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Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
I guess I’m writing this as an essay about the Bourbeuse the way it was and is, prompted by the recent Bourbeuse threads.
Although I grew up an hour or so away from the Bourbeuse, Big River was my home stream, and I fell in love with the Meramec early on. My first experience with the Bourbeuse was, to say the least, inauspicious. Back in the early 1970s, a buddy and I were interested in floating it, and I happened to be driving fairly close to Noser Mill so I took a detour to look at the river there. It was in May, and the river looked very interesting from the bridge, with strong flow going over the mill dam and murky olive green water. At the time, I knew how to catch smallies in murky water and much preferred it to clear water, so I was looking forward to floating it.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to float it until early in July. We had an overnight float planned for the long stretch from Noser Mill to Reikers Ford, which had no intermediate public accesses. We drove up to the river one July morning, and found the water conditions considerably different. There was just a trickle of water going over the mill dam, and it was very clear. With some misgivings, we put in anyway in a 17 foot aluminum canoe loaded with camping gear. I knew that halfway through the float there was a creek coming in fed by a large spring, so I thought that we’d have to work at it the first day but the second day would be okay.
The river couldn’t have been flowing more than 20 cubic feet per second. At the riffles, the water was aerated and oxygenated (and probably filtered through the gravel riffles) to where it would be clear just below, but as soon as it got into one of the long, very dead pools for which the Bourbeuse is famous, it would simply stagnate and get very brownish and murky. We soon learned that it was a total waste of time fishing those pools (except that I stumbled onto a 20 inch walleye, of all things, in one of them, which hit my homemade spinnerbait right at the surface). And the riffle areas were mostly too shallow to hold fish. I doubt that we caught more than a half dozen bass all day, until we reached where the spring creek comes in. Sure enough, it just about doubled the volume of the river, which still wasn’t much water, but right below it we caught a couple of nice 16 inch smallies. By that time we were tired and the sun was getting low, so we started looking for a gravel bar. There weren’t any. Every potential gravel bar was simply covered with weeds. After paddling a good two more miles, we settled on a tiny, weedy bar just at dark.
Did I say how hot it was? The mosquitoes were horrible, forcing us into the tent, and the inside of the tent was pretty much a sauna. We ate, tried to sleep, sweated. We tried getting out of the tent once it was getting late, hoping the mosquitoes had given up. They hadn’t. We even tried sleeping with most of our bodies in the water, which wasn’t much cooler than the air. Finally about 1 AM we gave up and decided to paddle on to the take-out. At about 4 AM we reached it, and nearly passed it up in the dark–Reikers wasn’t very recognizable from the river when you’ve never been there before.
So after that, it was a few years until I decided to try the Bourbeuse again, around 1978. This time, Bob Todd and I decided to see what the lower end was like. We put in at the Highway 50 bridge in Union, planning to float all the way to the mouth, a 14 mile float. But I hadn’t learned my lesson–we were doing this in July.
Bob wrote in the River Hills Traveler afterward that if you floated 14 miles of the lower end of the Bourbeuse in hot weather, you were an idiot. I don’t remember how many fish we caught, but it wasn’t many and they weren’t big. I don’t think we caught a single bass after we got past the bottom of the Guths Mill dam. And it was hot, and the river was so slow that riffles seemed practically non-existent. I can take heat, but that float was torture.
For some unknown reason, however, I decided to try the Bourbeuse again. There was a guy who ran a little canoe rental in St. Clair who I hired for shuttles on the Meramec around 1979, and he’d told me that the Bourbeuse could be good fishing from Reikers To Mayers and he did shuttles on that section and I should try it. So I did. And found a pretty nice river and very good fishing. I had several nice trips on that stretch that year, catching lots of bass and some pretty nice largemouth. I don’t think I caught any really big smallies, but a lot of them were in the 16-17 inch class.
The next summer there was a doctor who wanted me to take him on a nice float, and I opted for that section of the Bourbeuse. But things were different. The year before the river had kept a pretty decent flow all summer, and there were lots of good areas around the riffles that produced fish. But this summer the river was very low again, and we found the fishing a lot worse. I was a bit dismayed that I’d made the wrong choice for the doctor.
I fished that stretch sporadically for the next few years, having some good trips and some not so good ones. And then I tried the Bourbeuse above Noser. Devils Back Floats was in business by then, and they would shuttle me from Peters Ford to their place. They also told me they could put me in up at Laubinger Ford, seven miles above Peters Ford, and I loved that idea because I knew by now that the secret to fishing the Bourbeuse was to paddle like heck through the long, dead pools and concentrate on the riffle areas. In the seven miles from Peters Ford to Noser Mill there just aren’t enough good riffle areas to last me all day, but by doing the whole 14 miles from Laubinger to Noser I had plenty of riffles to fish.
I caught some very good smallmouth in that stretch in the 1980s. Quite a few 18-19 inchers and a couple of 20 inchers. I still kept trying the lower river below Reikers, and once the stretch from Mayers to Union, but by that time the spotted bass were beginning to have a serious impact on those stretches. I thought that if the Laubinger to Noser stretch was so good, the river upstream should be great as well. I did a long float one summer day from Mill Rock to Laubingers. Again the water was extremely low–and very murky–and the fishing was horrible. I tried farther upstream with pretty much the same results that summer. And that’s about when I almost stopped fishing the Bourbeuse. The lower river had become spotted bass central. The upper river seemed to stay lower than it had before. There just seemed to be better rivers.
Oh, I fished it occasionally. Mainly when the Smallmouth Alliance would hold a spotted bass tournament on it, because I knew I could catch a lot of spotted bass. As I remember, I fished three of the SMA spotted bass roundups and won all three, once by floating from Reikers to Mayers, once from the private access upstream from Reikers, and the last time from Mayers to Union. On that one I actually caught a 20 inch smallie just above Union. I also fished it once from the low water bridge below Hwy. 19 to Tea Access, finding some nice water there, a couple of 18 inch smallies, and an active eagle nest. And I once tried a winter trip above Reikers, but that was before I had much of a clue how to catch winter smallies.
So, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Bourbeuse. But what I’ve learned is that it’s an inconsistent, hit or miss river that can be very good to you or very bad. My advice would be to pick years like this one when there’s been enough rain to keep water levels up. If the water is its usual murky color, visibility 2-3 feet, use crankbaits and spinnerbaits, and really work the areas with current. If it gets a little lower and clearer, think topwaters and long casts to anyplace that has any current at all and enough depth to cover a bass’s back. When you come to the rather rare deep pocket with good current, you might try fishing it thoroughly with a jig and pig or something similar, but don’t waste a lot of time fishing such lures in the deeper, deader pools.
It really, really helps to have a canoe or other watercraft that is fast and easy to paddle, unless you take along a trolling motor, because you need to be getting through the dead water as quickly and easily as possible. I used a trolling motor for several years on the Bourbeuse.
I haven’t fished it in a couple of years. Maybe it has changed. But I’ve always liked the Bourbeuse, even with the bad trips I’ve had. The rewards of a little floated stream can make up for the slowness, the murkiness, and the lack of the kind of spectacular beauty you find on many other Ozark streams. And the fishing CAN be great, even in the lower half where it will be more spotted bass than smallies. The Bourbeuse can befuddle you, but on a good day it will make you wonder why you would want to go somewhere else.