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story.lead_photo.caption Russ Tonkinson enjoys the solitude, quiet and good fishing on the Elk River Sept. 11 2020, the Friday after Labor Day. The stream is busy and packed with canoes and kayaks during summer. Come September, it's a fisherman's river once again. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Paddlers on the Elk River may not hear a pin drop, but the stream is quiet enough to hear a lure's plop during fall.

Autumn turns down the volume on this clear-water stream that flows east to west through rural McDonald County, Mo. The boisterous flotillas of kayaks, canoes and inner tubes that pack the Elk River during summer disappear.

Fall is for relaxing, quiet float trips. The fall migration makes the Elk a haven for bird watching. Fishing for smallmouth bass can be superb.

It's no wonder an Elk River float trip the Friday after Labor Day is a long-standing tradition for Russ Tonkinson of Rogers and a fishing buddy. It's like someone throws a switch after Labor Day and the crowds vanish.

On this year's annual drift, the two friends didn't see another human being on water or land the whole day. They launched a canoe Sept. 11 in Pineville, Mo. at Big Elk Floats and Camping and floated eight miles down river to the camp's private access.

Their only company was two bald eagles, a gaggle of kingfishers, herons, egrets and a steady parade of smallmouth bass hoisted aboard the canoe. Each fish was carefully released to fight again. The stream was low, as it typically is in September. Getting out to walk the canoe through shallow water was good for a leg stretch now and then.

A low, gray sky brought occasional drizzle or light rain for this off-season Elk River adventure. The cloudy damp day helped boost the fish count to around 40 smallmouth bass as the take-out came into view.

Forty fish sounds phenomenal, but that's pretty much normal for an Elk River fishing trip. Some were feisty little brutes 8 inches long, but a handful bumped the measuring stick at 14 to 15 inches. If there were an election day for favorite fish, the smallmouth bass would get Tonkinson's vote -- no debate necessary.

Smallmouths were all over the tube baits he cast toward underwater timber and boulders, easily seen in the Elk's crystal clear water. Arkie Lures in Springdale makes the particular tube bait that Tonkinson cast most of the trip. Green pumpkin or grasshopper were the colors that tempted the Elk River's bass, including the proverbial fish that got away.

Floating through some fast water, Tonkinson hooked a lunker that leaped immediately three feet into the air. Two hollers of "Whoa!" coming from the canoe were nearly in harmony as Tonkinson fought the big fish. He didn't have a tiger by the tail, but a trophy smallmouth. Or was it a largemouth bass?

Tonkinson never got a close enough look to tell. The big fish snapped his 6-pound test line and vanished.

"That could have been my biggest-ever river bass," the angler said, looking hang dog in the bow of the canoe.

Good fishing has been the norm this summer, said Josh Allen with the staff at Big Elk Floats and Camping during the shuttle back to the camp office.

"I don't know what it is about green pumpkin, but the fish really go for it," he said.

Tube baits, small plastic worms and other soft-plastic offerings are good when the water's warm. What about later when the water gets cold? That's the time to cast crawdad-colored crank baits, advised Drew Daniel, also with the camp's staff. He uses the same kinds of crank baits that anglers use for bass in lakes like Beaver.

Jerk baits, too, are another good cold-water smallmouth lure.

"With either one, you want to fish it real slow and really work the water," Daniel said. Late fall and winter may be the time to take the four-mile float, not the eight-mile.

Nary a soul was seen on the river during this weekday trip. Daniel said folks hit the river in good numbers on weekends in autumn. The seat of a canoe or kayak is perfect for enjoying the Ozarks' show of fall color.

Smallmouth bass were in a mood to bite Sept. 11 2020 on the Elk River. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Ozark streams like the Elk River can be at their lowest Sept. 11 2020 levels in autumn. Tonkinsin fishes the clear water during a stop for lunch. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Tonkinson releases Sept. 11 2020 an Elk River smallmouth bass. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Rain pelts the quiet Elk River on Sept. 11 2020 near Pineville, Mo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
An Elk River smallmouth puts up a fight. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
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Float the Elk River

Most float trips on the Elk River take place on the 10-mile section between Pineville, Mo. and Noel, Mo. Numerous outfitters operate along this stretch offering boat rental, shuttle service and camping. A few have cabins.

A more remote section of river starts near Noel about 0.75 miles downstream from Shadow Lake Dam. It flows nine miles to Cowskin Shoals access near the Oklahoma border. The Elk River joins Oklahoma’s Grand Lake downstream from the state line.

Source: Missouri Department of Conservation

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