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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
and have it delivered to your door!
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