Fishing Missouri's Big Rivers

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Early explorers marveled at the vast natural resources of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They reported fish large enough to upset canoes and described fertile wetlands and backwaters arranged along the river margins like pearls on a necklace.

Big Waters

Neither of Missouri's big rivers remains in its natural state. Both the Mississippi and the Missouri have been placed on a list of America's 10 most endangered streams. Once free-flowing, the big rivers are confined by dams, levees and revetments for the sake of flood control, commercial navigation, agriculture and hydropower generation.

Although the rivers have changed, they continue to be great places to catch a lot of fish. The rivers are large and complex, but generations of knowledgeable "river rats" have learned to tackle them. You can, too, and in the process enjoy seemingly unlimited fishing potential on waters that, frankly, don't receive much fishing pressure.

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers are our state's most significant water resources, totaling 264,000 surface acres or 29 percent of Missouri's total surface water acreage. Together, they exceed the combined area of the state's 15 largest reservoirs.

The Missouri River begins in southwestern Montana and flows southeast through six states before entering Missouri. It changes as it flows from a cold water trout stream to the channelized resource often referred to as the "Big Muddy." The river runs for 553 miles through the state before joining the Mississippi River.

Many of the Missouri's once-numerous islands and backwaters have been eliminated, but the Flood of 1993, although disastrous to many interests, did much to renew habitat diversity along the river. Rushing floodwaters scoured depressions throughout the floodplain. These lake-like structures, called blew holes, provide additional habitat for big river fishes and wildlife.

The Mississippi River shows three different faces as it flows along the state's eastern border. Management units reflect its changing nature, classifying the sections as the Pooled Upper Mississippi River, the Unpooled Upper Mississippi River and the Lower Mississippi River.

Missouri's portion of the pooled upper river is 176 miles long and includes a series of seven navigation locks and dams, which were built in the 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps created and maintains a 9-foot deep channel from Minneapolis to St. Louis to accommodate barge traffic on the river. The navigation locks lift or lower boat and barge traffic from one pool to another.

The Unpooled Upper Mississippi River begins at Lock and Dam 26 (Alton,

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