I’ve floated past the Bunker Hill Retreat, located at the end of State Highway O fourteen miles northeast of Mountain View, numerous times on my way to either Bay Creek or Alley Spring.
I’d fish my way past the gravel bar which stretches well over a hundred yards of their riverfront, glancing over my left shoulder at the tidy, dark brown and green wooden cabins on the shady hillside and envying the members of the Missouri State Teachers Association who had the privilege of staying there.
The Bunker Hill Resort’s been there in one shape or another since 1929 and its 2,080 acres have been owned, operated, and so I thought, only accessible to members of the Missouri State Teachers Association and their families since 1947.
My buddy, Tim Kirchhoff, surprised the heck out of me late last fall when he mentioned that he’d discovered that Bunker Hill, which is now a non-profit resort run by the Friends of Bunker Hill, had been open to the public since 2013 and “…wouldn’t it be great for the Missouri Smallmouth Alliance (MSA) to hold an outing there in May?”
I didn’t take any convincing and we picked the weekend of Friday, May 15, through Sunday, May 17, and dubbed it our inaugural Spring Opener on the Jacks.
I’ve helped plan enough outings to not get too worked up about every little possibility but this was a new destination and it posed some unique logistical hurdles.
First, the Bunker Hill retreat isn’t a canoe livery or an outfitter and they don’t shuttle vehicles or rent watercraft. Well, we figured that many of us have enough watercraft to start our own small livery and we do a fair amount of self-shuttling at our outings anyway. We would most likely have enough guys with trucks and racks so this was really no big deal.
Second, in order to take full advantage of the meals which are part of your weekend package, we wouldn’t be getting on the river at the break of dawn and would have to be back by 5:30 for dinner. Well, it was going to be the middle of May and we figured the smallies weren’t going to be as active early and late as they would be in the heat of summer.
As for eating, most of us could stand to push away from the dinner table a little quicker anyway. Watercraft, check. Shuttle service, check. Food, check.
Last but not least, where do you fish? If a guy wanted to stay close to camp he could wade as far up and downstream as he felt comfortable. The Rymers access is less than a mile upstream and driving upstream to the Prongs wouldn’t take too much time and he’d most likely find some good wade fishing options up there if the water levels were right.
As for floats we figured we had at least four viable options that wouldn’t require ridiculously long shuttles. Starting farthest upstream you have the float from the South Prong Access 6.8 miles down to the Buck Hollow access. This is an easy shuttle if you are self-shuttling.
You then have the float from Buck Hollow 10.3 miles down to Bunker Hill. We figured one of us could drive the guys back to their truck after dinner.
You then have the float right there from Bunker Hill 8.1 miles down to Bay Creek. The put in is easy peasy but you should figure on at least a 40-minute drive each way for that shuttle (or longer if you prefer a more laid-back drive in order to soak in all the sights and sounds).
And, last but not least, you have the option of floating from Bay Creek 5.8 miles down to Alley Spring. Again, one of the few things which Greg and Mary Howell, who are Bunker Hill’s very gracious and outgoing caretakers, do not offer their guests is a shuttle service or canoe or kayak rentals so you must plan accordingly.
This winter seemed to drag on forever but May 15 finally arrived. I knew there were going to be 10 other MSA members fishing that weekend, including my buddy Dan Kreher who spent Thursday night at the Blue Spring Access and was fishing his way down to Bunker Hill on Friday, and I was chomping at the bit to go!
I had to work a half-day and was hustling as fast as I could to get home, change clothes and load my canoe and gear into my truck as fast as I could in the pouring rain. I finally hit the road about 3 p.m. and was promptly snarled in a traffic jam at the I-270 and I-44 cloverleaf in St. Louis County, which didn’t finally untangle itself until we were almost to Hwy. 141.
Even with the traffic jam in St. Louis, graduation day traffic in Rolla, a bathroom break, and a stop to buy some fried chicken for dinner it took me just a little over four hours to see the entrance to Bunker Hill Retreat at the end of Hwy. O.
I estimate it would take a little over three hours to get there from Neosho and a little over two hours from Springfield. I was thrilled to finally see the Bunker Hill Retreat sign in front of me and marveled at the nice woods and understory as I drove slowly along the winding, blacktopped, road down to the retreat.
It must take a small army of people to keep the grounds looking as shipshape as they are. Heck, that blacktop is in better shape than my street at home! Anyway, I figured I was there just in time to meet my buddy Dan and take him back to his truck.
It turns out that he and one of the guys were already on the road back to Blue Spring but I didn’t learn that till later as you pretty much run out of cell service when you make your descent to the retreat (which is a bonus as far as I’m concerned!).
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I saw three people talking as I drove up. One of the big guys walked over, shook my hand and introduced himself as Greg Howell. I greeted him and he told me that they’d assigned cabins six and seven to the Smallmouth Alliance group and that I should just unload and relax. I could check in first thing after breakfast on Saturday. I never had a room key to worry about all weekend!
So I hopped back in my truck and drove down the blacktopped lane. As I rounded the corner I spotted some of my guys lounging and grilling in front of some cabins. Time for the relaxation to start!
Over fried chicken and beers we figured out where we were going to fish the next day, swapped all sorts of lies, did a bit of night fishing (I just can’t help but throw a black jitterbug if I have the chance at night) and finally hit the sack inside our really nice cabins.
We woke early Saturday morning and began shifting stuff around and staging boats and gear in preparation for the morning’s fishing in the overcast morning light. Dan, Nate, Brad, Mike, Tom and I were going to float down to Bay Creek so we drove three trucks there, left two and were still back in time to hear the bell up at the dining hall ring at 7:30 and call us to a breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, coffee, and orange juice.
After breakfast I checked in, we divvied up the sack lunches which they made for us (chips, apples and a phenomenal sandwich), and we all headed out into the drizzle for what we hoped would be a great day of fishing.
We dragged our canoes and kayaks downstream, Jim and Jim headed upstream, and Tim, Bob and John headed out to explore and wade fish. It rained off and on throughout the day.
It apparently rained much more upstream as we would learn later that evening but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm or success and we all caught and released some really nice smallmouth, which are Missouri’s preeminent game fish, and goggle eye.
The Jacks Fork from Hwy. 17 to Hwy. 106 is a special management area and during the open season for black bass, which lasts from May 23 to February 29, 2016, anglers can only legally keep one smallmouth which is at least 18” long.
Smallmouth bass are really the jewel in our Missouri gamefish crown. If you love fishing for smallmouth the way I do, please release them to fight another day.
After about eight hours on the water we reached Bay Creek, loaded up our boats and gear and made it back in time for a delicious dinner of smoked pork, scalloped potatoes, corn muffins, green beans, iced tea and cobbler. After dinner we swapped tales about the day, enjoyed a few adult beverages, fished some more and watched the river rise.
The morning’s first light revealed a river which had risen at least a foot and was pretty darn dingy, though it seemed like it was clearing. All of the guys who ventured upstream were caught in a torrential downpour and Jim and Jeff ran into a couple who said that the river at the Prongs was running high and muddy.
All of us were pretty much resigned to just heading home but Dan, Nate, Brad, Mike, Tom and I decided to head to Buck Hollow and take a gander. The river was definitely up but didn’t look too muddy.
After hemming and hawing for a few minutes we decided that I would leave my truck at Buck Hollow and we would drive up to the South Prongs Access and see what we would see. If the river didn’t look floatable, it was an easy drive back down to Buck.
Well, the river looked pretty darn good. We took a few minutes and posted one of our informational signs on the MDC sign at the parking lot and then unloaded our canoes and gear.
As I slowly crawled my way through a couple of willow and sycamore jungles close to the put-in, I wondered just why I was floating but then enjoyed several hours of fairly decent fishing and some really sporty paddling. At one point I had to pull over and empty at least 3 gallons of water out of my solo canoe which had splashed in as I splashed and crashed my way through rapids.
When I finally made it home that night I took a look at the USGS gauge at Mountain View and saw that overnight the river had risen nearly three feet, fallen then risen again during the course of the day. While it normally flows about 200 or so CFS at that time of year, it was flowing between 600 and 700 that Sunday afternoon!
When you’re paddling in swift water you definitely want to wear your life jacket and stay pretty close to each other when you’re making your way through rapids. Don’t bunch up, eddy out at the bottom of the run and wait for your partners to make their way through.
All in all that was a phenomenal weekend and we’re planning on holding another event at the Bunker Hill Retreat next May.
I would highly recommend it as a destination for anyone who is looking for a comfortable and affordable place to slow down and enjoy some great hospitality in one of the most beautiful areas of our Missouri Ozarks.
By Matt Wier
If you want to spend time in a place where you step back from the hustle and bustle of modern life, and take time to see the beauty all around you, check out Bunker Hill Retreat at www.bunkerhillretreat.com.