Fly Fishing the City: A sewer runs through it

“Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes” – Marcel Proust


It’s a part of our human nature that we long for adventure.  Being a fisherman means you are first an explorer. This need for new experiences is really part of our DNA. Fishing travel provides just a multitude of ways you can scratch this itch.  Tarpon on the Fly in Mexico, Giant Catfish in Spain, and an innumerable number of other adventures abound on earth to fill your bucket list.

For most, our job and home life precludes us from searching the four corners of the globe for new fish.  What the travel blogging community accomplishes is truly awesome for those who can swing it but for the rest of us, it’s about all we can practically manage to take a vacation each year or a short weekend out of town to satiate this need. While that is the reality for millions of anglers, one of the best aspects of this sport is that you can still accomplish plenty of new fishing experiences without stamping the passport.  Fishing firsts can be achieved in your own backyard if you’re willing to challenge your perception of a good catch or a good spot.  This year I’ve invested more time in uncovering spots to fish close to home.  Some are within reach of a short bike ride!  I’ve been amazed by what I’ve discovered.

After our CARPSTL group was formed earlier this year, I’ve met some really great guys that are in to Carp fishing and also know some interesting places about town to try.  I’ve found in recent years that the overlooked, undesirable fish species located in overlooked, undesirable locales can provide your most unexpected fishing adventures.  Joe Oelke from our group offered to show me around River Des Peres to see what we could catch on the fly.

The river Des Peres meets the Mississippi in south St. Louis. It’s known for one thing in particular; the smell. “The River of the Fathers” was named after the Catholic missionary efforts here in the 1700s. Floods here have inflicted damage to property, even taken lives and has led to efforts to channel the flow of water.  This is when the concrete “banks” were constructed.  It’s actually a mixed use sewer and storm drainage facility for thousands of residents. While it’s improved in water quality a lot over the decades, it’s not your picturesque Colorado trout stream. There are trophy smallmouth bass and trout waters just a couple hours away. So why bother fishing in this literal shithole? (just being presidential in my choice of descriptors here)

Guides and other serious anglers have discovered these opportunities in other cities.  A great example can be found in Houston with Danny Scarborough of Houston Fly Fishing Guide Service.  Running right through downtown is a drainage facility (the “concrete flats”) where a smorgasbord of fish species can be caught on the fly.  Tilapia, eels, Common and Grass Carp, Koi, bowfin, catfish, buffalo, mullet, redfish, bass, you name it.  Another great example is the LA River that has been the scene for famous movie scenes including Grease, Transformers, and more.  These aren’t just random anglers but sometimes professional fishing guides building their careers in what could be considered unconventional urban sport fishing.

Joe and I set out to ring in the Memorial Day weekend at sunrise Saturday morning. A short jaunt from the Walgreens parking lot and we were on the water. We’re seeking carp mostly, fly rod in hand. I have 6wt Berkeley Stinger rod I’ve had 25 years. Fly fishing has only recently become an obsession, brought on primarily in the pursuit of Carp on the fly. I’ve had some great fun landing carp on ultralight gear so fly fishing seemed to be the next curious step in this pursuit.

We were looking more than odd with our fly fishing rods and packs crossing Carondelet.  The bikers, runners, and random residents going about life were not stopping to ask what we’re doing and we were definitely the only ones fishing.  No worries there at all.  Undesirable species + undesirable locales=unexpected fishing adventures.

As we approach the shoreline, it’s clear (not the water) that there are no shortage of fish and activity in this river.  We spot gar near the surface, carp tailing and leaving bubble trails.  It’s maybe 10 minutes before we have our first fish – a short nose gar.  While some may throw them back on the shore, a gar is a great deal of fun on the fly.  They give good chase to most any offering.  For a newer fly fisherman, they are excellent practice.  Casting to targets you can make out regularly just below the surface greatly help in both accuracy and they also provide you some chances at long casts that can generate a catch.

We continue catching gar as the early morning quickly disappears.  Time is always evasive once you get fishing.  We cast to dozens of bubble trails and spot at least 50 carp but not one had interest.  The water clarity was too dark to ID them so our best guess was they were bighead or black carp or perhaps spawning with no interest in taking a fly.  Some grass carp were also evident near shore, feeding on and below random vegetation.

The landscape provided no shortage of views while we casted away.  Post-war bungalows and ranch homes from the 50s and 60s still line these streets.  The blocks untouched by modern home renovation standards like that seen in areas like Kirkwood or Brentwood where homes like this are leveled for a modern, more luxurious structures.  Much of the area still retains the charm of a bygone era.  Much like the fishing opportunity that is River Des Peres, this area has a peculiar beauty to be appreciated.

So yes, you are free to turn up your nose or plug it altogether if you won’t fish the River Des Peres but it’s your loss. There are a wide variety of species and in good numbers in select parts of this body of water.  You’ll get some crazy looks but you’ll also find some adventure.  This area is not unique to St. Louis by any means.  Get out and explore your local waterways.  Many teem with fishing opportunities to be enjoyed for those “seeing with new eyes”.

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Patrick Ritter

Patrick Ritter is the founder of River King Fishing, LLC.  Raised near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the outdoors, especially fishing, has always been a passion.