Northern Exposure

By Jim Low | March 2, 2006
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2006

One of the great things about being a writer for the Conservation Department is getting to talk to people about fishing. Anglers love to talk about their favorite fishing holes, and a surprising number will even share their secrets.

Of course, knowing where to fish is the easy part. Like most anglers, I hear about 10 hot spots for every one I actually find time to visit. For years, that was my excuse for not having fished a single stream north of the Missouri River. Also, I grew up on Big Muddy’s southern shore and had a host of streams between me and the Arkansas state line; I never felt the need to head north.

Now I know that was a serious mistake.

I owe this newfound knowledge to Travis Moore, a friend and fisheries management biologist who lives in Palmyra. It was hard for me to say no when he persistently invited me to come fish with him. So, I finally gave in and paid him a visit late last May.

I had expected a day of drowning worms in deep, mocha-colored water, hoping to land a few bullheads. When we arrived at Blackhawk Access, I was unprepared to find that the South Fabius (known locally as the “Fabbie”) looked much like the gravel-bottomed creeks of the northern Ozarks where I learned to fish. The water had a little more color than I was accustomed to seeing on Bois Brule and Tavern creeks, but this had more to do with weather than the stream’s character.

Thanks to one of the driest Mays on record, the Fabius was 2 feet below normal level. This, together with sweltering temperatures, had brought on the bloom of algae that occurs in many Missouri streams in August. That was okay with me. Coaxing fish into gulping artificial lures—my method of choice—is easier when the water has a slight tinge.

The water around the boat ramp reached just above my knees, with deeper pockets carved out by the current here and there. I recognized those as fish-holding spots, but the first order of business was catching bait.

Travis and three other fishing companions unfurled a small seine net and within half an hour we had collected several dozen small crayfish and minnows. With those, a box of worms and a variety of spinners, crankbaits and jigs, we headed downstream in three canoes.

My second surprise of the day was the rocky riffle our canoes slid into before we were out of sight of the boat ramp. It was the first of many modest rapids that punctuated our trip. There were also small limestone bluffs with bedrock shelves at their feet. I might have been on one of the many southern tributaries of the Missouri River.

Bites were infrequent for the first half mile of our 5-mile float. A handful of channel catfish and freshwater drum measuring 6 to 10 inches fell for minnows, worms and crayfish.

Travis assured me that walleye and sauger haunted this stretch of river. Those species were nowhere to be found, but I was both startled and pleased when a bronze-sided smallmouth bass snatched the tiny crayfish imitation I was casting into remote, rocky pockets along the bank. Over the course of the trip, the tally of smallmouth bass I caught topped the number of largemouths.

The action heated up when we reached the foot of a large riffle, a spot where the river level dropped 3 or 4 feet in 200 yards. Dozens of bass and channel catfish waited where the riffle emptied into a deep pool. Fish competed for the honor of snatching hooks gobbed with worms and drifting beneath plastic bobbers.

I wondered if deep holes like this one harbored larger flathead or channel catfish. As the day progressed, I witnessed a couple of encouraging incidents. Twice, our lines were broken by large but unseen fish that took the hook, then made powerful dives to the log-strewn bottom. The sensation is unmistakable to anyone who has tried to turn a 10-pound catfish on light tackle.

However, the most exciting action came around 5 p.m., as shadows crept across the water. That was when we reached a long, narrow run. The current was too swift to call that stretch a pool, but the water was 6 to 8 feet deep, so you couldn’t call it a riffle, either. The current had cut a long, slow curve out of a 10-foot dirt bank. Shrubs and vines hung over the water, and tree trunks and root wads festooned the outer curve.

The fish showed a definite preference for night crawlers here, and soon the three canoes were taking turns drifting through the run and catching fish as fast as we could cast, reel in and rebait our hooks.

Flathead Fun

For the past six years, fisheries biologists have been tagging flathead catfish in several north-Missouri streams. They are trying to learn more about the number and size of catfish, how fast they grow and where they spend their time.

Anglers who catch flatheads on the Mississippi, South Fabius, Grand, Platte, Lamine, Gasconade, South Grand or Marmaton rivers are encouraged to report their catches and claim cash rewards. Some tags are worth $10, others $25.

To qualify for the reward, you need to remove the tag, which consists of two wires and a colored plastic “dangler” tab. The tags are attached just below the fish’s dorsal fin. Besides returning the tag, you must report where, when and how the fish was caught and its length. Each tag has a phone number telling where to report the catch.

Several large fish inhaled the offerings—only to snap our lines—which ranged from 4- to 10-pound test. Not all got away, though. Several 1.5 to 2-pound bass and catfish came to hand. We released each one after briefly displaying it for general admiration.

Long before the end of the day, I lost count of the number of fish I had caught. Instead, I began keeping track of the species I had seen. Catfish were most numerous, followed by smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, drum and green sunfish. We caught a single golden redhorse, but I am sure a sucker specialist could have found more.

Looking back on the day as I drove home, I realized that my time on the Fabius had been much more productive than many days I have spent on south-Missouri streams. I resolved to turn my fishing compass 180 degrees from time to time and discover more of the first-class fishing waters between home and the Iowa border.

Northern Missouri Stream Guide

The Fabius River is just one of many beautiful creeks and rivers in the northern half of the state. Here is a partial list of great fishing streams that are closer to Iowa than to Arkansas.

To learn more about conservation areas and accesses in the state, Missouri residents can request a free Discover Outdoor Missouri map. The map includes listings of conservation areas with disabled accessible facilities, conservation shooting ranges and Missouri state parks, as well as the amenities on those areas.

To request this item write to MDC, Discover Outdoor Missouri, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102 or e-mail

Northern Missouri Streams
StreamLocationAccessesTop Fish Species
The Fabulous Fabius RiverMarion, Lewis, Shelby, Clark, Knox & Scotland countiesSoulard, Sunrise, Blackhawk, Dunn Ford, White Oak Bend & Tolona accesses & Deer Ridge Conservation AreaChannel & flathead catfish, smallmouth & largemouth bass, walleye & sauger
The Sensational Salt RiverPike & RallsIndian Camp Access & Ted Shanks Conservation AreaChannel & flathead catfish, smallmouth & largemouth bass, walleye & sauger
The Fantastic Four Forks of the Salt River (upstream from Mark Twain Lake)North Fork: Monroe & Shelby countiesHunnewell & Mound View accesses & Arrow-Wood Conservation AreaWalleye, channel & flathead catfish, smallmouth bass & drum
Middle Fork: Monroe CountyParis & Woodlawn accessesWalleye, channel & flathead catfish & smallmouth bass
Elk Fork: Monroe CountyCedar Bluff Access & Union Covered Bridge State Historic SiteCrappie, drum, smallmouth bass, walleye, channel & catfish
South Fork: Monroe & Audrain CountiesSanta Fe AccessWalleye, channel & flathead catfish, smallmouth bass, drum & crappie
The Glorious Grand RiverGentry, Daviess, Livingston, Carroll & Chariton countiesAndy Denton, Savage, Wabash Crossing, Green, Holmes Bend, Newman Memorial, Sumner, Bosworth, & Brunswick accesses; Elam Bend, Fountain Grove & Little Compton Lake Conservation Areas.Channel, flathead & blue catfish, common carp
The Incomparable Cuivre RiverLincoln, Warren, Pike, Montgomery & St. Charles countiesAshley Access, Cuivre River State Park & Old Monroe boat ramp (private, use fee)Smallmouth & largemouth bass, channel & flathead catfish, crappie & other panfish
The Plentiful Platte RiverAndrew & Buchanan countiesElrod Mill, Hadorn Bridge, Midway, Rochester Falls, Rock Quarry, Agency, Burton Bridge & Saxton accesses; Happy Holler Lake & Kendzora Conservation AreasChannel & flathead catfish
The Lovely Locust CreekChariton, Linn, Livingston, Putnam & Sullivan countiesRocky Ford Access, Fountain Grove & Locust Creek Conservation Areas & Pershing State ParkChannel & flathead catfish, carp, buffalo & drum
The Charming Chariton RiverAdair, Chariton, Macon, Putnam & Schuyler countiesArchangel, Mullanix Ford, Henry Truitt, Elmer Cook Memorial, Dodd, Price Bridge & Dalton Bottoms accesses & Rebel’s Cove Conservation AreaChannel & flathead catfish, carp, buffalo & drum

This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Designer - Susan Fine
Circulation - Laura Scheuler