Say “going for a float” anywhere else in our nation, and folks will think you’re heading out for ice cream. Missouri invented the float. It’s part of our shared language. Sure, you can paddle downriver in any of the other 49 states, but suspended upon the surface of our clear blue Ozark streams, we perfected it.
Our sacred Missouri birthright has an even higher state of perfection, floating in the fall, far removed from the throngs who enjoy it during the longest and hottest days of the year. A float in the fall is like a ticker-tape parade of fiery oranges and star-bright yellows thrown just for you and your companions.
And the fishing is out of this world, too.
Fog concealed the morning sun as the bow of my canoe parted the glassy surface of the upper Meramec River just upstream from where the spring branch tumbles into a brooding pool of deep water. Against the mossy depths, the crimson-tinged silver of rainbow trout sparked sporadically like fireflies over a summertime field. A damp chill, the kind so subtle you know it’s temporary, eased through the bulk of my sweater and waders.
It’s a mid-October Sunday morning and with 7 river miles ahead of me, I’m torn between getting underway or stopping to fish. The fly rod won that toss-up. First, a dry fly with a dropper. Then after three short strikes, a Cerise worm under an indicator, inelegant but effective. The hookups were immediate and feisty. Five rainbows later and the nagging of my canoe, half beached on the gravely shore, loaded with personal flotation devices, paddle, and a dry bag of supplies and extra clothes, won back my attention.
The fish were complements of my friend Damon Spurgeon who I had spoken with about this fall fishing float adventure. Damon knows these Ozark streams like the back of his hands. He graciously set me up with his favorite flies for this trip. The boat was courtesy of another friend, long-time outdoor writer Bill Cooper, who lives nearby and never misses an opportunity to head downhill toward water. Finally, Scott Heminger, yet another friend and professional photographer, volunteered to come along and document the journey down a Red Ribbon Trout Management section of the Meramec concluding at Scott’s Ford.
These expert outdoor enthusiasts were eager to collaborate on the trip because they know the all-too-often-overlooked magic of floating through the autumn colors of Missouri with a fishing rod in hand.
The River Is All Yours
While much of the civilized world is visiting apple orchards and sipping pumpkin-flavored anything, our incredible streams quietly undergo a transformation. All along their corridors, bottomland trees begin reabsorbing chlorophyll from their leaves, making visible carotenoids that show yellow and orange and anthocyanins that display red. Turtles take their last few basks in the sun before burying themselves into the stream bed for the winter. Previously elusive whitetail bucks begin covering more ground looking for does to breed. It’s a busy time near the water, with one exception: people.
With the bow of our canoe pointed downstream again, the boat glided over agitated rocky riffles. Those riffles gave way to deeper pools, which then transitioned into sandy shoals. Trout-shaped shadows darted to the left and right, spooked by the rare boat traffic.
Save for three other fishermen and some hunters enjoying a riverside fall turkey camp, the water was ours. Two months earlier it would have been a different story, but for some reason, the world seems to forget about floating when cooler temperatures arrive and the days shorten. Somewhere high overhead, beyond the dissipating fog of morning, migrating snow geese called out to one another, punctuating the sounds of our dipping paddles.
A series of downed trees lay downstream of Dry Fork, their massive rootwads displacing the gravelly bottom, forming deep green watery depressions for big fish. This time, instead of a fly rod, I reached for a light-action spinning rod spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament and tied on a silver spoon to get down deep.
One under-handed flip and the spoon fluttered down into the roiling darkness, instigating a visible, yet short strike from a rainbow. On the second toss, the spoon descended again, but this time the trout didn’t miss, nor did I.
Floating in the fall not only ensures less people traffic, but it also puts you on the water at a time when the fish are packing on weight for the long winter ahead. Much like the mad dash to the bread and dairy shelves at a grocery store when the word “snow” is uttered by the local meteorologist, trout are doing much the same, as are warm water species like smallmouth and catfish.
Keep your tackle loadout simple for a float trip, as your canoe can get cluttered with gear in short order. Damon’s favorite flies and baits for this time of year are as follows:
- Olive Wooly Bugger size 8–10
- Rainbow Warrior size 16–18
- Pink Cerise Worm size 10–12
- Rapala #5 Floating Rainbow Pattern
- Rooster Tail
- 1/32 oz Black & Gold Marabou Jig
Present those flies on a 4- or 5-weight rod. If you’re slinging a spinning rig, consider a light action rod spooled with 2- to 6-pound test line.
Getting the Right Gear
Four river miles in, near Richart Springs, two juvenile bald eagles dropped from their stark white perches in a sycamore then spread their mottled wings to glide silently farther downstream. The noon sun shone unobstructed now in the sky, transforming the previously chilly day into a warm one. I paused my paddling and shed a layer to keep from sweating.
Fall floats pose a challenge due to the potential for wide fluctuations in air temperature throughout the day and the guaranteed cold water. If you plan on getting out to fish, waders are a must, with breathable waders being the best option. Layer with Merino wool base components that wick sweat and retain insulative value even if they get wet. Add a thermal layer like fleece pants for bottoms and a sweater as a top, then pack a windproof jacket to ensure you’re comfortable and can adapt as the weather changes.
Bring a change of clothes in a dry bag just in case you tip. Getting wet in the fall isn’t much fun and could put you at risk of hypothermia.
A “Really Good” Conclusion
Our canoe slipped silently past looming dolomite bluffs as the river widened, deepened, and slowed. Pickup truck-sized chunks that had long ago broken away and tumbled into the river lay steadfast on the river bed unmoved by the current. I wondered what spectacle it might have been to witness such a massive separation when they broke away.
Admittedly, the conundrum faced by anyone float fishing their way down a fall stream in Missouri is the struggle between stopping to fish and making miles to reach your destination. Bill was running our shuttle, and we told him we’d meet him at Scott’s Ford at 2:00 pm. As a result, we passed over a great number of fish without tempting them. Our time on the river was drawing to a close, and with slower current and significant headwind, we focused on solid digs with our paddles.
Nearing the end of our journey, a dog began barking ahead of us, chest deep in water at the head of a gravel bar where its owner sat enjoying the scenery in a camp chair next to her car. The dog continued barking and pacing until we reached the beach when he came closer, ostensibly inviting us to play.
I dipped my paddle as salutation at the woman in the chair and asked, “How ya doing?”
It’s hard to have a bad day on the river. In fact, with the brilliant pallet of colors splashed across the landscape, balmy temperatures, hungry trout, and the tranquility of large stretches of water to yourself, it was indeed “really good.”
Minutes later, the bow of the canoe nudged into sandy shore just upstream of the low water bridge at Scott’s Ford where Bill Cooper had been waiting to shuttle us back to our vehicle.
“How was it boys?”
“Really good,” we replied.
It was an understated response, but being a fellow Missourian who knows first-hand the magic of our streams, he understood implicitly. We never did keep an accurate count of the fish we caught, but it was enough. The entire float was perfection.
Taking the time for a recreational excursion like this doesn’t always take top billing in our busy lives. But consider the meaning of the word “recreation.” You are re-created. Made new again. Both were absolutely true for us.
In fact, the words I’m using to relay our journey simply don’t do it justice. The only way you can truly discover the beauty of an autumn fishing float down one of our state’s waterways is to go experience it for yourself!
- Charged cell phone
- River map
- Personal flotation devices for every boater
- Spare paddle
- Fishing license and identification
- Polarized sunglasses
- Brimmed hat
- Dry bag
- Change of clothes
- Garbage bag (for collecting your trash and any you may find along the way)
- First aid kit
- An itinerary filed with a friend or family member
Experience fall by floating and fishing your way down an Ozark stream
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Angie Daly Morfeld