Fish­er­men re­turn

Elk River pad­dlers bask in peace af­ter busy sum­mer.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - FLIP PUTTHOFF Flip Putthoff can be reached at fput­thoff@nwadg.com

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

The Elk River in south­west Mis­souri, seen here on Sept. 8., of­fers a scenic, serene trip for pad­dlers af­ter the La­bor Day hol­i­day.

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