“Shhh! Don’t bang the paddle against the side of the johnboat,” my fishing guide, Alex Rutledge, whispered, as we eased into the first bluff hole of our float on the Jacks Fork River, between Rymer’s Access and Chalk Bluff . “Big smallmouth are super-wary,” he said. “Noise like that can spook ‘em.”
I understood, but was having a hard time avoiding bumping the paddle. It was 10 p.m. and pitch dark.
Behind me I heard the whiz of Alex’s buzzbait as it shot through the air, followed by the “blub-blub-blubblub” of the lure as he worked it across the water’s surface. I followed with my own buzzbait efforts. The bluff appeared as a dark shadow looming up from the river. Judging distance in the dark is difficult, so most of my casts fell short.
A slurping sound ended the rhythmic “blub-blubblub” of Alex’s buzzbait. He grunted as he set the hook.“A good one!” he exclaimed as he reeled in line.
I asked Alex whether he needed a light. He declined, saying it would scare the fish.
The bass splashed at boat’s edge as Alex lipped it from the water. He laid it on a ruler taped across the seat in front of him. I didn’t know how he could see to measure, but he whispered, “Fifteen-and-a-half inches.”
It was a nice smallmouth, but not good enough to stop fishing to take pictures. We were after bigger ones.
For close to three decades I’ve enjoyed fishing for smallmouth bass on Missouri’s Ozark streams. This trip represented my first attempt at a night float for smallmouth. Alex is a regular on the river at night, even guiding other anglers.
For me, the trip was a great introduction to night floating for smallmouth. It’s a wonderful approach to summertime fishing.
Floating one of Missouri’s clear Ozark streams on a summer day is lots of fun. The problem is that everyone knows it. From May through September, most of Missouri’s premier float streams are packed with canoes, jet boats and tubes, as well as anglers.
For example, one weekend last July, rental services in the Van Buren area put 5,000 tubes and canoes on a 20-mile stretch of the Current River.
That much traffic isn’t good for fishing. Clanging canoes, splashing tubers and roaring jet boats often send mature smallmouth bass deep into cover, where they are tough to reach with lures or baits. It’s pretty hard for someone to enjoy fishing under such crowded conditions.
Night fishing for big smallmouth on Ozark streams provides lots of solitude. The campsites may be full, but the river is left to you.
During a typical day on most Ozark streams, you usually can catch good numbers of smallmouth bass that range between 8 and 11 inches long. Bigger smallmouth are rare. The sight of anglers seems to make them stop feeding.
Fishing at night, when the fish have trouble seeing you, generally produces bigger fish. We fished for close to four hours and boated 32 smallmouth, with seven between 12 and 16 inches long. Though I was thrilled, our outing was below average by Alex’s standards.
“Fifty or so bass, with two or three over 17 inches would have been more up to par,” he said.
I wondered whether my trouble making accurate casts in the dark limited our catch. Alex caught many more fish than I did. On the other hand, I think it had something to do with the weather. It was definitely cooler at my end of the boat.
The author fished a portion of the 26-mile Stream Black Bass Special Management Area on the Jacks Fork, from Hwy. 17 to Hwy. 106.
Special smallmouth bass regulations in this area include an 18-inch minimum length limit and daily limit of one smallmouth. These regulations (more restrictive than the statewide 12-inch, daily limit of six) allow more smallmouth more time in the stream to grow large and improve fishing.
Much of Missouri’s stream frontage is privately owned. The establishment of Stream Black Bass Special Management Areas does not give an angler the right to trespass on private land. Please be respectful of stream landowners and ask for permission. —Kevin Meneau
Alex said his best fishing nights occur when daytime temperatures pass the 90s mark. Under those conditions, mature smallmouth tend to hide during the day and actively feed in the cool of night.
Alex prefers using buzzbaits because they make lots of noise and stay on the surface, where the chances of hangups are fewer. It’s fun to hear a buzzbait working in the dark, and even more fun to hear the splash of a bass attacking it.
Other topwater lures, like Zara Spooks or Jitterbugs, also work well, but these sport treble hooks. The single hook of a buzzbait is far less likely to get stuck in streamside cover—or in your skin.
During a daytime float, you share Ozark streams with an array of birds, from rattling kingfishers to soaring hawks. You often surprise turtles basking on streamside logs and see clusters of swallowtail butterflies sipping water from sandbar puddles.
When the sun sets, a different cast of creatures stirs. Dobsonflies flutter over the water and into your face, and uncountable numbers of lightning bugs blink on and off in streamside vegetation. You sometimes hear beavers slapping their tails on the water or the trill of nearby screech owls.
I also wondered about snakes. While we fished, Alex made a point of never using a flashlight. But, when we headed to shore for a break, he gave me one and told me to watch where I walked. “Cottonmouths stir on this river at night,” he said.
I heeded his warning.
Boat control is essential when floating at night. Alex grew up boating and fishing on the river so we never had any trouble, even in stretches of fast water.
Anyone planning a night float for smallmouth on one of Missouri’s Ozark streams needs strong boating skills and familiarity with the stretch of river they intend to float.
Alex said that, even if you know a section of stream well, you should first float it during the day before a night float. Streams change constantly, and a downed tree jammed at the end of a shoal can serve up a nasty surprise.
We pulled off the river around midnight, but I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would be to combine fishing and camping on the river. You could swim or just be lazy in the shade during the day and then set up a float that ended at a campground early in the morning.
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