Afloat For Fish

By Jack McLaughlin | August 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 2001

Early morning mist rises from the water as my wife, Jane, and I embark on our river float. As we paddle downstream, we hope to see a flock of turkeys glide across river or a deer bound across a shallow riffle. We know we'll spend the day among the chatter of gray squirrels in the treetops, and that we'll likely disturb buzzards that roost along a bluff top.

Natural experiences are part of the magic of floating, Add great fishing to the beauty and serenity of the rivers and you've got the combination that has locked me into float fishing our Ozark waterways for more than 50 years.

Float fishing originated in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. According to McClaine's "Fishing Encyclopedia," the original john boat, the standard of southern float fishing, was designed in 1919 by Owen Swinney of Winona, Mo. However, Charlie Barnes of Galena actually popularized float fishing on the White River of southwest Missouri. During his lifetime, Barnes built more than 500 boats. He used more than a few of these to guide the rich and famous down the crystalline waters of the White and other streams.

The typical john boat of the era was built of 20-foot-long pine boards. Three boards formed the bottom, and two boards formed the sides. At the time, Barnes said he could build his boat with three dollars worth of material.

Early john boats were heavy but stable. Despite their size, they were very maneuverable. Today, most float fishermen use canoes or aluminum john boats. The wooden john boats are all but gone from Ozark streams, as are the big float fishing operators like Barnes, Jim Owens and Bales Boat Company of Eminence. Even so, float fishing has survived. Float operators abound in the Ozarks that will accommodate anglers.

Our streams are by no means packed with anglers, however. Fish smaller streams, such as the Bourbeuse near St. Louis, or even the busy Meramec on its lower stretches, and you will be surprised at how little company you encounter during the week. The Gasconade River along its 300-mile length provides plenty of uncrowded fishing opportunity, as does its tributary, the Osage Fork. The Big and Little Piney, Tavern Creek and Maries River are some other fine fishing streams. Use your imagination, do some sleuthing and consult "Missouri Ozark Waterways," published by the Missouri Department of Conservation, for other clues to peaceful fishing.

Float fishermen rely on a variety of angling techniques. I usually come prepared to fish with flies, plugs and live bait.

Fly fishing is my favorite method. I usually start out each morning using a popping bug of some sort. If the popper doesn't produce, I'll switch to large streamers and bucktails with weighted underbodies. Some of my favorite bass flies include marabou streamers in black for dingy water and white for clear water. Other productive bass flies are the Mickey Finn, the Woolly Bugger in black and in olive, the wool head sculpin in black and in olive and Black-nose Dace.

When fly fishing for panfish, I like the marabou in size 12, as well as a black, rubber-legged cricket. Another productive fly for panfish is a Palmer-tied guinea hackle with white marabou tail. All flies should be heavily weighted to fish at or near the bottom in moving water with rocky structure.

Later in the morning, if fly fishing isn't productive, I'll switch to spin gear and soft plastic lures such as crayfish, Gitzits or worms rigged Texas style. If I'm after a big bass, I'll try a Zara Spook or Rebel popper. If those methods fail, I'll dredge the bottom with jig and pig in crawfish color.

When fishing for goggle-eye or sunfish, a Beetlespin in black or chartreuse is usually reliable. If I'm looking for some panfish for dinner near the end of the day, I'll set a minnow trap, dig some worms or capture crayfish for bait. If all else fails, I have saved many a day by tying up to a drift pile and catching everything from drum to channel cat. Goggle-eye and black perch usually are included in this evening smorgasbord.

You can use a variety of boats to float a stream. For years, I have relied on either a 14-foot john boat or a 17-foot travel canoe. The fiberglass canoe has a wide beam and square end. Like the old wooden john boat, it is fairly heavy but very stable and river-worthy. We use the little john boat on small streams with difficult put-in access such as the Bourbeuse or upper Eleven Point or Little Piney. It serves us well in shallow stretches where a heavy boat can be burdensome.

The canoe is most enjoyable on the larger rivers like the Gasconade, with its hairpin turns, and the Eleven Point, Meramec and Current rivers. Nearly every float has a few bad spots, and a stable, maneuverable craft provides extra security. Even so, experienced floaters often get out and rope the boat through dangerous shoals and around obstructions.

In addition to our photo and fishing gear, we always carry two life preservers, sun block and waterproof bags to protect food or valuables. Bait bucket, minnow trap, small seine, foxhole shovel and cooking gear complete the basic equipment list.

You'll often be out in the sun all day, so I'd suggest wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and a lightweight, quick-drying, long-sleeve shirt to protect against sunburn. Polarized sunglasses will protect your eyes from the sun, and from errant casts. Lots of float anglers like to wear wading shoes with felt soles that allow them better traction on slippery rocks.

Our boat is equipped with an electric trolling motor. Not only does it provide us a break from paddling, but the motor helps hold the boat in position at likely spots. It also helps slow down our drift so we can fish areas more thoroughly. The trolling motor also allows us to run back upriver to re-fish productive water.

You can cover a lot of good water when float fishing. Lots of the water is inaccessible any other way. It's a good idea to fish prime spots thoroughly. Avoid making noise in the boat and approach promising water cautiously. Be sure to fish above and below shoals and deep pools. Use the advantage the boat gives you to fish difficult-to-reach portions of the streams.

The best time for float fishing is during the week. You may have the river to yourself. I'll fish in any month, but I've enjoyed my best float fishing when the rivers are dead low, which concentrates the fish in deep holes. This usually means fishing in late June, July, August and September, but any time low water exists is a good time to float.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer