A Little History
Float fishing was invented, and reached its peak on the
White River and its tributaries. Long before the turn of the
century, natives were known to float down rivers for days in
crude boats then laboriously ple them back upstream. One of
the first and certainly most peculiar float-fishing techniques
was developed in the 1880s.
Giant softwood mills on the Current River (a tributary of the
White via the Black River) floated railroad ties bound together in
joined rafts down the river to rail heads. Fishermen rode along,
standing at the raft's head until it came to a good hole, then
they began casting while lifting their feet up and down at the same
time - like marching in place. The raft slif under then as they
fished and the hole could be worked till they came to the raft's
stern. Some of these rafts were a half mile long, allowing anglers
to fish a hole for a half hour.
In 1904, the Missouri Pacific Railroad laid tract to
Branson, Missouri, ending the area's isolation and
bringing "furriners" (tourists) to the Ozarks. Charlie Barnes
of Galenea, Missouri on the James River, sensed opportunity - in
the form of tourist dollars. Charlie shortened and widened the
traditional Ozark sucker gigging craft, the "redhorse runner,"
to accomodate caming gear and fishermen, inventing the jonboat.
The boats were often called "jackboats" for the iron baskets
of burning "jack pine" they carried to illuminate the water
for nitetime sucker gigging. Eventually jack became john, the
boats allegedly named by the sports writers, Robert Page Lincoln,
who fished with Charlie.
Charlie, Herb, and John Barnes estabilished the region's first
commericial float-fishing operation taking customers from Galena
down the James to Branson on the White River. The 125-mile trips
was said to take five days and cost two dollars for a boat and a
dollar fifty for the guide per day. Charlies boats were loaded
on special railroad cars in Branson and hauled back to Galena
when the float trip was concluded.
In the early 30s, Jim Owen of Branson began outfitting floats
on the James, White and other Ozark rivers. A gifted promoter
and businessman, Jim gained vital publicity for the region
and is business by inviting Outdoor Life fishing
editor, Ray Bergman to the Ozarks for a float. At his peak,
Jim had 40 boats and 35 guides - including the Barnes brothers.
The Owen operation attracted the rich and famous, and could
accomodate practically any indulgence - for a price (by 1955
the base price has soared for $22 a day per person. Celebrities,
including Thomas Hart Benson, Forrest Tucker, Smiley Burnette, and
Gene Autry (who distinguished himself by falling out of a boat),
floated with Jim.
You will hear the terms "high" and "low" water regularly on the
White River System's tailwaters. Low water is the flow coming
through the dams when they are not generating power; roughly
comparable to the rivers' low natural flow. "Dead low" means
generators have been shut down long enough for all the tailwater
to have gone downstream.
"Highwater" means most or all of a dam's generators are running.
Between maximum and minimum flows there are intermediate levels
defined by how many generators are on. Accoring to an engineer
at Table Rock Dam, generators can be operated between 15 and 110 percent
capacity, so flow does not necessarily correspond with numbers of
generators running. The dams also have floodgates at the top that
can be opened in emergencies.
It is a matter of life and death that fishermen understand that
power generation can begin at anytime. The dams sound a blaring
horn when generation or increased generation is imminent. You
can hear the horn if you are near the dams, but otherwise you
must be ever watchful for rising water and always have an
escape route in mind and sight. Experienced tailwater fishermen
monitor the water level on upstream rocks and snags, watch for
debris to appear, feel for increased current, and listen for a
change in the river's sound. At the first sign of a rise they
get out fast.
Wading through and beyond deep water at the low stage is asking
to become as statistic. If the water rises, you will not be able
to wade back through that deep spot. Standing in heavy current
above deep water, and wading downstream into ever-deepening water
with unwadable water on both side, are similarly suicidal.
Each of these fisheries includes significant to vast stretches
of water accessible only by boat, and you cannot effectively fish
high water from shore. Traveling to the White River System and
fishing only the water you can reach from shore is not the best
use of your time and resources.
Ups and Downs
The tailwaters' pools and riffles are a joy to fly-fish at low
water. With good technique, you can catch all the 10- to 15-inch
trout you want, and perhaps some two- to four-pounders dead-drifting
sowbug/scud/nymph patterns or working Woolly Buggers and soft-hackle
flies, but don't expect a bigger one (except during the spawn when
large fish are in shallow water). At low water, big trout are
inclined to sulk in deep pools and not actively feed during the day.
Three-to five-pound fish cruise the shallows and sometimes enter
the riffles at dusk, but the really big ones normally feed at night
or in deeper water.
The frequency and duration of power generation has increased
dramatically over the years. In the past, fly fishermen
fished when the water was low and went home when it came up.
Guides with paying customers don't have this luxury.
Sculpin patterns fished deep sometimes produce big brown trout
in high water. Heavy generation may draw some shad through the
generators and shad patterns can be good near dams.
Tailwater trout are inclined to feed when the water is coming
up, but rising water is often cloudy and carrying debris. The
rise fishes best near the dams where debris is minimal.
Large brown trout are known for feeding at night, and the other
species will also. During summer, when the rivers are pounded by
day and temperatures are severe, night fishing is both comfortable
and exciting. Pick a sale and familiar place to wade, go out
when the water is down (which it usually is on summer nights),
and tie on a big black or olive Wooly Bugger. Trout often cruise
at night. Position yourself in a fishy spot and let them some to
you. If that doesn't work, move.
Other Ozark Possibilities
There are many trout streams and rivers in the Ozarks, including
the spring-fed Current, Eleven Point, Meramec, Niangua, and Spring
rivers. Nearly all Ozark streams provide excellent fly fishing for
smallmouth bass fishing, most have largemouth and spotted bass as
well. The Ozarks' big lakes, including those in the White River
System, are famous for bass, walleyes, stripers, hybrid stripers,
white bass, catfish, and panfish.
People in the Ozarks reflect their low-stress environment.
They are inclined toward fishing when they get a notion and
visiting with strangers. You'll find them to be friendly,
straight forward, and quick to laugh. ~ Scott Richmond
For a MAP of the White River, click
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Credits: From White River, part of the River
Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications.
We greatly appreciate use permission.