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Jan 19 , 2019

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Fishing Eleven Points

by Frank Ross
Fishing Eleven Points

The Eleven Points River flows from its origin at Willow Creek, in the picturesque Ozark hills of southern Missouri, through Arkansas where its waters blend with the Black River and ultimately through a convoluted path to the mighty Mississippi. Among others, Greer Spring, the second largest in the state, pumps out 220 million gallons of water each day, feeding the Eleven Point. Its naturally meandering course is carved casually into the shadows of steep bluffs, through sloping forest valleys and a low-lying riparian ecosystem.

While a large portion of the Eleven Points was declared a National Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1968, my reason for plying its waters were far from basking in pristine splendor. Eleven Points is one of the best smallmouth fisheries in Missouri, and I was intent on testing these scrappy brawlers with light spinning tackle and possibly fly-casting with poppers or wet flies.

My partner for this trip, fellow writer Mike Schoby, is first and foremost a fly-fisherman. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that his will calls for him to be buried with his best fly rod, just in case. He was well armed with a wide selection of poppers and wet flies, determined to finesse the river.

We were to meet our “guides” for the day, Missouri Ozark Region fisheries biologist A. J. Pratt and resource technician Chuck Wichern at 6 a.m. on Friday, June 13. I mention the date for two reasons. First of all, everyone knows that Friday the 13th is bad luck, but more relevant to this river, weekends are noteworthy for its “aluminum hatch” which occurs around 9 a.m. on Saturday. Fishing on a weekday proved to be a very good thing, as weekends bring the onslaught of canoeists by the hundreds. Four outfitters, operating on the river with 300 canoes each, can put a lot of people on a narrow, swiftly flowing body of water.

Fishing 11 Points is best in a small john boat.The thing that Mike and I were most excited about this expedition was that we would be spending the day with two men who have detailed, personal knowledge about the river, from their own fishing exploits but more importantly Chuck conducts annual surveys each fall. He cruises the river for the state, probing likely areas with electricity to evaluate the numbers and condition of fish. In essence Chuck knows where the big smallmouth live on this river, and we set out to find them at 6:30 a.m., when we launched two 16-foot Jon boats powered by 20 horsepower Mercury jet drives, and headed upstream from the access at Hwy 160.

In a matter of minutes we were several miles upstream, with the intent of gradually flowing with the current and working likely looking cover. Mike was fishing with A.J., whose boat was equipped with a Minn Kota trolling motor, while Chuck controlled his boat with the traditional paddle, worked skillfully with one arm entwined around the handle, which freed up his other hand for fishing.

The Eleven Points fishery is maintained with fairly tight controls, with the goal of providing an optimal fishing experience for years to come. To that end, the minimum legal length for smallmouth is 15 inches and only one may be kept daily. Goggle eye, or rock bass, is abundant, and if you want some fish to eat they’re excellent. More liberal limits for goggle eye allow for 15 fish daily, exceeding the minimum 8” limit.

According to local experts, the Eleven Point offers fish a smorgasbord of aquatic foods that fish thrive on. The occasional terrestrial insect will wash down into the river as the result of a cloudburst, but the main fare is comprised of crayfish, salamanders, hellgrammites, leeches, mayfly and stonefly nymphs, a variety of chubs, darters and small fish as well as worms.

“Ok, we’re ready to catch some fish,” Chuck announced as the boat settled in with the river’s flow. “This time of day we should find the smallmouth working the shallow water along the willow grass,” he said, pointing out the short, bright green vegetation that covered the shoreline.

Local wisdom called for crawfish colored jigs, and locally produced Jewel Bait Eakins jigs are a favorite. Their weedless design, with vertical hook alignment makes them ideal for working over logs, limbs and through thick grasses that is the lair of the smallmouth bass. Fallen timber and root wads protrude at frequent intervals along the shoreline, punctuating abundant grass cover and occasional deep holes. Smallmouth like to hold in the slack current of eddies and in deep holes that wash out under and behind stumps. The trick is to cast your lure into tight spots and work the jig slowly back until your lure is out of the main strike zone, then quickly retrieve and cast again before you drift past each spot.

With such an abundance of structure I was glad that I chose the 1500 Prodigy spinning reel. This finely machined reel is easy to cast and control light lures, but it was the 4.7:1 gear ratio that really shined. This reel was designed in concert with the folks at Diawa and it’s a real winner. Even with furious cranks you get a smooth wobble-free, tight retrieve.

For fishing light tackle, with precision casts I outfitted myself with Cabela’s 6-foot XCLS601-2 XML rod. It has a fast action tip that will cast light jigs as far as you need to, right on the money, yet will hold up when snatching an errant cast from heavy cover. For me, this rod is an excellent fast action that can turn a battle with a relatively small fish into a real test of skill. Had the fish been larger than a couple of pounds I might have been in trouble. Although I really like the feel and action of the 601, given the opportunity to do it again I would upgrade to the 603. I even stretched the design boundaries of the 601 by stepping up a little on the size of lures and the rod still performed well, but fighting a four-pound fish would have been a challenge.

Chuck was working a spinnerbait with a plastic grub, and giving the goggle eye a run for their money while I stuck with the Eakins jigs. Bound by faith in the local favorite, I fished them for about an hour but was unable to rouse even a passing interest.

“We should be picking up some strikes on that jig,” Chuck remarked. “You’re doing a good job putting it in the right place.”

“Where do the big boys live,” I asked.

“You’ve already put that jig right into several spots where we shocked up 3 to 4 pound fish. They’re just not active now. Hopefully, they’ll turn on here in a few minutes,” he said.

While I put a lot of stock in local information, I’m not willing to die by it. Even the addition of Berkley’s scented frog trailer didn’t impress these tight-lipped fish. A quick snip and a tie later I was throwing Cabela’s new RealImage June Frog bait. I really like this bait. Its lip design puts it right on the surface where it wiggles just like a small frog making a quick retreat. Surface strikes are lots of fun, but all I could coax out of the cover was a few goggle eyes.

This little small mouth bass did not want to get in the boat.Switching to Rebel’s 1/9 ounce D77 Crawfish proved to be the best move I made all day. This small, highly detailed lure looks just like the mudbug it was designed to emulate, and it proved to be just the thing for loosening lips. I was using the floating version, and when I encountered a rock or log it was a simple task to stop the retrieve until the lure floated up over the obstruction. I also found that numerous strikes came after striking a limb or rock and allowing the lure to float freely.

Meanwhile, Mike radioed a report from further up stream. He was enjoying his fly-fishing experience, having caught an impressive 18” rainbow, but no smallmouth. The upper reaches of Eleven Points, from Greer Spring branch to the Turner access (approximately 5.5 miles) is maintained as a wild trout rainbow fishery, and this one must have strayed south looking for an easy meal. I made a mental note, leave the fly rod in the tube and kept casting.

For the rest of the day we worked our way down one of the most beautiful rivers in the country, seeing only one pair of paddlers who were quickly past us, disappearing into the towering green of the Mark Twain National Forest that engulfs the narrow river. Turtles and the occasional snake slithered from their sunny resting spots when a finely targeted cast splashed close by. Downstream a doe swam across the river and a hen turkey scratched along the riverbank, looking for bugs. By day’s end we collectively caught a dozen or so fish of various species, though not in record sizes, yet it didn’t really matter when held in the balance of the experience of having the river all to ourselves.

Missouri has a lot to offer for sportsmen, but without question, I’d fish Eleven Points again in a heartbeat. When you consider that an out-of-state license is only $5.00 per day, it’s a deal that would be hard to beat anywhere. Just make sure you bring plenty of Rebel Craw baits. On another day, I’m sure that Eakins Jigs would work wonders, but it always pays to have a back up plan.

The best time to fish for smallmouth is from May to June, and Chuck was quick to point out that September and October were also good times. The season on smallmouth closes at the end of February and doesn’t reopen until the first Saturday before Memorial Day to protect the spawn.

According to biologist John Ackerson, the number of smallmouth per mile varies on different sections of the river. The lower portion of Eleven Points, below Hwy 160 access point, the average is 425 smallies per mile, with 10% over 15 inches. I intend on catching some of those 15-inchers when I return, on a day other than Friday the 13th.

Access to Eleven Points River is segmented with easy access from several points.

  • Thomasville to Greer Access, 16.6 miles.

  • Greer Access to Turner Mill, 4.9 miles.

  • Greer Access to Whitten Access, 11.4 miles.

  • Greer Access to Riverton, 19.0 miles.

  • Riverton to Highway 142 Access, 8.7 miles. Heavy canoe traffic on the weekends.