Saturday, May 19, 2012
FInal Missouri Trip Report, Days 4-8
Day 4: Big Piney River Float
Neither dad nor I had ever floated the Big Piney, which is a small river in the north-central Ozarks that feeds into the Gasconade. It holds a high reputation both for smallmouth and for goggle-eye or rock bass, the most interesting native Ozark panfish.
Unfortunately, dry weather for the past month or more has reduced the river's flows to late July levels, and we floated up high in the drainage. The river was crystal clear, clear enough that we spooked more fish with the canoe than we caught. Fishing was fair early in the morning, but with the smallmouth all found in medium depth runs with only scattered boulders, by 10:30AM when the light got high enough to easily penetrate the overhanging cottonwoods the fish had gotten very spooky and only small sunfish and a couple more bass were to be found. The bass, such as they were, were most interested in a copper-gold Kreelex streamer.
No pics, because those I took on this day wound up being recorded to my cam's internal memory, and I don't have a USB cord with me to transfer them. The best fish was a 14" smallmouth, also my first fish, alas.
Day 5: Lake of the Ozarks with Jack Uxa of Jack's Guide Service (www.fishinglakeoftheozarks.com)
My cousin Jack is one of the most sought-after guides on Lake of the Ozarks, running over 200 trips in 2011.He very rarely takes out fly fishermen, but he certainly knows where the big largemouth bass live and I was hoping to catch some of them. Unfortunately, rapidly dropping lake levels eliminated the shallow water pattern that had proven successful for him the day before and which I felt confident I could mimic with flies, and though he caught a couple small largemouth and spotted bass in close to shore, it was obvious the bass were out in deep water. He caught a 5lb largemouth in 20 feet of water on a large jig, but I wasn't really equipped to fly fish such depths and the fishing was anything but fast anyway. We salvaged the morning by heading out to fish main lake docks influenced by current and wind, and in only three docks I managed to bring in two solid spotted or Kentucky bass in the 12-15" range and one small largemouth. I also missed several fish. All took a #2 Gray and White Wiese's Swimming Minnow, a Clouser variation with a deep belly of marabou and some red Flashabou to suggest gills, in addition to the normal hair wings. It was obvious we could have kept running this pattern up the lake successfully, but it was getting to be lunch time and we had a different plan in mind for the afternoon: gar.
The gar waited a bit, though, because we found several pods of solid bluegill spawning near the boat ramp where we planned to launch for the afternoon, and spent a fun 45 minutes bringing in one bluegill after another. We mostly used my cousin's little 7'6" 4/5-weight, seeing as how I had were a seven and an eight, which are a bit much for fish the size of your hand. I have to admit that that $40 rod actually felt pretty nice at short and medium ranges with small fish. We may wind up stocking them.
After the bluegill started to get wary or maybe we just stung them all, we launched and started looking for longnose gar. These are bizarre-looking prehistoric fish with a long skinny snout that's almost solid bone and well stocked with half-inch teeth. Imagine some hybrid of a crocodile, a snake, and a northern pike. Their mouths are so hard that hooks seldom penetrate, so the usual method of fishing for them is to either fish bait (typically minnows) and let them swallow it or to construct baitfish imitations out of frayed soft nylon or poly rope, hoping their teeth get entangled in the filaments long enough to get them in the boat. When the fish eats, the worst thing to do is set the hook. Instead, slowly raise the rod tip to begin applying pressure, only lifting the rod to full fighting position after it appears that the fish is going to stay buttoned.
Yes, it's weird.
The first few spots we hit only had a handful of gar showing, and while Jack said they were quite interested in chasing our offerings, much more than usual, they were also hesitant to take. Jack was fishing a rope jig tied on a 1/4oz Roadrunner head (a jighead with a small spinner attached), while I tried various rope streamers, finally settling on either a quasi-traditional tye with a long rope tail and wing, but a silver Mylar body and glued-on eyes and a simpler pattern, just rope tied on a red Octopus hook. The hits started coming for both of us when we sped up our retrieves. Typically gar want slow retrieves, but this time they seldom responded to a fly or jig fished slow, and then only chased it in a lazy fashion. They would attack when we worked the fly or lure back fast right in front of their noses.
After we discovered this, we got strikes at most of our stops and wound up bringing four gar apiece to the boat. Most of our strikes and even more of the fish we caught came via sight-fishing to spotted fish cruising or hovering a foot or so underwater off secondary points. Some of the fish we cast to were singles, some cruising in pods of 2-4 fish. The fights were in many cases quite insanse, with the fish either taking off in shrieking deep runs, diving under the boat, or jumping. My first fish, a brute of between 52 and 53 inches, jumped four times including twice right next to the boat, soaking Jack as he was about to land the fish. Even landing the fish was interesting: you slide on a pair of heavy duty leather work gloves, then grab the fish as tightly as you can by the bill, at which point the fish goes crazy and tries to jerk your arm out of its socket. Even with the gloves I got several scrapes on my fingers where the fish's teeth penetrated. Tailing them is no better: their scale edges can be sharp, too.
Here are a few shots of the afternoon's fishing. The first is my big gar.
Day 6: Bryant Creek Float - Route 181 to Wilson Cemetery
This morning I drove south from the Osage Hills into the central Ozarks to my college friend Eric's new homestead. "Homestead" is a reasonable term. He and his girlfriend had to replace all the wiring in their house, re-set in on its foundation, use a composting toilet rather than full indoor plumbing, and grow and raise most of their own food, including milk goats. Yes, he's a hippie. In fact, he was fictionalized as "Hippie" in a recently-published book.
They live a couple hundred yards from Bryant Creek, a medium-sized smallmouth creek that's also home to one of the last working water mills in the country. If you've seen organic/natural products sold under the Hodgson Mill label, you've seen a picture of the mill on the label, though I doubt much of the actual cereals are ground there nowadays.
With the drive and catching up, we didn't get on the water until midafternoon and the fishing suffered for it. I took a small bass right away, but got few strikes for the remainder of the afternoon until I threw on a small wet fly as a dropper and closed out the float with four or five panfish. Like the Big Piney, the water was just too low and clear and had been for too long. Eric landed one small rock bass.
Day 7: North Fork of the White River float - Kelly Ford to Blair Bridge
I had been anticipating this float for a long time since the NF is probably Missouri's best trout river, with wild rainbows in the middle reaches immediately below where two large springs dump in (a mile above our put-in) and potentially trophy browns in the lower section immediately above Norfork Reservoir, below which is the more-famous Arkansas tailwater section of the river. In the Missouri section, the North Fork is a fast, often deep river, flowing under bluffs, taking in many springs, and usually often flowing over super-slick bedrock. I've seen the river referred in print as the "Madison of the Ozarks," and it's not entirely inaccurate. At the very least, the river is the most "Western-like" of any I've seen in the Ozarks.
With running shuttles and waiting for Eric, his girlfriend, and Eric's dad to finish morning chores, catch up, and otherwise get organized, it was after 10:00 by the time we got on the water, which wasn't optimal since the river was -like all the others- low and clear, and the day promised to be sunny and hot.
I immediately wished we'd gotten there sooner, since when we launched some familiar but totally unexpected orange and black bugs were flittering about over the river. SALMONFLIES! Actually, they probably weren't salmonflies but a very similar species, but if it walks like a duck it can be treated like a duck, even if it isn't. They looked to be about a size 4, and I saw several explosive rises that couldn't be anything but trout crashing them, so I put on one of the three adult stoneflies I'd brought with me, and almost immediately started getting rises. I say "rises" rather than "strikes," because with the crystal clear water (visibility was essentially unlimited) and relatively slow flows in many places, the fish usually stopped short just underneath the fly or only bumped it with their noses. If I'd had more flies, gotten started earlier, or had heavier water to give the fish less time to inspect the flies, I would have landed a Missouri fish on an adult stonefly, I'm sure of it.
Instead I wound up going subsurface and much smaller, and eventually settled on a #12 Minch Golden Stone trailing a #16 Bead, Hare, and Copper. Strikes weren't exactly continuous, but when we stopped to fish the heavy runs that were around waist deep, I'd usually get at least one strike, and even caught a couple and lost one out of the canoe. My batting average was pitiful, though, and I lost all the nice fish I hooked, though I did land seven rainbows and three browns. Eric and Amelia declared we had to row out about the last mile so they could get home to milk the goats just about when the fish were starting to rise to a pale tan caddis, and I'm willing to bet I would have done quite well if I'd stayed out until dark. As it is, I can assure you I'll be back to the NF, perhaps with a drift boat in tow. With the better reach and slower, more methodical fishing possible even from a drifting drift boat, I have no doubt I'd do well. Too bad there's a low bridge requiring a portage smack in the middle of the blue ribbon (wild trout) section. That sure messes up some hypothetical floats...
Here's a shot of my first trout, the first wild rainbow I've landed in the Ozarks since probably 2002 or so.
I also made a new friend, Eric & Amelia's dog Pawley, a friendly mutt they found abandoned in a National Forest in Lousiana:
Day 8: St. Francis River at Millstream Gardens
What a disappointment. The river dropped substantially since my trip here last Friday, it was roasting hot, and the algae blooms this river suffers from in midsummer have already started. I wasted an hour investigating a couple other access points and only wound up getting on the water at Millstream at just before 7:00AM, and that early hour made a lot of difference. I didn't exactly spank them before 8:30, but I did okay. After 8:30 it was all over. I eventually noticed that I was spooking even the suckers and gave it up at 9:15, having already sweated through my shirt. If I'd started fishing in earnest at 7:00, I would have had better chances at nice fish. As it was, I caught one beautiful smallmouth, the best of the trip, and otherwise landed only a few small ones. Once again the gray and white Mega Murdich was the fly of choice.
Here's the good fish: