May Day on the Finley

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Published on: May. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 14, 2010

May just might be the perfect month to float an Ozark stream. Swollen by spring rains, the rivers are flowing strong but clear, hurrying downstream with seeming urgency. Rapidly greening woods are speckled with white flowering dogwoods, and tawny brown gravel bars sport butterfly-enticing blue stars. Tender vines and shoots stretch out, but a person can still navigate loamy banks in places where he or she wouldn’t try to go through the brambles of June. Countless newly emerged flying insects buzz and whine and rise in ecstatic, vibrating clouds. To this awakening of the invertebrate hordes, fish are inevitably drawn—the aquatic rite of spring. As the stream warms, its finned inhabitants become hungry and active, swirling toward the surface at the ripples of a downed mayfly.


Like its counterparts around the Ozarks, the Finley River comes alive in May. In order to witness this awakening—to be swept up in it—my friend Jud and I float and fish the Finley. Higher water allows us to launch our canoe on the upper, more rural part of the river. In its lower stretches, the stream wanders precariously close to sprawling suburbia, but the upper section retains a wild feel and good water quality, reflecting a watershed still mostly forest and pasture. Fish on our lines are likely, sometimes noteworthy, but not absolutely necessary—not in May. In May, being on the river is enough.


A major tributary of the James River, the Finley runs swiftly in narrow channels over gravel and cobbles and sometimes over smooth bedrock. In places, it pauses in deep blue pools beneath gray, pancake-layered limestone bluffs. As it flows toward its meeting with the James River, it picks up water from a series of small, spring-fed tributaries—Terrell Branch, Stewart Creek, Squaw Run Creek, Pedelo Creek, Parched Corn Hollow; and springs—Otto Lasley and Olie Lasley springs and water trickling from the huge, yawning mouth of Smallin Cave.

Like most rivers, the Finley rises from humble beginnings—in this case, a few tiny, gravel-choked channels draining a broad, gently sloping plateau near Cedar Gap in southeastern Webster County. At 1,640 feet of elevation, the top of this nearly flat watershed divide is only 130 feet lower than Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in the state. Off the steep edges of this elevated lobe of land, headwater streams of the Gasconade River, Bryant Creek and Beaver Creek radiate to the north, east and south. Trains traveling westward

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