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Floating away, a revival: Niangua River

Floating and reviving on the Niangua River near Lebanon, Mo.
Credit: Dale Bowman

LEBANON, Mo.–As more gravel patches dappled the blacktop on the hill tops in the Ozarks, I figured I was close to the right spot. Then a small white sign, “One-Eyed Willy’s 100 YDS,” attached to a roadside tree, alerted me to turn down a gravel road Tuesday morning.

Felt just like heading to where I was supposed to be. (Always feel that way when staying in a cabin where the facilities and running water are elsewhere.)

I would be down by the Niangua River soon enough for a revival. Few things recharge me like time on the water. Or in the water.

The Missouri Outdoor Communicators’ spring “Cast & Blast” was focused on Bennett Spring State Park, one of Missouri’s trout parks, and the Lebanon area.

What pulled me in was the Niangua. Rivers do that to me, especially scenic ones with smallmouth bass.

The watery pull began Wednesday afternoon. I did a five-mile canoe float with Gretchen Steele, a photographer/writer from southern Illinois. She is a self-proclaimed river rat, but it was her first big float. We did fine once we found our rhythm, talking business and losing count on the great blue herons squawking off from the shorelines.

I had stashed a light spinning rod, with 6-pound monofilament and a 1/16th-ounce Rooster Tail, and made a few casts. I lost the only smallmouth I hooked, caught one good trout and missed several others.

It inspired me enough that asked conference organizers to switch Thursday plans and do a solo kayak fishing trip.

A still life on a gravel bar of kayak fishing on the Niangua River. Credit: Dale Bowman

A still life on a gravel bar of kayak fishing on the Niangua River.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Alone is how I truly soak in wild experiences.

Brian Wilson, proprietor of One-Eyed Willy’s, was more than happy to drop me near dawn (“So you can see the sun rise’’). Wilson truly understood. Every Christmas morning, he does a solo float down the Niangua.

I remembered the best water for fishing and wasted an hour working deep pools and the riffles feeding them without doing anything more than raising several trout.

So I had to paddle harder than I intended to get back on schedule and pushed my luck at a spot where two trees, felled in the historic flood after Christmas, blocked the river. I dumped the kayak and put myself underwater (good reason for wearing an orange life jacket), but did not lose anything or get water in any electronics.

But I was chilled enough that I paddled hard for a couple miles to dry off. Focused on paddling rather than finding fishing spots, I settled into something more important, reviving myself with solitude and river beauty.

The miles disappeared quickly. Too many herons to count, again, squawked off and lots of swallows dived.

Wilson had left his pewter-colored beater pickup by the take-out across from a gravel bar . . . keys in the ignition (you got to love it). I pulled the kayak out and stowed my gear. I took enough time to catch the best fish of the morning, an 18-inch trout on a micro-jig with white Mini-Mite tail. When it was released, I jumped in the truck and bumped up an Ozark hill.

A tom turkey erupted from the bank and flew across as I turned from the gravel road leading up from the river and onto the blacktop toward One-Eyed Willy’s.

It was time.

Soon enough, it was back on Interstate 44 and home.

Revived.