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To Heaven and Back on the Upper Jacks Fork

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Published on: Mar. 19, 2013

The forecast calls for thunderstorms and heavy rains, but we go anyway. Our trip really starts to come together once we agree to have no plan. We are prepared for anything, except for what Mother Nature serves up—sunshine, gently overcast skies, and a light breeze. We are blessed with two perfect days on the river, and we leave with a lifelong desire to return.

Once described as the Mozart of rivers, the upper Jacks Fork is one of Missouri's wildest and most scenic rivers. It’s a deep and narrow valley that offers spring paddlers a spirited float. Conservation Department photographer Dave Stonner and I embark on a leisurely two-day canoe float from the Buck Hollow Access, northeast of Mountain View, to Bay Creek, a distance of 18 miles. The river is low, so we pack light.

A Paddler's Paradise

The shallow water is moving fast now. The 30-foot wide stream has narrowed into a frothing riffle only 6 feet wide. I’m using every paddle trick I know to keep my canoe in the center of the current, as it swiftly pulls me toward a tall bank of imposing rock.

The clear water is liquid light, and I’m scant inches above the gravel bottom, which is zipping by in magnified detail. I duck as a low-hanging sycamore branch tries to snatch my river hat. Around the bend, a deep emerald-tinged pool provides pause. I’m smiling ear to ear and I finally remember to breathe.

The tight canyon walls continue on in a perfect paddler’s playground: long green pools where sunfish are suspended motionless, and then the familiar tightening of the bend, some quick paddling action, and then a chance to drift once again, cast the fly rod, and take it all in.

A paddler’s paradise? An Ozark nirvana? For me, it’s heaven. Raised on the Big Muddy, I am dumbfounded by this clear stream. I am mesmerized to see every detail of the riverbed below. A small school of longnose gar moves in unison. I see turtles ambling along the gravel streambed 5 feet below my boat. I’m afloat atop a looking glass into a heretofore-unseen world.

The river and its streamside habitat is home to many birds. Our quiet approach puts us closer to these birds than either of us had ever been, including numerous great blue herons, and smaller greens, fishing from brush piles and branches that reach over shallow waters. The silence is seasoned with the sweet melodies of numerous pileated woodpeckers and the slate-blue belted kingfisher.

The distinctive call of the northern parula dominates the forest — a buzzy zip that slides up the scale. Many species of songbirds are returning from a winter down south. The newly arrived songbirds are vocal, intent on finding mates and establishing breeding territories. We spot pairs of wood ducks feeding in slower moving pools behind eddy lines, the males resplendent in their breeding plumage.

Butterflies abound around every bend. Clouds of small white and yellow sulphurs erupt from shallow puddles only to quickly regroup. They are busy wicking up, or “puddling,” the minerals found there. The larger zebra swallowtails, with their flashes of blood red and distinctive patterns, flutter about along gravel bars throughout the float.

The Heart of Wilderness

I’ve paddled many rivers that were easy to describe, easy to define. The character of the upper Jacks is elusive. It is a river of extremes, a river of contradictions. This is a true wilderness float, with both calm Class I reaches and wild-but-mild, white-water-capped Class II rollercoasters. It paddles like a river that’s dropping down the western slope of Colorado. It’s steeper, faster, tighter, smaller, and clearer than most river runs in Missouri.

The Jacks Fork is a tributary of the Current River. Together, these two rivers are the centerpiece of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, America’s first designated national park area for a wild river stream system. Managed by the National Park Service, the Jacks Fork and the Current River make up one of the longest protected, free-flowing waterways in the United States.

Soon we pass Blue Spring, which emerges from a cave at the base of a cliff a couple miles below Buck Hollow. It provides an average of 3 million gallons of water per day to the Jacks Fork. Its deep blue pool is located just inside the cave mouth and the spring Jacks Fork Natural Area

About 4.5 miles into the float, we enter the Jacks Fork Natural Area. The Jacks Fork flows for about three miles through this designated natural area, recognized for its unique biodiversity, which includes more than 450 native plant species.

This natural area is also unique because it is accessible only by canoe. The current turns south. I’m vibrating with excitement as my finger follows the topo lines on my map. Near the south end of the west-facing slope is the little-known Jacks Fork Natural Arch. Obscured behind dense tree cover, it is easy to float right past — and most do.

We stop, scramble across a wide dry gravel bar, and find the arch just a few hundred feet up the steep forested hillside, completely unseen from the river. Exploring the unusual formation left us with more questions than answers. Finding it was one of many highlights of this float.

After photographing the natural arch’s play on shadows and light, we continue to float past the forested banks of spring that have yet to close in behind a leafy veil. Bright blooms of dogwoods and serviceberries highlight the deep forest view. Bursts of wildflowers appear at every turn. There is a certain tenacity of spirit that pervades these fern-covered, seep-sodden dolomite bluffs.

One finds layers and layers of plant life amid this geologic jambalaya. Here are the retina-burning five-spoked fire pinks, familiar bluebells, columbine perched in the most precarious of places on the rock faces, and pale yellow limber honeysuckle. Down closer to the river’s edge: patches of phlox, diminutive purple and smooth white violets, yellow rockets, jack-in-the-pulpits, trillium, spiderwort, and a sea of ferns—walking, maidenhair, and many others.

In some spots are rare plants — holdovers from the Pleistocene era — from a time when fir forests and a much colder climate dominated Missouri, some 12,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. These glacial relicts, like the harebell and false bugbane, survive in remnant populations on cooler north-facing areas. Some of them occur nowhere else in the state.

About 6 miles into the float, we reach Jam Up Cave — one of the most spectacular cave entrances in the state. We scramble up a talus slope trail of dolomite boulders to its entrance and crane our necks to take in the view. Above me towers the cathedral-sized archway of Jam Up Cave, 80 feet high and 100 feet wide. How can elements as simple as rock, water, and time conspire to create such grandeur? It is a paradox of nature to see such a testament of time framed by spring’s ephemeral blooms.

This place, and the entire history of the Jacks Fork River, has been written one drop of water at a time — a slow cadence of H2O, patience, and resolve. Over eons, these unassuming, tiny droplets shaped everything about this place: the path of the meandering river, the deep holes, the ripples, the dolomite bluffs, and the many caves and springs along the way.

Caves, springs, losing streams, and sinkholes permeate the karst topography. The Jacks Fork watershed, a land area of 445 square miles in portions of Howell, Shannon, and Texas counties, drains directly into the Current River. Approximately 20 percent of the watershed is in public ownership, most of which is managed by the Conservation Department.

Fish, Float, Explore, Repeat

The Conservation Department works for Missourians, and with Missourians, to improve the water quality and aquatic resources here. For years, the Department has worked with private landowners to develop best management practices to reduce streambank erosion and to improve forest management. Healthy uplands and woodlands benefit the river and all of the life in it. Citizens play an important role in keeping the river healthy, too. The Upper Jacks Fork River Rats, Stream Team 713, monitors water quality and has removed countless tons of trash from this stretch.

Conservation Department fisheries biologists study the waterway habitat and strive to improve it for a wide variety of aquatic species. The river teems with 67 species of fish, including popular sport fishes like smallmouth bass, goggle-eye, suckers, longear sunfish, largemouth, and chain pickerel. Forty of this river’s fish species are native, and six are found nowhere else outside the Ozarks: Ozark madtoms, checkered madtoms, Ozark shiners, Current River saddled darters, Ozark chubs, and Ozark sculpins.

Dave and I look forward to reeling in a show-stopping smallmouth, since this section of the upper Jacks Fork is designated a smallmouth bass special management area by the Conservation Department. Spring smallmouth bass fishing is catch-and-release only, since there is a no-harvest season from March 1st through late May. In season, there is an 18-inch minimum length limit on smallmouth bass, and anglers are allowed to harvest only one per day.

Casting above numerous riffles and teasing the flies over deep pools is immensely satisfying. One could not ask for a more beautiful setting to cast a line and wait for a miracle. The male smallmouths should be on their spawning beds defending their nests by now through the end of May, but I can’t let logic disrupt a perfect cast. Stubbornness runs deep in my family, and a big bass is a tantalizing promise.

The bright sun falling on my shoulders, the enveloping bluffs, the saturated greens of spring, and the soothing sounds of flowing water tune out the world, and make for bliss-filled hours fishing. No bites. No regrets. I guess that’s why they call it fishing and not catching.

The Power of Wild Places

The upper Jacks Fork reminds you of the power of wild places. It is a jewel of an intact natural system. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. It continues to preserve the most biologically and geologically diverse float streams in Missouri. The Jacks Fork and Current rivers were the first in the nation to be federally protected, and their watershed is an area of global biological significance.

Here on the upper Jacks Fork, wilderness reigns supreme. Gone are the typical float stimuli of overpasses, roads, power lines, countless gravel bar camps, and the drone from outboard motors. As humankind continues to reshape much of the state, the importance of these remaining wild places will increase.

After a leisurely second day fly fishing and floating, we reach our takeout at Bay Creek late in the afternoon. A local outfitter has shuttled our truck down to the takeout, which makes loading up for the long trip home a simple process.

Now all packed up, I walk around my truck checking the tie downs on my canoe one last time. The sound of the Jacks Fork rushing over shallow rocks is heavy in my ears. I enjoy one long last look as it disappears around the next willow-covered gravel bar. On it flows. And it is already pulling me back.

Departures are often accompanied by epiphanies. Watching the river meander out of sight, I realize I have been to heaven and back on the upper Jacks Fork. I know there is life after the Jacks, but for me, there is no longer life without it.

Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

There are some great smallmouth fisheries in North America. However, I think most fly fishers are unaware that some of the best smallmouth flyfishing is found in the Missouri Ozarks. It is a place of swift streams, cool, clear waters, and rocky bottoms — ideal habitat for the smallmouth bass. Toss in the scenic beauty of the Jacks Fork with its grand dolomite bluffs and it becomes an inspiring place to fly fish.

Smallmouths are pound-for-pound one of the best fighting freshwater fish to be caught on a fly rod. On average these fish weigh between 1 and 3 pounds and can exceed 5 pounds in the Jacks Fork. When a 15-inch smallmouth takes your crayfish pattern bouncing along the stream bottom, a memory is created. Initially you imagine there is a 10-pound monster on the end of your line. The struggle between line and fish gets anxious. Will the line hold this maniacal thrashing of fish flesh? Finally you bring the fish close to the surface and realize it isn’t 4 feet long. It’s 15 inches of power and fury.

Top water flies are an extremely exciting way to fish for smallmouth. The strikes are explosive. The excitement that comes from a top water strike will put your adrenal glands into high gear. Some of the best top water flies are trout flies like Humpies, grasshoppers, and small poppers in black and chartreuse. Many times a smallmouth will swim under a fly and wait for the first sight of movement and strike. Always be prepared for a take. You never know when the explosion will occur.

When fishing subsurface flies it is hard to beat a Clouser Minnow or Wooly Buggers in sizes 4 to 6 with a gold bead or cone head. A smallmouth favorite is a weighted crayfish pattern fished along the bottom.

Enjoy the environs of this bronze-backed tough guy and remember, a smallmouth bass is too fine of a fish to catch only once. Practice catch and release.

—by Mark Van Patten, Conservation Department streams coordination biologist

Float the Upper Jacks Fork

  • The upper Jacks Fork can be floated in either a long day, or as a leisurely two-day float.
  • Consider a weekday float to experience less congestion on the river.
  • Floating the upper Jacks Fork is rain-dependent, but the river is floatable from Alley Spring down year-round.
  • Numerous outfitters offer canoe rental and shuttle services that can greatly simplify your trip. Contact information and a Jacks Fork map can be found on the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association website at missouricanoe.org.
  • Learn more about the Jacks Fork Natural Area and download a map at mdc.mo.gov/node/2426.
  • Check the Jacks Fork river level and local weather forecasts at go.usa.gov/234k. Look for 2 feet or more on the local gage to float the upper Jacks Fork River.
  • The Ozark National Scenic Riverways provides trip-planning information at nps.gov/ozar/ or call 573-323-4236.
  • Get involved with the Upper Jacks Fork River Rats, Stream Team 713, by calling 417-932-4363 or send an email to tednpat@gotrain.org.

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