Meramec River

Posted by Al Agnew on September 26th, 2011
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Al Agnew

Ah, where to start on the Meramec?

I’ve floated the entire river from Short Bend to Times Beach. In fact, I floated the whole thing in one trip one time. It took 12 days, and it rained on my friend Clyde and I 8 out of the 12 days. The first two days, down to Maramec Spring, was nice weather and terrific fishing, including several 17-19 inch smallies. Then it rained the second night, Dry Fork turned to mud, and the next two days down to Steelville it was too muddy to fish. It finally started clearing below Steelville and the fishing got good again, and just kept getting better.

I remember catching a 19 incher just below the mouth of the Huzzah, another one above Meramec State Park, and a third one just above St. Clair. We stopped at St. Clair, called Clyde’s uncle, and he came down and delivered us a Pizza Hut pizza. Below St. Clair I caught two smallmouths that were both 21 inches. Then the rains came again, the Bourbeuse got muddy, and below it we couldn’t fish for the rest of the trip.

That was in 1982. At the time, the Meramec was probably the best big smallmouth stream in MO. There was excellent smallie fishing all the way down to Times Beach. I caught some big fish in the Pacific area in those years. Then the spotted bass started showing up, and now smallmouths are a rarity below St. Clair. That stretch from St. Clair to the mouth of the Bourbeuse used to be my favorite stretch of river for big smallies. Bob Todd and I once caught 8 smallmouths between 19 and 21 inches in one day on that section!

One of my two biggest Ozark stream smallmouths came from the Meramec. It was during the height of the controversy over the Meramec Dam, and I’d never floated the stretch that was slated to be buried by the dam, so I figured I’d better check it out. So I put in at Onondaga and did a two day trip to Meramec State Park. The first fish I caught was a 19 inch largemouth, and the first day was pretty much non-stop action, with some very nice fish. I had a huge smallie follow my lure in right under the Campbell Bridge…I can still remember the sight of that fish.

The second day the fishing was slightly slower, but I was fishing my homemade crankbait along a very deep clay bank when this big smallmouth engulfed it. The fish was 21.5 inches and 5 pounds even. Needless to say, after that trip I was VERY active in writing letters against the dam to newspapers and politicians.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the trout water, hiked and climbed Cardiac and Suicide many times, had good days and bad. I even fished this water with Bob Knight, when he was still coaching at Indiana U. He was drifting nymphs through a piece of ugly, log-laced water just above Dry Fork, and getting hung up on every cast. After about the fifth time of snapping off and retying, he turned in disgust to go fish someplace else, and tripped over a submerged limb, falling flat on his face in two feet of water. The air turned blue for several miles up and downstream!

The smallie fishing on the Meramec is a shadow of what it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The spotted bass took over the lower river, and the jet boat traffic took over much of the rest of it. For a while, the jetboat wakes apparently messed up the spawn…I believe the fish weren’t adapted to the wakes and commotion and siltation caused by the advent of jetboats, and the population of smaller fish just dropped to almost nothing for a few years. So for a while there were very few bigger fish, as those year classes went through their life cycle. But the smallies eventually adapted, and the population went back up somewhat. But fishing pressure, and especially the increased gigging due to the convenience of jet boats, still keeps the smallmouth population much lower than it was when I first started fishing it.

But the Meramec is still one of my favorite rivers. Beautiful green water, big bluffs, and smallmouths along with trout, what more can you ask for?

Differences between smallies and trout:

Smallmouths relate a lot more to cover. In the Meramec, cover consists of rocks and logs, along with water willow weedbeds. They will be in gentle to moderate current, not in the faster parts of the riffles like trout. Don’t spend a lot of time in the middle of the big, deep pools, either.

Smallies are much more likely to chase things…dead-drifting is not usually as effective as stripping nymphs and streamers. They also look for bigger bites…you’re usually wasting time fishing anything smaller than a 2 inch long Woolybugger. You might catch some small smallmouths on smaller flies, but usually the dink sunfish beat the smallies to them.

I find smallmouths to be more wary than trout. I can stand in a riffle and catch trout dead-drifting nymphs less than ten feet away. If you’re within 15-20 feet of a good smallmouth, chances are the fish knows you’re there and doesn’t like it.

As for flies/lures…you can’t beat big Woolybuggers weighted and fished near the bottom, big Muddlers fished the same way, big marabou Muddlers fished weightless and stripped just under the surface, and various cork and deer hair poppers. Most of the time that’s about all you really need.

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