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My Least Favorite Stretch...

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It's never good when you're awakened at 3 AM by chickens squawking. Especially when you realize you forgot to lock them up in the chicken house overnight. Our chickens have a huge weedy fenced in yard to roam around in--we built it after Mary got tired of them tearing up her flower beds when they were totally free-ranging. But we have to leave the chicken house door open during the day so they can go in and lay eggs, and since we are on the edge of the woods, there are a lot of critters around that like the taste of chicken.

I grabbed the shotgun and headed out the door, but by the time I got to the chicken house whatever it was had left the building, after severely damaging the head of one chicken so that it's now apparently blind, and ripping wads of feathers out of another one. The chickens were scattered around the yard in the weeds, huddled up and making themselves as small as possible in the darkness. It took a good twenty minutes to find them all, grab them, and carry them back into the chicken house so I could lock them in.

Which is why I got a late start on my float trip for today. Took me forever to go back to sleep, and when I did I overslept.

I try to float each stretch of Big River above Washington State Park at least once each summer. Today I had decided to float my least favorite stretch of the river. I'd been noticing that it was murkier than it should be when crossing the bridge on the way to other places, and I wanted to check it to see if the local gravel operation was doing something they shouldn't.

This stretch is my least favorite because the habitat is not all that great and because there are a couple of landowners that have far too many cattle in the bottoms. The gravel operation has been in business ever since I was a kid, and the upper portion of this stretch was probably the first piece of river that they dredged. Back in those days it was common practice to dig directly in the river channel, and the geology of this stretch is such that it once consisted of a rather shallow gravel bed sitting on solid bedrock. They dug out all the gravel, messed up the channel totally, and left it as shallow, coverless water over flat rock. But that was at least 50 years ago. Now, more gravel has come in through tributaries and upstream, the banks have long been regenerated and revegetated on their own, and superficially the river looks natural. But there are still pieces that are shallow to medium depth over featureless bedrock with very little cover of any kind.

And to add to the river's woes, there is the overfertilization due to all those cows. This stretch is weedy. Submerged water weeds are thick by the end of the summer in some stretches, and water willow weedbeds line the riffles almost to the point of choking them at low water levels.

And finally, there is a relative lack of bluff holes. Pools with a lot of big rocks are scarce. Much of the cover consists of wood and those water willow beds, and for some reason a lot of stretches don't even have much wood cover.

Still, there are some pieces of the river that I love to fish, and on a good day there are definitely enough fish to keep things interesting. But when I stop to think about it, I believe I've caught fewer big smallmouth in this stretch than in any other part of Big River. It is a good stretch for largemouth, however, and it is just above the point of the river where the spotted bass have reached, so it's always been nothing but smallies and green bass.

It was 10 AM when I slid the canoe in as a couple of women with kiddies, sunbathing on the gravel bar, watched. The water was higher than normal for this time of year; there had been two one foot rises in the last few days. And it was a bit murkier than normal at the put-in, and having crossed the bridge below, I knew it was a little murkier yet down there. Looked like a crankbait situation to me. I caught two largemouth on my homemade crank before getting out of sight of my vehicle. It was the start of a pattern of largemouth and no smallies. In the next mile, I'd catch more than twenty largemouth and just two little smallmouth. I experimented with topwaters, which caught little, spinnerbaits, which caught a few, and a Superfluke, which caught one of the smallies. But the crankbait was producing most consistently.

I passed where the murky water was coming in. It appears to be an excavation away from the river in the bottom field, but with a little side channel of the river entering and leaving it, carrying away the mud. I couldn't find out for sure because it was fenced at the mouth of the outlet. I'll have to ask if there is anything that can or needs to be done about it. Just below the bridge, however, there was more mud coming in, from a little tributary. A bridge on this tributary a half mile away from the river is being repaired or replaced, and apparently the construction is mucking around in the creek bed.

So the river got murkier, but it was still fishable.

You have to go nearly three miles before you reach water that was apparently never disturbed by the gravel mining, and perhaps it's no coincidence that at that point you get into some pretty decent smallmouth water. After going through a lot of bedrock bottom pools with relatively little cover and a lot of weedy flats, you finally reach some fast moving rocky runs along a steep hillside, and there's where you'll usually start catching a lot of smallies. Sure enough, I began to catch them, though they were running small, no more than 10-12 inches. Then I reached my favorite spot in this whole float. It really doesn't look like much, just a narrow run of moving water 2-3 feet deep with some scattered rocks. But for some reason it seems to always hold some good fish, and I've caught several here over the years that were in the 17-18 inch class. But the latest round of big floods this spring seem to have removed the big rock that used to sit right in the middle of the run and in the middle of the channel, which always held the biggest fish. I did manage to catch the biggest smallie so far, a 16 incher.

After a riffle, you reach the extension of this favorite spot of mine, which is a slower, wider, rocky pool, not deep but deep enough. I continued to pick up a few smallies along with a couple largemouth. Then into a longer, deeper pool with a low rock bluff, and more smallies and more largemouth. Then you come to a stretch of very narrow runs and riffles, with deep pockets around logs and roots, which looks terrific, but seldom produces much for some reason. It gave up a couple more smallies. Next comes a fast, rocky riffle emptying into a long shallow flat. The riffle split around a water willow bed, and as I went down one side I noticed that the other side had a deep, turbulent little pocket up against a log that looked interesting. As I reached the end of the weedbed, I ran the canoe up onto the weeds to stop it, and tossed the crankbait up into that pocket. A nice smallie glommed onto it, immediately charging downstream straight toward me about as fast as a smallmouth can swim, and then leaped right in front of me and threw the hooks. It looked to be about 15 inches. I made a couple more casts up into the pocket with nothing happening, and started to push off, but on a hunch I grabbed my spinning rod with jig and plastic pig tied on, and flipped it up into the pocket. The take was immediate, and when I set the hook this fish did exactly the same thing, charging straight downstream toward me so fast I couldn't keep slack out of the line. I felt the fish briefly as it turned in front of me, and it felt big, but then the lure came loose. So I made another cast, and exactly the same thing happened again. This time, though, I kept the fish attached, and soon lipped the biggest smallmouth of the day, an 18 incher.

From there, the river changes character a bit, with more long, slow pools. At that point you're about halfway through the float, and the second half is better looking water if you like deep pools. This stretch is above the lead mine waste and below the gravel mined area, so it probably looks something like it's supposed to except for the lingering effects of the cow pastures. But those slow pools just don't seem to produce a lot of fish.

I found some pockets of fish, however, and it seemed when I'd catch one I'd end up with several, but with long dry spells between. As the afternoon shadows lengthened the fish seemed to get a little more active, but I'd had my big fish excitement for the day. Other than the occasional 15-16 inch largemouth, everything was under 14 inches.

It was a relaxing float, however. The wind was blowing hard enough to make fishing a little difficult in a few places, but the nice thing about this float is that the stream is small enough that there are few wide pools where the wind can really bother you, and the bankside tree cover is almost uninterrupted and blocks off a lot of the wind. The river was high enough that floating the riffles was easy, and the water willow beds were in enough water that I could easily slow or stop the canoe to fish good water just by paddling up onto the willow beds. I reached the end of the seven mile float at 6:30 PM, ending up with one slight disquieting note; the last bass I caught, a quarter mile above the low water bridge that has up until now formed a barrier to spotted bass spread...was a spotted bass. It didn't survive the encounter.

Final tally...42 largemouth, 32 smallmouth, one spotted bass. Hey, I said it's my least favorite stretch; I didn't say I don't like it!

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Did you go home to a pot of chicken soup? Can't have a blind hen wandering around the farm...

"Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously."

Hunter S. Thompson

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Must have been a possum os some other inefficient predator, anything else would have killed the chicken with ease.

When I was a sprout we went to church camp called Camp Ne-o-tez which is in a beautiful valley with a spring fed creek running thru the camp down to the big river. There were plenty of caves in the neotez valley that went way back underground about 400-500 yards or more. Every week we would choose one day to gown down and float the Big as a camp activity. I caught many nice smallies back in the mid to late 70's there. At the time I thought they were huge but thinking back were probably only 14-15".

The camp is located off of Big River Heights road in DeSoto, and is still operational. Does that area sound familier to you?

"Honor is a man's gift to himself" Rob Roy McGregor

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Yeah, that's in the original special management area. I divide Big River up into upper and lower. Upper is anywhere above the Mineral Fork, which comes in a couple miles below Washington State Park. The Mineral Fork is big enough that its influence makes the river below it considerably wider. Below the Mineral Fork the river is jetboatable a good portion of the year, above it jetboats can only run in fairly high water levels, at least not very far before one encounters tricky to impassible barriers. And back in the old days before spotted bass, the upper river was a terrific numbers river with some big fish mixed in, while the lower river had a lot fewer bass per mile, or so it seemed, but the fish averaged bigger. I grew up on the upper river, and didn't fish it down around De Soto as much, although some of the biggest smallies I ever saw and/or caught came from the stretches between the Mineral Fork and the Hwy. Y bridge out of De Soto.

Actually you could divide the lower river up, too. It's a lot different below Hwy. Y than above it. Above it the river still has a lot of Ozark character, though it's normally fairly slow and murky. Below Y the river is backed up by mill dams, and deeply entrenched within its banks in most places, with some long, dead, bluff pools but a lot of narrow, high banked runs and very few actual riffles. That's why the spotted bass were so quick and so efficient gaining a foothold down there--it's just not anything like what you'd think of as smallmouth habitat. Now, the only places where you'll find smallies at all in that "lower-lower" river are right below the mill dams where the water is aerated and fast, and in a couple of riffle type runs. Everything else is solid spotted bass. In the "upper-lower" river, there are a lot of riffle-run-pool complexes and lots of rocky areas that make for good smallmouth habitat, and the protection given the smallies in the original special management area also helped them hold their own to some extent against the spotted bass invasion. Still, the smallmouth fishing in the upper-lower river is nothing like what it once was.

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