Bright and eautiful

Posted on Thursday, October 26, 2006

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TRIGGER GAP — Beautiful as the fall colors were along the winding, sun-splashed roads of the Ozarks on Saturday morning, none could beat those framed by the shining, winding routes of area streams. It’s a bias shared by those who believe the Ozarks are best experienced from a canoe at any time of year, but especially when there is floatable flow during the fall foliage season.

Such an opportunity was the gift of generous rainfall two weekends ago that provided an extended period of ideal canoeing conditions on the Kings River from its upper reaches at Marble to the lower river below the U. S. 62 bridge near Berryville.

Unlike the Buffalo and Mulberry rivers that recede fast after a rise, any increased flow on the Kings River can hold up for a week or more at preferred levels of 3 to 4 feet as measured on the river gauge near Berryville.

After another half-inch of rain in the middle of last week, the river level was still at 3. 5 feet Saturday morning when I set out with Ernie Kilman of Kings River Outfitters to float from Baines Crossing near Trigger Gap to the Berryville bridge.

In addition to being a paddling outfitter, Kilman is a landscape artist who was thrilled at the chance to feast his eyes on the interaction of sun and shadow with clear currents and a palette of fall colors.

“It’s rare to get good water in the river this time of year; last fall we didn’t get any,” he said in an emotion-charged whisper on the way to our put-in point.

From this point of view, however, nothing is more bright and beautiful than a big, golden smallmouth bass held aloft against a backdrop of the aforementioned fall colors. The float would also offer the chance to get a look at a section of river last floated nearly a year and a half ago.

Since the section below Trigger Gap is designated as “trophy water” with an 18-inch minimum length limit for smallmouth, I entertained visions of behemoth browns coming out of hiding.

The artist’s point of view got its just due as soon as we pulled up at Baines Crossing, a private access available exclusively to fishing guides and outfitters and their customers.

“There it is right there,” Kilman said, gesturing toward the picture-postcard view of a pool just upstream from the crossing.

One side of the tree-lined pool was deeply shadowed. On the other side, the gold and orange trees were bathed in bright sun, while the pool’s surface was a mirror reflecting the entire surroundings.

My point of view got recognition on the very first cast after we had shot through the first riffle into the head of a pool and had turned around to fish the edge of the current line feeding into the pool.

A little smallmouth bass of about 10 inches jumped on a tube bumped along the bottom in the current. SOLVING THE SMALLMOUTH PUZZLE The main challenge on any floatfishing trip is determining where the fish are concentrated, and the latest word from river-fishing guides before our float was that the larger smallmouths were still ganged up in the pools.

While catching a smallmouth on the first cast was encouraging, that it was small and in the shallow current could have indicated it wasn’t worried about being crowded by the big fish.

The pool-pattern gained some credence about 100 yards into the first pool when something of line-stripping strength picked up a tube cast next to submerged boulders.

It was a picture-taking smallmouth with a thick body measuring a little better than 17 inches. Its dark markings indicated it had been holding tight to deep structure.

The prize appeared to get the float off to a promising start, but it would prove to be a false start.

Over the next three hours moving from riffles to pools, we would spend too much time lingering in the pools with little to show for the effort except for a few scattered smallmouths of 10-12 inches.

Eventually, we started trying all kinds of structure, casting around fallen logs to see if the fish were “on wood,” probing eddy holes in the narrow channels and fishing the gravelbottom shallows at the beginning and ends of the pools to see if the fish were moving out to forage.

Without a discernible pattern, the action amounted to a smallmouth here and a smallmouth there with the best ones going a decent 14 inches.

We also tried a variety of lures. Using ultralight spinning tackle, Kilman tried several small twister-tail grubs and crawfish grubs. I tried a couple of buzz baits on baitcasting tackle and tubes of different sizes and colors on spinning tackle.

This experimentation did allow us to settle on what was to be the lure of the day. The bass wanted nothing but tubes, and the best by far was a new tube from Yum called the Vibra Tube in a tri-color pattern of green, chartreuse and tan. It was imbued with “Live Prey Technology” (LPT ) consisting of natural shad enzymes that is proclaimed to entice fish to feed.

Meanwhile, the scenery along the river continuously provided visual distractions.

After contending with low flows for so long on area rivers, the good flow made for easy going even in the narrowest and shallowest riffles, and the currents were running clear and sparkling over shining gravel and rocks cleansed by the recent rise.

“It’s already starting to get that clear, green color it gets in the winter,” Kilman said.

The foliage, however, grabbed most of our attention.

Kilman was constantly pointing out one tree or another showing especially rich yellow or red color along the banks. He regularly said how the colorful tree lines along the banks were reflected on the river’s surface and how the multicolored leaves that had sunk beneath the surface made the bottom of pools appear to be covered with patchwork quilts.

Most eye-catching of all, however, were the forested hillsides above the river where trees that had turned bright red, yellow and orange stood out against the darker green of trees yet to turn.

One particular hillside above a wide curve in the river caused us to lay aside our fishing rods for 15 minutes or more to admire the colors. With spotty clouds sailing past under a blue sky, the shafts of sunlight were constantly playing across the face of the hillside.

“This is the stage of fall I like best — when you have some trees showing bright color against the green trees so you have that great contrast,” Kilman said, speaking with the eye of an artist.

GETTING IN THE GROOVE After passing where Keel’s Creek enters the river and stopping for a lunch break on a gravel bar, we started into the lower half of the seven-mile float, during which the fishing action took a definite turn for the better. Maybe the early afternoon hours, when the fishing often improves, was a factor.

Maybe the sky clouding completely over and the wind picking up had something to do with it.

Maybe it was getting to a part of the float with more of the kind of structure the fish wanted and getting our lure presentations down right.

The big improvement came when we shot through a riffle to enter a “chunkrock run” of medium current flowing knee-deep to waist-deep over bucketsize rocks next to a boulder-lined bank.

With the canoe hugging a gravel bar across from the boulder bank, a tube cast upstream and allowed to bump along the bottom among the chunk rocks met heavy resistance. At the set of the hook, the fish made several linestripping runs before making a pass beside the canoe.

“That’s our biggest one, bigger than the first one !” Kilman exclaimed when he got a good look at a long and thickbodied smallmouth.

Rather than getting the fish in for a quick catch-and-release, I encouraged Kilman to let it fight around a bit to allow for some action photography. However, the fish soon showed us you don’t mess around with the big ones by spitting the lure.

Over the next 15 minutes in the same run, catches of several more smallmouths up to 14 inches proved the fish were concentrated in the rocky runs and that a slightly upstream presentation of the tubes was the way to catch them.

We noticed that all the smallmouths were now a uniform golden color, a sure sign of fish foraging and feeding. We also noticed that a smallmouth on the hook was often being trailed by another fish, a sure sign of fish in an aggressive mood.

Over the next two hours, we skipped the pools, riffles and eddies to concentrate on the chunk-rock runs. When we found action, there would usually be several fish in the same area.

In the course of catching and releasing about two dozen smallmouths and one spotted bass from the runs, we took some leapers and drag-strippers that included a couple of 16-inchers and 15-inchers. Altogether, we could claim nearly a dozen quality smallmouths of 14-17 inches.

As we neared the end of the float, we passed a concrete abutment where the old U. S. 62 bridge had once stood and where someone had painted a colorful mural of a smiling stick figure in a canoe under the legend “Life is good.” Between the sunlit fall scenery seen at the beginning of the float and the good action toward the end, we agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly.

“And you know, it’s not over,” Kilman said, speaking of the fall float season. “If we get any of the rain forecast for next week, the floating could be good for another week or two.” And prettier, as well.

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