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Al Agnew
Al Agnew

Big River: Sections

The following is a breakdown of each of those four sections of the Big River (Missouri), giving a description of each stretch, its gradient, the usable river gauge, navigability by paddle craft and boat at various flows, and accesses. The mileages of each access from the uppermost access of each section is given as well.

Cedar Creek to St. Francois Park

Cedar Creek, which drains part of historic Bellview Valley in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains, is almost as large as Big River where the two come together. Just below the confluence, there is an old gravel pit on the river that is wide and mostly shallow, and being exposed to the sun, results in considerable warming of the river below in the summer. Just below it, the river encounters the last of the granitic outcrops of the St. Francois Mountain region in what is almost a shut-in, with huge granite boulders in the middle of a big pool. From there the river is characterized by a series of rather large pools separated by riffles and short runs. By mid-summer floating this upper end is a matter of walking the riffles in order to fish the pools. There is also a long section of very shallow water with exposed bedrock at the site of another old gravel mining operation.

The river above the Leadwood Access has a typical Ozark headwater stream fishery, with smallmouth, largemouth, and goggle-eye. There are also some huge carp in the big pools, and suckers are abundant. The low water bridge at the Leadwood Access forms the final barrier to spotted bass spread, and there are few spotted bass above it, while below it they have become common. Below the Leadwood Access, the river begins to show the effects of erosion from lead mine tailings as it enters the Old Lead Belt. For the next 2.5 miles it retains good habitat, with nice, deep pools, even though the mine waste, which consists of fine gray gravel, is evident on the gravel bars. But when it reaches the next access, it begins a four mile loop around a big bend, where the entire inside of the bend was covered with mine waste that continually eroded into the river for many years—along with trash from the county landfill that was once located there as well. Starting at that bend, the river's channel has been largely clogged with mine waste, filling in pools and smothering the crevices within natural gravel and rock rubble that form living space for bottom organisms. The impaired river continues all the way through the rest of this stretch. For two decades or more the area has been a federal Superfund site as attempts are made to stabilize the tailings, and the work is now winding down, but the effects will probably last for many more years.

This section is pretty in places as it winds through a shallow valley lined with low bluffs that gradually get taller as you go downstream until they tower more than 100 feet over the river as you near St. Francois Park. But it flows through the highly developed area of the Old Lead Belt, and homes and cabins line the river banks in many areas. The stretch from the Desloge area to St. Francois Park also appears to be suffering from inadequate sewage treatment, or perhaps the interaction of treated sewage with the lead tailings, because by late summer there will be huge mats of odorous, sludgy, almost black algae that form on the bottom and then float to the surface to pile up against obstructions in great slimy masses. So far nothing seems to be happening to remedy this situation.

One other note: Beginning at the Leadwood Access, there are health advisories on the suckers, redhorse, and sunfish, due to contamination with lead and other heavy metals.

Gradient: 4.3 feet per mile.

USGS river gauge: Big River Near Irondale, located at the U Hwy. Bridge outside Irondale. There is now a gauge near Bonne Terre that will be useful in coming years, but it hasn't been in the system long enough yet to show the flow in cubic feet per second, or to correlate levels in feet with various water conditions. As such correlation becomes possible, this information will be revised to reflect that gauge.

Normal flow for December through February: 75-125 cfs.
Normal flow for March through May: 100-175 cfs.
Normal flow for June through November: 12-50 cfs.
Low flows range from 5-10 cfs.
Highest flows likely to be fishable range from 300-400 cfs.


Under 20 cfs—nearly all riffles will require walking in the upper sections. Below Leadwood, some riffles will require walking and you will scrape bottom in most riffles.
20-40 cfs—Some riffles will still require walking, very few will float a canoe without scraping bottom.
40-80 cfs—upper sections will still be shallow enough to scrape bottom, but lower sections will be low but floatable with occasional scraping.
80-150 cfs—easily floatable and fishable.
150-250 cfs—high but probably still fishable.
250-400 cfs—very high, possibly muddy, very difficult to fish from a moving watercraft.
Over 400 cfs—too high.
This section is not considered jetboatable due to narrow twisting channels and frequent obstructions, even when there is enough water.

Accesses and mileages:

Hwy. M bridge (on Cedar Creek a few hundred feet upstream from its confluence with Big River)--0.0
Hwy. U bridge—3.0
County Road 511 bridge—8.6
Leadwood MDC Access—15.7
St. Francois County access (locally called “Bone Hole”)—18.8
Hawthorn Road bridge (poor access)--23.1
State Street bridge—24.1
St. Francois State Park, upper access—33.6
St. Francois Park, lower access—35.0


big river 9

St. Francois Park to the mouth of the Mineral Fork

St. Francois State Park makes a good base of operations for floating both upstream and downstream. While the river upstream is rather highly impaired from the mine waste and overfertilization, it begins to recover as you go downstream. The pools get deeper and the algal blooms decrease. By this point it is also a little larger, though it will still become too low for easy floating by late summer most years. It is a pretty stretch, with occasional high bluffs and some nice gravel bars, and it has very little development, just long stretches of farmland and wooded hills. And it simply looks fishy, with a lot of water willow beds, woody cover, and rocky pools.

The access is rather poor throughout this stretch, which decreases the number of people using it. While there is a small canoe rental operation at the Highway 67 bridge, it is not popular with the rental hordes, and you can sometimes have it to yourself even on summer weekends.

Spotted bass now probably outnumber smallies in this stretch, where they were totally absent no more than fifteen years ago. Catfishing is good. The water is normally rather murky, with visibility no more than four feet and often three feet or a little less, although it gets much clearer in the autumn.

Washington State Park, near the downstream end of this stretch, is popular not only for swimming and fishing in the river but for hiking trails and especially for the best example of native American petroglyphs in Missouri.

Gradient: 3.3 feet per mile.

USGS river gauge: The “Big River Below Bonne Terre” gauge, located at the Highway E bridge north of Bonne Terre, has not been in operation long enough to correlate various water levels on the gauge to actual conditions. The “Near Irondale” gauge is probably the most usable one at this point, but there are several good sized tributaries between it and the beginning of this stretch, so water conditions at Irondale may not be the same as conditions on this section. Gauges farther downstream are below the mouth of the Mineral Fork, so they are not very useful, either. The Irondale gauge will be used in the information below, but understand that it may not reflect actual conditions on this stretch.

Normal flow for December through February: 75-125 cfs.
Normal flow for March through May: 100-175 cfs.
Normal flow for June through November: 12-50 cfs.
Low flows range from 5-10 cfs.
Highest flows likely to be fishable range from 300-400 cfs.


Under 10 cfs—low but floatable, though one will scrape bottom in wider riffles and a few might have to be walked.
10-50 cfs—floatable,with occasional scraping.
50-100 cfs—easily floatable.
100-200 cfs—high but easily floatable, fishing may be difficult due to stronger currents.
200-400 cfs—very high, possibly muddy, fishing difficult.
Over 400 cfs—too high.
Most of this stretch is not jetboatable due to narrow, twisting riffles and obstructions. If the Irondale gauge reads over 200 cfs you may be able to take a jetboat upstream from the Washington Park Access at Hwy. 21 if you are very experienced, but you may encounter dangerous obstructions. A few people run short sections from private accesses at flows much less than 200 cfs, but it is not recommended.

Accesses and mileages:

St. Francois State Park, lower access—0.0
Berry Road, just below Hwy. 67 (private access)--1.4
Cole's Landing at the end of Dickenson Road (private, fee access, and sometimes difficult to find the owner)--11.1
Blackwell Bridge on Upper Blackwell Road (parking almost non-existent)--14.8
Washington State Park boat ramp off Hwy. 21—19.6
Washington State Park picnic grounds (last access before the Mineral Fork)--22.6
Mammoth MDC Access (1.5 miles below the Mineral Fork)—25.9

Mouth of Mineral Fork to Morse Mill

The Mineral Fork, the largest tributary to Big River and big enough to furnish some floating itself, adds a considerable amount of water to the river, making it floatable year-round and jetboatable at least part of the year. Other than volume, however, the river changes very little. It remains a murky, fertile stream with good looking habitat. Development is not too intrusive and it is still a pretty stream, though far from spectacular.

Not far below the Mineral Fork, the stretch from the Mammoth Bridge MDC Access to the Browns Ford Access was one of the original three Smallmouth Special Management Areas. The protection of smallies in this section allowed them to barely hold their own against the encroachment of non-native spotted bass, and there is still a significant population of smallmouth in this stretch, though spotted bass probably outnumber the smallies. Catfishing is excellent.

Gradient: 2.3 feet per mile.

USGS river gauge: Big River Near Richwoods, at the Hwy. H bridge west of De Soto. This gauge is in the middle of this section, and is very reliable.

Normal flow for December through February: 300-500 cfs.
Normal flow for March through May: 500-700 cfs.
Normal flow for June through November: 125-350 cfs.
Low flows range from 60-100 cfs.
Highest flows likely to be fishable range from 800-1200 cfs.


Under 100 cfs—low but floatable, possibly with scraping bottom in wider riffles.
100-200 cfs—easily floatable; jetboating marginal, with possibility of boat and motor damage.
200-400 cfs—easily floatable, a little low for really easy jetboating but experienced boaters should have little problem.
400-800 cfs—high but floatable and jetboatable.
800-1200 cfs—very high, strong currents may be dangerous for the inexperienced, fishing difficult from moving craft, may be muddy.
Over 1200 cfs—too high.

Accesses and mileages:

Mammoth MDC Access—0.0
Merrill Horse MDC Access—5.4
Brown's Ford Access—10.7
Morse Mill Access—29.1

Morse Mill to the Meramec

The Morse Mill dam is the first of three old mill dams on the lower river, and the mill pond above it is the beginning of significant changes to the river, both man-made and natural. From there on, the river becomes very slow and begins to dig into its alluvial banks. One will still encounter some high, wooded bluffs, but for the most part the river flows through wide bottomlands. Development, much of it haphazard and ramshackle, lines the banks, and trash dumps are not unusual.

This stretch once held a good smallmouth population, but now smallies are nearly non-existent except for a few small, specific areas where there is faster water. Spotted bass fishing, however, can be excellent. Walleye are occasionally caught, especially below the old mill dams in the spring, and catfish are abundant. This section is little floated; most fishing is done by people who put in small boats and fish short sections. Jetboating is possible, but the river gets too low by late summer and the mill dams limit running the river to the stretches in between them.

Gradient: 1.7 feet per mile.

USGS river gauge: Big River Near Byrnesville, at bridge on lower Byrnesville Road. This gauge is in the middle of this stretch and is very reliable.

Normal flow for December through February: 320-600 cfs.
Normal flow for March through May: 650-900 cfs.
Normal flow for June through November: 150-450 cfs.
Low flows range from 70-200 cfs.
Highest flows likely to be fishable range from 900-1600 cfs.


Under 100 cfs—floatable some scraping bottom likely.
100-300 cfs—low but floatable, jetboating possible but difficult.
300-600 cfs—easily floatable, jetboating easy for the experienced.
600-900 cfs—floatable and jetboatable, strong currents.
900-1200 cfs—high but usually still fishable.
1200-1600 cfs—very high, may be muddy, possibly dangerous for both floating and jetboating. Warning—the mill dam areas will be especially dangerous.
Over 1600 cfs—too high.

Accesses and mileages:

Morse Mill Access—0.0
Cedar Hill Access—10.8
Rockford Beach Park—20.8
Times Beach MDC Access on the Meramec, 3 miles below the mouth of Big River—33.8

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