2004 Sleeping Beauty of the Ozarks by Dave Mayers
Nestled in the hills of northern Shannon County lies a sleeping beauty. A small spring fed stream winding its way over gravel and lush green beds of watercress plants on its short journey to Sinking Creek and then to the Current River. Like its Disney fairy tale counterpart, this sleeping beauty is a fragile yet exquisite gem of the Ozarks. Her name is Barren Fork.
Why a sterile name was bestowed on such a beautiful place is a wonderment. One can only guess it is because, for most of her journey she is a dry creek bed. Early settlers crossing such a lifeless creek would not think much of it. However the silent bed of gravel is magically transformed into a cold, clear, babbling waterway by Twin Springs near Chrisco Cemetary. This spring discharges about 7.8 million gallons of 58 degree groundwater per day. That may sound like a significant amount of water, but compared to other Ozarks springs, it is a miniature “leak”. For instance, Round Spring, pumps out 26 million gallons per day and Alley Springs emits 81 million gallons per day. Then there is the grand-daddy of springs on the Current River, Big Springs, spewing forth a whopping 278 million gallons a day. But like the old saying “good things come in small packages”, so is true of Barren Fork.
While the name may conjure up visions of a lifeless environment, the waters here are teaming with life. Lush aquatic vegetation and a variety of aquatic insects cling on to rocks in the swift water. A visitor may see small colorful darter fish scurry around the gravel, and occasionally, if one sits long enough and still enough, a majestically colored rainbow trout will show itself. Considered by many anglers at the prized gem of Barren Fork, these stream-bred wild rainbow trout have been here for generations. Brought to Missouri in the late 1800’s, rainbow trout were “seeded’ in about every spring branch cold enough to support trout in the state. Rainbow trout have held there own in this 40-foot wide spring branch, but only in very limited numbers. Small waters like this can only support a few fish due to restricted amount of good fish habitat. Nevertheless, the unique aquatic features of Barren Fork are the reason the Missouri Department of Conservation purchased land along its banks in 1995 and again in 2004.
The early purchase of 268 acres included the Twin Springs area and about ½ mile of coldwater frontage on Barren Fork. The recent purchase of roughly 160 acres is downstream near the mouth and includes another ½ mile of Barren Fork and 1/3 mile of Sinking Creek. Both of these purchases were from willing sellers. MDC manages the trout population under its Blue Ribbon Trout Stream regulations which include a daily limit of one fish at least 18 inches long and use of artificial lures and flies only. These regulations apply to the entire Barren Fork but like other small waters, the landowners between public holdings control trespass rights on their property. Boundary lines between public and private property are clearly marked on the stream.
MDC is attempting to boost the population of wild rainbow trout in Barren Fork by improving trout habitat. Structures are being installed to help narrow and deepen the shallow and wide reaches, and to create some overhead cover, something that is lacking for adult-size trout.
So if you happen to be driving west on Highway A in northern Shannon County, and cross a dry stream bed, look for the green “Barren Fork” sign. But don’t be fooled, for close by is a sleeping beauty.