Big River. Seems like an odd name for a stream no larger than it is, but that old river sure has offered many a year of enjoyment.
As a young lad I was introduced to it by climbing a large rock and swinging off a rope tied to a big sycamore, then dropping into the deep hole which was so appropriately named Rockhole.
The month of May has always been eagerly anticipated because it brings the opener of bass season in the streams and the opening of squirrel season, although the weather can be a tad warm so I usually opted for the fish.
Many trips were just a simple wade upstream, tossing a topwater Rapala or tadpole close to a log or rootwad and watching the water explode as a smallmouth went on attack.
Other trips were a nice float giving me access to holes that didn’t see too much activity. One trip in particular was a lesson learned.
Myself and a few buddies decided to go for a 2-day float, bass fishing of the day and catfishing of the night. The only problem was we were focused on the fishing end and nothing else.
We shoved off on a warm morning so we were in shorts and T-shirts, not thinking how cool those old river bottoms get at night. But we were young and resilient so that really didn’t factor into the equation.
We had a nice fire going, as it got late (and cooler) most gave it up and curled up on the bare gravel bar as close as they could get to the fire. Not me!
I was determined I was going to haul old whiskers out that night. Besides, the crackling of the fire and the croaking of the bullfrogs was mesmerizing.
Until I was taught another valuable lesson. I had a couple cans of beanie weanies left as rations so I sat them in the fire to warm up while I fished.
Problem was, at the time I didn’t realize you needed to crack the top open. Well, I found out when they got to the point of exploding!
It was quite a scene with me hopping around the gravel bar feverishly trying to get the scalding beans off my head and at the same time the party that had been slumbering by the fire was in escape mode from the sound of the explosion.
Needless to say, I wasn’t very popular the rest of the trip.
But hungry and tired we finished out the float the next day, although fishing had taken a back seat to reaching our take-out point.
From year to year that river changes from the flooding, what is a gravel bar may be a deep hole 2 years later so it always offers a challenge to finding the right spot.
And the variety of fish is nice — smallmouth bass, Kentucky bass, spotted bass, rock bass (or goggle eye as we call them), all different species of perch along with bullhead, channel cat and flatheads.
Of course there’s the less desirable, such as gar and sucker. It’s also fun to use live bait while wading; nothing like letting a minnow or crawdad drift down under a log and feeling that hard tug to get the adrenaline going.
Another challenge, and a great time, is to use an ultralight setup and some flies. Even a nice size perch puts up a fair struggle and if you hook into a lurking bass you better know how to use the drag system on your reel.
If fishing isn’t on the agenda, it’s always been a nice casual float to take the family on without fear of challenging whitewater. Lined with bluffs that contain several caves, plenty of gravel bars to picnic on and lots of deep holes to cool off along the way.
And if you’re lucky enough you’ll often stumble across an arrowhead the river has turned up on a gravel bar.
The Mississippian Indian tribe traveled and lived along that river in the late 1800’s, so as you drift past those cave entrances it’s not hard to imagine a few of them sitting back with a fire going and fresh meat roasting over it.
And it passes through Washington State Park where many petroglyphs can be found.
Big River starts in Iron County as a trickle close to Council Bluffs lake and ends up meetinging with the Meramac river some 145 miles later.
It is a long, twisting meandering stream, where it flows through St. Francois County, known as the leadbelt. The river was contaminated years ago by mine tailings from the lead mines but most of that has washed away over time and not much trace of it is left.
It doesn’t flow as well as it did years ago, though the mining company kept the mines pumped out years after the mines closed.
The water was pumped into Big River which kept it at a nice level year-round but they eventually shut down the pumps so it is now dependent on Mother Nature.
Don’t be fooled, though, when we get heavy rains that river comes up fast from all the runoff and gets violent. So if you plan on an overnight trip be sure and check the weather forecast prior to going.
It has access points in every county which can be found on the Missouri Conservation Department’s website and Bonne Terre has a canoe rental where you can opt for a canoe, raft or tube.
Big River is not as renowned as Current River, Black River and some of the others but it still has its share of tablefare to offer up.
(Roger Smith lives in Bonne Terre, Mo., and can be reached at email@example.com)