Nice float, but what might have been…

Posted by Phil Lilley on June 22nd, 2017
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big river 5

I want to really thank Brian Jones for hooking me up with a landowner who has an access in the absolute perfect spot, first of all.  Because there’s this section of Big River with otherwise very inconvenient access points, making for floats that are either too short or too long.  But this private access is right at the end of the “good water”, and cuts off about 4 miles of “bad water” off the float.  I used it for the first time today.

You see, I had volunteered to take this very nice lady from the Nature Conservancy on a river trip.  The Nature Conservancy is my favorite conservation organization because they work with landowners on conservation projects instead of attempting to dictate what the landowners should be doing (not that I don’t mind passing laws mandating conservation practices, but I realize that getting someone to do the right thing voluntarily usually works better).  And also, they put their money where their mouth is, buying and protecting sensitive lands themselves whenever possible.  One of their projects in Missouri is a program for overall protection for the entire Meramec Basin.  We had originally planned for me to take her on a jetboat run through the part of the Meramec that would have been underwater had the dam been built, which is the most scenic section of the river.  But instead, I changed the plan to a canoe trip through some of the sections of Big River that have been most heavily affected by the old lead mine tailings.  In other words, instead of showing her arguably the best of the Meramec river system, I was going to show her what is arguably the worst…not really, though, since there are certainly far less attractive sections of lower Big, Bourbeuse, and the Meramec itself.

I had my brother run the shuttle, met her in the Walmart parking lot, and put in about 8:30 AM for a ten mile float.  I carried three rods, less than my usual five, and seriously planned to finish the float in the reasonably early afternoon, which would mean not doing a lot of really serious fishing.  But I should have known that if I have rods in the canoe, and the fish are active at all, some serious fishing WILL be done.

I didn’t pick up a rod through the first two pools, but I did in the third pool, and caught nothing.  Okay…maybe they’re not active, maybe this plan would work.  Next pool, I caught a nice largemouth.  Uh-oh.  Then another one, then another one.  And then a spotted bass.  By this time, the lady, who has never fished and never studied fish, was asking me to help her identify the bass species.  I showed her the differences, and from then on she would guess the species whenever I caught a bass, which was regularly.  The trip was slowing down.  I was fishing harder.

It was kind of a weird day.  The smallmouths weren’t doing anything.  I went nearly four miles before I caught the first smallie.  But the largemouths were pretty much going nuts.  Nice ones, in the 14-16 inch range.  Then a bigger one, 17 inches.  The spots were a little less active, but I was catching enough of them that it was giving her a good lesson on how to ID them.  And it was also a bit strange that nothing much was hitting surface lures.  They were mostly hitting my homemade crankbait and spinnerbait.

The second half of this float, while not appearing to be any better habitat than the first half, is usually better fishing.  We stopped for lunch, and I knew by then that the float was going to take a little longer than I’d planned.  She wasn’t complaining, or anything, and seemed to really be enjoying things, even enjoying watching me catch fish.  But I was beginning to feel a little guilty about fishing so hard.  Still, we were engaged in an almost constant discussion of the various ills, and surprisingly good things, about this stretch of river, which was the point of the whole thing…supposedly.  Well, I told myself, demonstrating the fishing potential of the river, along with the history of the spotted bass invasion, was part of that, wasn’t it?

The problem, you see, is that in that second half of the float, the fishing got REALLY good.  But, because I was in the back of the canoe, the way the fish were hitting became problematical.  They would often follow the lure for a fairly long distance before striking.  And from the back of the canoe, your casts are necessarily a bit shorter if you cast straight toward the bank, and if you cast far ahead of the canoe at more of an angle, the lure still has a fairly short distance to travel before it comes too close to the front end of the canoe.  So I was having a LOT of fish follow the lure, closing, closing fast…and then see the canoe and turn away.  And several of them were big ones, both largemouth and smallmouth, fish that were 18 inches or better.  The river was clear, the sun bright, and seeing them was easy.  The smallmouths had turned on, the spots were active, and the largemouth continued to hit.

I didn’t keep track of the fish I caught.  Probably around 50 or so, maybe a few more.  I caught a hybrid, which threw off her otherwise nearly flawless identification.  I passed up some water I should have fished, because it was pretty hot and I figured she was going to wish she was off the river at some point.  But I was thinking that, had I been by myself, or with another angler, it could have been a terrific day.  I missed a big one.  I had another one briefly hooked.  I saw at least three more over 18 inches that followed the lure in.  And finally, I caught two really nice smallies, one a bit over 18 inches, the other about 17.5.  We stopped and hunted up crayfish…there are a couple of species in Big River that are native only to the Meramec river system, and one that is native only to Big River, but we didn’t find any of them, because the section of the river most affected by the mine tailings is pretty deficient in crayfish.  The tailings have smothered much of the habitat for crayfish.  We stopped again and I identified several species of baitfish in the water.  I was really enjoying the whole conservation discussion, and showing somebody who really seemed to care all the neat stuff I knew about on the river.  I was also in the zone as far as canoe handling, which I’ve been all year so far…the canoe just seems to magically do what I want it to do, and I can’t always say that’s so.  She never picked up a paddle all day because I told her she wouldn’t have to, and I was right.  She was a good sport about having get out several times and drag over shallow spots; the river is beginning to get a little low.  She didn’t complain about the heat (it wasn’t that hot, anyway).  And she seemed almost as loath to leave the river as I was when we reached the take-out.  All in all, a fine day…but I’m still wondering how many fish I could have caught if I was by myself and REALLY seriously fishing!

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