Fly Fishing the Niangua River Bill Cooper for 12-`13-23 The Missouri Ozarks are famous for cold, clear, spring-fed rivers and the 125-mile long Niangua, a tributary of the Osage, is no exception. Recently I spent the day on the river with Michael Collins of Misty Mountains Guiding Service. I had not been on the Niangua for over 30 years. I worked as the naturalist at Bennett Spring in the late 1970s and still have found memories of catching both scrappy smallmouth bass and trout on the stretch of water just below Bennett Spring.
Collins and I had previously fished the Meramec River together. His abilities to catch big smallmouth bass on huge streamers, which he personally tied, was northing short of amazing. I made a mental note of his skills and yearned to fish with him again the following season. Collins reached out, after he discovered he had an open date in early December. He quizzed me immediately to find out if I preferred a raft trip or a wade and fish trip. I do love wade fishing, but little compares in the world of fly fishing to drifting down an Ozark stream with an experienced guide at the helm. We soon agreed that the Niangua would be a rewarding trip for both rainbow and Brown trout.
We met In Bennett Spring State Park, near the confluence of the spring branch and the Niangua River at 7 a.m. First light had just begun to push away the darkness. I could see trout feeding on the surface as Collins readied several fly rods for the short 4-mile float. The short float would allow us the time to thoroughly work the many runs, riffles and pools that we would encounter throughout the day. After we shuttled Collins’ truck to the downriver take out point, we discussed the day’s plans as we enjoyed the drive back to the put-in in my pick-up. We jabbered like two kids going to the playground.
Excitement cracked in our voices as we talked about expectations and more importantly, possibilities. Collins manned the oars after handing me a high end Sage rod setup with a tandem fly rig. An egg pattern graced the end of the tippet, while a small pink jig adorned the line 16-inches above the terminal fly. “Great minds think alike,” I said. “I love pink flies and often use them on pumpkinhead setups.
“Trout do love pink,” Collins echoed. Minutes into the float my indicator dipped below the surface and my first rainbow of the day fought hard in the steady current. It had taken the pink jig true to our expectations. The Sage rod felt swell in my hands. The 6-weight rod handled like a 4-weight in other brands. It stood strong and allowed me to work the scrappy rainbow to Collins’ net with ease.
Once we drifted out of sight of the park, we beached the raft to try our hands at drifting our tandem fly rigs through a promising looking run and resulting drop-off into a deeper hole. Collins scored first with another feisty rainbow. Its brilliant colors flashed in the gin-clear water as he worked it to hand. We admired the grand fish and both sensed a feeling of adoration as the trout sped back to its hide, from which it had chased the egg pattern and ate it.
Pumped by our good fortune, both of us attempted to set hooks when our indicators bobbed. Often the bobs were a result of the bottom fly ticking the rocky substrate. “If you aren’t feeling the bottom while nymph fishing for trout, you are not fishing deep enough,” Collins instructed. “Trout very often relate to the bottom, because that is where the majority of their food sources live. Aquatic insects and invertebrates invariably live in the rocks and vegetation associated with the bed of the river.”
As we crawled back into the raft and shoved off into the current, a Bald eagle soared high overhead, flashing the brilliant white feathers of its head and tail. It proved a fitting episode in the drama of our day on the river, far away from noisy crowds and a busy world. Connors steered the raft towards a deep hole to get me into position for the first cast. As soon as my double fly rig hit the water, several rainbows investigated my offerings and the indicator went down. I missed the strike. I hooked up on the next cast, only to have the hard fighting fish get off half way back to the raft. The excitement of the moment hurried my next few casts, the most of which resulted in solid strikes.
I hooked three more rainbows in that hole, all of which escaped before reaching the net. Regardless, the strikes and hookups provided brief moments of exhilaration. Connors and I each reflected on the joys of fly fishing in such a wild setting. A high Ozark ridge towered over us, covered in the standard oak-hickory forest. Boulders and rock rubble lined the banks, providing superb cover for trout and bass alike. As a bonus, we had not encountered another boat or fisherman all day. We felt as if we were fishing at the end of the earth.
Collins handed me an 8-foot rod rigged with one of his fabulous streamers, which he ties himself, out of nightmare musky material. He instructed me to cast the fly as close to shore as possible in hopes of turning a hit from a Brown trout. A bit further down stream, Collins cast the big streamer far up under an overhanging limb. “Chaser,” he yelled. The beautifully colored Brown trout clobbered the big fly, which Collins stripped as rapidly as possible. Once netted, we took numerous photos before releasing the splendid fish to fight another day. The release became the perfect end to a perfect day.
To book a fly fishing trip with Michael Colins Google @mistymountainsguidingservice.
Photo: Michael Collins, of Misty Mountains Guiding Service, shows off a Niangua River Brown trout he caught on a recent rip with Bill Cooper.