Louis County portion of the river.

At "high normal" water flows and above, prop boats can be used on the lower Meramec if the boat operator exercises caution. Boaters who intend to make long distance runs should be prepared to push through a few riffles.

The Meramec's easy accessibility offers another way to go. There are boat ramps every three to ten river miles from near Pacific all the way the mouth of the river. The hassle of launching and re-launching aside, these ramps make it possible to fish dozens of the river's best holes without shoving boats through riffles. The MDC owns or controls at least eight boat ramps in Franklin, Jefferson, and St. Louis Counties. (See the Conservation Atlas or the MDC web site for more information.) In addition, the MDC has also provided funds and/or other assistance to numerous communities along the river for use to construct boat ramps and other facilities.

While the Meramec River's largemouth population isn't as dense as it once was, the river is home to good numbers of 16- to 20-inchers -- good bass anywhere in the state. Spotted bass run smaller, but "abundant" is an inadequate description of their numbers. In fact, spotted bass have proven that there really can be such a thing as too many bass.

In an attempt to bring the numbers of the three black bass species back into balance, a unique special regulation is in force throughout the Meramec River basin. Under this regulation, there is no minimum size restriction on spotted bass and the daily creel limit is 12. In other words, a bass angler can spend a day in the Meramec basin happily catching and releasing largemouths and smallmouths and then head home with 12 tasty spots for the table. Note: statewide regulations apply to largemouths and smallmouths in the part of river covered by this article, but be aware of additional restrictions farther upstream.

It is -- or could be -- a win-win situation for fishermen and the fishery. Unfortunately, too few anglers are taking advantage of the opportunity to harvest spotted bass, presumably because they've locked themselves into a catch and release mindset. Overall, catch and release has been the salvation of black bass fishing. However, there is and always will be a valid place for catch and keep in bass management.

As Kevin Meneau was telling me all the things about the Meramec River I've just related to you, I admit I was thinking that fishing pressure on the river must be horrendous. Meneau allayed my fears when he reported that fishing pressure was light to moderate on the lower Meramec and added that pressure was less downstream than it was farther up the river.

For more information, call (636) 300-1953.

THE BIG RIVER

The Jefferson County stretch of the Big River offers the best largemouth bass fishing. This is becoming increasingly true because low water levels and subsequent low currents seven out of the past ten years have favored largemouths and spots at the expense of smallmouths. In addition, severe storms have littered the river with the type of cover largemouths prefer.

Although it's a relatively slow-moving stream, the Big River is characterized by pools and riffles. Jet boats and canoes are the only truly practical choices most of the year. That's not to say that some determined souls don't use prop boats and charge off having to push their craft across riffles as part of the price of fishing a fine stream.

There are boat ramps at Mammoth Access (west of De Soto on Route HH then south on Mammoth Road), at Merrill Horse Access (west of De Soto on Route H), and at Brown's Ford Access (southwest of Cedar Hill on Highway 30 then south on Route Y then west on Brown's Ford Road. Several old mill dams downstream from Brown's Ford can provide access to the river for small boats, and the water backed up behind them is excellent largemouth habitat.

According to Meneau, the largemouth bass fishing "may be" even better in the Big River than in the Meramec. If you go, don't forget that the no minimum size and 12-fish daily creel limit on spotted bass applies on the Big River. Statewide regulations apply to largemouths and smallmouths in the part of river covered by this article, but there are additional restrictions on smallmouths farther upstream.

For more information, call (636) 300-1953.

THE GASCONADE RIVER

Among its many other attributes, the Gasconade River has the distinction of being the longest free-flowing river lying completely within Missouri. Moreover, for much of its length, the Gasconade's water volume at normal flow is larger than that of any other stream discussed in this article. As a result, some of the lower Gasconade's pools are exceptionally long, broad, and deep. Conversely, some of its riffles are exceptionally long, narrow, and shallow. MDC fisheries biologist Phil Tipps reported that prop boats work well in the early spring, but, by July, jet boats are preferable.

For purposes of this discussion, the upper terminus of the lower Gasconade River will be set at the Osage/Phelps County line. Working downstream, access to the river can be gained at the Rollins Ferry Access (south of Linn at Route E and Highway 89), at the Pointers Creek Access (8 miles southeast of Linn on Route CC then east to the end of County Road RA), and at the Cooper Hill CA (2.5 miles south of Sterling on Route A then 2.75 west on Route D). This is a complex stretch of river that could keep any angler discovering new things for a lifetime.

With the exception of a couple of bends back into Osage County, the Gasconade crosses into Gasconade County just south of the point where it passes under Highway 50. MDC access sites in Gasconade County include Helds Island Access (north on Route K from Highway 50 two miles past the point where the blacktop ends), Fredricksburg Ferry Access (east of Morrison on Highway 100, five and a half miles on Route N and then two miles on Route J and then a mile down Old Ferry Road), and Gasconade Park Access (on Oak Street in Gasconade).

Based on the results of sampling efforts, Tipps rated the river's largemouth population as "fair." However, he noted that electroshocking bass in the Gasconade was difficult owing to the current and the abundant submerged timber. He is confident that most of the river's big bass escape the sampling.

Statewide regulations prevail in the portion of the Gasconade covered by this article, but additional restrictions are in place farther upstream. For more information, call (573) 884-6861.

SUMMARY

Veterans of the "skinny water" at the upper ends of Missouri's Ozark streams don't need to be convinced that fishing moving water is so much fun that catching bass truly is a bonus. Let me suggest, however, that you give the lower end of your favorite stream a try this year. Not only are stream-dwelling largemouths a blast, but you just might catch the biggest smallmouth of your life as well.

As for those among you who've never enjoyed a day on a Missouri stream, don't let another season pass you by. Hiring a guide is a wise investment for pure novices, but trying the lower end of a stream on your own is a whole lot better th

an staying home.

Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com

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