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Fly Fishing Made Easy in Missouri
St. Louis Stream Adventures
About seven years ago, I started a side-business called St. Louis Stream Adventures. Since I had over thirty years of teaching and fly-fishing experience, I felt comfortable enough combining two of my three passions into one, offering tours and lessons. The Missouri Ozark "Mountains" with their lush green hills and crystal-clear streams provide often overlooked fly-fishing gems.
I had been a teacher and principal for a small school of emotionally troubled teenagers, many with neurological impairments. As you might imagine, that left my own judgement slightly impaired, and I embraced the delusion that I could be a successful hard-core salesman of extra bright fluorescent lights. That lasted about six months before I returned to teaching, this time as an adjunct, a college composition teacher. But I kept my fishing side-business and created AskWriteFish. Generally, ask = presentations and teaching, write = my own writing, and fish = St. Louis Stream Adventures, fly-fishing tours and lessons. As may seem obvious, this article focuses on "fish."
The concept is simple. Fly-fishing does not need to be intimidating. You can learn to cast while you are catching fish and catching fish makes learning fast and fun. Wading clear streams in the Missouri Ozarks, you can almost be guaranteed a fish on a fly rod. St. Louis Stream Adventures was featured in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, The Current News, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Everybody assumes that a fly-fisherman has to be a total maniac, go after only trout, invest in all the waders and major equipment, and tie your own flies. I don’t agree with that thinking. You can stand in a stream, enjoy nature and relish the experience. I want to keep it simple."
My website encourages St. Louis "tourists" to try something different from sitting around the hotel pool, or visiting the arch with relatives, or eating too much Italian food on the hill... again. The city is great, but why neglect the surrounding countryside? While I thought this made sense, almost all of my clients to date live in the area, and they are astonished at the fantastic fly-fishing adventures within an hours drive of their home city. They often assumed that fly-fishing meant catching only trout at remote parks at least three hours out of town. Many stood shoulder to shoulder with other fanatics on opening day of trout season. Others have gone on fly-fishing trips thousands of miles away, only to catch a few here and there. However, with St. Louis Stream Adventures, they caught plenty of fish on a cheap fly rod with cheap gear. Travels expenses were also diminished a bit.
I realize this article is starting to sound like an advertisement, so I’d better shift gears. Besides my website states clearly that I am "no longer giving lessons or guiding unless you are a former client or can talk me into it." My intent is to provide simple information for you to enjoy fly-fishing without the hassle.
Sunfish, Scrappy Bluegill, and Big Smallmouth
First, you must accept that you do not need to catch trout. A smallmouth bass is as good as a trout any day. In fact, even a small sunfish or bluegill on a fly rod can be lots of fun. My brother, who lives and fishes in Wyoming comes back to Missouri specifically to catch sunfish, bluegill, and smallmouth. Of course, when I go to Wyoming, I catch lots of rainbows, brookies, and browns. So while there are trout in Missouri, why spend lots of money and time trying to catch them when smallmouth are nearby, accessible, and voracious.
Smallmouth are slow growing fish, and can take about five years to reach 12 inches. The Missouri Conservation Department usually sets that as the minimum size. However, I practice catch-and-release for all fish. They are returned to the stream unharmed. It’s the right thing to do. No limit. And it makes me feel spiritually in tune with the fish. One with my catch. One with nature and the natural stream flow. Besides, I have an aversion (as should you) to carrying rotting fish back to a hotel, or on an airplane, or into your significant other’s kitchen. I’ve tried this technique and recommend against it.
However, I do take pictures and usually keep them. If you look closely at the photos in this article, you’ll notice the proper way to extend the fish forward toward the camera lens, making sure the fish appears as big as it felt when you caught it. Some might say this was "cheating," but I disagree. It’s like taking pictures of mountains. No way a camera shot can capture the immensity of the experience. (A fish the size of your middle finger can hit top water as voraciously as any Minnesota walleye.) I recommend disposable cameras, just in case they fall in the water, which has happened to me once or twice.
You don’t need lots of equipment. And certainly not expensive equipment. For example, I usually take my cheap fly rod and vest with me when I travel. One time, when visiting Denver relatives, but not intending to fish, my brother-in-law, my son and I were able to break away and visit the world-renowned Platte River about an hour or two outside Denver. We wore shorts and T-shirts, and were equipped with my fly rod and vest, and a few beers. We stopped at the local fly shop, and I asked what they were hitting on. I bought a handful of dry flies and tied one on to my frayed and knotted leader line. No tapered or invisible leader, no flotation devices, no patience to tie on new line. We drove along the Platte until we came to an area where private water gushed under a fence into the public fishing area. As soon as we stopped, another guide drove by and asked if we were going to fish there. I knew we were in the right spot, even before he asked, but it was nice of him to be so reassuring.
The three of us descended into the swift cold current and stood near the fence. About a hundred yards downstream, a fly-fisherman decked out with chest high waders, wide-brimmed hat and net bobbing in the current attached to his bulging vest, kept staring at us. His fly rod probably cost close to a thousand. And while I am a fisherman and therefore prone to exaggeration, I swear the guy was adorned with about ten to fifteen thousand dollars worth of fancy equipment. Between my son, brother-in-law and me, we had about $150 worth, not including the beer. I cast and immediately caught a nice trout. I cast again and got another one. I handed the rod to my brother-in-law and popped open my beer, and he caught one also. He opened his beer and gave the cheap rod to my son who hooked into one but didn’t land it. The guy with the expensive equipment was practically jumping out of his waders. Likely, I was committing a breach of wealthy person’s fancy fly-fishing etiquette. This might have been comparable to me wading in upstream to a favorite spot in Missouri only to find a bunch of drunk toothless and tattooed "Ozark Mermaids" with a bucket of worms and cane poles. So... you do not need expensive equipment. Also, fish tend to hit better in areas that are not over-fished, usually private. Some of my best Missouri fishing occurs on private water. But, speaking from first hand experience, I can tell you that it is not a good idea to trespass. Most landowners don’t mind you fly-fishing their streams, but only if you ask for permission first.
In Missouri, a guy in chest-high waders, sweating profusely, lumbered across the gravel stream bank and stood staring at me in my shorts and T-shirt. It was 95 degrees and humid. As if he had to ask, he wanted to know why I didn’t use waders. I responded by asking him if he was hot. After a lengthy silence, he said he was leaving his waders home next time. I always wade wet. And at the end of the day swim with the fish. Then I change into dry clothes for the drive home. I fish May through October. May is after all mental health month. Even in the high country of Wyoming, we wade wet, only we wear blue jeans because the underbrush is much less forgiving and so are the rattlesnakes. Missouri water snakes and water moccasins are easy to spot and avoid, and seem less venomous than Wyoming rattlers.
Your Cheap Fly Fishing Equipment
If you are going to wade and learn to fly fish in Missouri’s small streams, wear shorts and T-shirt, and old running shoes or tennis shoes with socks to help keep the rocks out. You can buy a fly rod at Wal-Mart for as cheap as fifteen dollars, and a reel for a comparable price. Sometimes you can get both for about twenty dollars. (You can also go to askwritefish for some links if you like. It’s good equipment but is listed for more than twenty.) I recommend a vest (works well for carrying beer too). They can be as cheap as fifteen to twenty dollars as well. You will need fly line, leader line, which is merely regular fishing line, 6-lb weight will do, and poppers. You can have everything you need for under a hundred bucks.
For small Missouri streams, I recommend a lightweight 7ft to 8ft length rod. I know all sorts of experts and fly-fishing sites tell you to get a 9ft rod. Sure, go ahead, but it’ll cost you more, and it will weigh more. You will probably be able to make longer casts, but you won’t necessarily cast more accurately. You will catch lots of trees. I frankly have forgotten the length of my rod, but it’s not nine feet. And I know it works just fine. (For those of you with minds tending toward the gutter, I don’t know the length of my other rod either, and it works just fine as well.)
Regarding fly line, you only have to make sure you are getting floating fly line in a weight that matches your fly rod. This is easy enough. Just look at the numbers on the fly rod and reel and make sure they match the numbers on the line. While the color makes no difference to the fish, it might be important to you. My hot pink floating fly line made for some interesting jokes. Tying the regular six-pound leader line onto your hot pink line may provide your biggest challenge. I recommend what I think is a nail-less nail knot. (Of course, it could go by other names.) I remember watching my brother pulling a nail out of his vest and wrapping the line around it. He did that for years, and that seemed pretty hilarious to me. Eventually he lost the nail. Literally. Then he wondered why he didn’t go nail-less long ago.
To determine the length of the leader line, I usually pull out two arms length of leader line, holding my arms out as if being crucified. (Some would say fly-fishing is a form of religious ritual. It can be I suppose but doesn’t have to be. Even heathens like you can practice it.) To tie on the popper, I recommend what I mistakenly call a blood knot, which is technically for tying two lines together. The correct name is likely a clinch knot. I’d give you all sort of knot diagrams, but I find it way too easy to get all knotted up in them for no good reason. You need to learn two fly fishing knots. That’s it. One for tying your leader line to your fly line and one for tying your popper on. Just make sure you learn them well, because you don’t want them coming undone while your hauling in your lunker of a lifetime.
I use mainly yellow to yellow-green poppers. Do not worry about "matching the hatch." Work on your cast and presentation instead. Popper size can be confusing. I believe mine are size 12 poppers. The hook rating size system in fishing is about as clear as Mississippi mud. However, generally the higher the number, the smaller the hook. (Like lots of things, it’s backwards, isn’t it?) I don’t ascribe to the big hook means big fish mentality. Use smaller poppers, and try to catch even the smallest sunfish. If you get used to catching the small ones, you won’t miss the big ones. Big smallmouth will hit small poppers. Small fish will hit big poppers, but won’t be able to fit it into their mouth. Small poppers mean more fish. More fish means more experience, more fine-tuning of your cast, and a higher probability that you will catch your big fish. And poppers are strictly top-water. You get the joy of seeing the fish hit, sucking the bug from the surface, leaping out of the water with the popper in its mouth, all the joys that far exceed a bland tug from beneath the surface.
So you have your shorts, T-shirt, old beat up running shoes, cheap vest, fly rod and reel, fly line, leader line, and poppers. You also might want to dig out those old roach clips you saved from when you didn’t smoke all that dope in college. Occasionally, you need to become a surgeon and remove a swallowed popper. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. There’s nothing more disappointing than seeing a nice fish that just gave you a wonderful experience now bobbing upside down in a back current. Also, use nail clippers. Not necessarily for trimming your toenails while on a gravel road, even though that’s better than leaving toenails on the bathroom floor and listening to your spouse grouse about it. You want the clippers to trim excess line. On rare occasions, when you fail to surgically remove the hook, you need to clip the line. This old fishing truism seems to be accurate -- a hook will dissolve and the fish will survive. In any case, ripping the hook out will only assure that your beautiful fish will float belly-up. Make sure you tie your clip and your clippers to your vest. Finding them in a current or on an amber-stone bottom isn’t as easy as you might think.
St. Louis Area Streams
So you have your equipment. Where do you go? Of course, I’m not going to reveal places where I’ve established good relationships with private landowners. But the Missouri Conservation Department and Missouri Smallmouth Alliance can help you. They have made great strides and protecting and expanding the smallmouth population. When you visit conservation areas, please practice catch-and-release. If you absolutely must take a fish or two, make sure it meets the limit in size and quantity.
Near St. Louis, the Mineral Fork flows into the Big River, and it is accessible through the Kingston Access conservation area. As with all these wading streams, if they seem crowded at first, wade around the bend and more often than not you will find seclusion, sparkling clear water, deep holes, and good fishing. The Conservation Department website will reveal other access points on streams and rivers near St. Louis -- the Meramec, Bourbeuse, Gasconade, and Huzzah and Courtois Creeks, all of which have great smallmouth populations.
If you’re interested in floating and fishing, I recommend the shortest possible float. Usually, it is difficult to get one under six miles, but that’s fine if you have all day. You use your canoe to get from one wading spot to another. The Huzzah and Courtois are great for floating and fishing, although not on a weekend, as you will likely get hundreds of partying people doing cannonballs into your fishing holes.
So go! Have fun! You’ll enjoy the gravel roads through beautiful Ozark country, and when you eventually find the stream, you will be thrilled to feel the cool current rushing around you, especially when it’s humid and hot outside. You might cast repeatedly trying to catch a tiny sunfish while hungry smallmouth are lurking around the bend. But no matter. By the time you present your popper to the smallmouth, you’ve had some practice, you’ve caught a few bluegill, and you’re ready.