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Most of the Missouri River is now below flood stage and a rapid return to near normal levels is working its way east across the state.

Experienced river runners have already returned to what is by a wide margin the stateís largest body of water. It shouldnít be too much longer before more cautious boaters can join them.

The term ďcautious boaterĒ is open to interpretation. My daughter, her husband and several of their friends think nothing of plying the Big Muddy in small canoes.

So far none of them have had any serious problems, and, neither did most of the untold number of people whoíve been traveling up and down the river in canoes, kayaks and rafts for thousands of years.

Although my own ongoing love affair with canoes began when my dad and I built one out of a mail-order kit while I was in high school, nothing short of a life or death emergency would get me out in the main channel of the Missouri River in one.

Although both my boat and its motor are smaller, I agree with an overwhelming majority of the men and women who fish the river for fun or profit.

Most of them opt for wide-bodied flat-bottomed boats at least 18 feet long, powered by outboards rated at well over 100 horsepower.

No matter what style of boat you favor, finding a place to launch it isnít difficult.

The Missouri Department of Conservation publishes a three-brochure set that covers the upper, middle and lower thirds of the river.

The brochures mark the approximate locations of boat ramps along the entire length of the river from where it enters the stateís northwest corner to its mouth near St. Louis.

My only criticism of the publications is that they make no written differentiation between ramps directly on the river, ramps near the mouths of tributaries and ramps so far up tributaries that using them to access the river would be impractical.

Thatís a potential problem for boaters who find launching and loading boats perpendicular to the riverís swift current frustratingly difficult.

Fortunately, itís an easy problem to solve because areas of interest can be researched individually at mdc.mo.gov.

Trophy blue catfish are one of the riverís main attractions and for good reason.

While the stateís portion of the Mississippi River is a better bet for setting an all-tackle world record, there are enough scale-straining blues in the lower third of the Missouri River to satisfy almost anyone.

While weíre on the subject of catfish big enough to strain scales, whopper flatheads lurk beneath log jams and near the mouths of tributaries from the Iowa state line to St. Louis.

Most flatheads are caught on set lines, but thatís only because more fishermen havenít discovered how much fun they are on rod and reel.

Iíd be foolish not to mention channel cats because both the quantity and the quality of the stateís most popular catfish species to be found just about anywhere along the Missouri River these days has few equals.

Itís certainly worth noting that ďjust about anywhereĒ includes thousands of places where fishing from the bank is every bit as productive as fishing from a boat.

Fishing isnít the only fun thing to do along the Missouri River.

No event since channelization began in earnest in the early years of the 20th century has done more to alter the general publicís ability to explore both the river itself and the land beside it than the Great Flood of 1993.

As a direct result of the Missouri Riverís awe-inspiring demonstration of its ability to temporarily reclaim its corridor, the federal government purchased tens of thousands of acres of flood-prone land, cut the intervening dikes and allowed nature to take its course.

Some of this now-public property is administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation, but along the final 367 miles of the river between Kansas City and St. Louis, a lot of it has become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serviceís Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge consists of 11 separate blocks, some of which are accessible by land and others only via the river.

All of them provide opportunities for outdoor activities including, hiking, birdwatching, photography and ó yes ó hunting.

Camping is prohibited on the refuge, but camping on sandbars below the normal high water is under state control and is usually allowed.

One possible activity that occurred to me immediately after the refuge began taking shape in the fall of 1994 is hunting for artifacts left behind by the more than 150 19th century steamboats that succumbed to the riverís then numerous shoals and snags.

You may agree that finding physical evidence of the riverís commercial history would be fun, but both of us need to keep in mind that removing artifacts of any kind is illegal. Photographing them in place, on the other hand, is not.

For more information on both the refuge in general and on its specific blocks, see fws.gov/refuge/BigóMuddy.

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