I saw some great smallmouth water, and some great smallmouth fishing on a small Ozark stream this past week, perhaps more bass per acre than I have seen since the first days on Arkansas’ Crooked Creek in the early 1970’s.  Back then I was 21 years old, and the outdoor editor for the Arkansas Democrat newspaper in Little Rock.  I was so young and stupid I told the whole country about that amazing little brown bass paradise, and continued on to write about the Kings and War Eagle Rivers in the same way.  If my newspaper column raving about the great smallmouth fishing found there didn’t go far enough, I wrote about them in national magazines like Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. 

It wasn’t long until they were descended on by hordes of fishermen, and today those streams are a shell of what they were.  Of course it wasn’t just liberal limits and fishermen who were to blame, the streams were victims of large-scale commercial gravel operations that filled in the deep holes, and the pollution that the chicken industry and agriculture began to create.  I do not make the same mistake today.  Any one who wants to find good smallmouth fishing in the Ozarks can do so, and those types of fishermen do not hurt our streams, as most of them release the fish.

On any Ozark stream, limits on smallmouth should be reduced, and anglers allowed to keep only those fish falling between 12 and 15 inches in length.  But it isn’t fishing pressure which is destroying our rivers and creeks today, it is the awful erosion of barren banks, created in years past by ranchers who wanted to claim every inch of stream bank for pastureland, and to that effect, cleared the banks of vegetation, removing the willows and sycamores and maples that held the bottomlands against the heavy flooding.

The Ozarks too, was a sponge a hundred years ago.  Forests soaked up heavy rains and runoff problems seen today didn’t exist.  Now we have thousands of acres of concrete and pavement and hardened ground where forests have been gone for 50 or 60 years.  Because of that, you see heavy floodwaters rush down these creeks and rivers and tear away at the banks as they never did before.  And when the rains subside during the heat of summer, those algae-choked streams drop to levels lower than the oldest of our Ozark old-timers never dreamed they would see.

Years back, the Missouri Conservation Department instigated something they called ‘The Brush Creek Project’, on a small stream to the west of Collins, Missouri.  Brush Creek flows through the Birdsong Conservation Area in a westerly direction, and into the Sac River.  I don’t know how many tens of thousands of dollars they spent there, but today, you cannot possibly find the effect of any credible conservation effort on that stream.  Huge barren-bank stretches can be seen all along the stream, and right now, along the lower seven or eight mile stretch of Brush Creek, you can find about fifty big trees with green leaves, laying across the stream, the result of the last heavy rain eroding yards and yards of bank.  The four or five foot layer of soil on top is carried downstream into the Sac River, and the lower level of gravel goes into Brush Creek, filling in whatever depths were found there.

It is tough to find a good fish in Brush Creek.  I would love to know how much money the MDC spent there and who received it, and what they did that they think protected that little stream in any way.  It isn’t that the situation is hopeless.  Those horribly eroded stretches of river can be fixed, and good examples of that can be seen where landowners had the money to do the job themselves.  A rancher with land along a river or stream can lose acres of ground in just a few years with what is happening today. It is not that any of them choose that, it is just that few have the money to fix it. 

A neighbor of mine owns several miles of river bottom, and he has practiced a conservation effort in which the Soil Conservation Service pays for the large majority of his cost in setting aside a hundred yards or so of stream bottom corridor, keeping his cattle out of the river with fencing, watering them with drilled wells, protecting his land along the river with strips of trees and natural vegetation.  He says that what he has done has saved him work, and money, and is something any river bottom cattleman will profit from.  The trouble is, the landowner has to finance the work and wait for reimbursement, and few landowners have the money to do it.  And few trust the government to come through with promised funds in this day and time. With the tremendous amount of money the MDC has, they could help landowners with such streamside projects and get all the money they invest back from the federal government program.  Tell me why an agency with ‘Conservation’ in its name would not do that!

The state conservation department does almost nothing today protect and preserve our rivers. As we floated that little smallmouth stream last week, we came to a stretch of exposed, eroded bank that continued for a quarter of a mile or so.  Dennis Whiteside, a friend who guides stream fishermen all over north Arkansas and southern Missouri, told me that he had once floated through there and there were three Conservation Department personnel on a gravel bar, looking at the eroded bank, which he says has lost twenty or thirty feet of soil in one spring.  Dennis said they seemed lost as to what might be done to stop it.  He says that for a mile downstream from that area the river channel has changed drastically, and holes that once held big smallmouth are filling with gravel.

It isn’t hard to figure out what can change things.  It is being done on a nearby river by one private landowner, and I can show you before-and-after photos which prove that the erosion can be reversed and natural vegetation can come back to hold the banks, despite the heavy floods.  At Galena, Missouri, just above the big bridge crossing the James River, erosion of a sheer, unprotected bank threatened the bridge supports, and it didn’t take long for the highway department and the city of Galena to stop the erosion immediately.  It is there for anyone to see. 

The Missouri Department of Conservation won’t spend the money to do things of that sort.  Their money goes to other things, like the 145 thousand dollars given to a retiring employee to write a book… a book on rivers, of all things.   I doubt the book ever materializes but the money is gone.

A few years back, a landowner on Bryant Creek asked the MDC to help stop erosion on a hundred yards or so of river bank, and actually got some experts from the Department to come and look at it.  They said they could fix it for 18 thousand dollars paid to them by the landowner in advance!  How many eroded banks on rivers like the Niangua and the Piney and the Gasconade could be fixed with those 145 thousand dollars they gave that retiring employee as a gift?

If the Brush Creek Project is an indication of what they can do, they need to go find people like Dennis Whiteside, and some of the landowners like my neighbor, and enlist their help.  When there is a treasured resource like our Ozark rivers being destroyed, and there are solid proven ways to change and save them, why aren’t we doing it?  Especially when the Federal government will provide most of the funding.

That little river where the smallmouth were so abundant isn’t lost yet, but it needs to get some attention in a hurry, and I will bet that there isn’t a landowner along the river who wouldn’t like to see their land protected, and the stream preserved.  If only the MDC would direct some of their 170 million dollar budget toward it.  What they have spent on elk stocking could have repaired an entire river.

I’ll talk more about this on my radio program this coming Sunday morning.  If you would like to listen, and call in with your opinions, tune in to 560 AM at 8:06 a.m. or listen via your computer on www.radiospringfield.com.

E-mail me at lightninridge@windstream.net or write me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 655613.  My website is www.larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.