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Stream Smallies On The 'Real' Big River

Stream Smallies On The 'Real' Big River

Meandering through miles of heartland hills, this river and the bass swimming it bear the scars of industry. Here, the tie between fish and angler is less a matter of chance than a form of art. (May 2008)

The Missouri Department of Conservation ranks Big River third in the state in terms of the number of Master Angler smallmouth bass it produces, but plenty of smaller, scrappy bass also haunt its waters.
Photo by Billie R. Cooper.

It's said that Philippe-François de Renault first found Big River in 1720 while he was stumbling around the big woods, which were still under French ownership at the time. He reportedly named the stream "la Grande Rivière," which English-speakers later simply translated literally. I suspect that ol' Renault based his moniker for the stream not so much on the size of the flow as on the smallmouth population that already called it home.

Southeast Missouri's Big River gets its start in Iron County, near what is now state Route 21. From a tiny stream at that point, the outflow of Council Bluffs Lake, it grows and flows 138 miles northeast in a meandering snake of twists and turns, eventually passing through St. Francois and Jefferson counties, ending up as a tributary of the Meramec River west of St. Louis.

But the focus of this angler's snapshot of Big River is the stream's legendary smallmouth population. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the river ranks third in the state for offering up Master Angler smallmouth bass. Smallies once were found in nearly every riffle and bend the entire length of this lesser-known float stream. Despite its storied history, the stream's evolving habitat has made finding these bronzeback scrappers a more specific art than is often the case.

To get a better picture of Big River, let's break its many miles down into sections. The two segments fished most for smallmouths fall between Leadwood Access in St. Francois County and Washington State Park in Washington County, and Washington State Park north nearly to Eureka. But there's a lot of river before that low-water bridge near Leadwood, and serious anglers might want to take advantage of short float trips or wading outings to seek out holes and riffles on oft-ignored stream stretches. We'll revisit this lesser-known section of river a little later.

To find the Leadwood Access, take U.S. Route 67 south from Interstate 55 at Festus. Exit the highway at Desloge, and follow the road signs through town to state Route 8 heading west. About four miles later you'll see a sign for the city of Leadwood. The MDC's Leadwood Access sits on the right side of the road. There's a sizable gravel parking lot and river access from a low-water bridge and gravel shoreline.

Mike Reed, who serves as MDC's fisheries management biologist for the upper stretch of Big River, said that ample opportunities for an angler to connect with a 16- to 18-inch smallie can be met with anywhere from the tailwaters of Council Bluffs Lake all the way to the St. Francois/Jefferson County line. In fact, sampling in late 2007 indicated that about 75 percent of the smallmouths found qualified for that length slot. He reported that the majority of fish found during annual sampling usually are found within a mile of the Leadwood Access either way, or below St. Francois State Park to near Route E. And there's a good reason for that.


Earlier it was mentioned that Big River hadn't changed much over time -- at least not from its humble start in Iron County to Leadwood in western St. Francois County. But from Leadwood downstream, the story took a strangely unpredictable turn in the early 1900s. As it turns out, Monsieur Renault was stumbling around what is now known as St. Francois County because, in his capacity as director-general of mining operations for the French's Royal India Company, he was scouting for lead -- essential in his day for casting musket balls -- and, later, a whole plethora of other helpful stuff.

Renault found what he was looking for just below the surface in St. Francois County. Mining began sometime in the years that followed, but really picked up in intensity in the early 1900s, when methods and machinery meant more and more lead could be gleaned from mining operations. With the focus being on making money and separating lead from the ground that held it, little concern was given to what was happening with the tailings -- remnants of the mining process -- that spilled into nearby creeks and rivers. As mining operations grew, it became obvious that something was happening to the fish populations in nearby streams, and a new emphasis was placed on keeping tailings out of nearby waterways.

All seemingly went well -- that is, until a tailings dam break in the 1970s spilled a large amount of the silty, sand-like stone into the stream just downstream from the Leadwood Access. Now, some 30 years later, the MDC, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are still working on ways to remove the gravel-clogging silt from what are historically some of the best fish-inhabited holes in the stream.

Reed definitely views the tailings problem as a concern on the upper river, but, he said, the loss of some prime smallmouth habitat on a several-mile stretch of the river downstream from Leadwood has apparently had little effect on the bronzebacks in the best holes. "From Leadwood downstream for about a mile is good," he said, "and upstream is even better. Below St. Francois State Park (off Route 67 north of Bonne Terre in northern St. Francois County) to the area near Route E, you see more gravel bottom and more fish. The area near Route 67 and downstream can provide some quality fish."

The methods for targeting Big River smallmouths are the same on any other stream in southern Missouri. The river teems with crawdads, mussels and minnows. The best bet -- and most fun -- is light to medium tackle and fresh crawdads or minnows fished across riffles and in gravel-bottomed holes and bends. Crappie jigs and small plastic lures work well too, but there's really nothing equal to a crawdad or minnow for getting an Ozark smallie's attention.

Since the early 1990s, a limit of "15 and one" -- a 15-inch minimum length and a one-fish creel limit daily -- has been in force. It was in the early 1990s that the MDC established a Stream Black Bass Special Management Area (SBBSMA) on a stretch of Big River -- not unlike the management areas for trout across the state's southern portion. That management area was moved upstream to include Leadwood in recent years.

Several years ago, concerns over lead-tainted tailings in the stream forced the Missouri Department of Health to issue advisories against eating suckers, carp and sunfish from stretches of the Big River. But, Reed said, the majo

r effect of the mine tailings on bass populations, especially smallmouth, has been on the fish's habitat. The tiny, sand-like tailings wash and settle into gravely holes where currents are less. Because of the shape of the tailings -- sharp, straight edges as opposed to the round shape commonly associated with sand -- the tailings tend to collect as sediment and clog the gravelly streambed used for nesting during the annual spring spawn.

According to Reed, the lack of cobble boulder or gravelly habitat for smallmouths has resulted in fish involved in the annual spawning migration in the stream congregating in the same select holes year after year. "I would almost swear that I've seen some of the same fish year after year during annual sampling," he added.

Largemouths and spotted bass are more "generalists," requiring less-specialized habitat for spawning and passing the days. This requires the smallmouth angler to explore the river each year after spring rains in order to find areas in which riffles meet gravel-bottomed holes and bends. It's there, Reed noted, that you'll find some of the nicest smallmouths that the state has to offer.

Aside from Leadwood Access, the St. Francois County stretch of the Big has several other places to access the shallow, slow-moving waters. Just downstream from Leadwood is Bone Hole. A favorite with swimmers in past years, the popular river access has as a result of the rise in the region of both the swimming pool and the commercial water park been left to the waders and short-float anglers.

From there the river snakes northeast and makes a wide two-and-a-half-mile loop past the 2,735-acre St. Francois State Park. The area inside the park offers several chances to access the river for smallmouth fishing and other recreation. Parking is plentiful, and there's enough river -- and unrelated activities for other visitors -- to allow for peaceful enjoyment of exploring a few holes and rootwads for that keeper smallmouth of the day. As you leave the park, the river loops south for only a short distance before heading back west under Route 67 for a long, leisurely float downstream to Washington State Park. (An interesting sidenote: Famed Civil War fighter Sam Hildebrand, whose antics on and around Big River are strewn throughout Missouri's history books, once lived in a cabin nestled on the hillside overlooking this stretch of stream.)

As the river heads out of St. Francois County, it also goes out of range of the watchful eye of the MDC's Reed. The biologist said that the future's bright for the upper St. Francois stretch. In recent years the EPA has overseen cleanup and stabilization of the leftover mine tailings along the river's edge. Now talks are being held between federal, state and regional groups, involving engineers, hydrologists and biologists and others about how best to bring the river back to its pre-mining glory. Discussions have been had about "flushing" the river -- attempting to clean the river channel of remaining tailings while not disturbing the natural gravel and upsetting the feel and life of the river even more.

"There's not a fast fix," Reed offered. But with active discussion and proper education, he's sure, the watershed can only get better -- and that betterment can only help the smallmouth population.

Since 1987, the tail end, or northern stretch, of Big River has been overseen by Kevin Meneau, another MDC fisheries management biologist. His stretch of river differs considerably from Reed's in that the second half of the Big is, in fact, big -- or, at least, bigger than its headwaters in Iron and Washington counties. The latter reaches of Big River are floatable with ease for the most part. Fishing for smallmouths can be an enjoyable ride on the river with occasional stops to further thresh out "fishy" holes and stretches.

Meneau designated the biggest problem facing the latter stretch of the river as the drought-like conditions that have plagued eastern Missouri in the past 10 to 12 years. No sizable springs feed directly into the Big River, so all water is either the direct or indirect result of stormwater run-off. That hasn't harmed angling on the latter stretches, but it has changed the focus of anglers, who seek out ever-deeper holes, and perhaps has created some increased fishing pressure in specific areas.

To help make angling more accessible, the MDC and the MDNR teamed up in 2005 to build a new river access off Route 21 at Washington State Park. The new ramp now makes it easy to access the river for a one-day float down to Mammoth Access. Anglers can explore the inlet of Mineral Fork Creek along the way.

Like the majority of the upper floatable portion of Big River, this area and downstream has had the "15 and one" limit -- 15-inch length minimum with a one-fish creel limit -- since 1991. The MDC has kept an accurate data set on smallmouth ever since imposing the limit, and Meneau says sampling each year shows a slight increase from year to year of the bass population in the latter stretches. Largemouth bass numbers have increased and spotted bass dropped off slightly, but smallmouths have shown an impressive increase in numbers and size combined.

One change obvious to anyone frequenting the Big from Washington State Park downstream these days is the switch from float anglers to jet boats. Not so many years ago, according to Meneau, the river primarily saw anglers making leisurely floats on one- and two-day trips. Now the river is much more prone to boat anglers using jet props and "running and gunning" upstream and downstream targeting the best holes for smallmouth when conditions are ideal.

Despite this, the latter stretches can also cater to bank-anglers and canoeists. Prime areas from which to reach the river include MDC's Kingston Access off Washington County Route 317, or Mammoth Access off Route H on Mammoth Road west of De Soto.

Meneau suggested putting in at Brown's Ford Access between state routes WW and Y and making the long one-day float to Morse Mill, south of state Route EE on Morse Mill Road. It's one of a couple of former mill dams still in place on the river. On downstream, floaters and boaters will encounter the Cedar Hill mill dam. The access off Cedar Hill Road south of state Route 30 doesn't have a boat ramp, but does provide a safe portage past the mill dam and some decent fishing from the bank.

As for the popularity of smallmouth angling on the latter stretches of Big River, Meneau noted an obvious drop in fishing pressure in the mid-1990s, in the years immediately following the new length and creel limits. But, he added, the quality of the fish and temptation of tangling with a smallmouth and other bass on the stream seems to be drawing a growing number of fishermen back to the river.

As noted, Big River hasn't lacked for colorful history -- or for concerns over what the upper region's mining history and abuse of the stream would result in. But the constant vigilance of MDC biologists like Meneau and Reed and the attention of the EPA and other state and federal agencies seem to assure smallmouth anglers that the summer of 2008 will be great for getting on this lesser-known stream and looking for that big smallie.

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