It was noon when we pushed our boats from a gravel bar and began Day One of a two-day float down north Arkansas’ Buffalo National River. We quickly became absorbed in the scenic Ozark Mountains landscape surrounding the river.
Cold, crystalline water carried us through gorgeous passes cuffed with green hardwoods. Waterfalls cascaded down tall riverside bluffs. Wildlife was everywhere, including elk, deer and colorful wood ducks. As we paddled farther from civilization, we became enveloped in the stark, elemental beauty of this incredibly beautiful mountain realm.
Casting topwater plugs and jigs in pools and riffles, we caught dozens of smallmouth bass. They lurked behind every rock, small fish mostly, 1 to 2 pounds, but occasionally our poles bent against the weight of a 4- or 5-pound bronzeback.
In late afternoon, we pitched a tent on a gravel bar and built a campfire to cook some of our catch. As I smelled the aroma of those fish sizzling in the skillet, I found myself extremely content to be sitting comfortably in the backcountry surrounded by stunning scenery. It was a fun outing I knew I would not forget.
If you get cabin fever this month, perhaps you’ll want to plan your own spring bass fishing excursion on one of the Natural State’s many beautiful lakes or streams. If so, consider these destinations where fishing is great and the panoramas are breathtakingly beautiful.
BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER
The Buffalo River tops the list of Arkansas’ best known smallmouth streams. Folks from throughout the country come to float this scenic stream, which was designated by Congress as the country’s first national river in 1972. There’s no better place to enjoy a peaceful, relaxing float through gorgeous canyons with sky-high bluffs.
The Buffalo is a model smallmouth stream, with clear, fast water and a gravel bottom and boulder beds smallmouths love. Most bass are welterweights, but there are plenty to be caught, and there’s always the chance of boating a much larger trophy fish.
A good all-round lure choice is a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce brown leadhead jig dressed with a No. 11 pork frog. Use your rod tip to control lure depth and action, bouncing the bait along the bottom like a scurrying crayfish. Other productive lures include crankbaits fashioned to imitate crayfish and minnows, the smallmouth’s favorite prey, and small soft-plastic jerkbaits weighted for an underwater retrieve. Don’t overlook live baits, either. Live crayfish, minnows and nightcrawlers, available at many local bait shops, are extremely effective smallmouth baits.
The Buffalo stretches over 150 miles of scenic mountain territory from near Boxley in Newton County to its junction with the White River near Buffalo City in Baxter County. Some of the many float stretches to check out are the Ponca to Highway 7 float (25 miles with access points and campgrounds at Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie and Ozark); the stretch between Arkansas Highways 7 and 123 (10 miles with accesses and campsites at Carver and Hasty); the float from Arkansas 123 to U.S. Highway 65 (32 miles with access/camping areas at Mount Hershey and Woolum); the U.S. 65 to Buffalo Point float (27 miles with access points at Gilbert, Maumee North, Maumee South and Arkansas Highway 14); and the final stretch from Buffalo Point to Buffalo City (30 miles with a single take-out point at Rush).
For more information, phone Buffalo National River headquarters in Harrison at 870-741-5443 or log on to www.nps.gov/buff/.
UPPER OUACHITA RIVER
A float on the Ouachita River above the community of Sims in west Arkansas’ Montgomery County offers chances at high-jumping smallmouths in a storybook landscape of crystalline water, intriguing rock formations and canopies of overhanging trees. The dogwoods and redbuds that bloom in spring make for an unmatched setting of beauty. And with only a sparse human population along its banks, the Ouachita offers a wonderful sense of solitude for the float fisherman.
Nearly 70 miles of the river above Lake Ouachita can be floated when water conditions are right. For smallmouths, I particularly like the 10-mile trip from the Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden to the Rocky Shoals campground at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing. That stretch features incredible scenery, with lots of long, boulder-strewn pools and sparkling shoals to tempt the smallmouth angler. Three- to 4-pound bronzebacks aren’t uncommon, and during a good day of fishing, it’s not unusual to catch and release dozens of smaller bass.
Most local smallmouth anglers will tell you live crayfish and minnows will outperform all other enticements. But any lure 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.
A major draw of the Ouachita River is its location within the Ouachita National Forest. The Forest Service provides campgrounds, picnic areas and access points all along the river. A detailed river map is available free, along with a list of local canoe rental and shuttle services, in the Outdoors section (click Canoeing/Rafting/Kayaking) at www.arkansas.com.
Where the upper Ouachita ends, Lake Ouachita begins. This big blue impoundment, often called “The Cleanest Lake in America,” sprawls across 40,000 acres west of Hot Springs National Park, its clear waters bristling with largemouth and spotted bass. Recent stockings of smallmouth bass have made that species available on a limited basis, too.Numerous trophy-class largemouths are taken there every spring. There’s a distinct possibility of catching a 7- or 8-pounder, and while larger bass aren’t common, they do surface occasionally.
Most Ouachita anglers begin their search for spring largemouths “in the moss” in beds of coontail and elodea. A fishfinder can pinpoint these mats of vegetation in 15 or 20 feet of water around islands and coves. Many anglers favor a deep-diving, minnow-imitation crankbait for fishing this submerged vegetation. Cast near a weedbed, and then crank the lure down deep and retrieve stop-and-go fashion right over the top of the vegetation. Bass will come up out of the moss to nail it.
Ouachita’s spotted bass usually are deepe
r than largemouths in spring, holding on rocky ledges, points and humps as deep as 40 feet. Catch them by dropping live crawfish into their feeding zone. Many lures entice “Kentuckies” as well, including crawfish crankbaits, jig-and-pigs and small spoons.
Productive spring fishing areas include the Joplin, Tompkins Bend, Crystal Springs, Mountain Harbor and Big Fir public use areas on the south side, and Irons Fork, Avant and Buckville on the north shore. For additional information, visit the Web site of Mountain Harbor Resort (www.mtharbor.com) or contact the Mount Ida Chamber of Commerce (870-867-2723, www.mtidachamber.com).
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