Baron Fork Creek

I woke up early Saturday morning as I usually do when anticipating a fly fishing trip the night before. The sun wasn’t up yet at this time of the morning and there was only an occasional semi-truck running down the nearby highway. It’s a little over an hours drive to my destination. With a quick stop at the convenience store for a cup of coffee and honey bun, I hastily continue heading down the darkened highway toward Tahlequah and Baron Fork creek.

The creek is one of two clear, warm water streams I enjoy fly-fishing when not on the cold waters below Tenkiller Dam, the Lower Mountain Fork or the White River in Arkansas. The Baron Fork is a small stream by river standards but its big in satisfaction for me. It is in my estimation to be one of Oklahoma’s little gems.

The stream is exceptionally clear for an Oklahoma warm water stream and it is usually much cooler in water temperature than other streams in the area. Its gravel and rocky bottom is typical of Ozark highland streams. The creek retains very little silt and after the spring rains subside the water runs as clear as any stream I have been on in the Rocky Mountain States.

The Baron Fork meanders through hills and pasturelands of northeast Oklahoma until it joins with the upper Illinois River just east of Tahlequah and then turns into the headwaters of Tenkiller Lake. The stream is one of the most “alive” streams I have been on in eastern Oklahoma. It always amazes me when visiting the stream as to the aquatic life that abounds in its waters.

Crossing the bridge at Welling and turning north and then down the embankment, I eased along the rutted creek bottom road toward the stream. The sound of streambed gravel crunching under rolling tires stopped and with the ignition turned off, the quiet sounds of the stream bottom prevailed. Although there was a coolness drifting in the early morning air it was heavy with humidity and hinted to the heat that would come latter on during this summer’s day. There was a nearby spider web heavy with dew that glistened in the early morning light.

Nature’s quietness quickly settled in despite my intrusion into the river bottom. Watery sounds from the flowing stream nearby soon drifted across the gravel streambed much like an old friend extending a familiar hand in a firm greeting.

It’s interesting the way your senses become extraordinarily keen and discriminating when you are alone and enveloped in nature. In the presence of the soft sounds of a nearby stream even the tapping of a fly rod being leaned against a vehicle can sometimes seem extraordinarily and unnecessarily loud. Hearing becomes sensitive to the slightest differences in the natural rhythmic sounds of nature. It was this heightened sensitivity that caught my attention while organizing my vest and tackle. There was an interruption in the steady bubbling flow of the nearby stream. There was a faint but unmistakable “swishing” sound from shallow water being “cut” near a gravel bar.

Wrestling with the vest to adjust the net at my back before picking up the fly rod, I locked the door to my vehicle and began walking toward the stream. Stepping across the dry gravel bed I stopped a good many yards from the waters edge.

The stream was exceptionally clear. Gravel bars squeezed the easy rolling flow of water into a few yards width along the far bank. Above this narrow swift running water the stream broadened. From here the surface was like a flat expanse of glass that had been laid down over the brownish gravel of the streambed. The reflection of the hazy early morning sky and the limbs and leaves of Willows and Sycamore trees danced in a gentle and slow undulating rhythm across the glassy surface of the stream.

Donning Polaroid’s, I stepped slowly into the cool stream. There was a school of large algae feeding river minnows flashing their silvery sides as they rocked back and forth while grazing over the submerged gravel and rocks. A brownish-gray crawfish scurried between some larger gravel and flicked it’s antennae cautiously in the clear water near by. On the far bank, there was a sparse line of waterweeds lining the shallow shoreline.

Suddenly a half dozen tiny river minnows lurched from the water near the weed line in a frantic air borne attempt to elude an unseen predator. A strong zig zagging wake rushed behind them scattering the tiny silvery darts in all directions. I stripped some line from the reel and pulled on the 5x tippet until the fly line had cleared the tip guide of the rod. A couple of over head casts across stream to extend the line, then a side cast upstream and low to float the line just above the waters surface.

The small hand-tied olive marabou and white buck tail streamer landed a few feet above the marauding Smallmouth. One slight strip of the line was all that it took. Wham! The bronze back nailed the offering and broke a wake toward the center of the stream, pulling heavily on the rod tip.

After a valiant fight the fish conceded victory and I eventually cradled the Smallmouth in my hand to remove the hook. His red circled eyes looked angry at being interrupted from his morning feast of stream minnows. After dislodging the hook and returning him to the water he shot upstream leaving a wake to mark his trail into a deeper part of the stream. I smiled.

A loud squawk from a great blue heron perched on a rock just upstream from me announced his displeasure at my presence in his fishing spot. We eye balled each other briefly. He flapped his great wings and squawked once again in loud protest as he flew upstream, away from my encroachment into his favorite fishing hole. The sun was coming up above the tree line now and its warmth made the spring fed stream water feel not quite as chilling cool as it was a few moments ago when I first stepped into the clear water.

The Baron Fork for the most part is a shallow stream of gravel and chunk rock. There are periodic holes of water that are too deep to wade but I think of the stream as primarily a wading stream. The water is clear and cooler than most warm water streams in Oklahoma and is probably classed as an Ozark highlands stream.

Although I have seen a few canoes on the small stream I have always waded the little creek moving in an upstream direction from the Welling Bridge. The few people I have seen using canoes are boys from a boy scout camp located upstream from the Welling Bridge and on at least two occasions over the past two years I have seen a couple of spin cast fisherman. These same two fishermen have always appeared to be pitching rather large plastic crawfish or lizard like imitations as they drift down the creek in their canoe.

I spoke to the two fishermen as they passed me and found they launch their canoe up at the bridge on Highway 59 that runs from Tahlequah to Stillwell. Both times I have run into the two fishermen they reported the same; small fish but plenty of them.

Baron Fork is indeed a small fish stream. Although I have seen some rather large Black Bass in the three pound plus class in a deep hole just upstream from the Welling Bridge, the Smallmouth bass reigns supreme in this stream. I have never caught what I would consider a large Smallmouth from its waters, but I suspect there are a few in some of the more isolated and lesser-fished stretches of the stream.

Most of the Smallmouths are in the eight to twelve inch sizes and there is a healthy population of these scrappy little fighters. Sunfish and perch are plentiful as well and for a fun diversion, these scrappy little fellows can really put on a show when fishing small poppers or sponge bodied spider type flies.

The Welling bridge area on the Baron Fork is a popular summer time spot for locals on weekends. The gravel bar below the bridge can be crowded with kids and adults charcoaling hot dogs, sipping down cold beverages and soaking up the sun while lounging on lawn chairs. The summer time recreation use can usually be avoided by wading upstream past the first sharp bend where the creek has become partially blocked by felled tree limbs in the water.

Light tackle and long leaders with small tippets are best for this exceptionally clear water. Of course Polaroid glasses are needed and a light fly rod in the 5 or 6 weight class and under is adequate. Because the stream is so clear and the fish will spook easily, wade slowly and use a side arm cast that floats the line low over the water to your target. Flipping the line up in the air will send the Smallmouths scurrying up stream.

I prefer using hand tied streamers of olive marabou and white bodies as well as small poppers. Crawfish are abundant in the waters and although I have not tried a good imitation one should work well here. If you tie your own, you might want to tie a streamer of sparse black or brown deer hair over heavier yellow with a yellow or white yarn wrapped style body. There have been times on the Baron Fork that this yellow gaudy streamer has been a better producer than the more realistic color streamers I have used. Since the stream is relatively shallow with only sporadic deep holes, streamers do not need to be weighted much if any at all.

I have only flyfished the stream in the vicinity of Welling Bridge, both upstream and down to it’s confluence with the Illinois River. I fully intend to wade the stretch from the Highway 59 bridge downstream one of these days and maybe I’ll do just that this fall. The Baron Fork is one of those little gems of a stream that just begs you to keep wading a little further to see what is around the next bend.