In the summer, few places in Missouri offer more picturesque surroundings or more productive bass fishing.
"Wow! Lookee here!" echoed from the front of the canoe: A 17-inch Huzzah smallmouth had just inhaled Charlene's chartreuse buzzbait.
As the canoe had just slipped into the first bluff hole below the Huzzah Valley Campground river access on Highway 8 when the vicious strike occurred, I was paddling hard to turn the aluminum craft's bow, trying to keep it from crashing into the rock bluff. Daylight scarcely spattered the bluff's towering limestone face as I brought the canoe around in the current and drifted to a gravel bar so I could stop to admire the muscular, copper-colored body of Charlene's first smallmouth of the morning.
The Ozark Mountains are home to some of the finest bass fishing streams in the nation. On top of that, those who revel in the beauty of wild streams would do well to fish these crown jewels. Names like the Huzzah, Courtois, Meramec, Big, Current, Jacks Fork, Big Piney, St. Francis and Gasconade conjure up visions of forested hillsides, towering bluffs, fast water, boulder rubble, logjams and deep holes. Those natural features are the ingredients for the perfect Ozarks bass stream.
THE MERAMEC RIVER The upper Meramec River - the portion that flows through Crawford County near Steelville - is my favorite summertime bass fishing stream. Public access points are available at: the Highway 8 bridge just east of Meramec Spring Park, Scott's Ford on Thurman Lake Road west of Steelville; the end of Highway O, south of Cuba; and on Grand Street within the city limits of Steelville. Several other private accesses can be found at riverside campgrounds and canoe rentals.
The section of stream from the Scott's Ford Access to the railroad bridge at Bird's Nest Lodge, on the northeast edge of Steelville, has been a designated smallmouth management area since 1991. The plan quickly doubled the number of smallmouths in the 12- to 15-inch-plus range being caught. Much-heftier bass, both largemouths and smallmouths lurk in the cover-rich waters of this stream.
In the summer of 2000, I floated the Meramec SMA from Scott's Ford to the Rafting Company, taking two days to fish the stretch thoroughly. I was field-testing a grub for a lure manufacturer, and it turned out that the grub worked pretty well. But what left me most impressed was the profound ingenuity of the MDC biologists who manage the stream.
The trip turned out to be my best fishing excursion ever on the Meramec. I caught over 200 smallmouth and largemouth bass, plus goggle-eye and rainbow trout.
Photo by Michael Skinner
I carried tackle from ultralight to medium-heavy. After several breakoffs with the ultralight equipment, I opted for a 6-foot medium-light spinning rod spooled with 6-pound line. I fished the 3-inch green pumpkin grub on a 1/4-ounce standup jighead, bumping the lure down runs, hopping it through logjams and swimming it like a pork frog. Fish smashed it regardless of the presentation.
After pitching camp the first evening, I retrieved my rod to fish a while longer before nightfall. I hooked up with scrappy smallmouths on my first four casts. Three casts later, a fish clobbered the drifting crayfish imitator, almost wrenching my rod from my grip. "Five-pound smallmouth, "I muttered to myself.
You could probably have heard my mouth drop open when the most beautifully colored rainbow trout I have ever seen cleared the water. My reel hummed as the powerful fish made a half-dozen runs upstream, and I found myself wondering how much more my 6-pound line could withstand.
I squatted on the riverbank in awe of the 19-inch crimson striped fish as it slid exhausted to hand. That fish became the main ingredient of a very special dinner.
Day two of my trip proved a bit less productive than the first had. Who, however, could complain about catching 80-plus smallmouths, dozens of which measured 12 to 17 inches?
Last summer, amid the light pelting of a Fourth of July drizzle, I singlehandedly slid my 17-foot canoe into the water at Indian Springs Lodge for a float-fishing trip to the Rafting Company. I was armed with two outfits; these consisted of a 6 1/2-foot spinning rod with a large-capacity reel spooled with 8-pound line and a 6-foot baitcaster and reel spooled with 10-pound line. I'd rigged the baitcaster with a big chartreuse buzzbait equipped with a trailer hook; the spinning outfit carried a soft-plastic frog.
I had big fish on my mind.
Just past the first riffle below Indian Springs is a hole almost a mile long. The south bank is a steep boulder-strewn slope; the north bank is much more shallow. Lots of moss grows there.
I alternated casts, a few with the buzzbaits to the boulders and water willows, then a few to the mossy waters to the north. I racked up 22 strikes in that first hole, landing two 17-inch largemouths and six smallmouths from 13 to 16 inches.
The action remained steady as I drifted downstream. A mile past the Highway O access the river became choked with moss. I ran the buzzbait in open channels between beds of moss and hopped the frog across the green mats.
My biggest fish of the day came when a 5-pound largemouth unleashed its fury on my buzzbait, the explosive strike resounding across the water. But that paled in comparison to the next big strike I got 15 minutes later.
The canoe had drifted into a turn. Seeking to pull the canoe out of the current in order to pause long enough to cast my buzzbait far up under the rootwad of a bankside sycamore, I was momentarily sculling with one hand. I had the buzzbait ripping back as soon as it struck the water. I saw the wake coming and tensed for the strike. The moving water boiled and churned, and with an enormous splash accompanied by a heart-wrenching ping, a huge largemouth made off with my lucky buzzbait. And to top it off, I'd just passed two guys who'd said that the fish weren't hitting!
Experienced smallmouth guide Corey Cottrell prefers the section of the Meramec from Onondaga Cave to Blue Springs, a distance of 11 miles. "The Meramec offers a lot of cover and good bass habitat in this stretch," he offered. "Riffles, water willows, moss, rock rubble, logs, bluffs and deep holes provide good structure throughout that section. Too, the scenery is spectacular. Vilander Bluff just below Campbell Bridge is the highest on the Meramec."
Cottrell keeps three baitcasters rigged up and ready for action. His first rod he arms with a watermelon-red pepper hul
a grub on a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce jighead and spools it with 10- to 12-pound line, which allows him to cast the lure to chunk-rock banks, logjams and grassy banks without fear of breaking off. "Smallmouths in the 12- to 18-inch range are plentiful in the Meramec," he said. "I also catch the occasional largemouth up to 2 or 3 pounds."
His second rig sports a cigar-shaped topwater bait. Cottrell had the most success of the year by working these walk-the-dog lures from middle to late evening. Poppers are another favorite.
A 3/16-ounce white and chartreuse spinnerbait with a copper-colored willow leaf blade adorns the business end of Cottrell's third baitcasting rig. Downed logs and faster water - where the other baits won't work - are the targets of his spinnerbait casts. He looks with special attention for submerged logs that catch a little current - the perfect hiding place for a hefty smallmouth.
Largemouths hang out in the slower water of slack areas, breaks, and side eddies; dead water with logs is a sure bet. Cottrell also suggested checking areas opposite chunk rock banks.
Public accesses are available at Onondaga Cave State Park at the end of Highway H south of Leasburg, at Campbell Bridge south of Bourbon on Highway N, and at Blue Springs on Thickety Ford Road off Highway N.
Smallmouths caught in the SMA between Scott's Ford and Bird's Nest must be 15 inches to be retained in your creel, and the limit is one. Outside the SMA the black bass limit is six, with a 12-inch length limit. Excepted from the rule are spotted bass. This year there's a new regulation encouraging anglers to catch and keep up to 12 spotted bass. There is no length limit on these feisty little bass.
HUZZAH CREEK Corey Cottrell, whose family owns Huzzah Valley Campground at the Highway 8 bridge, probably knows more about fishing the Huzzah than any other living human; he's spent his entire life fishing these waters on a regular basis. At every available opportunity he sneaks away from business chores to make a few casts.
"My favorite bait for the Huzzah is a 4-inch fluke-type bait in bubblegum, white or sparkle gold," he reported. "They're deadly on Huzzah smallmouth. Most lure companies make a 5-inch soft-plastic bait. Downsizing an inch and using a 3/0 hook makes a world of difference in my hookup percentages."
Cottrell has a reputation for fishing from dusk to 10 p.m. on the Huzzah. "Some of my biggest smallmouths have fallen for black topwaters after the sun has gone down," he said.
The Huzzah above the Highway 8 bridge offers a spectacular three-mile section that can easily be waded or fished from a float tube. The access is on private property, but Huzzah Valley Campground can make arrangements to drop fishermen off there.
The eight-mile float from Huzzah Campground to Scotia access is chock-full of scrappy smallmouths. Buzzbaits, grubs, lizards, 4-inch worms and small spinnerbaits all work well in this stretch.
COURTOIS CREEK Courtois Creek is the sister creek to the Huzzah, the two being divided along much of their courses by a single ridge. The Courtois tends to flow more slowly than does the Huzzah, in some stretches taking on the look of a Southern stream complete with lily pads. The largemouth bass lurking beneath the pads can prove quite vulnerable to a weedless plastic frog or other topwater bait.
The most productive fishing float runs from the Butts Road access to Scotia. The Courtois enters the Huzzah about a mile above the Scotia access. Cottrell prefers to float-fish the section from Blunt's Road to Butts Road. He normally begins at about 4 p.m., as canoe traffic has usually dissipated by then, leaving the stream to serious fishermen.
The first three miles of the float feature moving water, so Cottrell deploys the same tactics he uses on the Huzzah. However, the water is slow in the last three miles above Butts Road - perfect for topwaters. Cottrell rigs the baits on a 10- to 12-pound line and fishes late into the evening.
"The Courtois has some beautiful scenery along the way," he said." Of course, nothing can be more beautiful than a big bronzeback smashing my black topwater by the light of the moon."
On several occasions I have float-tubed and fished the section of the Courtois coursing from the MDC campground in the Huzzah Wildlife Management Area at the end of Highway E down to the Scotia access, a distance of two miles. Plentiful logjams and rootwads always harbor enough scrappy smallmouths to make this an enjoyable trip in a belly boat on a hot summer day.
Buzzbaits are great fun to fish while you're floating in a belly boat. Being at water level allows an angler to see the explosive action up close when a hungry bass hits.
BIG RIVER Less than an hour's drive from St. Louis, the Big River may be the smallmouth sleeper of the Ozarks. It's not as scenic as are some of the other Ozark Mountain streams, but it makes up for whatever it lacks in beauty with the quality of its smallmouth action.
Corey Cottrell has made some of his most memorable smallmouth trips on the Big River - and Corey's caught a lot of nice smallmouths in his lifetime. I too have fond Big River memories; one of the finest smallmouth trips I ever enjoyed took place on the stretch between Washington State Park and Mammoth Bridge Access.
It seemed a bit unusual, but the fish preferred a 1/16-ounce pink crappie jig. I caught dozens of beautiful bronzebacks in the 10- to 16-inch range and four or five 17- to 18-inch fish. All fell to pink crappie jigs, the action fast and furious until rootwads and big fish wrested all of the half-dozen jigs in my tackle box away from me.
In an attempt to repeat the feat the that day, I made a mad dash to every sporting goods store within 20 miles, but could not come up with a single pink crappie jig. The fish still wanted pink the next day, too, apparently: I couldn't get them to hit any of the other fine baits I offered them.
Although the Smallmouth Management Area of the Big River (which runs from Highway 21 near Washington State Park to the confluence of the Meramec River) is subject to most of the fishing pressure, anglers would do well to fish the section from Blackwell to Highway 21; some hefty bass swim this four-mile stretch of water. Too, the float is short enough that a fisherman can take his time and work the cover thoroughly.
The Big River also is being managed under the new spotted bass regulation. Fishermen can play an important role in slowing the spread of spotted bass by keeping them. There is no minimum length limit; the daily limit is 12.
The length limit on smallmouths in the SMA on the Big River is 15 inches. The daily limit of black bass may only include one smallmouth bass.
No discussion of Ozark smallmouth fishing would be complete without mentioning the beautiful Jacks Fork. Spectacular scenery on the stream makes any trip worth the effort. However, most fishermen, myself included, like to have a few fish to go with that scenery.
The Jacks Fork is home to some whopper smallmouths - thus the 18-inch, one-fish length limit from Highway 17 to Highway 106.
A short float or belly boat trip can be enjoyed from Highway 17 to the Salvation Army Camp, a distance of three miles. The next available take-out is 14 miles downstream at Bay Creek. An overnight float-and-camp trip is the perfect way to enjoy both the natural beauty and the wonderful fishing in this area.
Recent rains have replenished flow in most Ozark streams, but check with local canoe rental outfits before planning a trip on the upper Jacks Fork. Two years of drought have brought the water down to levels that are much lower than normal.
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Through the Ozarks course hundreds of miles of streams and creeks offering wonderful bass fishing action in the summer. Some, difficult to access, see very little fishing pressure.
Do yourself a favor and schedule an Ozark stream bass fishing trip. If you'd like the expert assistance of a guide, call Corey Cottrell. You might catch him at 1-800-392-3700 - or not: He fishes a lot!
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