Travelers who drive the Interstate Highway system often are focused on the horizon. Many attractions, activities and adventures await, but one must exit and take a different path to get to them. Anglers are the same. They head for large lakes and popular rivers and overlook aquatic adventures that are accessible only if they take a different path.
A different path will take you to Saline Valley Conservation Area. Turn south off of Highway 54 onto Highway M near Eldon and you leave the automotive parade headed for the Lake of the Ozarks. Highway M twists and turns down the Big Saline Creek valley. Forested hills rise quickly from the Big Saline bottoms; you begin to feel like you're slipping into a world of your own.
Big Saline Creek, the largest of four wading streams on the area, is typical of many streams known for their warmwater wading fishery. Arising from the hills of northwestern Miller County, Big Saline Creek appears to be a typical Ozark stream. With a gravel bottom and clear flowing water, it is home to a number of fishes: green and longear sunfish, smallmouth and largemouth bass and suckers galore. Little Saline Creek, Jack Buster Creek and Jim Henry Creek are smaller versions of Big Saline.
Saline Valley Conservation Area is a great place for wading and fishing. With over a dozen miles of wadeable small streams and six parking lots, I can fish as little or as much as I want. Today I'm going to walk. Hip boots or a pair of old tennis shoes and cut-off blue jeans are about as close to technological breakthroughs as I want to get.
I put in at the upper parking lot on the area. An old private fish hatchery used to be here; it's been converted to a marsh for shore birds. Aquatic birds seem to like Saline Valley Conservation Area; in addition to those that frequent the marsh, you may see green herons fly up and down the creek, and a great blue heron rookery is in the lower reaches near the Osage River. One of the side benefits of wading and fishing is that you're always able to watch lots of birds.
My fishing rod of choice today is an ultra-light spinning rod with lures that imitate small crayfish. I normally prefer using a short fly rod with some sort of sinking black fly, because it catches a variety of fish. On some trips I like to see how many different kinds of fish I catch (my record is 13 species), but today I'm looking for bass. For several years the populations of smallmouth and largemouth were scarce, but I hear that they've rebounded.
As I wade downstream, I see several deep pools with trees lying in them. Good bass habitat, I say to myself. Many casts later (a few of them well placed; most slightly off the mark) I've caught two green sunfish and spooked three smallmouth. I see the spot where Jack Buster Creek enters Big Saline Creek. There's a nice hole downstream from the confluence; I fish it hard, but to no avail.
I've walked past a couple of old stream management projects. Portions of Big Saline Creek were straightened many years ago, and biologists in the 1980s tried to move the stream back into its historic channel. A couple of the projects succeeded; several did not.
I catch a smallmouth near one of the successful projects; I'm sure he said "Thank you" when I released him, but I'm not sure whether he was thanking me for releasing him or thanking someone for improving his habitat over a decade ago.
A raccoon peers out at me from a hole in a sycamore tree. He's probably wondering what I'm doing in his world. I catch the sight of a half-dozen small hog suckers swimming upstream from a riffle, trying to escape me. I stop to eat lunch on a large gravel bar. There's lots of gravel along this creek, as well as a fair number of eroding streambanks. I debate with myself whether there's a connection between the two.
I run into more holes and submerged logs as I continue to walk downstream. I catch a few longear sunfish, also known as sun perch. They're beautiful fish. They'd make great tropical fish if they'd stay small and eat fish flakes.
The creek takes a broad left hand bend making a deep hole. Lots of trees lie submerged in the hole and I see some largemouth lying in wait among the downed timber. Seeing that they're largemouth makes me think that I'm getting close to the Osage River; largemouth like streams with low gradients and smallmouth like streams with more fall.
Sneaking up to the hole on my stomach and casting near the submerged trees results in several large bass leaving the pool at slightly less than the speed of light. A green heron sits on a nearby tree, cynical about my fishing ability.
It's mid-afternoon and I have a long hike back to the car. I haven't caught any big fish, but I've seen enough to know they're there. I have been able to enter the Big Saline Creek world and become part of it for most of the day.
I've caught fish, but I think I've taken back more in the way of sights, sounds and memories. I haven't missed the sounds of outboard motors or paddles bumping the side of the canoe and I certainly haven't missed lifting a canoe off the top of a car. I enjoyed a different world by a different path.
Over 25 areas have sizeable lengths of stream contained within or alongside Conservation Department owned lands. Some are suitable for wading only and are generally too shallow for a canoe; others are wadeable only during low water periods.
Lamine River Conservation Area, located in Cooper and Morgan counties east of Sedalia, is a study in contrasts. At the upstream end of the area, Flat Creek and Richland Creek come together. Flat Creek is more characteristic of prairie streams; it is slow and turbid with a silt/clay bottom. Richland Creek, however, is more Ozark in character with clear water and a gravel bottom.
Direct access is by a boat ramp near Otterville and a streamside parking lot off Highway 50. Walking in to remote reaches can also be fruitful. Anglers may catch bluegill, green sunfish, channel catfish and flathead catfish. As wading streams go, Lamine River can be deep and wide in spots. A canoe can be an asset, especially in the area's downstream reaches.
Locust Creek Conservation Area, located in Sullivan County west of Milan, is a diamond in a sea of sand. In the 1980s, a Nationwide Rivers Inventory highlighted a 35-mile reach of Locust Creek as a premiere example of prairie streams that have been relatively unmodified. The Locust Creek Conservation Area sits in the middle of that reach.
A true prairie stream, Locust Creek is home to green sunfish and channel catfish. The area is also the site of a stream management experiment, and anchored rootwads, riffle structures and tree revetments enhance fish habitat. An upper and a lower access site (no boat ramps) provide direct access to Locust Creek; other reaches will require walking in. Avoid canoes in dry months unless you like to drag.
Apple Creek is north of Cape Girardeau. The stream drains an area of steep hills, narrow valleys and sandstone geology. The creek has a sand bottom but is otherwise Ozark in character; the combination of clear water and a sandy stream bottom is unique.
Apple Creek Conservation Area lies in the downstream reaches of Apple Creek, a half mile from the Mississippi River. A total of 2.5 miles of Apple Creek make up the northern border of the area. Apple Creek has largemouth and smallmouth bass, and longear sunfish. Mississippi River fishes such as carp and channel catfish also inhabit these waters. Access is limited to one boat ramp and parking lot.
Huzzah Conservation Area, located in Crawford County southeast of Leasburg, includes portions of the Meramec River, Courtois Creek and Huzzah Creek. This tract is ruggedly Ozark in character and the streams are clear with gravel bottoms.
An access on the Meramec River downstream from its confluence with Huzzah Creek provides a landing for canoes, and two campgrounds adjacent to Courtois Creek provide direct access to streams. Walk-in access to other reaches of the three streams is theoretically possible, but the rugged terrain and the distance from passable roads make walk-in fishing somewhat of a challenge. Smallmouth bass, goggle-eye and longear sunfish dominate the catch in these streams.
Rebels Cove Conservation Area, located in Schuyler and Putnam counties north of Livonia, is a unique area in north Missouri. Nearly five miles of the remaining unchannelized portion of the Chariton River runs through the area. In the middle of the area, 2.5 miles of the Chariton River doubles back on itself to a point where the river is within a few hundred feet of itself. This portion is known as "The Narrows."
Deep holes, bends and drift piles of the unchannelized portions of the river provide good habitat for channel and flathead catfish, green sunfish, bluegill and an occasional carp. A river access with a boat ramp is available in the middle of the area; other reaches of the Chariton River are within walking distance. Wade fishing is possible in low water stages, but using a canoe or small boat is a more popular method of fishing.
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