Up a Lazy River

By Jim Low | July 1, 2016
From Missouri Conservationist: July 2016

The upper portion of Missouri’s crookedest river is a smallmouth stream beyond compare

It’s the sound of springwater dripping from moss-covered bluffs. It’s a family of eagles playing leapfrog down a tunnel of sycamores. It’s an ultralight fishing rod bent double, pulsing with bronze-backed fury. The upper Gasconade River is different in every season and around each bend, and it’s arguably the best place in Missouri to catch smallmouth bass.

That’s a big deal to me. As teenagers, my brother, Rick, and I spent a good deal of our spare time chasing smallmouths.

We did it first on foot, wading through streams we could cast across. After Rick bought an aluminum canoe, no smallmouth within 60 miles of Jefferson City was safe. High on our list of favorite waters were the deep pools of the lower Gasconade River. In those early years, we never felt the need to venture farther upstream than Interstate 44. A straight line from the Gasconade’s confluence with the Missouri River to its upper forks west of Hartville stretches 110 miles. But in making that journey, the river meanders more than 250 miles, making it the Show-Me State’s crookedest and longest interior river. That’s a lot of bends, and for a smallmouth angler, the mystery of what lies beyond the next bend is irresistible.

The portion of the Gasconade that I had never seen haunted me for years. So in my first year of retirement, I set out to fish it all. I fell short, but I did manage to explore nearly 50 miles of river in seven days of floating.

Here is what I found.

Upper Upper

Looking at a map of Wright County, I noticed the Department’s Odin Access at what looked like the Gasconade’s headwaters, just west of Hartville, and decided to start my smallmouth odyssey there. Only later did I notice that Odin Access is on Woods Fork, a few miles upstream from the Gasconade proper. I was glad for my mistake because this turned out to be a delightful piece of water.

The temperature already was above 80 degrees when I arrived around 8:30 a.m. on a sultry July day. I had correctly assumed the water would be too shallow for floating and left my kayak at home. I pulled on a pair of old hiking shoes and headed down the footpath from the parking lot to the water.

A short wade upstream landed me in one of the most beautiful smallmouth holes I’ve ever seen. Water sailed like a transparent sheet of jade over smooth bedrock. The current undercut a bluff , where a cascade of tiny streams trickled over a mossy lip. The effect was like a thousand tiny wind chimes in a gentle breeze.

Fish had to be lurking beneath the bluff. However, with the water level about 2 feet higher than normal, only a handful of longear sunfish and a couple of 8-inch smallmouth took the minnow and crawdad imitation crankbaits I offered.

I waded upstream half a mile to the Wood Fork Road Bridge, past several great smallmouth spots, before deciding the fish just weren’t going to bite. Heading back downstream, I switched to fly gear and waded another half mile downstream from Odin Access before encountering cattle in the river. This little stretch was shallow and nondescript, not the kind of water I associate with good smallmouth fishing. I’m sure there is plenty of good smallmouth water in the 10 miles between the Odin and Camp Branch accesses, but I decided to leave the upper end to livestock and fish upstream from the next access — Camp Branch, just east of Hartville.

Conservation Agent Keith Wollard says the stretch of water from Camp Branch to Buzzard Bluff Access and from there to Wilbur Allen Access is strictly kayak water. It’s too shallow in the summer for larger craft, but has holes too deep for wade-fishing. I moved on downstream, hoping to make it back to the upper, upper Gasconade later in the summer.

Middle Upper

By the time I got around to floating from the Department’s Wilbur Allen Access to Anna Adams Access in late July, the river was still a little high, and results of recent flooding were visible everywhere. Huge uprooted trees were stacked like so many straws in river bends and across narrow chutes. This complicated paddling, but it also created excellent smallmouth habitat. Bronzebacks were tucked into newly scoured holes, eager to snap up passing morsels.

A local told me about the hottest smallmouth lure — a 3-inch brown, twin-tailed grub — so I put it to the test. As I fished a rocky bank, a fat, 15-inch smallmouth bent my rod double for so long I thought it might break. When I finally got the fish in the net, I took a few photos and released it, eager to repeat the experience.

I caught several more 10- to 15-inch smallmouths that day. Each one surprised me with an anvil-like strike followed by a long, deep dive or spectacular jump. Most were fat and dark-flanked. Some sported black tiger stripes, my favorite color variation.

High water forced me to unload my 12-foot kayak and portage around Kincheloe Bridge, downstream from Allen Access. I was hot and tired but happy when I hauled up at the USDA Forest Service (USFS) Mayfield Spring Access after 10 hours of paddling and casting.

I was on the water by 7:30 the next morning. The action was surprisingly slow until mid-morning. It picked up after I passed the Route AD Bridge, with steady action from both smallmouth and rock bass, also known as goggle-eye.

This stretch of river had more flat water than the previous day, with lots of narrow, debris-clogged chutes. In spite of having to walk my kayak around some of these obstructions, I arrived at the USFS Dry Branch Access a little after noon, and enjoyed the rest of the day sitting up to my belly button in cool water at the foot of the boat ramp, reading, and dozing as the mercury climbed to 96 degrees. Heaven. Sunrise the next day found me on my way to Anna Adams Access. The weather had cooled nearly 10 degrees, and a west breeze made the day pure perfection. However, the action was slow until after noon. Just downstream from the Highway 32 Bridge in a deep, narrow stretch of water hemmed in by maple trees on one side and by a bluff on the other, I hauled in goggle-eyes and smallmouth as fast as I could cast.

The bites really took off downstream. I wore out several plastic grubs along a steep, boulder-studded bank. Smallmouth, goggle-eyes, and green sunfish wouldn’t leave my bait alone. They were equally enthusiastic about floating minnow lures, crayfish imitations, and beetle-spins. They were ready to eat.

This stretch of river had several long, deep pools that required more paddling, and again I had to drag my boat around a few obstructions. I reached the Department’s Anna Adams Access around 2 p.m. and headed home with lots of photos and great memories.

Lower Upper

This was my favorite stretch, partly because I floated it in late September when the air was cool and trees were showing fall color. A fleece jacket and waders felt good in the mornings, and the fish were biting.

I left Anna Adams Access around 9 a.m. and immediately was joined by a mature bald eagle. It watched me drift under successive perches in ancient sycamore trees before leapfrogging ahead throughout the morning.

Later in the day I saw a juvenile bald eagle, then a pair. Eventually I realized I was playing tag with a family of two adults and two juveniles.

The first half of the day featured lots of small riffles. The afternoon was mostly long, deep holes overshadowed by bluffs. The action was good. Here I caught a couple of chunky largemouth bass along with smallmouth and rock bass. The best action came late in the afternoon, when the sun dipped behind towering bluffs. The eagles were waiting for me when I arrived at the USFS Sonora Access at 5:30.

When I launched my kayak at 7 a.m. the following day, the temperature was 53 degrees and the sky was overcast. The eagles rejoined me.

I hooked several big bronzebacks, but they threw various lures back at me with flying leaps. An abundance of willing 10- to 12-inchers, rock bass and a couple more largemouths relieved my disappointment.

The fish were in the mood for something different, preferring a Rebel craw crankbait over the twin-tailed grub. The best fishing early in the day was in a big eddy at the foot of a deep chute not far downstream from the Sonora Access. Every cast brought a strike.

Farther downstream I found long, deep pools with bluffs and rocky banks that made my casting arm twitch. I took two 14-inch largemouth in this stretch, but the action fell off from where it had been earlier. I had to walk my kayak through several shallow riffles.

The best fishing of the day was in the last 300 yards before the USFS Barlow Ford Access. This long, deep pool lies at the foot of a bluff and is carpeted with boulders — ideal smallmouth habitat and a perfect place for either spin or fly-fishing.

I reached this spot around 1 p.m., so there was no hurry to load up and head home. I let my kayak drift slowly through the hole. In one deep spot, something tapped my crayfish imitation. I paddled back to the top, repeated the drift, and got the same tap in the same place.

On the third drift, a husky smallmouth nailed the crankbait and headed for Davey Jones’ locker. I was glad to be using slightly heavier tackle than normal as I struggled to keep the bronze battler above the rocky streambed. He lacked the gymnastic flair of a smaller fish, coming to the net without jumping, much to my relief.

I didn’t measure him. Why ruin a good fish story with statistics? I’m sure he was at least 17 inches. Could have been 18. Probably was. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was 18. Maybe even 19.

Around the Bend

I regret not getting to explore the 19 miles of river between Camp Branch and Wilbur Allen accesses. I know it would have been as scenic and fishy as the rest. But in a way, I’m also glad I didn’t get around to this stretch. It means I still have two or three days’ worth of river to explore. Plus, my adventure put me in contact with other smallmouth fanatics who have gone much farther than I have, fishing the river’s upper tributaries — the Big Piney, Little Piney, and the Osage Fork. That’s another 160-plus miles of prime smallmouth water.

Why the Upper Gasconade?

In 2014, Department crews sampling fish on the Gasconade River in Laclede County found 40 percent more smallmouth bass than they had in 2012 and 2010. Nearly one in five were 12 inches or longer, and five out of every 100 were 15 inches or larger. They found especially large numbers of smallmouth that now are 4 and 5 years old.

For me, that’s reason enough. But just as important to me is solitude. In the seven days I spent on the upper Gasconade, I saw three other anglers. One of the things I treasure about time outdoors is the chance to put my mind in neutral and surrender myself fully to living in the moment. The upper Gasconade is great for that.er to explore. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Upper Gasconade Accesses

Finding accesses to the river was a cinch. Since I planned to fish from a 12-foot kayak that had no room for camping gear, I needed to divide the 65 miles up into floats that could be done in one day with plenty of time to fish.

Fortunately, the Department and USFS maintain several strategically placed accesses. A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri, featuring 58 floatable streams and rivers, is an excellent resource for planning your next float trip. The booklet is available at mdcnatureshop.com.

Wright County

  • Odin Access (Department) 6 miles west of Hartville on Woods Fork of the Gasconade. Wade-fishing only.  10 miles to…
  • Camp Branch Access (Department) 2.5 miles east of Hartville on Highway 38. Gravel boat ramp and picnic area. 11.8 miles to…
  • Buzzard Bluff Access (Department) 6.5 miles east of Hartville on Highway 38, then 2.25 miles north on Route E. Concrete boat ramp and picnic area. 7.2 miles to…
  • Wilbur Allen Access (Department) 1 mile north of Manes on Highway 95, then 1.5 miles west on Radford Road. Gravel boat ramp. 11.8 miles to…

Laclede County

  • Mayfield Spring Access (USFS) 2.5 miles north on Route Z from Competition, then 1.2 miles east on Utopia Drive. Look for a small brown USFS sign. Last few hundred yards are rutted, muddy, and possibly impassible in wet weather. Remote area with canoe/kayak access. 9.5 miles to…
  • Dry Branch Access (USFS) 3 miles south from Highway 32 on Vintage Road from Falcon Post Office to Carter Road. Watch for a nearly invisible USFS sign post on left marking Forest Road 5108. One mile east on Carter/Forest Service road 5108. Concrete boat ramp at end of road or gravel bar access where road turns right. 8.8 miles to…
  • Anna Adams Access (Department) 18 miles east from Lebanon on Highway 32, then 3 miles north on Route K, and 3 miles east on Dawn Road. Concrete boat ramp. 4 miles to…
  • Brownfield Ford Access (USFS) 3.6 miles east on Flagstone Drive from junction of routes K and AC. Bear right where Village Drive forks off, and go straight past two private roads to the right. Gravel ramp for small trailers. 4.4 miles to…

Pulaski County

  • Sonora Lane Access (USFS) 9 miles south of I-44 on Highway 17, then turn west on Sonora Lane just after passing Route E. Follow Sonora Lane ~2 miles to end of road. ~5 miles to…
  • Barlow Ford — 3.5 miles east on Route AB east from I-44, then take Smokey Road south 2 miles, staying left at the fork. The final quarter mile is low and muddy in wet weather.

Also In This Issue

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Department researchers visit black bear dens to study population growth

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler