Back in April, Missouri Smallmouth Alliance (MSA) member Bobby Wren of Bella Vista, Ark., introduced those attending our monthly meeting in St. Louis to four nice southwest Missouri smallmouth streams: Little Sugar Creek, Big Sugar Creek, Elk River (formed by the confluence of these two creeks) and Indian Creek, a sizable tributary of the Elk.
During his talk, Bobby outlined several possible day floats on these rivers, all within a relatively short drive of one another located near the towns of Pineville and Noel in McDonald County.
Neither Matt Wier nor I had ever fished for the Neosho strain of smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu velox), which live in those watersheds to the west of Springfield which drain toward Kansas and Oklahoma (primarily Spring River, Shoal Creek and those noted above), so we quickly made plans to visit the area in early June in order to tangle with the southwest Missouri bronzebacks.
We like the flexibility of shuttling our own vehicles and watercraft when we can, so we both hit the road on a cloudy, early Sunday, June 12th, in order to meet Bobby at noon at the popular MDC Cowskin Access on the Elk River just a couple of miles above the Oklahoma border. It took us about 4.5 hours to drive from St. Louis down I-44 to Joplin, then south on Hwy. 71/49.
We’d already driven through some heavy rain on the way to the Elk (which wasn’t a bad thing as Bobby kept saying they could use some rain down there). but the river looked great and it wasn’t yet raining. That changed soon after Bobby pulled up next to Dan’s truck in the huge gravel parking lot at the Cowskin Access.
After greeting each other we hopped back into our respective pickups and followed Bobby to Noel (pronounced knoll as in the grassy knoll not No-L as in Merry Christmas) in order to check out some access points upstream.
By the time we reached the campground at the Falls (www.enjoythefalls.com or 417-223-2267), located just outside of Pineville, adjacent to two low dams on Little Sugar, it was raining pretty hard and we needed to check in and set up camp.
After Matt and I met the owner, Rhonda, and checked in, Bobby decided to head the 12 miles back to Bella Vista to wait out the rain at home while Matt and I got situated.
Because it was Sunday afternoon, we had our pick of sites and picked a great spot out on the wooded island right below the lower dam, where we enjoyed the roar from the waterfall on Sunday and Monday nights.
It finally stopped drizzling about 4 p.m., and Bobby met us at camp for a short float on Little Sugar that evening from about 5 until dark. He arranged a shuttle with a local guy he knows who quickly helped us unload our three boats at the low water crossing upstream before bringing the truck back to the campsite.
Little Sugar Creek has an overall gradient of 9 feet per mile on the 8-mile section from the Hwy. 90 bridge at Jane, down to the confluence with Big Sugar at Pineville. It can be a bit dicey in stretches due to deadfalls but a short portage on the gravel bar side is an easy bailout in most instances.
The afternoon’s rain had thankfully brought the creek up a few inches already and the fish seemed fairly active as we headed downstream. Little Sugar was running about 150 CFS, or 3.25 feet, at the Pineville gauge. Fishing turned out to be hit-and-miss for sure with smallies and largemouths taken on a number of baits with no real pattern being determined.
My best fish was a 17-inch largemouth bass taken on a Beaver creature bait while Matt and Bobby each caught 15+ smallies. The best technique seemed to be a small buzzbait fished near timber in fast water. There were many more misses than clean takes using this approach but it was enjoyable.
Soft plastics also took fish here and there in faster runs. This section of Little Sugar includes some twisty riffles and lots of downed timber along with some short bluff holes and shaded, rocky, runs. All in all, it is a pretty nice section of water and a good short float.
We shortened the planned trip to about 4 miles by taking out at dark at an equestrian campground on the river right after receiving special permission from the owner. The Campground at the Falls was another 45 minutes of fishing downstream, according to Bobby.
Bidding farewell to Mr. Wren for the evening, Matt and I enjoyed dinner and cold beers around the campfire as the waters of Little Sugar Creek rushed by on their way to the Elk River.
On Monday morning we left the campground around 7 a.m. in order to fish a nine-mile section of the Elk stretching from the Shadow Lake Dam in Noel downstream to the Cowskin Access where we had met Bobby on Sunday.
Matt and I made the 20-minute drive from the put-in at the Noel ballpark down to the takeout and dropped his truck before heading back east. McDonald County proclaims itself the “Poultry Capitol of Missouri” and you drive past a number of poultry processing plants on the way back upstream.
Once you get back to the ball field just outside of Noel, you have a very short carry downhill from the parking lot. This appears to be a good spot for wading anglers as well, given the fast rocky run found below the dam a short ways upriver.
The Elk was up just a bit and running strong with that good fishy color as we launched about 8:30. Action was strong right off the bat on shallow cranks and plastics. With so much great looking habitat and aggressive fish, it seemed that a bass might hit on every cast. They did not, of course, but the fast action kept us on our toes nonetheless.
The Elk River features excellent smallmouth water in this splendid section. You’ll find wide riffles, narrow chutes in places, water willow-lined pockets, and attractive bluff holes. We really didn’t find many areas we’d call dead water on this stretch and we caught fish throughout the day.
In total we tangled with about 100 smallmouth and a few largemouths between us, with the largest smallmouth measuring 17 inches. The Baby One Minus shallow crank along with a topwater frog (the Ribbet Frog soft plastic type with the legs that make it work like a buzzbait) were my two most productive baits while Matt used a variety of lures to take his fish.
A four-pound drum, briefly mistaken for a lunker Neosho, was the highlight of the trip. This was one of numerous large drum and carp seen finning in the shallows on this stretch. A bowfisherman’s delight perhaps?
The Elk, formed by the confluence of Big and Little Sugar creeks, is a popular river with recreational floaters coming from Joplin, Springfield, NE Oklahoma, and NW Arkansas. In the 11-mile section from Pineville down to Shadow Lake, there are well over a half-dozen canoe outfitters and campgrounds catering to weekend warriors.
That Monday morning, however, the river was delightfully floater free. In fact, we encountered no other fishermen or floaters that day. We did find the expected congregation of local young adults swimming and enjoying some cold ones near the public access as we took out at Cowskin about 5:30.
My conversation with one well-wisher on hand ended with this odd advice, “Now remember this… Boomer Sooner!”
Are we still in Missouri? I inquired with a laugh.
“Barely” he replied.
Below the Cowskin Access, the Elk runs unimpeded for just a few more miles before its waters are stilled by Grand Lake of the Cherokees across the border in Oklahoma. Based on our experience, the stretch Bobby selected for us that day is certainly prime.
The Elk has a gradient of about 5-6 feet per mile from Shadow Lake Dam on down with no real difficult water to navigate. It is generally 75-100 feet across in most spots with large gravel bars available for camping. Only a few houses are found here and there along this stretch.
The USFS gauge at the 49 bridge (near Tiff City on the website) was running at about 400+ CFS, or 3.6 feet, the day of our float following an inch of rain in the area on Sunday. It could be easily floated and fished six inches or more below this level with little trouble.
Driving back to the put-in we gave Bobby the good report from the Elk and he seemed pleased. He had already made some calls on our behalf to Sugar Island Canoe (www.sugarislandcanoe.com or 417-223-4410) on Big Sugar Creek and they agreed to shuttle our truck from the Cyclone low water bridge for a 10-mile float back to their place for just $20. What a deal!
We awoke early on a clear and cool Tuesday morning in order to eat breakfast and prep our gear for our Big Sugar adventure. When we reached Sugar Island Campground, just 20 minutes after leaving our campground, we had to roust our drowsy young hoss of an outfitter from his slumber in his shop.
The three of us then hopped into Matt’s truck and began the drive up the pretty creek valley toward the put-in. The plan was to drop us off with our two solo canoes up at the Cyclone low water bridge and the driver would then take Matt’s truck back to Sugar Island.
The several homeowners around the Cyclone bridge don’t abide local revelers either, meaning that it’s a no-no to park your vehicle on either side of the creek and hit the swimming hole found below the slab. So, you’ll either need to use someone like Sugar Island for your shuttle or have your logistics all worked out with a separate driver to put in there.
The community of Cyclone got its name from a tornado which destroyed everything in its path as it swept through the area in 1883. You’ll see some remaining hardware from the Cyclone Mill just upstream of the bridge. There used to be a canoe rental/campground up here as well but frequent flash floods eventually ran them out.
Big Sugar is an exceptionally clear and attractive stream. We found great mixed habitat along with deceptively deep and emerald green pools which held significant numbers of nice-sized smallmouth and largemouth bass.
In fact, we may have seen more 15-18 inch bass on this creek than just about anywhere else I can remember. Unfortunately, those larger fish could also see us and did not seem interested in taking our offerings that day.
We did, however, land lots of nice fish up to about 16+ inches mostly on soft plastics like flukes and paddle tails around downed timber with the current. I caught about 60 fish and Matt landed nearly as many during the course of our float.
It seems that this section isn’t hit very hard on weekdays as we encountered just one other canoe of fairly inexperienced stream fishermen on this stretch.
We met a few other recreational floaters after we floated past another campground, Matt’s Big Rock, located about midway on our float. It seemed the fishing was better in the first half of the float with generally better smallmouth habitat as Bobby had informed us earlier.
The creek was running fairly low on this trip at about 50 CFS up at the Powell low water bridge where the USFS gauge is found. At that level, we had minimal problems floating our lightly loaded solo canoes but you wouldn’t want to tackle it much below this level, in my opinion, unless you are prepared to do some dragging in the riffles.
Big Sugar is floatable, on average, for about 24 miles. Cyclone, located at mile 14.6, is probably the most viable put-in during normal water conditions. Its gradient is about 7 feet per mile.
Many of the faster water sections run through a maze of downed sycamores and silver maples. Thankfully, local outfitters do a nice job of cleaning up following flash floods so we didn’t have any difficulty negotiating these areas on our trip.
There are a couple other public access points, including the MDC’s Deep Ford access and a bridge crossing a bit downstream from there, along this reach as well. The creek also winds through the recently created Big Sugar Creek State Park on the river’s right, although no developed stream access is available yet.
Big Sugar ends about 2 miles below Sugar Island before hitting the next public access at the City of Pineville access at the Hwy. 71 bridge crossing where it makes its confluence with the Elk.
I’d like to hit the Big Sugar again after a cloudy rise in the creek or perhaps earlier in the spring when those larger fish present would likely be out on the prowl a bit more. You could have quite a day if you hit it right.
Well, how about those Neosho strain smallmouths? While their physical appearance was quite similar to Eastern Ozark bronzebacks, I did note a few slight differences.
One, they seemed longer and more slender in stature than, say, fish on the Meramec or Gasconade Rivers; not unlike smallies you might find in the White River drainage (Buffalo, Kings, etc.).
Two, the lower jaws of the Neoshos seemed to come almost to a point and jutted out with somewhat of an underbite, giving them the appearance of someone who dares you to “take your best shot, buddy” aligning with their feisty nature.
Lastly, and most importantly, they displayed a propensity to leap at boat-side after crazy, haphazard runs. Their power and speed belied their stature. To illustrate, on an exceptionally long cast to a timbered pocket, a nice specimen inhaled my Super Fluke then raced some twenty feet toward mid-river to hang me on a sunken log before my 7-to-1 gear ratio spinning reel could take up enough line to stop him.
I would have liked to have at least seen that one. Fish get big for a reason, I suppose. Other tussles with these bronze warriors ended in hook tossing leaps that left us both hooting and hollering.
Overall, Matt and I had a great trip exploring this corner of the Ozarks and will definitely be back again in 2017. We didn’t even get to hit Indian Creek yet. Our sincere thanks to Bobby Wren for taking care of us on this trip.
A final note: Elk River, from its beginnings in Pineville to the Oklahoma border, is managed under special regulations which require all black bass less than 15 inches in length to be released with a daily possession limit of two bass in total. This includes smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass.
The other rivers in this area are managed under the statewide 12” minimum length/6 fish creel limit.
By Dan Kreher