Bass or bust?

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2006

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BERRYVILLE — The essence of float-fishing action Friday on the Kings River came in a rock-lined pool where a table-top boulder was just visible beneath the surface of the dark-green water.

A buzz bait splashed down about five yards beyond the boulder and began noisily churning upstream. The flashy, bubbling lure came up the backside of the boulder, passed over the top and disappeared in an explosion of water. The attacker meant business, yanking hard on the bait and leaping up to reveal itself as a chunky smallmouth bass shining black and gold in the sun. Displaying outsized ferocity for its 15-inch length, the brownie yielded grudgingly to hand, showing dark markings from lurking in the shadows of its ambush boulder. “That’s just the way it’s supposed to be !” Terry Fredrick of Fayetteville pronounced happily. Indeed, the classic streamfishing encounter in the early afternoon also marked the beginning of a two-hour period of fall fishing action as it should be.

Hours earlier, however, we had started the float with unanswered questions.

What would be the condition of the river after four months of drought and low flow ?

Would there be enough water to make a float attempt worth the effort ? “It could be a real drag,” I had warned Fredrick.

Would the recent cool spells and falling water temperatures be enough for the bass to begin their annual fall feeding spree ?

After two rounds of generous rainfall in September had failed to budge the river level and with no assurance of run-off rain in the immediate future, I was tired of waiting for answers.

Two hours into the float, however, we would be consumed by a single burning question — what happened to all the bass ?

We had picked the five-mile stretch of river from the U. S. 62 bridge near Berryville to the Arkansas 143 bridge partly because of its location downstream from where the confluence of Osage Creek adds flow to the river.

Moreover, the stretch is also known for providing a great variety of habitat for smallmouth bass — several long, wide and deep pools chockful of boulders, lots of relatively narrow runs filled with chunk rock, wide expanses of gravel bars and grass beds, and short, narrow riffles feeding into eddies and short, shallow pools. In other words, the stretch offered just about any kind of habitat that smallmouth, spotted (Kentucky ) and largemouth bass could want from season to season.

With Ernie Kilman at Kings River Outfitters providing shuttle service, we dropped Fredrick’s pickup at the Grandview access owned by Kings River Rapids. The access fee was a pricey $ 8, but there’s little choice for putting in or taking out at the bridge. And four-wheel-drive is strongly recommended for the steep final approach to the water’s edge. Arriving at the public access beneath the U. S. 62 bridge, we noticed the first effect of the extended period of low flow. The wide, curving gravel bar under the bridge is usually bare gravel, but grass beds were growing along the water’s edge. The shallow water beside the gravel was crystal clear and noticeably cool, probably in the 60 s or low 70 s. Although the weather had been cool and cloudy the previous day, we set out in conditions that had abruptly changed to summery and sultry.

FLORA AND FAUNA Much of the pleasure of float fishing is simply enjoying the setting, and the river quickly had us under its spell. Some of the trees along the banks were starting to take on their fall colors, and leaves were starting to fall, wafting down on the river in the early morning breeze. More colorful were the many wildflowers blooming in bright yellows, blues and reds along the banks. Fredrick was especially drawn to the Cardinal flowers rearing their scarlet blooms here and there. At one spot, Cardinal flowers formed a large bed along the bank.

Fluttering among the wildflowers were various colorful species of butterfly, including the orange-and-black monarchs making their annual migration through the area.

Wildlife also attracted our attention. We saw an otter playing in the river and snakes swimming across. Great blue herons, kingfishers, white egrets and pairs of wood ducks regularly flew out ahead of us.

Special sightings included a flock of turkeys moving along a gravel bar and several ospreys just in for the winter.

The most interesting vision was a mature bald eagle soaring overhead and showing its white head and tail. Based on spring and summer sightings of eagles along the Kings River over the past three years, this one lent credence to the belief that a pair of resident eagles is living and nesting on the river.

The distractions of flora and fauna became more appreciated early in the float when the action was practically nonexistent.

READING THE RIVER The question of whether there would be enough water for floating was answered by the time we had passed through the first two riffles. We scraped bottom some but were able to push our way through. From beginning to end of the sixhour trip, we would have to drag the canoe three times — once where a narrow channel was completely blocked by fallen trees, once at a wide and long gravel bed where the river split into three channels too shallow to paddle and once at a bedrock shoal at the end of the float.

Fredrick and I each carried two rods-and-reels similarly rigged — one with a standard tube lure and the other with a buzz bait. We started out casting the tubes to whatever structure came our way as we floated downstream.

Didn’t get a single bite during the first hour of fishing. Hardly saw anything resembling a bass.

“Where have the bass gone ?” Fredrick wondered.

They weren’t in the riffles, short pools or narrow gravel channels because those were simply too shallow to hold bass.

In deeper pools and in the mediumdepth runs, the gravel, rocks and boulders beneath the water’s surface were all coated with a thick layer of grayish silt, a testament to four months of low flow.

The silt-covered bottom didn’t look favorable for smallmouth to be foraging for crawfish. We saw very few bass, but lots of gar, carp and suckers, including some big ones.

“Maybe the roughfish have run the bass off,” Fredrick mused.

By the second hour, we were throwing the buzz baits exclusively, getting a few widely scattered short strikes at first before finally hooking up with several small but more assertive brownies and spotted bass.

By that time, we had noticed the riffles and short pools that were too shallow to hold bass were packed with minnows, and our few hits and sightings of bass were coming above and below these areas.

It appeared the bass were having to live on minnows and the minnows knew it.

During the third hour of fishing, we entered the longest, deepest pool of the stretch. It featured rocky banks and many boulders toward midstream over a length of a half-mile or more. It was also the pool that usually provided the best action and the largest bass of the five-mile float.

Toward the head of the pool, we began casting straight at the rock banks in the usual fashion but with little success. We did better when we began concentrating on the outside edge of points, dropoffs, ledges and boulders standing out from the bank.

Nevertheless, when we passed through the pool and stopped for a lunch break, our catch-and-release count was up to only about a dozen bass, with the best being a smallmouth and a spot of about 14 inches each.

“Maybe a lot of the bass have moved out or maybe a lot of them just died during the summer,” Fredrick said.

“Well, we still have a couple of good pools and a couple of good chunk-rock runs ahead of us,” I said as we shoved off after lunch.

CONCLUSIVE CLIMAX All the while, the weather conditions had been changing. The breeze of morning had grown into a stiff wind, creating swirling gusts that were pushing our canoe hither and thither on the river’s surface.

For some inexplicable reason, the bass seemed to wake up. We began to get more strikes and stronger strikes on our buzz baits. Got that 15-inch smallmouth from the boulder and a largemouth of similar size. We even began to see other fish following the one on the hook.

In an hour’s time, we nearly doubled the catch-and-release rate of the morning. Fredrick was suddenly all smiles and getting into the excitement of buzz-baiting.

And the action got better yet during the final hour. We got hits in the pools and the runs, shallow and deep, next to the banks and out in midstream as the bass seemed to materialize from nowhere.

The wind had also become a fierce force, sending fat, white clouds skidding across the sky, twisting the treetops and creating a whirlwind of leaves and small limbs over the river.

By then, having decided there were more bass around than met the eye, we had also concluded that what the river really needed was a good flushing of the silt from the pools and runs and more water over the gravel foraging areas to put it in peak condition.

We soon learned that relief was coming on fast and strong.

First we heard the thunder, and then at the end of the float saw a thunderstorm rear its dark visage overhead.

That drenching storm and another that passed through on the way home were the forerunners of what would pass over the Kings River watershed throughout the night.

Saturday morning, Kilman reported the river on a rise that would top out at about 3 feet, giving the river its first flushing in months.

Ironically, the rise came on the first official day of fall and the true start of the fall float-fishing season.

Bet the bass went wild.

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