Along with longtime friend Bryan Delay, I set out on Jacks Fork River, deep in the Ozark Mountains.
This river, along with the Current River, together form the Ozark Scenic Riverways, a national park in southern Missouri, near the Arkansas line. The park is centered by the rivers, but also has hiking, car camping and historic preservation. The locals are as proud of their mountains as we are of ours.
Bryan and I were embarking on a seven-day, 115-mile trip from the upper Jacks River into the Current River and down the Current River to the town of Doniphan, Missouri. The water was a little high for summer, which pushed us downriver faster than we hoped.
See, we had fishing on our mind and didn’t want miss a promising hole. Smallmouth bass were our primary quarry, along with redeye — or rock bass — as they are also known. Bream provided a third option. Other fish would find their way onto our lures — shad, pike and even a few bottom dwelling suckers.
We started at a place known as the Baptism Pool. Church congregations would come from nearby Mountain View to dunk the faithful. A waterfall poured into the river from a side stream. The sun was blaring overhead, feeding the heat, but it felt good to be alive and in the Ozarks.
At this point, the Jacks Fork River was small, but the bluffs rose impressively and the fishing was good — the bream were knocking heads trying to get to our gold spinners. The scenery was worthy of national park status. We stopped at Jam Up Cave above Jacks Fork. Here, a spring spewed icy water from a boulder strewn cavern high on a bluff.
Bryan and I found a good campsite on the sand and gravel bar overlooking bluffs. Most camping on the Jacks Fork and the Current Rivers is done on these gravel bars. The heat of the day dissipated and we cooked steaks over the fire, being too lazy to clean and cook bass. Truth was, neither of us were too deft with a filet knife.
We couldn’t wait to get started the next morning. Downstream, the Jacks ran shallow sometimes and deep sometimes. Bluffs continued. The river flow increased once we passed Alley Spring. The fishing dropped off too. It was time to get a campsite.
Bryan wondered if the superior fishing was a one-day fluke. The next day we passed through the town of Eminence, Mo., making an ice run at a riverside store, then re-entered the scenic river boundary. The fast water from Alley Spring pushed us all the way into the Current River. Bryan went on a fish-catching frenzy before arriving at the next night campsite. I had experimented with different lures but shamelessly changed back to a gold spinner, which Bryan was using.
We continued down the much larger Current. The Ozark sun was strong and the temperatures were rising. I wore a longsleeve shirt to counter the rays. Despite all the clothes I was wearing I repeatedly jumped in to keep cool, then dried off in the 90-plus degree warmth — between casts for smallmouth bass, bream and redeye.
I guided on down the Current River, slowing at likely spots for bass — near rocky shores, amid fallen trees and around boulders. We stopped at Blue Spring, taking a side trail up to the scenic spot. Cool water! These Ozark springs are no ordinary mountainside trickle, but open maws spewing forth millions of gallons of water per day, quite different from what you might find along our Appalachian Trail.
The days flew by on the river, floating and fishing, camping and fishing, paddling and fishing, telling fish tales at the gravel bar camps under Ozark bluffs and hills, nowhere the size of our mountains, but attractive nonetheless .
Bryan had had good luck spin fishing, so one evening on a gravel bar camp he broke out his fly rod. Seemingly to show off, he slung his line into the still aqua and came up with a bream. I then began audaciously casting with my spinning rod, trying to outfish him, especially since fishing is part of my job description.
We passed through another town, Van Buren, and were soon back in the scenic river corridor, where we spotted herons, deer, beavers and even a bald eagle. We took a special side trip to Big Spring, literally one of the biggest in the world. It was a short walk from the river, but well worth it.
The river continued pushing us down toward Doniphan. You know how these things go. After six nights on the river — seeming in the blink of an eye — we arrived in Doniphan, completing our Ozark paddling adventure. For more information about this worthy national park, visit www. nps.gov/ozar.