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Phil Lilley
Phil Lilley

Elk River

The Elk River and its tributary, Big Sugar Creek, is probably the most popular waters to float in Western Missouri.  On any given weekend in the summer, you'll find these rivers full of enthusiastic canoeist enjoying the cool outdoors on this Ozark river.

But it's not just the canoeist and kayakers who love this river. . .  anglers love the smallmouth, largemouth bass and goggleye fishing that if offers.

The river is dotted with big riffles and long holes for fishermen to fish, as well as wood and rock structures that give fish a place to live and hide from predators.

The lower part of the Elk offers white bass and hybrid opportunities in late spring and early summer as well as a  very good population of other bass that move up out of Grand Lake to both spawn and feed after spawning.

The Elk and its tributaries waters are generally clear except after a good rain but it loses its turbidity fairly quickly because of its fast moving current and rocky bottom.

For the most part, the river is wide enough for fly casters to have room to do their thing, casting for bass, goggleye and good sized blue gill.

This is an electronic reprint of a Missouri Department of Conservation document. More or updated information on this topic can be found at the Missouri Department of Conservation web site located at: mdc.mo.gov. Copyright 2003 by the Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri.

River Levels


Elk River near Tiff City, Mo 


River Maps Link

Big Sugar Creek

Big Sugar Creek can be very challenging and dangerous.  Downed trees on a rapid run or around a blind curve pose the biggest threat.  Talk to locals or outfitters to find out if runs are safe.  Always call ahead to setup shuttle or parking.

Cyclone to Macs Big Rock

This is a very beautiful, peaceful and less traveled stretch.  Water is usually very clear, light tackle and gear needed to catch plenty of small mouth, goggle eye or the occasional largemouth.  If you are quiet you should see several bald eagles sitting peacefully in the limbs that stretch out over the river.

Smallie in super clear water
Looking downstream close to Macs Big Rock

Macs Big Rock to Craig O Lee

Note: Craig O Lee is a low water bridge that is passable by car (depending on water level).  Portage bridge by canoe or kayak (RIVER LEFT).  You will see a few floaters on the weekends during season.  This also is a great stretch for fishing, plenty of small mouth, goggle eye and the occasional largemouth.
Always keep a close eye for Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons and Wood Peckers.

Craig O Lee Low water crossing
Morning on Big Sugar Creek


Craig O Lee to Elk River
This is a great fishing run with plenty of twists and turns.  Nice deep pools and plenty of rock stucture on the river edges.  You will see plenty of floaters on the weekends but mostly quiet during the week.  You will catch smallmouth, goggle eye, largemouth and the occasional crappie.

Rock Ledge small drop off just past Rock Jetties (winter)
Rock Jetties close to Elk River on Big Sugar Creek


Elk River to Low Water Bridge
Note: the confluence of Little sugar Creek is on (RIVER LEFT).  This is where the Elk River starts.  New fishing regulations from here on down.  Please know the rules if you plan to keep fish.

Note 2 : “Low Water Bridge” or “Tressel Bridge”.  These are two bridges at the end of this stretch that are 150 yards apart.  Tressel is a tall bridge that trains use.  Low water Bridge is a one lane car bridge that crosses the river.  Please note that this is a very popular spot and is private property.  Be prepared to pay to park or float on by to the next (PA) (Mt Shira)1 mile down.  Elk River is usually clear of obstructions because outfitters will cut out downed trees.  This stretch has changed dramatically since the last two major floods, resulting in a wider and shallower river, but don’t be discouraged because this is some of the best smallmouth fishing in the state.  Fish the structure on the edges, try the beginning and ending of deeper pools.  You can catch largemouth, smallmouth, goggle eye, catfish and even monster crappie.  This stretch is heavily floated on the weekends during season but you can be mostly all alone during the week.

Treacle Bridge looking upstream from low water bridge (winter)
Interstate 71 bridge looking downstream
Elk River looking downstream by Riverside
Sunset on the Elk River Looking downstream from Riverside

Low Water Bridge to Noel Dam
Note:  This stretch has a public access (PA) called Mt Shira (one mile down from Low water bridge on RIVER RIGHT).  This stretch is the floated the most during season on weekends but don’t let that keep you from fishing this awesome stretch.  The river widens and slows down dramatically.  And you can hook Mr. Big on this run.  Seems like you catch more largemouth on this stretch than the others but don’t be surprised to hook that trophy smallmouth--he is out there.


Hwy 59 bridge just up river from Noel Dam
Bluff looking upstream, down river from (PA) Mt. Shira
Bluff looking down river from (PA) Mt. Shira

Noel Dam to Cowskin access
This stretch is seldom floated--only one outfittter on this stretch.  This is some fine fishing, with the river widening and slowing down even more than above the dam.  Deep, wide and long pools; you might want to have a trolling motor.  You can catch largemouth, small mouth, catfish, goggle eye, crappie,
hybrids and white bass.

Noel Dam
Cave (private) near Cowskin Access
Real nice bluffs between the dam and Cowskin
Paddling downstream from the dam

River Questions & Answers:

How does the Big Sugar compare to the Elk and how does the Indian compare to either? Volume of water on average, depth, faster?

Upper Big Sugar (above Craig O Lee) and Indian Creek are very similar in size and flow. The Indian is less traveled and outfitters rarely cut down trees out of the stream. Fishing can be extremely good on Indian with plenty of small smallmouth, but don't be shocked to hook a trophy small mouth.

Are the smaller creeks small enough to consider taking smaller rods, smaller lures?

A small to med spinning rod with 6lb line or less will pretty much cover any of the waters here, I fish with the hook exposed so setting the hook with a powerful rod is not needed.

Do the fish, say bass, hold is the slow pools or in the fast water, in the pockets?

I believe these fish are always hanging out under cover (see pic G4_03 in group 4), they will cruze the bank in schools of 5 or less looking for a easy dinner. They also will hang out at the beginning of a deep pool to capitalize on food being sweep downstream, I have caught fish throwing underneath rafts full of people. I think they were seeking shade.

How to the fish bite in the a. winter b. spring c. summer and d. fall?

Fish are active 10 months or so a year , it seems that when the water gets cold they are hard to locate and even harder to catch.


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