September 8 , 2003

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Fishing – Beyond the Great Lakes

Ozark National Scenic Riverways' Current River – Missouri


Nestled in the southeast section of Missouri are some of the finest float and smallmouth bass fishing rivers offering relaxing outdoor entertainment for the avid angler or whole family.  Float trips on class II Rivers, swimming, camping, horseback riding, site-seeing and fishing are recreational opportunities that abound in the area known as the Lower Ozarks of Missouri.


The "Show Me State" is well known for some high-profile family location sites such as Branson - The Live Music Show Capital of the World, and Springfield – the home of Johnny Morris' world famous first Bass Pro Shops. We also know the state for some of the big man-make impoundments that hold tons of largemouth bass.  


But Missouri also has some fine smallmouth bass streams including the Currant and Jacks Fork Rivers that make up the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.


There are plenty of these feisty fighters growing wild in the deep clear pools of these pristine rivers.  Supervised under the watchful eye and discrete management of the National Park Service, the Missouri Dept of Conservation (MDC) also has a role in the area's resources. A recent electro-shocking servey by the Missouri Dept of Conservation who co-manages the resource with the feds proves it. 


The Ozark National Scenic Riverways was the nation’s first protected free flowing scenic riverway in 1964. The park is comprised of 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers which flow through a pristine landscape, rich in history, geology and unique plant and animal life.


For families and groups that enjoy the outdoors together, a gentle float trip mixed in with a dip or two along the way will consume a day all too quickly. The rivers are ideal for the novice kayaker or a group canoe-camping trip.  But for the bass angler it's a trip that creates memories of cool clear water, a pristine wilderness, lush vegetation along miles of river banks and plenty of deep pools holding large numbers of smallmouth bass.  


The rugged character of the Ozark Mountains offers outdoor opportunities in a beautiful setting that stimulates wonder, awe and reverence for the outdoors.  One of the most photographed sites in the area is the Alley Spring Mill, a human contribution to this landscape, and it is the prettier for it. 


At Alley Mill, open daily from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day, Ozark history comes to life!  Learn to make lye soap, spin, or no telling what else, while we reminisce about the old life ways in the Ozarks. Craft demonstrators, storytellers, and others will make history come alive at Alley Mill on an occasional basis through the summer.


The location of grain milling for over 100 years, the present red frame gristmill was completed around 1877. A visit to the mill offers a hint of the 19th century, as water-powered millstones rumble to life, producing the sights and sounds of corn being ground into meal.


In the early 1920s the Ozarks were in economic decline. Depleted of many natural resources, the area still offered great scenic beauty, crystal clear streams and world class springs. As the Ozarks were growing in popularity as a tourist attraction, Big Spring became on of Missouri’s first state parks in 1924.


The Great Depression had devastating effects on families throughout our nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan for national recovery offered opportunities for young Americans in a program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). One of their camps can still be seen from the river.


During the 1930s, the CCC "boys" enhanced recreational facilities in the Lower Ozark area. They built trails, erosion dikes, stone cabins, and a dining lodge. These enduring treasures can still be seen today.


But let's get back to fishing.  Missouri is home for 206 species of fishes, more than most other states.  The largemouth is the most abundant bass in Missouri lakes and slow-moving streams. The smallmouth is the dominant predator fish in the cool, clear, permanently flowering streams of the Ozarks.


The current Missouri state record smallie is 7 lbs, 2 oz, caught in 1994 from Stockton Lake. The largest smallmouth bass on record weighed 11 lbs, 15 oz, caught in 1955 from Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee.


What do smallmouth bass eat? For adult smallies, the preferred food is crayfish, followed by fish. Turn over most any rock along these rivers and you'll find crayfish. MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Dave Mayers, my guide and fishing companion for the day, proved that just by occasionally reaching over and rolling a submerged stone only to see a feisty crayfish scoot off for safer territory.


Where crayfish are abundant, they frequently comprise more than two-thirds of the food.


How fast do smallmouth bass grow?  In streams they average about 3.5" per year, attaining average lengths of 6.5, 9.5, 11.5, 13.5 and 14.5" each succeeding year. Growth in reservoirs is typically better, with smallmouth bass reaching 15" or greater in five years. A 15" smallmouth will typically weigh about 1 lb. - 10 oz.



Smallmouth habitat includes good water quality. Smallmouth bass can be found in a variety of flowing waters from small creeks to large float streams. Regardless of size, all quality smallmouth bass streams include good water quality.


Statewide, Missouri has almost 300 miles of streams with special management regulations/statewide regulations (12" minimum size and daily limit of six).  The MDC has not stocked smallmouth bass since the early 1970s, following an extensive research study that showed supplemental stocking of small, native smallmouth bass yields only a minute increase in adult numbers.


Smallmouth bass angling methods

Smallmouth bass anglers often use smaller versions of the same baits and lures used for largemouth bass. Artificial lures are THE choice for anglers practicing catch and release and wanting to reduce hooking mortality. In clear water use natural colors of prey items. In murky water and the low light of early morning or evening, you might want to use brighter colors. Some popular lures include soft plastics (with or without jigs), crankbaits (plugs), spinner baits, popping bugs and flies.


Soft plastic worms, crayfish and lizards, as well as grubs and tubes used with a jig, work very well. Fish soft plastics by casting and allowing the bait to sink, then slowly lifting your rod tip from horizontal to vertical with slight jerks, lowering the rod tip back horizontally, reeling in the slack and repeating the steps.


Varying the speed of retrieval mimics a minnow in distress, provoking a strike. Some of the most popular live baits are crayfish, minnows, nightcrawlers and hellgrammite.


When using live bait adhere to the following catch and release tips:  Carry a hook disgorger or needle-nose pliers. Back the hooks out if possible. Never pull a hook from the fish’s throat or stomach. It is better to cut the line. Many hooks will work themselves out, rust away or even pass through the fish’s digestive system. Use hooks with barbs squeezed shut if you intend to release all fish or if you like additional challenge. Fish held in baskets or on stringers and later released are not as likely to survive.


The 70-mile stretch of the middle Current River offers some spectacular scenery, easy floating and great smallmouth bass fishing. Look for deep rocky runs and pools with rootwads and boulders. A canoe or Jon boat is recommended to get to the best water. Good numbers and sizes of smallmouth bass can be found in the 25 mi. reach between Pulltite Access and Two Rivers Access. For an Ozark Rivers map of these and other access sites contact the National park Service in Van Buren at 573-323-4236.


The upper Current River offers 9 miles managed for large size brown trout on a put-grow-and-take basis with a 15" minimum length limit and three fish per day. Brown trout, 8-10', are stocked each spring but do not reach legal size until at least one year later. The brown trout population instantly responded to a regulation change in 1998 that restricts tackle to flies and artificial lures only in this area.


Located in the heart of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, is the town of Eminence, a small river town and the floating capital of the Lower Ozarks.  A permanent population of less than 600, Eminence swells to over 10,000 with the first weekend of floating season.


Local attractions include golfing on Eminence’s 9-hole course, horseback riding, camping, floating or taking a canoe trip on one of Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a scenic drive in the beauty of the Ozark Mountains, the many nationally significant blue water springs, and of course fishing the nearby Jack’s Fork and Current Rivers. You may have to stand in line if you want to eat at any of the restaurants but it will be worth it. Their restaurants feed that swelling group of hungry outdoor recreational youngsters and young at heart.


We stayed at the Ozark Farm Bed & Breakfast, an inn on an Ozark Farm, with Innkeepers Leroy and Susan Orchard our hosts. Less than two miles from Eminence, it's on the way to Ally Spring Mill State park. Call or e-mail them at 573-226-3745 or [email protected] for rates.  They have two beautiful rooms and there's a great farm pond with a good supply of largemouth bass.


Thanks Dave, for a relaxing yet exhilarating side trip while attending the Outdoor Writers Association's annual conference in Columbia.  Have to come back soon.


If your ideal vacation getaway includes the great outdoors, then Missouri’s Ozark Heritage Region offers a perfect escape. This region of the state abounds in natural beauty and seems to have been created for those who love the natural wonders of the world.


Ozark National Scenic Riverways   and


Lower Ozarks


Missouri Department of Conservation


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