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Fishing the Forks

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Published on: May. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

Smallmouth bass in landing net

“That acts like a smallmouth,” I observed, watching the way Scott’s fishing line sliced through the water and his rod tip pulsed crazily. Sure enough, a few moments later he led a sleek 10-inch smallmouth bass into shallow water, where sunlight glinted off its coppery flanks.

I took a few photos before Scott released the fish. With three deft flicks of its gossamer tail, it sprinted back to its hiding place beneath a flat rock.

Neither of us had any business fishing, really. Scott was getting married in less than a month, and his parents were in the process of selling their home and moving. I was swamped with work at the office and at home. Yet, here we were in shorts, T-shirts and sneakers, wading up a creek, flicking lures into shady pockets overhung with buttonbush.

We spent several blissful hours hiking upstream, casting as we went and taking turns in the lead. The water was never too deep to wade and seldom more than 40 feet wide. We caught fish more or less continuously, admiring bronze-backed smallmouths and longear sunfish whose outrageous colors put most tropical fish to shame.

Two weeks earlier and two creeks over, I watched another friend’s rod bend steeply toward the swirling, blue-green water of a slightly larger stream. He had to lift his arms high to keep the rod’s tip out of the water next to his kayak. After several minutes, he brought a pot-bellied, 16-inch smallmouth with tiger stripes on its sides to the surface.

I didn’t really have time for that trip, either, but the chance to visit with an old friend and fish a locally legendary stream were reasons enough to set aside responsibilities for a day. Again, after a few photos the fish went back to its watery home.

These outings took place on streams unknown to most Missourians. On both days, we never saw another person once we left the access. A few miles downstream, where these obscure streams flow into larger, more familiar ones, the water was jammed with anglers, paddlers and pleasure boaters. During the half-day float, I saw just two pieces of litter—aluminum cans—which I escorted to the recycling center.

I learned long ago that fishing is more to my liking on “The Forks.” That is my pet name for tributaries of major streams and lakes. Many are shallow enough to wade. Others lend themselves to canoes, kayaks and float tubes. None are big enough to attract large numbers of anglers, speedboats or jet skis.

Smallmouth bass in these streams tend to be smaller than their river kin. Other species, such as goggle-eye, can be hefty and abundant, however. Many have never seen a fishing lure or felt the point of a hook. They bite and fight with reckless abandon. Add solitude and the chance to observe undisturbed landscapes and wildlife, and you have my idea of heaven.

Wildlife sightings are more frequent and intimate on small streams, too. I once surprised a trio of otters emerging from the top end of a set of rapids. We also got to watch a whitetail doe and her twin fawns cross the stream a few yards ahead of us. The reedy strains of wood thrushes and the soft “kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk” of yellow-billed cuckoos serenaded us from the surrounding woods. Prothonotary warblers—sparks of living sunlight—perched in the streamside alders.

Missouri’s landscape conceals literally hundreds of creeks like these. Your first step to finding them is choosing a major smallmouth stream. The Gasconade, Meramec, Osage, Niangua, Eleven Point, Jacks Fork, Current, Black, Big, Bourbeuse and James all are good starting points. Several Arkansas rivers have forks extending into the Show-Me State, and many of the smaller, north-flowing tributaries of the Missouri River also have feeder streams that support smallmouth bass, mixed with the spotted and largemouth varieties.

Once you settle on a particular watershed, your next step is to get maps with enough detail to show small tributaries. Detailed county maps are available on the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Web site.

Look for streams that run through conservation areas, national forest and other public land, providing legal access. If you want to wade-fish a stream where it runs through private property, visit your county assessor for help identifying the owners so you can contact them for permission.

For information about accesses on floatable streams, you can consult “Missouri’s Conservation Atlas,” which is available the MDC Natureshop.

“Do you think we ought to go back?” Scott asked when we had both run through our drinking water.

“Maybe,” I mused. “But, what do you think is around that bend?”

General Tips

  • Good baits include live crayfish, tiny crankbaits, tube jigs, plastic worms, floating minnow imitations, spinners, poppers and flies.
  • Limber fishing rods help sling light lures into tight spots.
  • Leave a map with your fishing location marked so friends know where you are in case you need help.
  • Some streams are too small for easy floating but too deep for wading. Float tubes fitted out especially for fishing bridge this gap.

Float Fishing

  • Kayaks can navigate tiny streams and are easy to paddle upstream to dislodge snagged lures.
  • Short rods are easier to manage in small boats.
  • Get out of your boat and wade-fish deep water below riffles.
  • Paddle back to the top of a hot spot, let the fish settle down, and fish the stretch again.
  • A few frozen water bottles in a small cooler supply refreshing drinks and chill fish you keep.

Wade Fishing

  • Fish your way upstream for a more natural bait drift and a stealthier approach.
  • High-topped shoes and thick socks reduce time spent emptying out sharp rocks.
  • Carry a small backpack for spare lures, water, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent, etc.
  • Wear drab-colored clothes, move slowly, and cast as far as possible to keep fish unaware of your presence.
  • Leave your stringer behind. Fish dragged for hours aren’t worth eating.
  • Cut your walking distance in half by prepositioning a shuttle vehicle at another access point and fishing toward it.
  • Keep moving. There’s always another hole around the bend.

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