Elk River paddlers bask in peace after busy summer.
Most times a few cranks of the reel brings a fish to the boat. Sometimes you’ve got to jump in the water and grab ‘em.
A little log jam wasn’t going to weasel Russ Tonkinson out of the trophy smallmouth bass on the end of his fishing line. The angler from Rogers was having a field day with the smallmouths on the Elk River, a ribbon of clear water in McDonald County, Mo.
His top-water lure drew strikes so hard they were almost scary.
A mile into a seven-mile float trip, Tonkinson lobbed his trusty Whopper Plopper surface plug over a tree trunk in the stream. Plop in went, splashing down in a pool no larger than a canoe. A smallmouth nabbed it in a nanosecond.
Water transparent as glass let Tonkinson see this was one big smallmouth on the other side of the tree. No way was he going to hoist it over the timber and risk losing a big fish and his prized lure.
Tonkison bounded feet first out of the canoe and jogged through knee-deep current. At the tree, he leaned over, put a death grip on the fish’s lower lip and hoisted his trophy into the air.
“That’s the biggest explosion I’ve ever had on a top-water,” Tonkinson hollered. “They way he hit, you’d think it was a three-pounder.”
Not quite, but a big Elk River smallmouth nonetheless. Tonkinson whipped out a dollar bill to measure. A dollar bill, or a 20 for that matter, is 6 inches long. This brute measured a dollar bill times two, plus change — a solid 14 inches.
An end of summer float on the stream is a tradition, welcoming the Elk River’s return as a fishing river in September. The partying crowd vanishes from the river after Labor Day. Pat Tinsley with Big Elk Camp knows after years of renting canoes and kayaks the river.
“Once school starts, it’s like someone throws a switch. There are no people. You can even float on a weekend and not see anyone,” he said.
Some anglers ply the river into November, but the bite slows down as the water cools, Tinsley said. Fishing takes a back seat to relaxing fall foliage float trips in early November. Fishing gets tough, but fall river runners see bald eagles, herons and flocks of colorful wood ducks.
Tinsley’s favorite smallmouth bass lure is a 4-inch plastic worm, motor oil or chartreuse in color.
“I sink them in the holes. Let them drift toward a tree stump,” he said. “That’s what I use, but you ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different stories.”
A popular seven-mile float starts at Big Elk Camp in Pineville, Mo. and ends at the camp’s private take-out one-half mile downstream from the Kansas City Southern railroad trestle over the river.
The Elk isn’t a wilderness river. Gentle current carries floaters past the occasional riverside cabin or farm. Roads run along parts of the stream. Paddlers drift through pastures and forest. The Elk is a Class I stream, suitable for beginners or experts.
Big Sugar and Little Sugar creeks meet at Pineville to form the Elk River one mile east of Interstate 49. Traffic rumbles above on the overpass while paddlers enjoy the peaceful river below.
The Elk meanders about 23 miles before emptying into Grand Lake in Oklahoma.
There may be no better way to savor an Ozarks autumn than from a canoe or kayak on a clear, beautiful stream like the Elk.
Russ Tonkinson battles a log as well as the fish to catch a smallmouth bass from the Elk River near Pineville, Mo. The bass was holed up in a tub-sized pool and ambushed a top-water lure.
Tonkinson shows a Whopper Plopper top-water lure that worked best for catching smallmouth bass from the Elk River. Fishing slows in fall as the river water cools.
The Elk River in southwest Missouri, seen here on Sept. 8., offers a scenic, serene trip for paddlers after the Labor Day holiday.