Summer Smallies On The Spring River

Northeast Arkansas' Spring River and its neighbor the Eleven Point River are, together, a virtually fail-safe bet for smallmouths. (June 2007)

Photo by Bruce Ingram.

Smallmouth bass in Arkansas don't attain the double-digit sizes of their bucket-mouthed cousins, but it's still easy to make a convincing case for them as our sportiest game fish. After all, they're a unique combination of largemouth's greedy and evil intentions toward anything that remotely looks edible with the sleek, muscular athleticism of a saltwater fish. The result is aggressive assaults on your bait and lures and rod-straining battles punctuated by skirmishes above and below the water's surface.


As a bonus, bronzebacks tend to set up housekeeping where the water is clean and cool, so you get to pursue them in some of the Natural State's most remote and pristine areas. Smallies are most at home in creeks and rivers, and the most effective way to stalk them is from a canoe or flatbottom boat. Unfortunately, that also puts you at the mercy of Mother Nature and her capricious ways with water levels--especially at this time of year, when parts of legendary fisheries such as the Buffalo River routinely go bone-dry for weeks at a time.

However, the northeast corner of Arkansas is full of running water, including the spring-fed Spring and Eleven Point rivers, which shrug off the heat of summer with plenty of water for float-fishing. Even better, recent Arkansas Game and Fish Commission studies prove that these rivers support dense, healthy populations of smallmouths that include plenty of top-quality fish.


After crunching the numbers from countless hours of electrofishing on both rivers with fellow district biologist Sam Barkley, assistant fisheries biologist Sam Henry declares, "The statistics make them some of the fastest-growing smallmouth bass in any river system in the south."


In fact, growth rates on these streams match those of Crooked Creek, which the AGFC cites as a premier smallmouth stream. The agency's population studies revealed which parts of each river are likely to be the richest for fishermen and even include data that suggest the most productive lures and bait to use. To help you enjoy these outstanding fisheries, here's our comprehensive guide to floating and fishing the Spring and Eleven Point rivers.

SPRING RIVER OVERVIEW

The aptly named Spring River arises as a gentle creek just north of the Missouri line near Thayer, and then earns its name at Mammoth Spring in northeastern Fulton County, where Arkansas' largest spring fills it with almost 10 million gallons of 58-degree water per hour. From there, the Spring follows a southerly and southeasterly course for about 45 miles to its confluence with the Black River along the Randolph/Lawrence county line.

In the cold, upper river, trout prevail. However, farther downstream, the river goes through what Henry describes as "transition zones," where trout decline as water temperatures and the numbers of smallmouths and other coolwater and warmwater fish rise. Expect heavy recreational boat traffic on weekends and holidays from now into the fall.

ROLLIN' DOWN THE SPRING

Access to the Spring River is excellent. You can start a trip downstream at the AGFC's Cold Springs Access off U.S. Highway 63 two miles below Mammoth Spring in northeastern Fulton County. The popular Dam No. 3 access is one and a half river miles below Cold Springs on state Highway 342 a mile west of its intersection with U.S. 63.

The AGFC's Bayou Access is at river mile 6 off Fulton County Road 67. Between there and the next major stop, at Many Islands Camp you'll paddle to Cottonwood, Saddler and Horseshoe falls and pass two resort/outfitters. Rookies should stop to study these drops from shore. Once you're beyond such dropoffs, turn around and cast into them-smallmouths lurk beneath the edges, watching for prey.

Many Islands Camp is the next busy access, about eight miles below Mammoth Spring. Myatt Creek, another fine smallmouth fishery that can become too low to navigate in the summer, is on the right a mile and a half below Many Islands. About two and a half miles farther downstream, watch for another waterfall with standing waves best left to expert paddlers; beginners should portage. Some outfitters also use the privately owned access at Taylor's Camp, which is about 13 1/2 miles downriver from Mammoth Spring.

Hardy Beach, a public park about 18 1/2 miles downstream from Mammoth Spring, is another favorite put-in and takeout spot with outfitters and visitors with their own canoes and vehicles. The AGFC maintains the next public ramp at the L.B. Access, a few miles downstream on the northeastern edge of the Harold E. Alexander Wildlife Management Area.

Williford is the next access, where you can put in or take out behind the post office on state Highway 58 about two miles south of its intersection with U.S. Highway 63. This stop is ten miles below Hardy Beach. It's another five miles from there to Ravenden, where you'll find one access just south of town and another to the east at the U.S. Highway 63 bridge. The final section of the river covers 15 miles from Ravenden to the state Highway 166 bridge next to Old Davidsonville State Park, where the Eleven Point and Spring meet. You can also get on the river at an AGFC ramp five miles below Ravenden at the U.S. Highway 62 bridge at Imboden.

WHERE ARE THE SMALLMOUTHS?

"It seems to me that the best smallmouth portion of the river is probably from Many Islands down to Hardy," Henry says, recalling personal experience while awaiting final results of a three-year study that he and Barkley will complete later this year. "We didn't see many smallmouths in the upper portion of the river, in the trout waters," which he describes as the first four and a half miles below the spring.

Henry and Barkley electrofished the river at different times between the fall of 2004 and spring 2006 and have calculated important fishery descriptors, such as the electrofishing catch rate per hour (which indicates population densities) and the average percentage of smallmouths that were more than 11 inches long and more than 14 inches long in a given area. These proportional and relative stock density numbers indicate the percentage of fish in a population that have reached first-quality sizes.

In both years, the river around Taylor's Camp produced the highest catch rates, with averages that exceed the statewide average for smallmouth streams by a large margin. The 2004-2005 portion of the study suggests you'll find quality fishing between the Spring River hatchery and Pierce Creek, where 62 percent of the smallmouths were over 11 inches long and 19 percent exceeded 14 inches. And when the biologists pinpointed the Hardy-to-Pierce-Creek area, the percentage of fish 11 inches or longer shot up to 8

3 percent, but the overall population was smaller.

The 2005-06 portion of the study noted good catch rates between Saddler Falls and Hardy Beach. The section with the most fish over 11 inches -- 65 percent of the sample -- was on the lower river between Pierce Creek and Rock Creek. About 21 percent of the bronzebacks between Many Islands and Taylor's Camp -- which also had the highest catch rate, thus making it the hottest of hotspots -- were 14 inches or longer.

No one knows where they'll be as you're reading this, but you might do well to put in at Many Islands and fish to Hardy this summer -- which is a lot more fun than waiting for the final results to be published next year.

HINTS FOR PADDLERS

First-time paddlers on the Spring must exercise some caution. At normal flows, more than 30 class I and II rapids and a few 1- to 3-foot falls pepper the river. Most have navigable chutes, but just about everyone portages at the low-water bridge 12 1/2 miles downstream from Mammoth Spring and at High Falls, a 5- to 6-foot drop a half-mile upstream from Hardy.

Avoid high-water events and understand that you can be on a challenging river by yourself during cold weather, when outfitters close for the season. However, in warm weather, you're going to have more than enough company. Consider fishing on weekdays or launching at daybreak, and serious anglers don't even think about coming here on holidays. Outfitters in Hardy, Mammoth Spring and along the river rent canoes and provide shuttle service for $30-$50. Because hypothermia is a threat most of the year, it's not unusual to see paddlers in wetsuits on all but the hottest days.

ELEVEN POINT OVERVIEW

The Eleven Point River arises in Howell County, Missouri and flows 100 miles before it enters Randolph County to begin its 40-mile Arkansas stint, which ends when it joins the Spring River near Black Rock. About 70 percent of its flow comes from springs, so it's floatable year 'round.

Although the river features a series of stone dams that challenge beginning paddlers, it's easier to navigate than the Spring thanks to a gentler gradient. Expect to see plenty of smallmouths and other fish. In fact, Barkley says it's not unusual to catch five different species on five consecutive casts here.

PUBLIC ACCESS POINTS

The Eleven Point is a bit more remote than the Spring, so there's often less competition among fishermen-but there are also fewer accesses and outfitters. You can get on the river five miles north of the Arkansas line at the Missouri state Highway 142 bridge near Calm. A mile or two below a sign that welcomes paddlers to Arkansas, you'll run into the first of the old dams. They're usually navigable, but conservative paddlers often stop to pick a chute.

About eight miles downstream lies the second abandoned mill, where newcomers portage to the right. The next access is at Woody's Canoe Rental and Campground -- (870) 892-9732 -- about four miles northwest of Dalton in northern Randolph County. At Dalton, swift currents make for a challenging put-in near the state Highway 93 bridge, also on private property.

Another eight miles downstream, be prepared to portage around the third dam and the willow strainers immediately below. From there, it's a mile to the state Highway 90 bridge, where you'll see what looks like a landing -- but it's on private property and posted, according to Internet forums. The next stop is at the bridge on Black's Ferry Road (County Road 527), where a steep bank leads to a tricky access in deep water.

You can paddle over the fourth dam a mile above the AGFC's access near the U.S. 62 bridge west of Pocahontas. From there, shoot through one of several breeches in the fifth and final stone dam a few miles above the Eleven Point's confluence with the Spring. It's another four and a half miles on the Spring to the AGFC's public ramp on the Black River. Lodging and supplies are available at Pocahontas, and Old Davidsonville State Park offers camping.

FINDING THE SMALLMOUTHS

During the AGFC's three-year study of the Eleven Point, the highest average catch rate occurred from the mill dam to Woody's Campground and Canoe Rental and from Woody's downstream to Dalton. Generally, you'll find more smallmouths above there, and the population dwindles downstream, especially below Black's Ferry Bridge. However, that decline is balanced by a general increase in the percentage of larger fish, Henry says.

Overall, 32 percent of the smallmouths sampled from the river were 11 inches or longer, a figure that doubles the statewide average. About 10 percent were 14 inches or longer, which exceeds the state average by 40 percent. These numbers mean that you should expect to catch plenty of average-sized fish anywhere between Woody's and the Black's Ferry Bridge and that you'll find bigger fish around the U.S. 62 bridge, where 16 percent of the smallies exceeded 14 inches.

PADDLING ADVICE

The Eleven Point has fewer rapids than the Spring -- mostly in the Class I and II range -- but heavy rains change its gentle nature. In addition to the dams, beware the braided currents through gravel islands that occasionally cave in below Dalton in Randolph County. As on the Spring, you'll pass tempting campsites, but remember that private land borders most of these rivers and treat it and the owners with respect.

Despite these warnings, don't hesitate to take on the Eleven Point. The outstanding scenery and fishing are well worth it.

FISHING TACTICS

For either river, choose light spinning or spincast outfits and an assortment of small lures, including inline spinners, jigs, crankbaits, plugs and soft plastics. Of course, both rivers have plenty of smallmouths that can suck down your largemouth-worthy lures, too.

Barkley and Henry checked stomach contents of about 400 Eleven Point smallmouths during the study. Almost 40 percent had empty tanks, but we can make some intriguing assumptions from those with grub in their bellies. For example, about 27 percent of the sampled smallies had ingested fish-only dinners, but few had dined on small sunfishes. So you might want to choose silvery lures that imitate minnows -- or net native baitfish for live presentation -- instead of chunky artificials that represent sunfish. A higher incidence of insects in smallmouth stomachs during the summer suggests that you might want to pack some fly-fishing gear now, too.

Study results suggest that you can rely on crayfish imitations because "during the summer, smallmouth bass utilized crayfish more often than they did any other item." One-third of the sampled smallmouths had only crayfish in their stomachs, and 70 percent of those with more than one food in their guts had downed at least one crayfish. If that doesn't have you stocking your box with fake crawdads, this study fact will: "Adult smallmouth bass . . . consumed about equal numbers of crayfish and fish, but smallmouths over 12 inches selected crayfish 2 to 1 over fish."

Henry is anxious to try a live-bait trick a local fisherman may have borrowed from Ozark trout anglers: fishing a red worm, inflated with air from a hypodermic ne

edle, slowly along the bottom on a Carolina rig. "It's new to me, and it's supposed to be the best new technique for catching smallmouths and everything else on the Eleven Point," he said.

RIVER REGULATIONS

The AGFC designated the Spring River as an Ozark Zone Quality Stream about a decade ago, and the Eleven Point received the same rating last year. Both rivers now carry a 14-inch minimum length limit on all smallmouths and a two-fish daily limit. State law limits motors to no more than 25 horsepower on the Eleven Point from the Missouri line to the Spring River.

Reflecting on his district's outstanding smallmouth fishing, Henry admitted that publicity about the studies on these rivers might attract even more anglers to them. When asked whether the Spring and Eleven Point deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Arkansas classics such as Crooked Creek and the Buffalo National River, he said, "Yes -- but the locals aren't going to be very happy to hear that!"

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