Floating the ‘dirty old James’

By Loring Bullard

These days, it’s a not-so-dirty little secret. For years, people avoided the James River because they thought it was polluted — “that dirty old James,” they said. 

And to be honest, it’s had its share of problems. But today, the water is pretty darned clean. 

Now the city of Springfield removes phosphorus at the Southwest Wastewater Treatment Plant, which has certainly helped the water clarity. 

Growths of green algae clouding the water and slimy gray strands on bottom rocks are mostly things of the past. 

After low points in the 1960s and 1970s, when fish died and the water smelled funny, the river has much improved. The good fishing is back.

That’s a very good thing. 

The James, after all, earned a reputation as a bass-filled stream back in the 1920s and even earlier. It was a favorite destination for john-boat trips, guided fishing expeditions lasting several days. 

Paying customers climbed into long but stable river-johns and hit the good holes below Galena before merging into the much bigger, mighty White River. 

I float the James a lot these days, since it’s close to home (Springfield) and because it’s often productive. Mostly I fish for smallmouth, but I’m not opposed to largemouth or goggle-eye on the line. 

Some things have changed. Where my predecessors fished from wooden or aluminum john-boats, I use a lightweight plastic canoe. 

Where they slept on bulky rubberized mattresses in heavy canvas tents, I crawl into a polymer-filled bag in a light nylon tent covered by a rain-repellent fly. 

But aside from that, the experience is much the same — we all get excited when wrestling a muscular brownie in the swift current of the James.

As opposed to the john-boaters of old, I mostly float the James River above Galena. Today, the water of the James is backed up not far below Galena in Table Rock Lake. 

In fact, I mostly float the James either high up, above Springfield, or low down, below Shelvin’ Rock. Near Springfield and Nixa, the scenery is a bit too “urban” for my tastes — with homes hugging the river in places, and lots of “keep out” signs. 
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A big problem on the upper river is suitable access. We used to put in at Highway 125 (McCraw’s Ford), but unfortunately that private access has been closed due to vandalism and littering. 

Several “unofficial” accesses have also been closed on the lower river over the years, probably for the same reasons. I can certainly understand why landowners get upset when their property is not respected. 

Obviously, we fishermen and women need to establish and keep good relations with riverside landowners by being careful not to trespass or leave trash or damage property. 

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