Agnew’s Black River Fish and Float

Posted by Al Agnew on August 28th, 2014
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I heard it explained one time that a 20% chance of thundershowers doesn’t so much mean that there’s a 20% chance that it will rain; it’s probably going to rain somewhere in the region, but there’s a 20% chance that it will rain on your head. I was thinking about that early in the afternoon yesterday as I watched a big thundercloud appear to the east of the part of Black River I was on. I don’t particularly like doing overnight floats when there’s a chance of thunderstorms, but the forecast had said that there was a 20% chance yesterday for the Lesterville area, and 60% today. I decided to take the chance on the 20% with the plan to get off the river by around noon today.

Normally you wouldn’t worry about clouds to the east, but this one just kept getting bigger, and as it did it was spreading toward me. And then there was a non-threatening cloud right over my head that I wasn’t worried about until it started getting bigger as well, and spreading toward the thundercloud. The thunder was getting louder. A few drops of rain fell. And then things seemed to die down. Looked like I’d played the percentages well.

It had been a long time since I’d done the Lesterville to Hwy. K section of the Black, and I did it this time almost on the spur of the moment. I found a canoe rental place that would do the shuttle ($60), and arrived at their place at 9 AM. They took me up about 4 miles, a mile or so above the mouth of the Middle Fork, and said they’d have the vehicle at K by 8 AM the next day (today).

It was hot. By the time I got the canoe loaded I was already wanting to jump in the river. But I started downstream. The upper Black is reputed to have the clearest water in the Ozarks, and it was low, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with the fishing. It started out well, with a 12 incher and then a beautiful, fat 16.5 incher in the first pool below the put-in. the bigger one hit a Gunfish. Okay, I thought, typical clear water strategy for me; throw walk the dog topwaters all day.

But then things got slow. I started trying other things; buzzbaits, Superflukes, my twin spin, Senkos. Nothing worked well. A couple passed me in kayaks, but otherwise I seemed to have the river to myself, until I got down to Mill Creek, where a small group of people were drifting along in a big raft.

The biggest problem with upper Black River, other than the campgrounds everywhere and party floaters on weekends, is lack of habitat. Whether or not it’s the clearest river in the Ozarks, it has to be the most gravelly. Huge gravel bars everywhere. Every bank that isn’t a rocky bluff is nothing but gravel. There really isn’t much cover except for those rocky banks, and only pockets of deeper water here and there with mostly gravelly flats a foot or two deep.

And I was catching next to nothing in the places that did have deep, rocky pools. The fish I was catching were in little obscure spots on those gravelly flats, or even just out in the middle of a wide open flat. And practically every fish was 11-11.5 inches. Suspicious? Just how many people on this river are keeping every legal fish?

I came down a riffle, noting a solid rock bottom in the pool below, with some scattered boulders atop the rock flats. I made a long cast with a buzzbait far down into the pool, and about a third of the way back the water exploded. It always seems to me that 18 inch smallies are the hardest fighters of all, and this one took a while to get to hand. A quick photo and it was released.

The day wore on, a fish here and there, a dip now and then, plenty of fluids to drink. And then the thunderstorm blew up to the east and finally disappeared. I kept watching the sky, and sure enough, another big cloud started mushrooming to the west. Not good. It was getting close to 6 PM, and time to look for a campsite. The fishing had settled into the twin spin producing the best as the evening went along, and I kept fishing, cloud watching, and looking for a safe campsite. I wanted something with access to higher ground and next to short trees with no taller tree nearby. With all those huge gravel bars, ordinarily finding a campsite would be no problem, but I didn’t want something out in the middle of a wide open gravel bar where I was the highest point. I finally settled on the back of a narrower gravel bar where it rose into short sycamores. The thunder was rumbling and it was getting a little darker than what it should be at nearly 7 PM. I pitched the tent, dragged the canoe up alongside it, and ate a quick supper of ham and potato salad.

And then the percentages worked out again. The big cloud simply dissipated. A few drops of rain fell, but the thunder died away, and I retreated to the tent a lot more relaxed than I had been just a half hour earlier.

It was perfectly clear except for some fog on the hillsides when I awoke this morning. I quickly broke camp and began fishing with high early morning hopes. I paddled up the big pool I had been camped on, spooking an 18 inch class smallie that had been cruising the edge of the gravel bar. I caught one small fish back down through the pool, went through a wide riffle, and continued fishing the rocky bank on the left. But I noticed that most of the current was sweeping along the gravel bar on the right, and there was one nice log over there. With the fish I’d spooked above in mind, I made a long cast with my topwater to that log, and a big fish erupted on it…and missed. I tossed a Senko to the same place. Nothing.

And for a long time, that was the only excitement. It was a couple hours later when I fished down another deep, rocky pool fruitlessly. Near the lower end it shallowed to a just a couple of feet deep, the rocks disappeared…but there was one smallish log, about the diameter of my thigh, lying next to the bank. I tossed one of my home made walk the dog lures alongside it, about five feet away from the log, and with the second twitch a big wake came from the log and crashed into the lure. This 18 incher fought even harder than the one the day before; it was about the strongest fish I’ve hooked all year. But I got it in finally, and got another photo.

Then it was back to the 11.5 inchers, with the occasional 13-14 incher, mostly coming on the twin spin and the homemade walk the dog lure. The buzzbait that had produced the best much of the day before was not doing well. The Highway K bridge came into sight a bit after noon, just as the clouds were starting to build and the wind was picking up. So things worked out well.

The other big problem with upper Black River is that those big gravel bars and shallow flats are just too inviting to the ATV crowd. Yes, it’s illegal these days, but every gravel bar was covered in ATV tracks and many of the riffles were obviously being crossed a lot. I’d forgotten just how pretty this river valley is. The bluffs aren’t spectacular, and the campgrounds are extensive in places, but there are some stretches that are simply gorgeous. But I can’t imagine the kind of zoo that much of it is on weekends when the ATVs and party floaters are out in force.

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