Arkansas Bronze Smallmouths

by Steve and Cindy Taylor.

Bronze bass, that is. An Arkansas angler's quest for smallmouths just can't fail when he fishes these six spots!

A tumbling riffle, flowing with the emerald-colored water that characterizes a few unspoiled creeks we know in the Ouachita National Forest, empties into a long pool lined with buckbrush. There, a smallmouth bass that avoids the river otters and wintering bald eagles for enough years to reach 12 inches or longer is king. He's among the biggest predators in these downsized waters, wisely gorging when prey comes easy because he's lived through enough dry summers and icy winters to have swam the razor's edge that separates survival from starvation.

I've been blessed to catch and release many smallmouths from that pool over the years, and although I lost count of how many long ago, my regard for those noble little fish will never fade. Each one fought beyond the limits of its size. Most treated me to an aerial display before surrendering, and they all made my heart thump. I've caught larger and more handsome fish, but the memories of those Ouachita Mountain smallmouths will always be among my greatest trophies.

Fortunately for me and for the fragile population of that remote and secret waterway, Arkansas has many sturdier creeks and rivers where you'll catch 10, 20, even 50 brown bass per day. And on many days, you have realistic hopes of landing a 3- or 4-pounder, a genuine trophy in a state where the 7-pound, 5-ounce record from Bull Shoals Lake has stood for 42 years.

WHERE TO FIND SMALLIES

Smallmouths are generally distributed in cool, mountain streams north of the line formed by Interstate 30 and U.S. Highway 67, which bisects the state from the southwest corner to the northeast corner. The Ozarks, Arkansas River Valley, Ouachitas and westernmost reaches of the Gulf Coastal Plain are rich with bronzebacks, but the eastern and southeastern regions are practically devoid of them.

Canoes and light flat-bottomed boats are the perfect platforms for navigating these waters; knowledgeable local businesspeople rent boats and provide paddles, life jackets and shuttle services on most major smallmouth streams. Most of them flow through at least some private property, so treat the shorelines with respect and seek permission before camping or building fires for shore lunches.

All of our state's smallmouth waters offer good fishing and eye-catching scenery whether you float, wade or cast from shore, but we'll share half-a-dozen favorites here, along with some timely fishing hints.

STRAWBERRY RIVER

The Strawberry River is our most diverse stream, home to 108 species of fish -- about half the number known to ever exist in Arkansas. It arises in Fulton County, west of Salem, and takes a southeasterly path about 90 miles through Izard, Sharp and Lawrence counties to its confluence with the Black River in northeast Independence County. Smallmouths are the marquee attraction, but sunfish and catfish play supporting roles if, like many of us, you're hankerin' for a fish fry.

Paddling experts recommend the 22-mile stretch between the U.S. Route 167 bridge near Evening Shade and the State Route 58 crossing at Poughkeepsie, especially when rainfall adds more oomph to this placid stream. A low-water bridge 9 to 10 miles below Evening Shade makes a good stopping point, or you can put in there and float a similar distance to the low-water bridge on County Road 31 a couple of miles north of Poughkeepsie. The last leg is a quick 2 1/2-mile float to the takeout at the Route 58 bridge.

Sandbars make fine campsites when there's no chance of rain and the resulting rising water. If the river's high enough for you to float over the low-water bridges with ease, head to the Spring River instead; you'll spend more time steering away from the numerous willow strainers than fishing. Posts on the Arkansas Canoe Club's forum at www.arkansascanoeclub.com suggest that 2 feet on the gauge at Poughkeepsie is a good level for paddling. The Strawberry has no commercial liveries, and so most folks take two vehicles or pay a small premium to Spring River outfitters for shuttle service.

ELEVEN POINT RIVER

The Eleven Point is navigable year 'round because 70 percent of its flow comes from springs, but it can become unruly after torrential rains. By the time it tumbles out of Missouri and into Arkansas, it's sedate, but littered with shifting sandbars and other obstacles that require anglers to pay attention between casts to smallmouths that average 1 to 2 pounds and often reach 4. Minnow-shaped crankbaits are local favorites.

The first access in Arkansas is at Woody's Canoe Rental and Campground (870-892-9732) 4 miles north of Dalton in Randolph County. The next stop downstream is the State Route 93 bridge at Dalton, followed 9 miles later by a private property takeout at the State Route 90 bridge. Farther downstream lies the Black's Ferry Road access (County Road 527, with a tricky, steep bank) and the AGFC access near Pocahontas and the U.S. Route 62 bridge. Stone dams are the trickiest obstacles on the Eleven Point, and if you're floating it for the first time, pull over to plan safe routes over or around them.

More smallmouths are in the upper river, but the largest ones haunt the area around the Route 62 bridge, where 16 percent of the fish are 14 inches or longer, according to an AGFC study. Like the Strawberry, the Eleven Point is an Ozark zone stream where you can keep two 12-inch smallmouths per day. These waters, along with the Spring River, are accessible to many of the folks in eastern Arkansas who like to mix some smallmouth action in with the great largemouth and crappie fishing in their neck of the woods.

CROOKED CREEK

When AGFC stream biologist Jeff Quinn sampled smallmouths from Crooked Creek in July 2009 and determined their ages by examining otoliths -- pearl-like stones from the inner ear canal -- the oldest specimen was 8 years old and 16 1/2 inches long. Quinn's results prove that bronzebacks grow slowly even in rich environments with good water quality, a finding that supports the agency's strict management and limits.

The 90-mile creek starts near Dogpatch in Newton County and courses eastward through Boone and Marion counties into the White River, featuring what many believe is the nation's best smallmouth fishing. Reports in recent years suggest that Quinn's senior-citizen bass had plenty of buddies because anglers routinely catch smallmouths in the 18-inch range there. Biologists aren't sure why, but at times, the fish move downstream of Kelly's Slab, west of Yellville in Marion County, in waves, gathering in population densities 2 1/2 times the number of fish per acre that Quinn would rate as "excellent." If you're lucky enough to witness one of those downstream migrations, your grandkids will tell their grandkids about it.

In addition to providing floating access, the Slab is part of a 2.75-mile shore-fishing area within the AGFC's Fred Berry Conservation Education Center, which is off Marion County Road 4002 near Yellville. There's even room in some spots for back-casting with a fly rod, so we like to drift Clouser Minnows and Olive Woolly Buggers there, and then let them swing downstream on a tight line. A short and sweet float of 3 1/2 miles runs from the Slab to the Yellville Bridge, but at least seven public accesses from Pyatt to Yellville make it easy to get on and off Crooked Creek.

Fish the creek when the gauge at Yellville is 6 to 7 feet. Fishing along AGFC property is strictly catch-and-release, and the creek has two trophy zones where you can keep only one fish per day that's 18 inches or longer. It's between the U.S. Route 62/412 bridge and the Route 62 spur bridge and from the State Route 101 bridge downstream to the White River. In other areas, Ozark zone rules of two 14-inch fish daily apply.

BIG PINEY CREEK

A tumbling, classic Ozark stream often described as a series of pools interrupted by rapids, or vice-versa, the Big Piney stretches out 67 miles from its source near Limestone in Newton County on through Johnson and Pope counties to eventually meet up with the famed Arkansas River.

A reading of 1.5 feet at the State Route 164 gauge means ideal fishing conditions, but when it reaches 5 feet, check for calmer waters nearby, such as the Little Piney and Mulberry in Johnson County. The upper creek, from Limestone to Long Pool in western Pope County, is a mix of Class I to Class III rapids, depending on water levels, but it's better suited for anglers below Long Pool. From there, it's 5 miles to the Route 164 bridge, with takeouts downstream at Russian Bridge, an AGFC walk-in access and Tate's Island Ford, all in Pope County. The creek staggers back into Johnson County for its stretch run, where it empties into Piney Bay, an excellent largemouth bass fishery northeast of Knoxville that's part of Lake Dardanelle and the Arkansas River system.

In Newton County, the Big Piney falls under Ozark zone rules, with a two-fish daily limit of smallmouths that are 12 inches or longer. Outside the county, the statewide daily limit of four bronzebacks, 10 inches or longer, is in effect. For shore lunches and campfire dinners, we actually prefer catfish, which are particularly mild when taken from mountain streams and baked whole, in heavy foil with lemon slices and seasonings over driftwood coals.

CADDO RIVER

Unless it has just rained, the 40-mile upper Caddo is as gentle as an old Lab that's become a trusted housedog. The river is bursting with smallmouths, spotted bass and sunfish. This overlooked Ouachita Mountain stream arises west of Norman in southwest Montgomery County (another great put-in with rentals nearby), crosses the northeast corner of Pike County and empties into the backwaters of DeGray Lake in northern Clark County. A reading of 5.75 to 7 feet on the Caddo gauge means good floating and fishing.

We chose the 8 1/2 mile run from Glenwood, in northeast Pike County, to the State Route 84 bridge at the friendly town of Amity for our inaugural float trip years ago. We still recommend it for neophytes or for veteran paddlers. The only problem we encountered in its mostly Class I waters was dawdling to catch smallmouths and gawking at a huge water snake engulfing a bluegill, which forced us to paddle the last 4 miles like we were beating eggs to race the evening sun to the takeout. We arrived tired, happy -- and most importantly -- dry when the van from Arrowhead Cabin and Canoe (www.arrowheadcabinandcanoe.com) picked us up.

The AGFC classifies the Caddo as a Ouachita Zone Quality Stream, which carries a daily limit of two smallmouths that must be at least 12 inches long.

BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER

This is the granddaddy of them all: Our first national river carves a 135-mile, eastward path from its source in the Boston Mountains through ancient limestone bluffs in Newton, Marion and Searcy counties until it blends into the White River in Baxter County. The upper river has more dramatic scenery and whitewater after rains, but we like the easy paddling and excellent fishing on the lower river.

A reading of 3.5 to 5.9 feet on the gauge at the State Route 14 bridge (Dillard Ferry in Marion County) means relaxed and portage-free fishing from the U.S. Route 65 bridge, southeast of St. Joe in Searcy County, all the way to the White River. From Highway 65, the next few put-in and takeout spots downstream are at Gilbert, Maumee North and South, and at Spring Creek. Marion County's accesses include Dillard's Ferry, Buffalo Point, Rush and Rivercliff. The National Park Service's comprehensive Web site, www.nps.gov/buff, describes the river, lists all its accesses and provides contact information for approved canoe rentals and shuttle services, which often serve other Ozarks rivers.

While casting to holes and boulders in the lazy pools below mouth-gaping bluffs is tempting, smallmouths feed more heavily in moving water. Beach your boat on gravel bars to fish riffles and the tailouts of rapids. Even in the cover of moving water, smallmouths are wary; anglers who kneel to cast, wade quietly and avoid throwing shadows will hook far more bronzebacks.

As an Ozark Zone Blue Ribbon Stream, the Buffalo has a two-fish daily limit above Clabber Creek for smallmouths that must be at least 14 inches long. From there -- roughly 20 or so river miles down to the White River confluence -- it's strictly trophy fishing, with a limit of one smallmouth, 18 inches or better.

Despite the geographic limitations of their distribution, smallmouth bass are easily available to most Arkansans, and they help many of us to imagine the state's pioneer days as we float and fish through the rugged and scenic Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains. In addition to the six streams featured here, the Natural State has many more productive smallmouth bass fisheries. We hope you'll enjoy many of them this year.

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