Winter Floats For Natural State Smallmouths

If it's big bronzebacks you're after, January and February are the months to head out to the cool, clear streams of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. (January 2006)

Photo by Tom Evans

Snow flurries were falling from a silvery January sky. It seemed crazy to be starting a float-fishing trip, but that we were. We pushed our canoe from the gravel bar and began Day One of a two-day float down west Arkansas' Caddo River. We quickly became absorbed in the scenic Ouachita Mountain landscape that surrounds the river near Glenwood.

Cold, crystalline water carried us through mountain passes cuffed with snow-covered hardwoods. Curtains of icicles sparkled along riverside bluffs, and wood ducks flushed before us. As we paddled farther from civilization, we became enveloped in the stark, elemental beauty only winter can create.

Fishing in pools and riffles, we caught several kinds of fish -- crappie, spotted bass, rock bass and a variety of sunfish. None of these, however, could compare to the smallmouth bass that comprised most of our catch. Seeming to lurk behind every rock, they were small fish mostly -- 1 to 2 pounds -- but the action was steady and enjoyable. We released them back to the river, but kept a few panfish for a gravel-bar supper that night.

As I watched those fish sizzling over the campfire, I found myself extremely content to be sitting comfortably on a remote riverbank watching it snow. This trip had seemed at first a ridiculous notion. It had become, instead, a fun and memorable outing.

If you get cabin fever this winter, plan a smallmouth-fishing excursion of your own. It can be hard to find a quiet smallmouth-fishing spot in spring, summer and fall. But such is not the case in winter. Head for a cool, clear mountain stream in the Ozark or Ouachita mountains this January or February, and you'll find a pervasive feeling of peace and quiet: no boats, no tourists -- just a relaxing away-from-it-all atmosphere.

And the fishing? Well, smallmouth angling is darned good during the warm months -- but in winter, it's superb. If it's big bronzebacks you're after, January and February are the months to go. Good fishing, lots of big 'uns, and no crowds: three factors that make Arkansas' mountain streams ideal places for beating the winter blues.

Convinced yet? If so, consider some of the following waters when planning a trip this season.

BUFFALO RIVER

Arkansas' best-known smallmouth stream is the Buffalo National River. During warm months, hordes of visitors detract from the peaceful, aesthetic values that are the reason many anglers go fishing in the first place. But in winter, crowds on the river have thinned, and anglers can enjoy a more peaceful, relaxing float through gorgeous canyons with sky-high bluffs.

The Buffalo is a model smallmouth stream, with clear, fast, oxygen-rich water and a gravel bottom and boulder beds that smallmouths love. 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 in winter, one of the best 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 crayfish scurrying backward for cover. Other good winter lure choices include crankbaits fashioned to imitate crayfish and minnows, the smallmouth's favorite prey, and small soft-plastic jerkbaits weighted for an underwater retrieve.

The Buffalo flows through more than 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 state highways 7 and 123 (10 miles, with accesses and campsites at Carver and Hasty); the float from Arkansas Highway 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 state Highway 14); and the final stretch from Buffalo Point to Buffalo City (30 miles, with a single takeout point at Rush).

MULBERRY RIVER

Though often overlooked by Arkansas' smallmouth fans, the Mulberry River is one of the finest Ozark Mountain smallmouth streams. The river gets a bit wild during high-water periods, with waters rated from medium to difficult, but the Mulberry receives high marks from the fishing public. Winter smallmouth fishing is good, and anglers will also find largemouth and spotted bass to keep the action hot.

The Mulberry flows in a west-southwesterly course from state Highway 21 just north of Ozone to below Interstate 40 near Mulberry. Along the way it passes near the towns of Catalupa, Oark and Cass.

The first major put-in is where state Highway 103 crosses the river two miles southwest of Oark. You can take out where Forest Road 1504 crosses (11 1/2 miles downstream) or at the U.S. Forest Service's Wolf Pen Recreation Area, two and a half miles below the 103 bridge. The second float starts at the 1504 access and ends six or seven miles downstream, at the state Highway 24 crossing at Turner's Bend. The Forest Service's Redding Campground is midway through this trip. The third major float originates at the Highway 23 bridge and continues eight and a half miles to Milton's Ford on Forest Road 1501, west of state Highway 23. The last float, from Milton's Ford to state Highway 215 north of Mulberry, is an 18-20 mile trip through remote, virtually inaccessible country.

Two top baits favored by local anglers are live night crawlers and small grub-type jigs. Since smallmouth bass are sight feeders, proper bait presentation is a key element in taking fish. Remember that brownies don't hunt for their dinner -- they rest behind a rock or other current break and ambush prey floating past them. You'll take more bass if you cast upstream and allow your bait to float past such areas in as natural a manner as possible.

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 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.

Much of the Mulberry flows through the Ozark National Forest, but portions pass through private property. Thus, visitors should take care not to trespass. Supplies and overnight accommodations are available in Ozark, 15 miles

south of the Highway 23 crossing.

ELEVEN POINT RIVER

The Eleven Point River enters northeast Arkansas from Missouri near the town of Elm Store and courses southward to merge with the Spring River near Old Davidsonville State Park, a distance of about 40 miles. Its name is derived from its 11 principal tributaries.

The upper section in Missouri flows through national forest land and features rock bluffs typical of Ozark float streams. In Arkansas, the land around the stream changes gradually from gentle hills to Mississippi River delta country. The lower Eleven Point's strong points are its cold, clear water, gravel bottom, abundant logs, and loads of smallmouth bass.

On the lower river, below Dalton, are near-vertical banks of sand and gravel rising more than 10 feet high. These banks are often undercut and cave in, taking trees and undergrowth that clog the stream with brush, logs, stumps and roots. In some place the channel is completely blocked to floaters, but the in-washed cover provides a haven for outsized brownies.

In addition to trees and brush, five old stone dams require special consideration by the floater. Because of these obstructions, only experienced and careful canoeists should attempt the part of the river below Dalton, and then only at low to medium stages. Above Dalton, the river is comparatively safe for novices at low to medium levels. When the river is near bank-full, it shouldn't be tackled by anyone.

There are plenty of smallmouths in the Eleven Point, and while an occasional 3- or 4-pounder is caught, most will weigh 1 to 2 pounds. Even so, the number of brownies is exceptional, and it's not unheard of to haul in a pair of smallmouths on a single crankbait.

When the water is clear, shallow-diving slim-minnow plugs on 6-pound-test line are recommended. On those rare occasions when rains give the water some turbidity, large spinners and crankbaits also are good producers.


I found myself extremely content to be sitting comfortably on a remote riverbank watching it snow. This trip had seemed at first a ridiculous notion. It had become, instead, a fun and memorable outing.
 

Access to the Eleven Point is available at five bridge sites. The first float, from Missouri Highway 142 to the state Highway 193 bridge at Dalton, covers 15.4 miles. It's nine miles from Dalton to the Highway 90 access, and 11 miles farther to the U.S. Highway 62 takeout area. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintains a public landing on the Black River just below the junction with the Spring River, and four and a half miles below the end of the Eleven Point at Spring River. This last ramp is 14 miles below the U.S. 62 access.

CADDO RIVER

Caddo River smallmouths are fat and spunky. They average a pound or so in weight, but on a good trip you may catch and release dozens, including, perhaps, some 3- to 5-pounders.

The Caddo flows near or through the Ouachita Mountain communities of Black Springs, Norman, Caddo Gap, Glenwood and Amity. The stream is floatable above Norman, but only after extended rainfall. The eight-mile float from Norman to Caddo Gap rarely holds enough water for a summer float, but winter rains usually keep levels high enough for a January smallmouth trip.

The most popular Caddo River float is the six-mile journey from Caddo Gap to Glenwood. This stretch has small rapids, long gravel bars and plenty of good bass fishing in boulder beds and treetops. The float from Glenwood to Amity features long pools and less intense rapids, but it, too, provides outstanding smallmouth fishing. Traditional put-in and take-out points along the river include: the bridge immediately west of Norman; the launching area beside state Highway 8 at Glenwood; the old low-water bridge on state Highway 182 north of Amity; and the state Highway 84 bridge, northeast of Amity.

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. Sometimes a brownie's strike sets the hook, but the fish's mouth is so hard that it's a good idea to give your rod a couple of good pokes for insurance. One more thing: Continue your retrieve right up to your rod tip. Bass sometimes come up and hit your lure right at the boat.

Every acre along the Caddo is privately owned, so anglers should be extremely careful about trespassing.

KINGS RIVER

You'll have to look long and hard to find a better winter smallmouth hotspot than the Kings River. Gentle and clear, the river twists through an endless expanse of the rolling north Arkansas Ozarks, usually beneath a canopy of hardwoods. At every bend there's another surprise: a deer at streamside; a deep, dark lunker hole in a gigantic pool below a long, narrow riffle; ducks flushing just ahead of the boat. Such ingredients make a float on Kings River totally delightful and unforgettable, and cold-season smallmouth fishing is superb.

The Kings River covers 90 miles from its headwaters high in the Boston Mountains of Madison County to the Arkansas/Missouri border. The county road access northwest of Marble is a traditional starting place for many Kings River visitors. After 11 miles of deep pools, overhanging trees, occasional rapids and several large bluffs, floaters arrive at Marshall Ford, an access point northeast of Alabam. The second stretch, from Marshal Ford to Rockhouse, is a 15-mile trip through quiet backcountry. Other floats include the seven-mile stretch from Rockhouse to Trigger Gap; the 12-mile float from Trigger Gap to the U.S. Highway 62 crossing; the 12-mile run from the Highway 62 crossing to Summers Ford (off state Highway 143); and the final four miles to Table Rock Lake.

Action is fast in spring and fall, but the really big smallmouths usually are taken in midwinter. A big advantage of a winter trip is that fishing pressure is light, and guides and accommodations are easy to find in the area.

Concentrate your casts in still pockets, side sloughs and pools. Skip the fast water. Still water with dark shadows in it holds most of the Kings' real lunkers year 'round. Good winter artificials include large tandem spinnerbaits with trailing pork rind, 6- or 7-inch diving minnow plugs, and the jig-and-pig. When the water is clear, try very small spinners with split fly-strip pork rind, or small crawfish-imitating crankbaits.

A SMALLMOUTH BOUNTY

One of Arkansas' most precious yet largely unheralded assets is its wealth of smallmouth bass streams. We've mentioned just a few. Other excellent streams to try this winter

include Big Piney Creek, the Cossatot River, Illinois Bayou, the Little Missouri River, the Saline River, the Strawberry River and the Spring River.

Do me a favor, though: If you tell folks about our great smallmouth fishing, tell them to come in the spring, summer or fall. Our winter smallmouth fishing? Well, that's always been a secret 'tween us Arkies. I vote we keep it that way.

For information on outfitters offering canoe rentals, shuttle services and other amenities on the streams mentioned above, log on to www. arkansas.com and follow the prompts. Fishing regulations for each stream are included in the current fishing regulations guide available at license dealers statewide or by visiting

www.agfc.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.)

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.