Arkansas' Steamy Winter Smallmouths
September 24, 2010
The winter blues won't get you down when you're fishing for sassy winter smallmouths in the Ouachitas and Ozarks.
With snow flurries falling from a silvery January sky, it seemed quite ridiculous to be starting a float-fishing trip - but such was our intent. We pushed our canoe from the gravel bar and began day one of a two-day float down central Arkansas' Saline River.
It started as something of a lark. I mentioned to my best friend Lewis Peeler that a co-worker of mine had been catching some nice smallmouths and walleyes on the Saline.
"You should come over," I said. "We could give it a try one afternoon."
"Is there a place we can put in and float for more than one day?" he asked.
"I'm sure there is," I replied. "What you got in mind? An overnighter?"
"Why not?" he answered. "We haven't been camping in a while, and some time away from the office would do us both good."
And so, that same weekend, amidst lightly falling snow, we left the worries of our jobs behind and became absorbed in the scenic Ouachita Mountain landscape that surrounds the Saline River above Benton.
If you want to catch big smallmouths in Arkansas, fish in the winter. Crowds are thin -- and the lunkers are biting! Photo by Keith Sutton
The Saline is the last major undammed stream in the entire Ouachita Mountains drainage. We found its upper reaches extraordinarily beautiful. 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 were enveloped by the stark, elemental beauty only winter can create.
The walleyes eluded us, but fishing in pools and riffles, we caught many other kinds of fish: crappie, spotted bass, rock bass and a variety of sunfish. None of these, however, could compare to the smallmouth bass that composed most of our catch. Small fish mostly - 1 to 2 pounds - they seemed to lurk behind every rock, and the action was steady and enjoyable. We released them back to the river, but keep 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 watching it snow as I sat comfortably on a remote riverbank. This trip that had at first seemed a ridiculous notion had instead turned out to be a fun and memorable outing.
If you get cabin fever this winter, plan a smallmouth 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 brownies you're after, January and February are the months to go after them in. 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 you're planning a trip this season.
CHILLY SMALLMOUTH HOTSPOTS The upper divisions of the Saline River above Benton -the Middle, Alum and North forks - contain healthy smallmouth populations rarely tempted by anglers' offerings. Here you'll find clear, cool water creating a series of fast-running shoals interspersed with short, quiet pools. Floating for any significant distance is difficult unless the water is high, so most visitors opt for wade-fishing around highway and county road crossings and a few old backcountry fords at which access is still available by asking landowner permission. Notable bassing sites that are easy to find include the Highway 9 crossing, about four miles north of Crows, and the Highway 5 crossing, about a mile east of Crows. The land along the river is largely privately owned, so avoid trespassing in posted areas.
Upper Saline River
A short stretch (about three miles) of the Alum Fork directly below Lake Winona in the northwest corner of Saline County lies within the Ouachita National Forest. A parking/ picnic area adjacent the lake provides easy access. Slip on some hip boots or waders and you can easily make your way along this beautiful stretch of water, where smallmouths up to 1 or 2 pounds can be enticed with small jig/spinner combos, tiny crawfish crankbaits and live baits such as night crawlers and small crawfish. The pools here are short but sometimes deep, and bronzebacks usually lurk around rock ledges and boulders.
If wade-fishing isn't your cup of tea, you can canoe from Benton's Lyle Park (on Highway 5 at the north edge of town) to the Interstate 30 access (off the eastbound access road at Exit 116) and expect to catch a mixed bag of smallmouths and spotted bass. The distance is only three miles or so, but if you fish the pools thoroughly, it's a nice three- to four-hour trip with a short shuttle.
A couple of miles into the float, you'll encounter a low-head dam. Barely noticeable from the river upstream, it forms a deep pool from which the city of Benton draws its water supply. You'll have to be attentive to avoid the sharp drop at the dam's edge; watch for the pumping station on the left bank just above the dam. This is a good place to stop and fish for a while, as you'll have to portage around the dam, anyway. Big smallmouths, walleyes and catfish all congregate in the pool during winter, providing first-rate fishing opportunities for savvy anglers.
Upper Ouachita River The headwaters of Ouachita lie just north of Mena, near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. After passing Cherry Hill and then Pine Ridge, the stream continues 30 miles eastward, skirting the west Arkansas towns of Oden and Pencil Bluff, to below Sims, north of Mount Ida. The upper river fulfills its destiny by transforming into lakes Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine near Hot Springs National Park.
One popular float-fishing stretch is the 10-mile run from Oden to the Rocky Branch Campground. The put-in point is the Arkansas Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden; the campground take-out is at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing. The scenery, which features a towering bluff a few miles above the take-out, is stirring.
This stretch is custom-made for smallmouth bass. Its waters are clear, cool and fast-flowing, and there's a good mix of long deep pools and ra
pids. There are lots of big rocks, deep runs under steep banks and downed timber that offer shade, food and protection from the current. That's where you'll find the smallmouths.
Most local smallmouth anglers prefer live baits, particularly crayfish and minnows. However, any artificial designed to imitate the smallmouth's natural prey will usually get results. Plastic worms and salamanders, crayfish- and minnow-imitation crankbaits, and the pork-frog/jig combination are all worth trying.
Try casting slightly upstream and letting the bait drift with the current on a slack line. Guide the lure past and behind as many large rocks as you can pick out, hopping it along with short flips of your rod tip. Make the retrieve slow, too.
Several other floats also are possible on the upper Ouachita. The uppermost float starts at the McGuire Access on the south side of Arkansas Highway 88, halfway between Ink and Cherry Hill, and ends seven miles downstream at the Cherry Hill Access area. The second float covers 13 miles from Cherry Hill to Pine Ridge. The take-out is a country bridge a mile east of Pine Ridge, just southeast of Highway 88. The third trip is a 10-mile float from Pine Ridge to Oden.
Anglers putting in at Rocky Shoals can take out at Sims Campground, four miles downstream, or at Fulton Branch Campground another three miles downriver. Both these camping/access areas are likely starting points for trips to the last two public take-outs - Dragover and River Bluff. It's two miles from Fulton Branch to Dragover, and three miles from Dragover to River Bluff. Several other take-out areas are located on the backwaters of Lake Ouachita around the Arkansas Highway 27 crossing.
Caddo River Caddo River smallmouths are fat and spunky. They average a pound or so, but on a good trip, you're likely to catch a few over 3 pounds. Spotted bass also are plentiful - an added bonus for Caddo anglers.
The Caddo flows near or through the 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 has enough water for a summer float, but winter rains usually keep levels high enough for a January or February smallmouth trip.
The second fishing float covers six miles from Caddo Gap to Glenwood. The take-out is at the U.S. Highway 70 bridge. This is all Class I water, with no problems for novices except two tight "S" turns and a few canoe-grabbing trees.
The float downstream from Glenwood is a slower version of the upper sections. Pools are longer, and the rapids lose some of their intensity. It's perfectly suited for novice canoeists wanting to catch some nice smallmouths. You can float eight miles to the Arkansas Highway 182 bridge north of Amity, or 13 miles to the Arkansas Highway 84 bridge northeast of Amity.
You're seldom far from civilization on the Caddo, but the river is peaceful, and tailor-made for smallmouth bass. A winter float on its clear waters is an unforgettable experience.
Big Piney Creek Big Piney Creek flows largely within the Ozark National Forest. The region is rugged and remote. Nearby towns have apt names like Fallsville, Limestone and Deer. Some consider it the classic Ozark float stream.
A veteran fisherman will look at the cool, clear water with its rocky cover and come to one conclusion: Smallmouths lurk here. Brownies are abundant in the Piney, and fishing is a year-round possibility for those willing either to wade-fish or to drag their boats over the shoals during drier months. In winter, however, water levels normally are high, and a leisurely float-fishing trip can be had.
The section from Arkansas 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1805) covers about eight miles. The water upstream is fast and sometimes difficult to navigate, but on this stretch, the valley isn't so tight, and the stream's pace slackens a bit to allow casual fishing. The rapids are rated easy to medium.
The Treat to Long Pool float continues to offer great smallmouth fishing, but the hills start crowding the creek along this 10-mile run, and the result is rapids with names like Roller Coaster, Surfing Hole and Cascades of Extinction. Gravel bars are conveniently located just below most of those rapids, providing ideal spots for a breather, a shore lunch or, in some cases, a salvage operation. The take-out at Long Pool is a Forest Service campground complete with restrooms, changing rooms, loading/unloading areas and a parking lot.
The Piney's next section - Long Pool to Arkansas 164 (or Twin Bridges) slows down considerably in its five-mile journey. The creek exits the Ozarks, forming longer pools and mild rapids, and then flows a few miles below Highway 164 into the backwaters of Lake Dardanelle.
Richland Creek Richland Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River, winds 30 miles through a remote portion of the Ozark Mountains downstream from Pelsor in Newton and Searcy counties. It's been described as the most beautiful stream in the state, and anyone familiar with the creeks and rivers of Arkansas will quickly realize the significance of that statement.
Owing to its steep drops, big rocks and narrow chutes, Richland Creek is seldom floatable. But if you're willing to hike to some of its backcountry stretches, you can enjoy some of the best wade-fishing for smallmouth bass available in the Natural State. The deep pools followed by noisy rapids are a brownie fisherman's delight. Try working the rocky streambed in pools with a jig-and-pig or small crawfish-imitation crankbaits. Locals also use live crayfish, minnows and other natural baits. Smallmouths rarely exceed a pound and a half in this smallish stream, but there are plenty of them - certainly enough to keep a winter angler happy for hours on end.
Mulberry River The Mulberry River is another noteworthy Ozark Mountain smallmouth stream. This 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. The winter smallmouth fishing is solid; anglers will also find action with largemouth and spotted bass.
The Mulberry flows in a west-southwesterly course from Arkansas 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 at the point at which Arkansas Highway 103 crosses the river two miles southwest of Oark. You can take out where Forest Road 1504 crosses (11.5 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 Arkansas Highway 24 crossing at Turner's Bend. The Forest Service's Redding Campground is located midway through this trip.
e third major float originates at the Highway 23 bridge and continues 8.5 miles to Milton's Ford on Forest Road 1501 west of Arkansas 23. The last float, from Milton's Ford to Arkansas Highway 215 north of Mulberry, is an 18- to 20-mile trip through remote, virtually inaccessible country.
If you're up to the challenges the Mulberry sometimes throws at you, all these stretches can provide the makings for an unforgettable winter smallmouth trip.
Nearly everything you'll want to know about these streams is included in The Arkansas Floater's Kit, a free information packet available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Communications Division, 2 Natural Resources Dr., Little Rock, AR 72205; www.agfc.com. There are handy maps showing local roads, campgrounds, put-in and take-out points and area communities, plus an outfitter's guide listing businesses that provide canoe rentals and shuttle service for anglers. The AGFC can also provide a fishing regulations guide that includes smallmouth regulations on all these streams.
Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $28.25 (includes shipping, handling and Ark. sales tax) to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders, log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Arkansas Sportsman