Overview

Posted by Phil Lilley on December 30th, 2011
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Written by Al Agnew- Three forks form the headwaters of Black River. The West Fork, largest of the three, and the Middle Fork, second largest, both begin along the dividing ridge that separates the Black River watershed from the Meramec-Huzzah-Big River drainage, and both drain a large expanse of rugged, maze-like hollows, heavily wooded and formed in dolomitic limestone with abundant chert gravel. As a result, the two forks flow through vast gravel deposits and are almost always extremely clear, perhaps the clearest streams in the Ozarks. The West Fork is large enough to be floatable from about the town of Centerville, though it has been floated farther upstream in high water levels. The Middle Fork is less floatable but is often floated from the Highway 21-72 bridge.

The third of the Black’s headwaters, the East Fork, drains the western margin of the St. Francois Mountains, including the western side of Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in Missouri. It also drains the Bell Mountain Wilderness Area and Proffit Mountain. Proffit Mountain is the site of the Ameren UE Taum Sauk pumped storage hydroelectric project, notorious for having a reservoir atop the mountain which failed and sent a massive flash flood down the East Fork through Johnson Shut-ins State Park, one of the most popular parks in Missouri, a few years ago. The reservoir has since been repaired and the plant is back in operation. A part of the plant, a lower reservoir formed by a concrete dam in a small shut-in on the East Fork below Johnson Shut-ins, furnishes fishing for bass and panfish. The East Fork, a small stream that is not considered floatable, is largely recovered from the very destructive flood.

The three forks all come together within a few miles in the Lesterville area, and the river from there to Clearwater Reservoir, a relatively small Corps of Engineers project, is one of the more popular canoeing streams in Missouri, with a number of big campgrounds and canoe rentals in the Lesterville area and below. Like the forks, the river is exceptionally clear, flowing around and through vast gravel bars and along high, wooded hillsides with occasional sheer cliffs. Fishing is good for smallmouth bass and goggle-eye, and sucker “grabbing” (snagging) is very popular.

Clearwater Dam was built for flood control, and while the lake itself at normal pool only inundates 5-6 miles of the river channel, its high water pool is vastly larger, and when full the lake backs water all the way to the Highway K area, ten miles farther upstream. The lake also altered the river downstream. Black River was once dominated by smallmouth bass almost all the way through its Ozark course to Poplar Bluff, but the water coming off the upper levels of the lake, warm in the summer and much murkier than the river once was, made the lower stretches more favorable for spotted bass. Smallmouth are still present, but make up a minor portion of the river’s bass populations.

The lower river is much slower, and flows through a wide, flat valley between relatively low hills. Sheer bluffs are infrequent and the river is more incised within its alluvial banks, so gravel bars are fewer and smaller than the huge bars above the lake. Homes and cabins line the river in some areas, and it is far from remote at any point, being paralleled by highways and railroad tracks over much of its course. It is popular with jetboaters but the only canoe liveries are just below the dam. Much of the lower river is within Mark Twain National Forest, and while most of the bottom land is private, there are a couple of popular National Forest Recreation Areas.

The river leaves the Ozark hills at Poplar Bluff, and below there it is a very slow, winding, murky to muddy lowland stream, flowing on into Arkansas just off the edge of the Ozark uplift, where it picks up the waters of Current River, Eleven Point River, and Spring River before reaching the White River near Newport.

Upper Black River Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 10.08.12 PM

River Levels at Zalma, Missouri

 

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