Branson Missouri’s Million Dollar Riffle
by Sammy Hampton
The slate gray rocks on the gravel bank still held a glossy shine. A low mist hung over the entire basin of the river below the dam, although the sun was well above the tree line to the east. The late August weather had been holding true to its normal spire in the Ozarks. It had been hot. The cool water that trickled from Table Rock Dam cooled the surface air and was a welcome respite. Fishing in a tail water stream can be an unpredictable feast or famine during the late summer in Missouri. The water was at low ebb. Most trout fishermen, who frequent the headwaters of Lake Taneycomo for trout, live for the low water when the dam is not generating power. When the water is low, most wade fishermen consider it the perfect time to pursue the trout in this Missouri fishery. Many, however, do not realize when water is released for power generation and for the following hour, trout feed in frenzy on a tailwater fishery. A notion not lost to the many boat fishermen who live for the high water to flow.
Normally power generation takes place during peak electrical demand hours. This is usually in the late afternoon and evening. The high water starts between four to six o’clock in the afternoon and ebbs around midnight. If Table Rock Lake is above flood pool level the water released in to the headwaters of Lake Taneycomo can be around the clock for several days at a time.
It was going to be a good day for fishing. Imitations of the tan and gray scuds that populate the stream were the order of the day. After an hour of missing several fish and landing only four, the heat was starting to settle on the river. It was time for a break. Just having reached the bank near the parking lot up from the popular rebar hole, the loud sound of the horn from the dam sounded. The horn sounds just minutes before the water rises from the dam as it starts to generate power.
This was no time to take a break. Hectic minutes of tying on a longer size five leader, selecting a large San Juan worm pattern and locating a larger strike indicator on the line that could handle the bigger flow of water that was just minutes away.
When the water release from the dam comes, it bills into the bend and fills the cut just below outlet number three at the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery access point. The water forms somewhat slowly at first. Most of the flow follows the main channel as the river binds south into the rebar hole and then turns back east. It is hard to keep one’s heart beating slowly while watching the river change from a gentle little steam to a full fledged river. Not knowing how much water is going to be released it is a time to err on the side of caution. One should not just rush out into the river and fish the rising water. Full generation can in a matter of a few minutes make the river so deep and fast that wade fishing is impossible. It could end in disaster if one were caught in the middle ridge of the river and have, in a few minutes, no exit back to the safe north shore. The wise wader must first see if the water is coming on slowly; indicating that only one generator has been turned on. Or is rising like a mad bull; indicating that all generators have been activated.
A smile broke across my face, when after a few minutes, the water was building slowly. Only one generator was opened. Turning back to the river and heading for the first riffle that would develop as the water backed and overflowed into the cut, this middle riffle would hold fish before any other part of the big riffle that lay just down stream would. There would only be time to make about ten casts into the rising middle cut, before one needs to retreat to the north side of the big riffle. But those ten cast could mean as many fish. And a fish on every cast is in no one’s book bad fishing.
Several years before on a trip to northern Colorado, with a group of fishermen who were looking to buy a sixteen hundred-acre ranch which contained a nice tributary of the Colorado River, there was a riffle on that property that seemed to border heaven. When we were allowed to sample the wears and given an afternoon to fish the stream everyone took turns fishing the riffle. It was magic, just as if our realtor guide had conjured and poured some magic potion in the water. Cast after cast, no mater what the fly, no matter who the caster, no matter what position on the hundred yards of riffle that was fished, there was a fish on. After two hours there was four fishermen who were completely exhausted from landing fish. Other than the memory of the sparkling Colorado Riffle and each and every fish that was caught, is the memory of a phrase that echoed, over and over, all the way home. It does not matter how much they want for the property. The riffle is worth a million dollars.
The water had overflowed the middle cut and was building towards the longer lower riffle, when my first cast hit the water. The strike indicator has not moved three feet down the flow before it stopped solidly. By reflex action, just like the jerk when the kneecap is hit with a little rubber thong, the rod rose and the hook set. It was a deep brightly colored Rainbow sixteen inches long. The next cast produced a fish that was slightly smaller and the third cast produced one that seemed to be the twin of the first fish.
Three casts and three fish and the water had reached mid calf and it was building quickly. The surge of water has overflowed the large riffle behind me and had found its way to merge with the main flow a hundred yards downstream. It was time to retreat and fish the big riffle. Safely on the north side the first cast found its mark. In the next hour twenty-four more fish were landed and released.
Reflecting on a day that started somewhat slow, the surge from the generation had revealed the little riffle and the big riffle, which I had fished alone. The other fishermen on the river had given up when the horn sounded and retreated to wait for the low water to return. If they only knew, all the way home the thought echoed, over and over, through my head. I can not believe this riffle is in Missouri, It is worth a million dollars.
Table Rock Dam stands beginning the tail water fishery at Lake Taneycomo. Shepherd of the Hills Trout Hatchery is located just below the dam and adjacent to the headwaters access point.
Seen here, the stream at low water provides the trout angler with abundant fish and three miles of stream to wade. The area between the dam and the mouth of Fall Creek has special regulation. It is managed by a slot creel limit to maximize the number and quality of fish available to the angler.
Three quarters of a mile below the dam is one of the favored fishing holes. Locally known as the rebar hole, It derives it name from the protrusion of several lengths of steel rebar that spring from the bottom of the river. The stream makes a short jog south then turns back east. The riverbank that creates this bend hides the million-dollar riffle at low water.
The water swell when generation starts and the million dollar riffle come out of he mist much in the same fashion as did the mystical town in Brigadoon. The million-dollar riffle lies quite and unassuming at low water. Its nooks and crannies can be studied in anticipation of the time it will be flooded by the generation of power from the dam located upstream.