Fall brings colorful, quiet floating
by Flip Putthoff
There’s a hint of color in the trees, and the party’s over on the Elk River, now that the crowds are gone after another summer floating season.
This jewel of a stream in McDonald County, Mo., is jammed with canoes, kayaks and inner tubes during summer, especially on weekends. After Labor Day, it’s like someone says a magic word, and the crowds vanish.
The Elk becomes a fisherman’s river again. Solitude and quiet return. Fish are eager to bite.
It’s a long-time tradition for Russ Tonkinson of Rogers and his fishing friend to float the Elk River the Friday after Labor Day. It’s a celebration of getting the river back after leaving it for the revelers between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The Elk forms where Big Sugar and Little Sugar creeks meet at Pineville, Mo. Clear, clean water and pastoral shores are the norm as the stream flows west for some 25 miles. The Elk empties into Grand Lake just across the Oklahoma line.
Weather on this Friday after Labor Day was perfect. Cotton puffs of clouds were on parade across the blue sky over the clear water. Morning dawned cool and afternoon was mild. The Elk’s easy current moved the canoe downstream as if cradled in a gentle, caring hand. Herons squawked. Kingfishers cackled.
The gorgeous water of Ozark streams like the Elk shouldn’t be taken for granted. Paddlers from other states aren’t so lucky. They travel from afar to float the Elk, Buffalo, Kings and other streams to marvel at transparent water.
On this 2019 get-your-river-back float, the bottom of Elk could be seen even in the deepest pools. Put-in was at Big Elk Camp where Big Sugar and Little Sugar creeks meet at Pineville. Take-out was eight miles downstream at the outfitter’s private access. Public access is available at several spots on the Elk and Big Sugar.
Ron Sheldon, a canoe wrangler at Big Elk, was eager to talk about the good fishing this year on the Elk and Big Sugar. Catching and releasing 50 fish, mostly smallmouth bass, is common.
“We’ve got one father and son who are regulars here, and they’ve had 100-fish days,” Sheldon said.
Anglers can catch them deep and shallow. A Whopper Plopper top-water lure is a fish-catching machine, Sheldon testified.
“Black and white is a good color. I like the crawdad color. Blue and white is good,” he coached.
Plastic worms or jig and pigs in crawdad colors get bit by hard-fighting smallmouth bass.
“This year we’ve been fortunate with the rain, so we had good water all summer,” Sheldon said.
Fall weekends get a fair amount of river traffic with folks out to enjoy the autumn color. Teachers and students from outdoor education classes at area high schools float the Elk in September. The river is nature’s classroom where students learn about stream life and protecting these precious waterways.
Tonkinson eyed a flotilla of empty canoes lined up on shore at the put-in. Sheldon said outdoor education students from Rogers High School were expected in an hour. Tonkinson occupied the bow and his buddy paddled in the canoe’s stern as they started downriver.
Ten minutes later, Tonkinson fought his first fish. A dandy largemouth bass gave the fisherman a cold shower when it leaped beside the canoe. A bone-colored Whopper Plopper fooled the 2-pound bass. Smallmouth bass rule the Elk River fishing roost, but largemouth’s grow big here.
Deep pools are the lairs of prowling fish, but Tonkinson caught smallmouths in water six inches deep.
“What’s really amazing is here we are on this beautiful day, and we’re the only ones out here,” the angler mused.
That was about to change. A mile into the trip, the text tone dinged on his friend’s phone. It was from Jeff Belk, Rogers High School outdoor education teacher. It read: “Hey, they told us at Big Elk that you guys just put in ahead of us. We’re putting in now. Got 28 students headed your way. Ha.”
The young paddlers and their teachers would have been welcome, but the flotilla took out farther upriver than us and were never seen.
One thing was different this trip. Dozens of trees were down along the river, some twisted into gnarly shapes and toppled by late August storms. One blocked the river, but carrying the boat around it was no problem.
There’s so much to be loved about floating a river. It’s hypnotic, drifting quietly along on moving water. Most shorelines of the Ozarks’ streams are forested and scenic. Catching fish is almost guaranteed. A gravel-bar lunch in the shade is a grand but simple pleasure.
Tonkinson bit into his sandwich. It’s amazing, he said, for as much traffic as this stream gets in the summer, there’s no litter. At this lunch stop he picked up an old pair of swim goggles, a soda can and stashed them in the canoe. Then it was time for more floating and fishing.
Ah, so good to have the river back again.
Float the Elk
The Elk River and its tributaries, Big Sugar, Little Sugar and Indian creeks, offer superb floating and fishing. Both are Class I streams suitable for beginners.
Public access on Big Sugar includes Deep Ford east of Pineville, Mo. Public access on the Elk River includes U.S. 71B bridge near Pineville, Mount Shira between Pineville and Noel, Mo., and Noel city park in downtown Noel.
Numerous outfitters, campgrounds and private accesses are on all three streams.
Source: Staff report