Missouri has so many great float fishing streams that anglers often overlook the St. Francis River. This is a gentle stream that offers outstanding opportunities for catching bass, catfish and panfish.
My friend Victor Burns has fished the St. Francis River for more than 20 years. Like many anglers, he enjoys fishing the St. Francis for catfish and bass, but he best enjoys time on the river fishing for panfish.
The promise of great fishing on the St. Francis is how Victor persuaded me to float a 6-mile section of the river in Madison County, from Silver Mine Access to the take-out at Highway E. He told me that on a day's float - late spring through fall - an angler can usually catch all the panfish he wants to clean. The catch usually includes a half dozen or more different panfish, as well as a sprinkling of bass and catfish. Not knowing what's likely to bite next makes the fishing even more fun.
His report almost sounded too good to be true, but it sure was worth checking out. Soon after we launched the canoe, we maneuvered it through a riffle that flowed into a deep pool. We could see about 4 or 5 feet down into the clear water. On the right side of the river, a fallen red oak, bare of leaves, lay half in and out of the water. Victor angled the canoe next to the tree and told me to take my jigging pole and drop a crawdad-colored grub among the submerged branches. While jigging around one of the large limbs, I felt a strike and set the hook. After briefly wrapping around a branch, a fat, 8-inch goggle-eye came to the surface.
"That's a nice one!" Victor exclaimed. "Catch another!"
While I fished the downed tree, Victor cast his grub to the opposite bank next to a rock shelf and submerged boulders. Within 20 minutes he caught and released a white bass, two spotted bass and a smallmouth, all about 10-inches long. He also added two fat green sunfish to the three goggle-eyes that I caught.
"We could probably sit here for another 20 minutes and catch more fish," Victor said, "but let's move on. We've got a lot of river to see today."
As we drifted through the next pool, we threw to bankside cover. In the floatable stretches of the river, many of the pools are several hundred yards long, and the current is slow. Each pool is like fishing a pond - a pond with prime cover along both sides.
I caught several longear sunfish in the first pool. Adult longears average only about 5 inches long, but Victor told me to put them on ice. They yield small but tasty fillets. Victor caught another green sunfish. At the end of the hole next to a submerged log, I caught two bluegill, each about 6-inches long.
In the next pool, Victor pulled the canoe alongside a downed sycamore, the crown of which lay submerged in deep water. He dipped the plastic grub among the limbs and pulled out an 8-inch white crappie. While he unhooked the fish and put it in the cooler, I caught a white crappie about the same size. We sat at that tree for about 30 minutes and caught a half dozen other crappie, a mix of blacks and whites, all about the same size.
Victor said our success was about average for a day of panfishing on the St. Francis.
"Some days the action is faster; some days it's slow," Victor said. "But almost always, you can come off the river with a good mess of panfish."
Victor said his favorite strategy for catching panfish on the St. Francis is to cast or jig a slider grub threaded on a 1/32-ounce, horsehead jig equipped with a small spinner. Any small jig setup or Beetle Spin works well, but Victor prefers slider grubs.
For casting, he uses medium-weight tackle with 4- or 6-pound test line. For jigging, he uses a 12-foot collapsible jigging pole equipped with a small spinning reel and 10-pound test line. The heavy line lets him straighten out hooks that get snagged while fishing. It also provides leverage to work larger fish.
Whenever we found good cover, we spent 20 to 30 minutes at the spot before moving. Victor said on longer floats, or when he combines overnight camping with float-fishing, he lingers longer at spots that produce fish.
"When the fish are hitting well and you get into crappie, you can catch all the fish you need for supper out of one or two downed tree tops," Victor said. "A lot of the crappie run between 7- and 11-inches long, but now and then you'll catch 12- or 13-inchers."
On my first day on the river, none of the panfish we caught were what you would call "lunkers," but they were large enough. During our five hours of fishing, we put 48 panfish in the cooler. We also caught 13 different species of fish, including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, longear sunfish, green sunfish, redear sunfish, warmouth, white bass, black crappie, white crappie, goggle-eye, bluegill and channel catfish.
The St. Francis River was once one of Missouri's premier walleye streams. The Missouri state-record walleye - a 20- pounder - came out of the St. Francis. For reasons not fully understood, the river's walleye population plummeted to the point that catching a walleye there was extremely rare.
For the past several years, however, the Conservation Department has been rigorously stocking walleye in the St. Francis. This boost to the population has proven successful. The walleye in the river are again spawning and producing young.
In the spring of 2003, the Department opened the river to walleye fishing, with an 18-inch, four-fish limit. If you panfish the St. Francis, your catch might well include walleye.
Victor said the best times to panfish the St. Francis are on days when temperatures reach no higher than the 80s. Those are also the best days for camping. When temperatures reach into the 90s or hotter, fishing can be uncomfortable. During mid-summer, the water level sometimes drops so low that it's hard to float a canoe through the riffles. The fishing is still good in the pools. It's just much harder to reach them.
It's a good idea to find out about river levels before you travel to the river. Recent rainfall will improve the floating, but if the rain is too heavy, the water muddies so much that it's not good for fishing. A good source of up-to-date river conditions is the canoe rental service at Sam A. Baker State Park (537/856-4223).
State law mandates that all boaters on Missouri waters have personal floatation devices. It's a good idea to wear them. The St. Francis drains rocky, hilly terrain. Heavy rains reach the river quickly and, in little time, can turn the river into a roaring rush of dangerous water.
You will find a lot of public access points on the river. The online Missouri Conservation Atlas shows most access points along the river. Just go to <www.missouriconservation.org> and click on "Conservation Atlas," on the left side of the home page.
Plan a day trip, putting in at one access and taking out at another access downstream. Four to six miles of river makes for a good day's float if you spend a reasonable amount of time fishing each pool.
If you enjoy panfishing, the St. Francis River has a lot to offer. Most of the time it provides a peaceful, easy float and the opportunity to catch a lot of fish and a large variety of fish. It has quickly become my new favorite panfishing spot, and there's a good chance it could be yours, too.
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