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Monday, October 22, 2012

Underwater in the Ozarks

Scuba Diving in the Jack's Fork River, Missouri (c)Engbretson Underwater Photography

I've just returned from a very interesting trip to the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas, home to some of the most famous and scenic rivers in middle America.  All of the rivers where I scuba dived were ultra-clear and filled with as diverse a fish community as I've seen anywhere.  I especially enjoyed the Black and Current Rivers in Southeast Missouri, and Arkansas's legendary Buffalo and White Rivers. 

On all of my dives, I encountered longear sunfish, smallmouth bass, and redhorse suckers.  In some of the rivers I found walleye, rainbow trout, spotted and largemouth bass, channel catfish, chain pickerel and white crappie.  A local favorite called the goggle eye (we call them rock bass up north) didn't seem as common.  Up north, it's not unusual to see dozens of them around a single piece of structure.  In The Ozarks, I only saw a few and they tended to be alone and hiding in root wads or under rock ledges.  Unlike the Great Lakes Region, in the Ozarks they're a legitimate sport fish and have a minimum 8 inch size limit in some areas.  Another fish that gets significant pressure are redhorse suckers where "giggers" can take up to 20 a day during the fall spearing season.  While I saw plenty of those, I never saw a fish that was over 16 inches.  A conservation officer I met on the Meramec River told me that most of them get harvested before they can reach their potential.  In Wisconsin and Michigan, I often see large redhorse of 10 pounds.  I'm told in the Ozarks, this would be rarer.          

The rivers were teaming with a multitude of shiners and darters of every color of the rainbow.  Seeing that splash of brilliant color along the river bottom was impressive and that alone made the trip worthwhile.   We have a few rivers in Wisconsin that have the same kind of diversity, but the difference is that in the Ozarks, the water is so clear that scuba divers and snorkelers can see and enjoy all the fish that inhabit these pools of crystalline water.  In Wisconsin's St. Croix, Menominee, Rock and Wisconsin Rivers, the coca-cola colored water makes this impossible, which is unfortunate because they all contain impressive fish communities. 

While my home waters will always be the glacial lakes of Wisconsin and Michigan, the crystal-clear rivers of the Ozarks have captivated me and I plan to return often to explore them and to photograph their fish.  If you're familiar with the area and are feeling kind, please drop me a line and suggest a place you feel would be worth seeing.  I've just begun to explore this area underwater and I know I've just touched the edge of what's there.

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