May Day on the Finley
May just might be the perfect month to float an Ozark stream. Swollen by spring rains, the rivers are flowing strong but clear, hurrying downstream with seeming urgency. Rapidly greening woods are speckled with white flowering dogwoods, and tawny brown gravel bars sport butterfly-enticing blue stars. Tender vines and shoots stretch out, but a person can still navigate loamy banks in places where he or she wouldn’t try to go through the brambles of June. Countless newly emerged flying insects buzz and whine and rise in ecstatic, vibrating clouds. To this awakening of the invertebrate hordes, fish are inevitably drawn—the aquatic rite of spring. As the stream warms, its finned inhabitants become hungry and active, swirling toward the surface at the ripples of a downed mayfly.
Like its counterparts around the Ozarks, the Finley River comes alive in May. In order to witness this awakening—to be swept up in it—my friend Jud and I float and fish the Finley. Higher water allows us to launch our canoe on the upper, more rural part of the river. In its lower stretches, the stream wanders precariously close to sprawling suburbia, but the upper section retains a wild feel and good water quality, reflecting a watershed still mostly forest and pasture. Fish on our lines are likely, sometimes noteworthy, but not absolutely necessary—not in May. In May, being on the river is enough.
A major tributary of the James River, the Finley runs swiftly in narrow channels over gravel and cobbles and sometimes over smooth bedrock. In places, it pauses in deep blue pools beneath gray, pancake-layered limestone bluffs. As it flows toward its meeting with the James River, it picks up water from a series of small, spring-fed tributaries—Terrell Branch, Stewart Creek, Squaw Run Creek, Pedelo Creek, Parched Corn Hollow; and springs—Otto Lasley and Olie Lasley springs and water trickling from the huge, yawning mouth of Smallin Cave.
Like most rivers, the Finley rises from humble beginnings—in this case, a few tiny, gravel-choked channels draining a broad, gently sloping plateau near Cedar Gap in southeastern Webster County. At 1,640 feet of elevation, the top of this nearly flat watershed divide is only 130 feet lower than Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in the state. Off the steep edges of this elevated lobe of land, headwater streams of the Gasconade River, Bryant Creek and Beaver Creek radiate to the north, east and south. Trains traveling westward from the interior Ozarks chug up the abrupt escarpment past Lead Hill, through the Cedar Gap, and into the westward-flowing, low-gradient headwaters of the Finley.
Forty miles downstream, the Finley meets the James. On his tour of the Ozarks in the winter of 1818–1819, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft lingered on a magnificent promontory overlooking this confluence, pronouncing it an ideal site for a town. He claimed that the beautiful, clear stream flowing below him got its name from a local beaver trapper—a man named Findley (So, you might ask, why isn’t it called the “Findley?”—good question).
Jud and I usually spend a long day on the upper Finley. Having floated this section of stream many times, we know about how long the trip
should take. We know that if the fishing is good, we will most likely paddle furiously the last few miles to get off the river before dark. If the action is light, we will fish only the high percentage spots. For the most part, we stay with the tried and true—brown curly tailed jigs, spinnerbaits, plastic crawdads. Later, in the summer or fall, we will angle for the flashy and exciting top water strike, but now, in the warming spring, the red-eyed fighters must be lured from their deep eddies and hidey holes.
We enjoy catching fish, but fishing is only a narrow sliver of the experience. The river itself holds our attention. Jud, a dedicated naturalist, points out the movements, sounds and interactions of a variety of creatures, both in and out of the water. In the depths of winter, we talked about—longed for—a vibrant, fully awakened spring day on the Finley. Now, at long last on the water, we are hard-pressed to say what we find more enjoyable—the warm sun on our backs, or the melodious bird songs rising from the thickening foliage. The exact nature of the allure is hard to pin down, but its shorthand expression is easy—we love the river.
Floaters enjoy a front row seat, getting an up-close and personal peek into the river’s complex personality, unfolding mile after mile. There is something new and interesting around each bend. Myriad creatures lurk and move in the ribbon of lush vegetation near the stream, a zone of ecological significance far out of proportion to its physical extent. Human bonds with the natural world can be sensed strongly here.
Jud and I feel this attraction, though we don’t try to put it into words. We just enjoy being on the river, even when the fishing lags. We linger on a gravel bar, reclining on the crunchy gravel with life jackets for pillows, our outstretched bodies simultaneously warmed by the sun and cooled by the breeze. At times like these, it is easy to forget that there are equally pleasant moments on other rivers and in other seasons.
In the warm afternoon, we put our paddles down and float quietly along, feeling the smooth acceleration, as the canoe is pulled from limpid pool into foaming rapid. In a calm stretch, my rod laid sleepily aside, I become mesmerized by the miniature whirlpools spinning from our silently drifting boat. Looking up, I marvel at the tenacity of the scraggly cedars hanging for dear life high on the face of a limestone bluff. My mind drifts beyond the boat. But then the voice at the other end of the canoe snaps me to a focus.
“I’ve got one, Bull.”
Jud has successfully set the hook. While I drifted, nearly dozing, he fished. A moment earlier, through the surgical tension of his line, he felt the fish mouth and then take his jig and now he muscles and plays the premier grade of Ozark stream game, the smallmouth bass. The fish jerks and turns and catches the sun, flashing her bronze side from the greenish-blue depths. Jud’s rod tip bends impressively and we know that this fish may be spoken of in years hence. Jud, a broad grin on his face, draws energy from the fish. It helps him—us—feel better, even though, obviously, the fish would rather not participate in the therapy. In spite of that, we do care for the welfare of the fish. We are concerned about all the river’s inhabitants, from hellgrammite to bobcat, liverwort to sycamore. More than adding interest, the diversity of river life tells us that this section of the Finley, at least, is relatively unspoiled.
After a few minutes locked in a time-honored struggle, Jud proudly hoists the 16-inch smallmouth, fat and healthy and curling her tail. He measures, I photograph. Upon release, this solid bundle of muscle torpedoes away at lightning speed, toward the bank and the shadows of floating lily pads. On many trips, we will catch smaller fish and call them good days. On the other hand, the promise of even bigger fish keeps us coming back, faithfully, year after year. An 18-inch smallmouth hauled out of an Ozark creek is a cause for celebration.
That being said, every aspect of our float is a celebration. We frequently remind ourselves how lucky we are to have places like this so close to home. Spending time on the river lightens our loads, which, we readily admit, are already light. On the river, we don’t need to be profound, or witty—we can relax. We laugh at trivial, silly things. We breathe healthy air, tinged with river aromas, but robust and clean. We have no need to impress, but we are easily impressed. A red-tailed hawk circling on the thermals far overhead screeches and we look up, drinking in the sight for some time. Today, on the Finley, away from the maddening traffic and hectic schedules, we have the time. In May, the river has time for us.