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Arkansas Sportsman
One-Day Floats for Arkansas Smallies: 10 To Try
It's never too early to go fishing for Natural State bronzebacks. In fact, January is just right for some of the best action of the entire year.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Keith Sutton

January is superb for float-fishing the scenic smallmouth bass streams coursing through Arkansas' Ozark and Ouachita mountains. Water levels are just right for canoeing, big pre-spawn bronzebacks are actively feeding, and with fewer people on the water, you can enjoy an extra measure of relaxation.

Where should one start? Consider the following floats.

OUACHITA STREAMS
Caddo River
(Caddo Gap To Glenwood)
This popular 6-mile float is notable for its excellent smallmouth fishing. "Brownies" are fat, averaging a pound, and you may catch and release dozens, including, if you're lucky, some 3- to 5-pounders.


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Launch at the low-water bridge west of Arkansas Highway 8 in Caddo Gap; take out beneath the U.S. 70 bridge at Glenwood. In between, you'll encounter small rapids, long gravel bars and plenty of good smallmouth fishing around boulders and fallen treetops.

Bait choices run the gamut from live crayfish to willow-leaf spinnerbaits. Try to be on the river at daybreak, as peak smallmouth activity is usually during the day's first couple of hours. And as you're fishing, remember that winter smallmouths rarely hit with a jarring strike. Instead, they tend to grab the lure and run with it. You may not even know one's on until you see your line moving, so you must really pay attention to what's happening. When the fish runs, point your rod tip at it, rear back and punch your hook like you really mean it.

The Caddo River is an Ouachita Zone Quality Smallmouth Stream. The smallmouth bass daily limit is two, and each must be at least 12 inches long to keep. Outfitting services (canoe rental, shuttle service, etc.) are available from Arrowhead Cabin & Canoe Rental - www. arrowheadcabinandcanoe.com, 1-800-538-6578 - Caddo River Camping & Canoe Rental - 1-888-300-8452, www.caddoriver.com - and Wright Way Canoe Rental - 1-877-201-9149, www.wrightwaycanoerental. com.

Upper Ouachita River
(Oden To Rocky Shoals Campground)
Smallmouth fishing on this stretch of the Ouachita is exhilarating, with fast-paced action for bronzebacks up to 3 and 4 pounds. Put in early and take out late to get the most from this scenic 10-mile float. The put-in point is the Arkansas Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden. The campground take-out is at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing.

The water here is clear, cool and fast-flowing, and there's a good mix of long, deep pools and rapids. There are lots of big rocks, deep runs under steep banks and downed timber offering shade, food and protection from the current. That's where you find smallmouths.

Most local smallmouth anglers prefer to use live baits, particularly live crayfish and minnows. However, any artificial designed to imitate the smallmouth's natural prey will usually prove productive. Plastic worms and salamanders, crayfish- and minnow-imitation crankbaits, and the pork-frog/jig combination are all worth trying.

The Ouachita River upstream from River Bluff Access is considered an Ouachita Zone Quality Smallmouth Stream. On this stretch of water, the smallmouth bass daily limit is two, and each fish must be at least 12 inches long to keep. Outfitting services are available through several businesses, including Loy's Canoe Rentals & Campground - (870) 867-4757, www.loyscanoerentals.com - M & M Canoe Rentals - 1-800-99-FLOAT - and River View Cabins & Canoes - 1-888-547-1146, www. riverviewcabins-canoes.com.

Little Missouri River
(Arkansas 84 Bridge To Lake Greeson)
Set aside as part of Arkansas' Natural and Scenic Rivers System, the Little Missouri is a strikingly beautiful smallmouth stream. This 11-mile stretch, starting west of Langley, with a takeout at Lake Greeson's Star-of-the-West Campground, harbors plenty of feisty smallmouths within its rock gardens and deep pools. The bronzebacks are suckers for live crawfish, and if you take time to turn over a few rocks and leaves in small feeder creeks you pass, you can often gather a dozen or more in just a few minutes. Rig them tightline-style with a small split shot a foot or so above the hook. Most smallmouths will be holding on the downstream side of boulders, treetops and other current breaks, so cast upstream and allow the bait to drift by this cover naturally.

The Little Missouri above Lake Greeson is an Ouachita Zone Quality Smallmouth Stream. On this part of the river, the daily limit is two smallmouths that must be at least 12 inches long to keep. Little Missouri Cabin & Canoe - (870) 398-4700 - offers canoe rentals and shuttle service.

Saline River
(Lyle Park To Interstate 30)
The Saline is the last major un-dammed stream in the Ouachita Mountains. Several stretches offer good smallmouth fishing, but the best for a one-day float is from Benton's Lyle Park (on state Highway 5 at the north edge of town) to the Interstate 30 access (off the eastbound access road at Exit 116). Using enticements such as small jig/spinner combos, tiny crawfish crankbaits and live baits such as night crawlers and small crawfish, you can expect to catch a mixed bag of smallmouths and spotted bass, with most smallies weighing 1 pound to 2 pounds. The distance is only three miles or so, but if you fish the pools thoroughly, it's a nice four- to five-hour trip with a short shuttle.

A couple of miles into the float, you'll encounter a low-head dam that's barely noticeable from the river upstream. This forms a deep pool from which the city of Benton draws its water supply, and you'll have to be attentive to avoid the sharp drop at the dam's edge. (Watch for the pumping station on the left bank just above the dam.) This is a good place to stop and fish a while, because you'll have to portage around the dam anyway. Big smallmouths (along with walleyes and catfish) congregate in the pool during winter, providing first-rate fishing opportunities for savvy anglers.

The Saline River is an Ouachita Zone Quality Smallmouth Stream. Smallmouth bass daily limit is two, and each must be at least 12 inches long to keep. No outfitting services currently operate in the area, so bring your own canoe and arrange for your own shuttle.

OZARK STREAMS
Crooked Creek
(Kelly's Slab To Yellville)
While Crooked Creek offers decent spotted and largemouth bass fishing action as well, its real claim to fame is the smallmouth. Ideal habitat and abundant hellgrammites, crayfish and other smallmouth foods combine to produce large numbers of quality brownies. Specimens of from 2 to 3 pounds are fairly common, and 4- to 5-pound smallmouths are always a possibility. Popping bugs and streamers on fly rods offer great sport for smallmouths, and many anglers also use crankbaits, spinnerbaits and live hellgrammites or crayfish to take Crooked Creek lunkers.

The stretch of Crooked Creek between Kelly's Slab and Yellville is among the most popular with smallmouth anglers. The put-in point for this half-day float is one mile due west of Yellville at the low-water bridge known locally as Kelly's Slab. The trip concludes on the east side of state Highway 14 at the city park in Yellville.

Crooked Creek is an Ozark Zone Blue Ribbon Smallmouth Stream. On the section described, the daily limit is two smallmouths, and each must be at least 14 inches to keep. For canoe services, contact Crooked Creek Canoe Service - (870) 449-6203, www.carltonmarioninn.com/canoe - Dillard's Ozark Outfitters - 1-800-423-8731, www.dillards-outfitters. com - or Roundhouse Shoals Fishing Services - 1-888-717-8088, www.roundhouseshoals.com.

Kings River
(Marble To Marshall Ford)
The Kings River offers rewards that go far beyond the fine smallmouths you're likely to tangle with. This is a dream stream beyond compare, beautiful and pristine. It transports the float-fisherman back in time to a simpler, less complicated era.

Long, deep pools make the segment from Marble to Marshall Ford (10.7 miles) a good fisherman's float. Overhanging trees and logs sometimes hamper travel, but there are no dangerous hazards, and the scenery is excellent. The put-in is northwest of Marble at a county road crossing. Take out at the low-water bridge at Marshall Ford, an access point northeast of Alabam.

If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. Some people expect bass from this smallish river to be smallish, too, and that can cost you some trophy fish. A baitcasting reel, medium-action rod and 10- to 20-pound-test line are appropriate.

Big smallmouths hit large crankbaits and large tandem spinners with trailing pork rind. Topwater minnow lures 6 or 7 inches long are deadly, and the jig-and-pig is a good producer. Concentrate your casts in still pockets, side sloughs and pools and skip the fast water.

The Kings is designated an Ozark Zone Quality Smallmouth Stream. The smallmouth bass daily limit is two on the stretch of water described, and each fish must be at least 14 inches long to keep. Local outfitters include Beaver Lake Canoe & Kayak - (479) 925-2313 - and Kings River Outfitters - (479) 253-8954.

Big Piney Creek
(Arkansas 123 To Treat)
A veteran fisherman will look at the Big Piney's cool, clear water and rocky cover and come to one conclusion: Smallmouth bass live here. Brownies are abundant and offer good fishing year 'round.

The section from Arkansas 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1805) covers about eight miles. The water upstream is fast and sometimes difficult to navigate. But on this stretch, the valley is not too tight, and the stream's pace slackens a bit to allow casual fishing. The rapids are rated easy to medium.

A superb lure to try here is a jig-and-pig - a 1/8-oz. brown leadhead jig with a No. 11 brown pork frog trailer. Brown is best because it's the color of the river's abundant crayfish, the No. 1 food source for bronzebacks. Skitter the lure across the bottom near structure and cover that might hold brownies, and get ready for action.

The daily smallmouth limit is four fish, with a 10-inch minimum length limit. Two businesses offer outfitting services: Moore Outdoors - (479) 331-3606, www.mooreoutdoors.com - and River Tech - (479) 890-6980, www.rivertech.com.

Buffalo River
(Carver To Hasty)
The Buffalo is Arkansas' best-known smallmouth stream. During warm months, hordes of visitors detract from the peaceful, aesthetic values that are the reason many anglers go fishing in the first place. But in winter, crowds are thinner, and anglers can enjoy a more peaceful, relaxing float through gorgeous canyons with sky-high bluffs.

Most smallmouths are welterweights - a pound or less - but there are plenty to be caught, and there's always the chance of boating a 3- or 4-pounder. Lure choices are many, but you probably can't go wrong using crankbaits fashioned to imitate crayfish and minnows or small soft-plastic jerkbaits weighted for an underwater retrieve.

Anglers can make numerous one-day floats on this 150-mile-long river, all good for smallmouths. One section to consider is the stretch from state Highway 7 to state Highway 123, 10 miles, with accesses at Carver and Hasty.

The Buffalo is designated an Ozark Zone Blue Ribbon Smallmouth Stream. The daily limit on smallmouth bass is two. Each must be at least 14 inches long to keep. Dozens of concessionaires offer rental canoes and shuttle service, including Buffalo Adventures Canoe Rental - (870) 446-5406 - and Buffalo Outdoor Center - 1-800-221-5514, www. buffaloriver.com.

Mulberry River
(Arkansas 23 To Milton's Ford)
Though often overlooked by Arkansas' smallmouth fans, the Mulberry is one of the finest Ozark Mountain smallmouth streams. The river gets a bit wild during high-water periods, with waters rated from medium to difficult, but the Mulberry receives high marks from the fishing public. Winter smallmouth fishing is superb.

One good fishing float is the eight-and-a half mile run from the state Highway 23 bridge (known as Turner Bend) to a place known as Milton's Ford (located on Forest Road 1501 west of state Highway 23). Class II rapids and willow thickets are ever-present, however, so fish this one only if you're an accomplished paddler. Two top baits favored by local anglers are live night crawlers and small grub-type jigs.

The best float conditions are at river levels of 2.0 to 4.0. (Readings at the scale's lower end are best for fishing.) These levels are available by calling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recording at (501) 324-5150. Anything beyond 4.5 is dangerous. Visitors should watch weather forecasts closely, because heavy rain can quickly transform the Mulberry into a rampaging torrent.

The Mulberry is a Boston Mountain Zone Quality Smallmouth Stream. As such, the smallmouth limit is two daily, and each must be at least 12 inches long to keep. For river services, contact Byrd's Adventure Center - 1-888-520-7301 - or Turner Bend Canoe Rental - (479) 667-3641, www.turnerbend.com.

Eleven Point River
(Dalton To Arkansas Highway 90)
The Eleven Point River enters northeast Arkansas from Missouri near the town of Elm Store and courses southward to merge with the Spring River near Old Davidsonville State Park, a distance of about 40 miles. Floating can be tough, thanks to stream obstructions in places, but it's worth trying. Smallmouths from 1 pound to 2 pounds are abundant, with bigger specimens possible

The nine-mile run from the state Highway 93 bridge at Dalton to the Highway 90 access has vertical banks that rise more than 10 feet. The banks often are undercut and cave in, taking trees and undergrowth that clog the stream. But the in-washed cover provides a haven for outsized brownies.

An old stone dam must be negotiated about eight miles downstream, shortly after an island and its accompanying brush-filled channel. Walk your craft through to the right.

When the water is clear, shallow-diving slim-minnow plugs on six-pound-test line are recommended. On those rare occasions when rains give the water some turbidity, large spinners and crankbaits also are good producers.

The smallmouth limit is four daily, each of which must be 12 inches long to keep. For river services, contact Woody's Canoe Rental & Campground - (870) 892-9732.

A FINAL NOTE
When visiting any of these streams, remember your responsibilities as an ethical angler. Obey fishing laws. Carry out all trash. Avoid trespassing on private land adjacent the streams. Leave no signs of your visits.

Our smallmouth streams are special. They always have been, and always will be. Do your part to keep them that way.

For license and fishing regulations information, see your local sporting goods dealer or contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 1-800-364-GAME, www.agfc.com. For river maps, obtain the Arkansas Adventure Guide (free) by phoning 1-800-NATURAL, or logging on to www.arkansas.com.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order for $28.25 to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. Arkansas residents should add sales tax. For credit card orders and more information, log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.)



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