Sounds on busy float streams like the Elk River and Big Sugar Creek change with the seasons.
The laughter, whoops and hollers of summer crowds give way to welcome quiet as autumn arrives at these two Ozark streams. After Labor Day, paddlers on these two McDonald County, Mo., waterways may not see another soul all day. Only herons and kingfishers glide above the water while fish large and small cruise beneath it.
The solitude and good fishing is what draws Russ Tonkinson of Rogers and his fishing pal to the Elk River every Friday after Labor Day. It’s been a September tradition the anglers have enjoyed for years.
Most years the float is on the Elk River, where hard-fighting smallmouth bass have provided the thrills. The clear river slips quietly away under the hull of their canoe.
It’s been eons since the pair chose Big Sugar for their after Labor Day float. Big Sugar and Little Sugar Creek meet at Pineville, Mo., to form the Elk River. The Elk flows west for some 22 miles before it joins Grand Lake in eastern Oklahoma.
From Bentonville, the drive to Big Sugar or the Elk takes only 15 minutes thanks to the Bella Vista bypass on Interstate 49. That’s half the time it once took. Spirited debate broke out on the drive north. What’s it going to be? Big Sugar or Elk River.
It’s good to shake up a routine sometimes and go for some different gusto. The pair went with Plan B and decided on Big Sugar.
First stop was at Big Elk Floats and Camping in Pineville to arrange a shuttle upstream to their private access on Big Sugar. Owner Pat Tinsley warned us the stream was super low.
“We haven’t put anyone in up there since mid-August,” Tinsley said. That was music to paddlers’ ears. They’d have a creek full of smallmouth bass to themselves, fish that may not have seen a hook in a month.
“You’ll have to walk a lot, but the fishing could be good.”
He wasn’t kidding. A half dozen paddle strokes from the put in, and the pair were wading and pushing the canoe. The shallows deepened quickly and easy current cradled the canoe like a gentle hand carrying the floaters downstream.
Plan B was also to beach the boat now and then and wade-fish the pools. Small-mouth bass immediately took a shine to Tonkinson’s small tube baits, green pumpkin in color. Plan B also led to Plan C for his fishing pal who tried an untested lure — a purple 4-inch plastic lizard.
First cast and whammo! A feisty smallmouth nailed it. By the end of the day the count was some 25 smallmouth bass caught and released. Most were on the small side, but four or so were 12- to 14-inch beauties.
Clean, clear water makes Big Sugar a magical stream that fools the eye. Pools that appear 3 feet deep are actually 6. That becomes apparent when a lure gets snagged and a fisherman wades into the water to pluck it free. Pretty soon he’s up to his naval in Big Sugar.
And if a person is ever talking to the locals in Pineville, he shouldn’t call it Big Sugar Creek. They’ll know “you aren’t from around here.” It’s Big Sugar, period.
That clear water makes it easy to see smallmouth bass, sunfish and sucker fish cruising along the gravel and bedrock bottom. A large turtle swam away underwater as the canoe drifted near. Boulders and timber in the current are ideal fish habitat.
Floating Big Sugar will only get better as October ushers in autumn color. The stream makes a fine fall foliage float — if a little walking is OK.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAFlip.