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Stream's golden silence: Peace, solitude return to river during fall

by Flip Putthoff | October 19, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Fall is quiet time on the Elk River near Pineville, Mo. Summer crowds of floaters are gone, but the water is warm and the smallmouth bass fishing is good as the leaves begin to show autumn color. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Magical ribbons of clear water course through the Ozarks hill country. One of these shimmering gems is the Elk River in southwest Missouri as it flows westward past wooded shores and pastoral countryside.

It's no wonder crowds of river floaters pack the Elk River in Missouri between Pineville and Noel on summer weekends. The boisterous crowds vanish after Labor Day, the unofficial start of fall. Quiet and solitude return to this lovely stream.

Trees lining the Elk show hints of color starting in September. Smallmouth bass are eager to bite. It's like a new season on the stream, one that brings floaters like Russ Tonkison of Rogers back to the Elk.

For years it's been a tradition for Tonkinson and his fishing buddy to take an annual canoe trip on the Elk River the Friday after Labor Day. This year's trip Sept. 10 found the stream at a lower level than they'd ever floated it.

Low flow didn't stop the pair from bumping their way downstream from Big Elk Floats and Camping at Pineville to the outfitter's private take-out eight miles downstream. An osprey was their escort for about a mile along the way.

The fish-eating raptor seemed fond of flying downstream a spell, landing in a shoreline tree, then taking off again as the canoe approached. A bald eagle stayed put on a lofty branch as gentle current carried the boat on past. Paddlers beheld. kingfishers and scores of herons.

Smallmouth bass waited to ambush prey, or Tonkinson's fishing lures, from underwater lairs of boulders and fallen trees. Rocks, wood and the stream's clean water make the Elk one of the Ozarks finest fishing streams, particularly for smallmouth bass.

Largemouth bass, too, fin in the Elk's deep pools along with catfish, Ozark bass and all manner of sunfish. Tonkinson's big fish of the day was a largemouth bass close to three pounds. He welcomed the fish aboard for a photo then set it free.

Most of his catch were smallmouth bass, but not as many as on previous post-Labor Day floats.

"So far it's not been numbers, but good-sized chunky fish," he said one mile into the drift. His catch included some 14- to 16-inch beauties, but even lesser smallmouth bass put up a wicked fight.

On one cast, Tonkinson thought he had a monster on the line. Turned out it was a spunky 14-incher.

"Ah these smallmouths," he said, releasing the fish. "They're just the best."

Tube baits and small jig and pigs drew lots of strikes. The hot lure of the day was a bone-colored Whopper Plopper top-water lure that Tonkinson cast most of the day. On last fall's float, smallmouths ignored his splashy Whopper Plopper. This trip they were eating it up. The fish count was some 30 smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and Ozark bass caught and released by trip's end.

Back at Big Elk outfitters, the pair wondered with owner Pat Tinsley why few folks float the Elk in the fall, which seems a prime season.

"It is, and we still get busy on the weekends," Tinsley said. "Now you've got the fall color and cooler weather, but the water is still warm."

Colorful kayaks outnumber canoes nowadays at float-trip outfitters such as Tinsley's. Kayaks are his customers' boat of choice now. His rental business, Tinsley noted, is about 70% kayaks and 30% canoes.

"There's still some people who like to go in canoes," Tinsley said. That includes Tonkinson and his fishing buddy, both died-in-the-wool canoe guys.

The crowds are gone, but bald eagles, ospreys, good fishing and fall color remain for autumn river enjoyment.

Russ Tonkinson releases a largemouth bass he caught Sept. 10 2021 on the Elk River. Good numbers of smallmouth bass and Ozark bass were caught and released, but largemouth bass grow big in the stream as well.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Russ Tonkinson releases a largemouth bass he caught Sept. 10 2021 on the Elk River. Good numbers of smallmouth bass and Ozark bass were caught and released, but largemouth bass grow big in the stream as well. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
An Elk River largemouth bass swims away Sept. 10 2021 after being released. A Whopper Plopper top-water lure drew strikes from smallmouth and largemouth bass.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
An Elk River largemouth bass swims away Sept. 10 2021 after being released. A Whopper Plopper top-water lure drew strikes from smallmouth and largemouth bass. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Trees and branches in the Elk River are good habitat.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Trees and branches in the Elk River are good habitat. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Elk River flows clear and clean on Sept. 10 2021 downstream from Pineville, Mo.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Elk River flows clear and clean on Sept. 10 2021 downstream from Pineville, Mo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Good lures for fishing the Elk River or any Ozark stream include a Whopper Plopper (from left), buzz bait, Rebel Wee Crawfish, crawling grub and tube bait.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Good lures for fishing the Elk River or any Ozark stream include a Whopper Plopper (from left), buzz bait, Rebel Wee Crawfish, crawling grub and tube bait. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Smallmouth bass were eager to bite on Sept. 10 2021 on the Elk River.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Smallmouth bass were eager to bite on Sept. 10 2021 on the Elk River. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
A smallmouth bass hits Tonkinson's top-water lure on Sept. 10 2021 during an Elk River float trip.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
A smallmouth bass hits Tonkinson's top-water lure on Sept. 10 2021 during an Elk River float trip. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
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Where the rivers flow

The Elk River in the Pineville, Mo., and Noel, Mo. areas can be floated most of the year. Elk River tributaries such as Indian, Big Sugar and Little Sugar creeks make for fine floating.

Public access points and river outfitters are available throughout the Elk River system.

Source: Staff report

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