In Search Of A Stream

Knowing how to identify a good smallmouth stream can make the difference between an empty stringer and a full skillet. We'll share a few of our statewide favorites, and tell how we found them. (June 2006)

Like many Arkansas sportsmen, I list the smallmouth bass as one of my very favorite game fish. Although lacking the gaping maws of their bucketmouth cousins, these handsome, slow-growing fish are aggressive predators that willingly take artificial lures, flies and bait. Perhaps best of all, bronzebacks prefer cool, clear moving water, and so live in some of the state's most remote and ruggedly beautiful territory.

Smallmouths are fish that are worth extra effort, though, and some of my best fishing memories involve finding smallmouths in remote waters on national forest land by following winding creeks and their tributaries on foot. With a little determination and a few starting points on some of the Natural State's best smallmouth waters, you can enjoy adventurous smallmouth bass fishing, too.

TRIALS AND TRIBUTARIES

In our younger days, my best fishing buddy, Dan Howard of Little Rock, and I spent countless happy hours hiking through parts of the Ouachita National Forest in search of seldom-fished creeks that might hold a few smallmouths.

Our technique for locating secluded fishing holes couldn't have been simpler: After parking our vehicle where year-round creeks crossed roads in the national forest, we hiked along the creeks, exploring branches and casting inline spinners, jigs and tiny crankbaits into every likely-looking hole. Our primary tools were topo maps, patience and sturdy footwear.

Obviously, this strategy is no startling revelation, but what made the outings so successful was our enthusiasm for seeing what lay just around the next bend. We were willing to follow the shoreline trails or wade or twist our way through brush and briars just a little farther than most of the others who'd been there before us.

When we got out of sight of human intrusion, we also found ourselves in the range of better fishing. We often located fish-filled pools a little as a 100 or 200 yards off the road and surrounded by the prints of only deer, raccoons and the occasional bear. We also learned that you'll find some of the best holes by looking up, where you'll notice sunlight pouring into distant openings in the forest canopy that indicate open water below.

While Dan and I did our smallmouth-stalking on foot, you'll cover even more ground and avoid any chances of trespassing on private property by using a canoe. Here's a quick review of some of the best places in the state from which to start your next smallmouth adventure.

OUACHITA RIVER

The stretches of the Ouachita River and its tributaries that lie within the Ouachita National Forest in western Arkansas' Montgomery County are perfect examples of the types of water my buddy Dan and I explored for great smallmouth fishing. The 40 or so miles of the Ouachita from Pine Ridge into Lake Ouachita provide outstanding smallmouth action, and they're surrounded by public land with plenty of feeder creeks.

Shoreline access with room to launch canoes is at the U.S. Forest Service's Shirley Creek, Rocky Shoals, Fulton Branch, Dragover and River Bluff access points in Montgomery County. Every tributary that holds even a few inches of water is apt to hold some feisty smallmouths, so check out Brushy Creek, Hackberry Creek and House Creek while you're in the area.

In addition to crossing them on the Ouachita River, you'll see them from state Highway 88, which parallels the river. You may keep two smallmouths at least 12 inches in length per day. A bit farther south in the county, you'll find the South Fork of the Ouachita River, which also feeds into Lake Ouachita. Warm Creek and Woods Creek are interesting tributaries.

You can purchase topographic maps of the forest -- your most valuable hunting and fishing tool -- from the Forest Service for $6.51 per quad plus handling fees (by mail). Call the Forest Service's district office in Hot Springs at (501) 321-5202 for details or follow links to the Maps section of the Ouachita National Forest web site, www.fs.fed.us/r8/ouachita/.

CROOKED CREEK

One of the state's finest smallmouth destinations, Crooked Creek flows 80 miles in north-central Arkansas from Newton County across Boone and Marion Counties until it empties into the upper White River. This unique confluence is one of the few places where you might catch a trout on one cast and a smallmouth or largemouth on the next. You'll want to canoe most of Crooked Creek because most of the bank is private property, but the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission offers outstanding shoreline access near its Fred Berry Conservation and Education Center at Yellville.

"Our property actually covers two and three-quarter miles of the creek," said Marilyn Ply, the center's manager. "We have a trail on the property that goes up the creek close to a mile, and people are welcome to fish there." While locals tend to stick close to Kelley's Slab, a well-known fishing hotspot on Marion County Road 4002, other anglers have told Ply they caught as many as 40 fish while walking along the trail.

The center is open only on weekdays and vehicle access is shut down on weekends, but anglers on foot or hikers are welcome to access the property seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, Ply confirmed. On the AGFC's property, smallmouth fishing is strictly a catch-and-release affair, but you may keep two 14-inch smallmouths per day on most of the rest of the Creek. The river also includes two zones with a limit of one fish, minimum length 18 inches.

KINGS RIVER AND TRIBUTARIES

The Kings River begins in the Boston Mountains of Madison County and flows northward through Carroll County into Table Rock Lake in northwest Arkansas. The 90-mile stream is best fished from a canoe, but there's plenty of room for wading or shorebound anglers at the river's many public accesses, including those at Marble, Marshal Ford, Trigger Gap, below the U.S. Highway 62 bridge and Summer's Ford.

The Kings has a justified reputation for producing heavyweight bronzebacks, and you should pack some largemouth-sized lures along with your scaled-down smallmouth gear. Warm Fork Creek, which leads to the Rockhouse access, will hold some smallmouths, and Osage Creek, which flows into the Kings River just above the U.S. Highway 62 bridge outside of Eureka Springs, has an excellent population of 12- to 14-inch smallmouths, according to AGFC biologists who sampled fish populations there in recent years.

Depending on the time of year you're fishing and water levels, you may find it worth your while to paddle into Pine Creek, Bee Creek or Brush Creek -- all tributaries o

f the Kings River in northwestern Carroll County. The Kings River has a daily limit of two smallmouths, with a 14-inch minimum-length limit and includes a long stretch of water with a limit of one fish, minimum length 18 inches.

CADDO RIVER

Covering 40 miles in southwestern Arkansas within the Ouachita National Forest, the Caddo River is a first-class float stream for beginning canoeists and has a generous population of sporty smallmouth bass. The Caddo's source is west of Black Springs in southwestern Montgomery County, and it flows eastward and southward into DeGray Lake in northern Clark County.

Although locals often ply these calm waters with crawfish or shiners, it's a great place to switch-hit the fish with fly-fishing gear. Streamers such as Woolly Buggers and Clouser Minnows imitate those two popular natural baits, and brightly-colored popping bugs will bring out the best in the river's smallish but aggressive smallmouths. Just before sunset in the summer months, you may even have a chance at some dry-fly fishing when hatches of large mayflies occur.

Between Caddo Gap and Glenwood, the most popular stretch of the river among paddlers, consider exploring Gap Creek and Fivemile Creek, and you'll encounter the river's South Fork before you reach Glenwood. Once you cross over into Clark County, tributaries worth exploring include Carey and Sugarloaf creeks -- depending on water levels, which can vary with the seasons. The Caddo has a two-fish limit, and both must be at least 12 inches.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The AGFC's 2006 Fishing Guidebook, available free at bait and tackle shops and outdoors-related businesses statewide, contains information about all the rivers and creeks mentioned here, including special regulations for smallmouths.

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