Specially managed and spring-fed, over 300 miles of clear-water smallmouth streams flow through the spectacular Ozark Mountains. (May 2007)
Dian Cooper hoists a hefty smallmouth that she fooled with a Super Fluke. Smallmouths are growing larger since the Specially Managed Areas were instituted in 2000.
Photo by Billie R. Cooper.
"Wow! That was a really big fish!" Dian, my wife, yelled.
"Yeah -- I know!" I exclaimed, disgruntled. "How come the big ones always get away?"
The broad-shouldered smallmouth lurked exactly where I'd expected it would: in a small pocket of green water tucked between a clump of willows and a gravel-bar bank. Deep water and a clipping current bordered the fish's lair -- the perfect ambush point for an intimidating smallmouth.
My cast produced too much arc in the line, and the monster fish attacked my lure as soon as it hit the water. I snapped the rod back, but my attempt at a solid hookset was a millisecond too late. Heartbroken, but exhilarated by the encounter with a huge brownie, I made one paddlestroke and pushed my kayak to the next likely-looking lair of another big Ozark smallmouth.
Here are a few spots where you can tangle with a fish as big as the one I missed.
I've been fortunate enough to log hundreds of miles on Ozark streams, many of those miles in pursuit of smallmouth bass. A good number of those miles have been on the Meramec River.
The Meramec is a top producer of bruiser smallmouths. The fertile stream produces smallmouths in abundance from its headwaters to its confluence with the Mississippi, south of St. Louis.
First-time anglers would do well to head to Steelville, an hour's drive from St. Louis. Just west of Steelville, off Highway 8, the Meramec River Smallmouth Management Area begins at Scott's Ford and ends at the railroad trestle bridge at Birds Nest Lodge, a float distance of about 15 miles.
Smallmouths spawn in April and May. This stretch of the Meramec produces some of its biggest smallmouths before the season opens on Memorial Day weekend. You can still catch and release fish prior to the official opener (which is a popular thing to do anyway).
During the spawn, anglers can often sight-fish, which is one of the most enjoyable forms of smallmouth fishing. Nests lie in quiet water near the shoreline. Check behind clumps of willows or near stretches of water willow, a plant about 18 inches tall that grows in dense stands along the shore and into shallow water. Other nesting sites include calmer water behind large boulders and blowdowns. A high-quality pair of polarized sunglasses will help immensely with locating fish.
Smallmouths are very defensive when it comes to their nests and eggs, so use lures that feign a threat to the nest, and you'll be in business. Salamanders are notorious egg-stealers, as are minnows and crayfish. Three of my favorite baits for this type of fishing are a 4-inch Zoom Lizard in green pumpkin, Zoom's Baby Fluke in white, and Yum's 2 1/2-inch Baby Crawbug in black, blue and red. Smallmouths are in a defensive mode rather than a feeding mode -- thus the small baits. The fish will attack the intruders. Rig the baits with oversized hooks. They won't spook fish during their superaggressive spawning mode, and hookups will improve. Eagle Claw's Lazer Sharp Kahle-style hooks will work with all three baits.
Huzzah Creek, in Crawford County, is one of the top producers of smallmouth bass in terms of numbers. Start your trip at the private access at Huzzah Valley Campground, east of Steelville on Highway 8. Six miles and dozens of smallmouths later, you can take out at the Missouri Department of Conservation access at Scotia Bridge at the end of E Highway.
While at Huzzah Valley, visit with Corey Cottrell, one of the owners, and perhaps the best smallmouth fisherman in the Ozarks. "The Huzzah is one of my favorite smallmouth streams," he said. "I grew up right on its banks and know it like the back on my hand. It has such a diversity of habitats that favor smallmouth bass -- clean water, gravel and rocky bottoms, rootwads, deep holes, riffles, mud banks, submerged logs -- the Huzzah has it all."
Cottrell will rig three rods any time he fishes the Huzzah. "I like to cover all the water columns, top, middle, and bottom," he offered. "I like to throw a Sammy Lure or a Fluke for topwater action. Spinnerbaits in chartreuse and white are my favorite to cover the middepths. Bitsy jigs and tube baits in crayfish colors are my favorites to fish the rock and gravel areas."
To check water and fishing conditions, call Huzzah Valley Resort at 1-800-367-4516.
ELEVEN POINT RIVER
The Eleven Point River is a fisherman's paradise: 50 miles of specially managed waters between Thomasville and the Arkansas line. Brian Sloss and Ryan Griffin own the Eleven Point River Canoe Rental at Alton. The pair of outdoor enthusiasts guide for trout and smallmouth bass.
"Cane Bluff to Greer Spring is my favorite smallmouth water," said Griffin. "I catch larger fish in that stretch, up to 3 or 4 pounds. When the water is higher in the spring, I start further upstream at Thomasville. The water is much smaller there. I use small baits like the Rapala Countdown Minnow in the 2-inch model. Farther down the river, I prefer Gary Yamato's 4-inch twin-tailed skirted grubs in natural colors. Greens and pumpkin colors work best. I rig them on 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jigheads and use 6-pound line."
Accesses are at Thomasville on Highway 99, at Cane Bluff off Highway 19 and at the Highway 19 access just below Greer Spring.
For a real smallmouth fishing adventure, call Ryan or Brian at Eleven Point Canoe Rental, (417) 778-6597, and ask for a guided trip in their drift boat. These trips take place further downstream from Whitton Access to Arkansas.
The Gasconade holds the title of one of the most crooked rivers in the world. Less publicized are the towering bluffs, hairpin turns, and spectacular hardwood forests that line the river.
Justin Richardson of Rolla is a longtime fan of the Gasconade. "It is the perfect smallmouth river," he stated. "You can catch smallmouth far upstream, where you can only wade or very near where it runs into the Missouri 300 miles downstream."
The Gasconade contains 20 miles of specially managed smallmouth area from Riddle Bridge at the end of Highway Y, north of St. Roberts, to the Highway D Bridge at Jerome.
However, Richardson prefers to fish above the managed area.
"The managed area has some terrific fishing, but tends to attract more people," he advised. "I prefer to put in at the Highway 17 bridge north of Waynesville. It is 15 miles to Riddle Bridge where the managed area begins, but I spend most of my fishing time in the first five or six miles below Highway 17. There are lots of big rocks in this stretch. The channels are deep, and the current moves right along."
Richardson has fished the Gasconade for decades and still uses a time-tested lure, the Twin Spin "Nugget." "I slow-roll the lure over rocks and logs. I look for this structure in 4 to 6 feet of water. Adding a No. 101 green and white pork frog to the bait makes it a killer."
Richardson rigs his favorite baitcaster with 10-pound P Line. "I catch a lot of 12- to 14-inch smallmouths in this stretch," he said, "but I like to be prepared for the three or four 2 1/2- to 4-pound fish I catch on most trips."
John Ackerson, the MDC fisheries management biologist for the Eleven Point River, indicated that both the numbers and the sizes of smallmouths in the Eleven Point have increased since the inception of the Smallmouth Management Area in 2000.
"The new regulations restricted the harvest," he stated. "Anglers are allowed to keep one smallmouth of 15 inches or greater per day in the managed areas. This essentially promoted catch-and-release fishing. Overall fishing pressure declined and the size and numbers of fish increased. Drought conditions in the Ozarks have also contributed to spawning success. Vegetation spread as water dropped. When the water level rose again, there was lots of cover for spawning smallmouth bass."