Fire and water seem mutually exclusive, but you can find both when you visit Fiery Fork Conservation Area and explore the Little Niangua River.
Nestled in the hills of Camden County, Fiery Fork Conservation Area encompasses 1,606 acres of typical mid-Missouri countryside. It's a beautiful place that's renowned among deer and turkey hunters. In late spring and summer, however, its expansive frontage on the Little Niangua is its main attraction.
A smaller, tamer version of the big Niangua, which flows a few miles to the east, the Little Niangua begins in Dallas County and flows gently north through the hills of Hickory and Camden counties before entering Lake of the Ozarks.
Though skinny at its headwaters, the Little Niangua generally holds enough water for dependable floating in the spring at Highway 54, near Macks Creek. Top-grade fishing water, however, begins about eight miles downstream, at Mule Shoe Conservation Area. From there, it's 10 miles to Howard's Ford, which is 2.5 miles southeast of road NN. From Howard's Ford, it's 9.5 miles to Fiery Fork, and then about three miles to the Highway J Bridge, which essentially marks the start of Lake of the Ozarks. You can divide those sections into three easily manageable day floats. During normal spring and summer flows, the river runs between 2 and 4 miles per hour, so you can move at a good clip without even getting your paddle wet.
In each section, the Little Niangua exhibits remarkably different profiles, and each one requires different fishing techniques and approaches. Near the headwaters, the water is unusually clear, with a clean, rocky bottom and plenty of fallen trees and bushes that provide valuable fish cover. At first glance, the water appears devoid of life. This is typical in clear waters, where fish must stay hidden to avoid the eyes of predators. To catch them, you must move quietly, keep a low profile and cast precisely to small holes and pockets.
The water on the inside bends is shallow and bordered by narrow gravel bars. The outside bends are deep, and the banks feature many exposed root cages. These are excellent places to lure sunfish out with crickets and worms dangling under a bobber.
Farther downstream, between Mule Shoe and Fiery Fork, the pools become longer, straighter and deeper. This is also where you start encountering good numbers of smallmouth bass. The fishing in this section is outstanding, mainly because difficulty of access keeps the pressure low.
At Fiery Fork Conservation Area, the river continues to deepen and widen. The pool above and below the public access gets fished hard. As tempting as it is to cast to all those fallen logs and brushpiles, it's best to ignore them and float through the first two pools.
When you get to the third pool downstream from the Fiery Fork access, the river changes character entirely. At the tail of the riffle, there's a massive gravel bar on the right side of the river. It's the last big gravel bar before you get to the lake. For the next mile or so, both banks rise high and steep, exposing dark soil, rock and assorted root wads. About halfway down the pool, the streambed is heavily silted, from which the remains of some big trees poke skyward. This area resembles something you'd expect to find in a Mississippi River oxbow.
Lining both sides of the river at this point are long, wide beds of water willow that extend several feet into the water. In the blistering heat of early July, this is where I enjoyed three of the best fishing days of the year.
With a small box of grubs and crankbaits crammed between my knees, I floated downstream on an open-top kayak while my nine-year-old son, Ethan, tried to set speed records in a traditional kayak.
As I cleared the riffle into the lower pool, I dropped a plastic grub to the bottom and drifted with the current. As often happens, I got a wrist-rattling strike at the precise instant my boat caught an eddy and began spinning. I struggled to control the boat with the paddle in my right hand. At the same time, I held my rod high in my left hand, struggling even more desperately to keep tension on the line with the remote hope that I had actually hooked the fish. When my arms crossed, I knew I was doomed.
The fish dashed to the stern as I twisted to stabilize the boat. Knotted up like a pretzel and in peril of capsizing the boat, I was powerless to do anything more. The arc left my rod, and my line went limp.
As a consolation prize, I caught three tiny smallmouths in rapid succession which, if laid tail to tail, may have measured an aggregate 16 inches.
We turned around at the low-water bridge, but not before doing some high-intensity fishing. As it flows through the culverts under the slab, water crashes into a wide, deep pool below that harbors an impressive variety of fish. This is also a major break that separates the two main bass species in the river. The river above the low-water bridge contains almost exclusively smallmouth bass. Below the bridge, it contains largemouth bass and spotted bass.
After catching an impressive collection of largemouth and spotted bass, as well as some white bass and a crappie, we turned around and paddled back to Fiery Fork. As I loaded my boat, two young boys were steadily catching longear sunfish, channel catfish and smallmouth bass with live worms. As I mentioned earlier, that pool gets fished heavily, and there's never any fish there. Those boys should have known better.
Whether you like your recreation wet or dry, Fiery Fork Conservation Area has something to satisfy outdoor enthusiasts of all tastes.
Located about 15 miles northwest of Camdenton, Fiery Fork CA occupies 1,606 acres of diverse plant and wildlife habitat in northern Camden County. The area supports white-tailed deer and wild turkey, as well as plentiful numbers of squirrels and rabbits.
In 1994-95, the Missouri Department of Conservation re-introduced ruffed grouse on a parcel of private property on the east side of the river, and some have been spotted on the conservation area. Ruffed grouse may not be hunted on this area, however.
The area's most conspicuous feature is the expansive river bottom bordering the Little Niangua River. It contains a patchwork of overgrown fields, woods and fencerows, all of which are visible from the main road. Vehicles are restricted to this road, but a number of smaller roads allow foot access to more remote areas that are lightly visited, except during hunting seasons.
Rising from the valley is a wall of steep hills that are blanketed with oak/hickory hardwood forest. In addition, there are two small areas (about 4.5 acres) that have been planted with shortleaf pine. This extra diversity in the woodland structure creates valuable habitat for songbirds such as prothonotary warblers.
Fiery Fork CA also contains several glade areas which the Conservation Department manages. One is behind the first campsite you see when you enter the area beyond the orange gate. There you'll find lead plants and persimmon trees, as well as many other interesting features common to Ozark glades.
In addition to the service roads, visitors to Fiery Fork CA can also walk two developed trails that traverse both ends of the area. The longer trail runs 1.25 miles and starts at the first campground at the center of the area. It climbs 273 feet before topping out on a flat ridge with an elevation of 955 feet. It runs across the ridgetop and then descends gently back to the trailhead. A short loop at the bottom takes you along the banks of the Little Niangua before rejoining the main trail.
The other trail is about a quarter mile long. It begins at the campground on the southeast end of the area and runs up the hill. Retrace your steps back to the campground.
The campsites are spacious, grassy, level and well-shaded. All are equipped with fire rings and picnic tables.
To go to Fiery Fork CA, take Highway J north from Highway 54 east of Macks Creek. Cross the Little Niangua and then go left on Highway 7. Turn left at the brown, cantilevered sign.
Don't let the name fool you, there's nothing homely about Mule Shoe Conservation Area.
Located in eastern Hickory County, it covers 2,423 acres of Ozark hill country about 24 miles southwest of Camdenton, and about 28 miles southeast of Warsaw. It comprises two separate parcels about three-quarters of a mile apart.
One of Mule Shoe's most appealing attributes is its remoteness, which gives it an authentic air of peace and solitude. Except during hunting seasons, it is largely deserted, which is surprising considering the array of recreational opportunities it provides.
For example, the south parcel fronts one mile of Little Niangua River shoreline, with plentiful access for paddlers and anglers. Campers can relax in two campgrounds, and hikers can explore both parcels on a variety of trails and gated roads.
The south parcel contains a diversity of terrain that provides habitat for many plant and wildlife species. A relatively wide floodplain skirts both sides of the Little Niangua, giving it an appearance remarkably similar to streams in the upper Great Plains. The river bottom is low and grassy, with a tall canopy of mature cottonwood and sycamore trees. Bordering the wooded bottoms are grassy fields that harbor rabbits, songbirds and limited numbers of bobwhite quail. Wild turkeys and white-tailed deer also use these areas.
Because the woods are open and free of thorns and briars, walking the bottoms is a treat. There, you may see several species of songbirds, raccoons and even an occasional beaver. Watch your step, though, because the bottoms also harbor healthy numbers of snakes.
Towering over the valley is a phalanx of hardwood-covered hills that reach elevations of 1,000 feet. Exploring the hills, you can see tall limestone bluffs and dolomite glades. A main road leads to the top of the biggest ridge. From any point along this route, you can walk down any of the gated service roads that branch off in all directions.
To reach Mule Shoe Conservation Area, take Highway F north from Highway 54, and then go east on road 96 (gravel), which leads to the area.
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