Afloat For Fish

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Early morning mist rises from the water as my wife, Jane, and I embark on our river float. As we paddle downstream, we hope to see a flock of turkeys glide across river or a deer bound across a shallow riffle. We know we'll spend the day among the chatter of gray squirrels in the treetops, and that we'll likely disturb buzzards that roost along a bluff top.

Natural experiences are part of the magic of floating, Add great fishing to the beauty and serenity of the rivers and you've got the combination that has locked me into float fishing our Ozark waterways for more than 50 years.

Float fishing originated in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. According to McClaine's "Fishing Encyclopedia," the original john boat, the standard of southern float fishing, was designed in 1919 by Owen Swinney of Winona, Mo. However, Charlie Barnes of Galena actually popularized float fishing on the White River of southwest Missouri. During his lifetime, Barnes built more than 500 boats. He used more than a few of these to guide the rich and famous down the crystalline waters of the White and other streams.

The typical john boat of the era was built of 20-foot-long pine boards. Three boards formed the bottom, and two boards formed the sides. At the time, Barnes said he could build his boat with three dollars worth of material.

Early john boats were heavy but stable. Despite their size, they were very maneuverable. Today, most float fishermen use canoes or aluminum john boats. The wooden john boats are all but gone from Ozark streams, as are the big float fishing operators like Barnes, Jim Owens and Bales Boat Company of Eminence. Even so, float fishing has survived. Float operators abound in the Ozarks that will accommodate anglers.

Our streams are by no means packed with anglers, however. Fish smaller streams, such as the Bourbeuse near St. Louis, or even the busy Meramec on its lower stretches, and you will be surprised at how little company you encounter during the week. The Gasconade River along its 300-mile length provides plenty of uncrowded fishing opportunity, as does its tributary, the Osage Fork. The Big and Little Piney, Tavern Creek and Maries River are some other fine fishing streams. Use your imagination, do some sleuthing and consult "Missouri Ozark Waterways," published by the Missouri Department of Conservation, for other clues to peaceful fishing.

Float fishermen

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