I grew up on Big River and have fished it every year for nearly 50 years. During that time, I floated the section from north of Bonne Terre to Blackwell at least once a year, until last year, when I didn't get to it. That stretch has always been one of my favorites, and for many years was my absolute favorite float. I caught my first 4 pound smallmouth on that section. I did my first three day float trip on it. I've had days when I caught well over 100 bass.
I usually put in at St. Francois State Park, and take out at the bridge at Blackwell. It's not an easy float. For one thing, it's LONG. A bit over 14 miles. There are intermediate accesses, but other than the road off the old Hwy. 67 bridge, which is only a mile or so below the park and is a shaky place to leave a car unless you pay to park it at Cherokee Landing there, the other accesses are private and require permission. I usually visit the people who own them once a year or so just to touch base and make sure I still have permission to use them, but I hadn't visited them in two years since I didn't float that stretch last year. The take-out at Blackwell is very problematical...no place anymore to park a car. I always cajol Mary into picking me up at the end of the day when I use it. And it's a long uphill climb to the road as well, and after floating 14 miles, it isn't fun.
I decided last night to do that float today, and I drove to the park this morning. As I was putting in about 8 AM, turkeys were gobbling and mist was rising off the river. It was very clear for Big River, visibility 5 or 6 feet, and flowing strongly, about spring normal. The fishing was slow to begin with; I caught a couple of small bass in the first couple holes, and then hit a dry spell in the next pool or two. The water temp was a bit under 60 degrees thanks to the cool nights we've been having, and the fish weren't very active. I was trying various things, including my homemade Subwalk, Superflukes, a deep-diving crankbait, willow leaf spinnerbait. Nothing was working well, so what the heck, just tie on my homemade spinnerbait and a Sammy and MAKE 'em bite.
That's when the Twilight Zone intruded. I made a cast with the Sammy to a little almost dead water slough at the bottom of a hole, and got a good strike. Smallmouth, and a nice one. But it immediately tangled me on a snag. I paddled over to it and could see it, hooked on the rear hook, the line tangled. I almost reached it when it gave an extra-hard tug and broke the line. Almost. That would be a theme for the day. Because I could see the fish, lure still in its mouth, beneath a little log in about three feet of water. Aha, I thought, I can quietly reach down with my rod tip, and snag the free treble on the lure. Sure enough, it worked...almost. I snagged the treble, got the fish to the surface, reached down to grab it, and the hook came loose from my rod tip. I watched the fish swim off into deep water and a root wad with my high dollar brand new Sammy in its mouth.
Things were looking up, though, on the fishing front. I caught a couple, and then got a terrific strike. Big fish...amazingly, a spotted bass. The spots have pretty well taken over much of this stretch, which is why it's no longer my absolute favorite, but they've never gotten very big. This dude (well, probably dudette) was a good 17.5 to 18 inches, and FAT!
And then the fishing slowed again. I was doing a lot of casting and picking up a strike once in a while. Until the Twilight Zone struck again, a lot worse.
The riffle was a tricky one, but didn't look all that bad. It wouldn't have been if I'd been concentrating on running it instead of trying to stop the canoe in that little eddy to make a cast below. The eddy was just barely upstream from the 4 foot wide gap between the end of the big log and the just starting to grow weedbed, the place I needed to go, so it should have been fine...get into the eddy, then ease out of it and through the gap. Except that the front end of the canoe got over too far into the eddy and caught the shallow weedbed, and of course the back end started to swing around, toward the log. Now things were getting a little more serious. No way I could stop the back end from swinging, so I pushed off the weedbed, planning on shooting the canoe backwards and slightly upstream, and get it lined up to go over the log over toward the root wad end, where it was just enough underwater...except I misjudged my angle and the strength of the current, and somehow got the back end of the canoe against the abruptly dropping bank on the other side, while the front end caught the log. Not good. When you have a canoe sideways to 100 cubic feet per second or so of fast water with both ends anchored, nothing good can come of it. Flipping was just a matter of time, so it was time to bail out before it happened. I was able to exit the canoe into waist deep water that wasn't so strong I couldn't stand, and was able then to stop the canoe from flipping...except it not only took on some water, I somehow, in the confusion, kicked one of my rods overboard, right about that root wad in powerful current 5 feet deep.
I dumped the water out, removed my wallet from my soaked pants pocket, and noticed a horrific smell. I looked around, and there hung in that root wad was a very ripe dead deer. No way I was climbing around on that end of the root wad even if it was possible to see the rod from there. I started to look for the rod. Couldn't see it from the bank. Studied the situation. Figured out I could approach the root wad from downstream, slide the front end of the canoe onto the log at a point where it was just a couple inches under the water, and it would probably hold there while I looked for the rod.
It worked...almost. I could see the gold-colored Prolite Finesse reel, most of the way under the root wad, 4 feet down. I could reach it with a rod tip with a lure snugged up to it. But I should have thought about it a little more. The rod I picked up to snag it was one of my other casting rods with 8 pound test line. I snagged it alright, but when I began to pull my line broke. Now I'd lost a homemade spinnerbait, unless it was still snagged to the reel and I could recover the reel. I did what I should have done in the first place, picked up a spinning rod filled with 6/20 Power Pro braid. You can't break that stuff. Reached down, snagged something...not the reel, a sunken willow limb, and when I dislodged the limb the reel went on under the log. Now I looked just downstream, and could see the rod tip on the other side of the log, with my homemade Subwalk waving in the current. Aha, hook it! I did, with the Power Pro. Should have thought about that a bit more too. Went to pull the lure and rod tip up, and the 8 pound line on the sunken rod broke...and my Subwalk, which does sink, sunk downstream into the next rootwad.
The rod tip was still there. The deer was still stinking. I hooked it (the rod, not the deer, but the current was pushing me closer to the deer) with the Power Pro. It was stuck pretty good. Got it ALMOST up to the surface where I could grab it with my hand. Slipped off. Snagged it again. Slipped off. Canoe came off the log, barely missing the deer. There was a thin limb sticking up that I could grab to hold the canoe for another try. I grabbed, but the current was too strong. Limb slipped out of my fingers, and something on it was sharp and cut two fingers. Now I'm bleeding. Rod tip still visible. Snagged it again, I thought. Nope, a willow limb that it was hung on. Pulled the limb up. Rod comes loose. Rod tip sticks straight up in the air, ALMOST within reach. Starts sinking. I'm draw-stroking frantically to get the canoe within reach. Rod tip is going straight down, ssslllooowwwlllyyyy. I'm stretching out, fingertip touches it...can't grip it. It disappears. Another root wad is just below, in 7 or 8 feet of fast, choppy water. Can't see it anymore. It's gone.
So...I've been trying for it for a good 45 minutes, probably. When you're floating 14 miles in a day, you gotta keep to a schedule, and I'm seriously behind schedule now. There are sections of this float that I always paddle through in order to concentrate on the good parts. Now I have to paddle through a good part. The fishing has gotten bad again. I've lost a $100 reel, a rod that isn't being made anymore and will be difficult to replace, three lures...make that four lures, because somehow I lost my favorite homemade crankbait when I bailed out of the canoe. It was lying in the bottom of the canoe, but it's gone now. I'm a little grumpy.
But it's a beautiful day, and there are lots of interesting things to see. Phlox and bluebells in profusion along the river. hordes of suckers. Big River has more quillback carpsuckers than any other river I've been on, and they are everywhere, but there are also really big redhorse spawning in every good riffle. I'm talking 18-20 inch redhorse. Probably because Big River in this section is ALMOST too small for jetboats, and so it doesn't get gigged much.
There's a big heronry, two huge sycamores full of great blue heron nests. It's been there for many years. There are a bunch of herons on the nest and flying around it.
I see a HUGE fish. Paddle over to get a better look at it in the clear water. It's a grass carp, and probably weighs 30 pounds or more. Several big drum. Never used to see drum on Big River.
Pretty bluffs, which is one of the reasons I love this stretch--it has some pretty places. I'm back to catching a fish now and then, more spotted bass than smallies, but several are really nice ones, 15 inches or a bit bigger. They are really acting dumb. They'd hit the Sammy, barely get hooked, I'd set the hook and the lure would come flying back toward the canoe, and they'd chase it down and whack it right next to the canoe. I see a very big bass chasing some kind of crippled fish, cast to it, it ignores my lures. Keeps chasing the smaller fish, which is flopping and swimming weakly. I paddle over to investigate. It's a largemouth, probably over five pounds, that's after a 12 inch redhorse. The redhorse looks about half-scaled--the bass must have already had it partway down and it got loose. I leave the bass to keep harassing the redhorse, and catch a 15 inch smallie on my next cast.
And so the day gos. The Twilight Zone makes no more appearances for quite a while. Until late in the afternoon, a couple miles above Blackwell, when I hear a motor. A motor? I said this stretch of Big River is ALMOST too small for jetboats, but these people don't think so. The first people I've seen all day, and they have to be in a johnboat with a 30 hp jet motor, buzzing down the river ahead of me.
They stop to fish. I pass them. They ask me if I'm fishing. Yep, not catching much. They say they are slaying the sunperch and goggle-eye. I leave them to it.
Mary is picking me up at 7 PM. It's getting close to 6:30 when the take-out comes in sight. I'm still fishing, and finally get another great strike on the Sammy. Gotta be another spotted bass. Nope, smallie. pretty close to 18 inches. Great way to end the day...but dragging the canoe and gear up that hill isn't so great. I'm sore all over. My fingers are swollen and hurting. Wrists are sore from paddling one-handed and playing Sammies. Realized I forgot to drink anything after lunch--I think I'm dehydrated. Final total for the day, 25 spotted bass, 15 smallies, 8 largemouth. Mediocre for this stretch.
Sure glad Mary showed up on time...ALMOST.