If you want to experience Arkansas river bass fishing at its best, take a float fishing trip this month on one of our streams.
If you have not already, it is high time you try what may be our most relaxing form of bass fishing.
As much as I love our lakes and big rivers, our streams hold a dear place in my heart. They are the most beautiful places in the state, and there’s no better view than from a seat in a canoe or kayak. It’s an inexpensive and relaxing way to experience world-class fishing amid world-class scenery.
Float fishing usually evokes images of mountain rivers like the Buffalo, Caddo, Ouachita, Spring and Strawberry, but our lowland waterways have their own charms. Even the most devoted creek anglers overlook the streams of the Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain. In doing so they deprive themselves of some fabulous fishing on places like Bayou Bartholomew, Wattensaw Bayou, Bayou DeView, the lower Saline River and lower Ouachita River.
Our northern and western streams contain mostly smallmouth bass, but all of our streams support good numbers of Kentucky bass and largemouths. They all contain big fish, and I am accustomed to catching a few bragging size bass on every outing.
I have fished all over the United States and beyond, but my favorite trips have been right here in the Natural State with my friends and companions.
The weather is good, the water is right and the fishing is easy. Come with us and sample a small taste for yourself.
BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER
Our one truly wild, free-flowing stream, the Buffalo is also America’s first national river. Its course is uninhibited by dams, which means you can put in near the source at Ponca and paddle about 135 miles to its confluence with the White River.
My favorite floats are from Kyles Landing to Pruitt, and the entire stretch from Carver to Gilbert. You can break that into a lot of smaller legs by putting in or taking out at Woolum, Baker Ford, Tyler Bend and Highway 65 (Grinders Ferry).
Throughout that distance you’ll find a multi-faceted ribbon of tumbling shoals, rock gardens, massive boulders, towering bluffs and deep pools. The entire course contains large numbers of smallmouth bass, but it yields a surprise largemouth every now and then, and they are always big for river largemouths.
In fact, there are two big rocks on the bank above Rush Landing. Every time I fish that section, I always catch the same big largemouth from a gap between the rocks with a Luck-E-Strike RC Freak crankbait.
Last year, I took a three-day float from the Spring Creek Access to Rush. I used only one lure, a clear Whopper Plopper with a blue back, and I had one of the best trips ever.
The bites came in clusters, but they were all bigger fish than I usually catch with soft plastic lures.
The best one was at night in pitch darkness. After supper, Bill Eldridge and I fished from the tip of the gravel bar where we camped. We could only see the water at our feet. I cast the lure as far downstream as I could and began a slow, steady retrieve against the current.
A deep plunging sound like that of a miniature beaver slapping its tail pierced the darkness. I counted to “two Mississippi” and set the hook on the biggest smallmouth of the trip.
Eldridge, as always, caught his share of fish with a Zoom watermelon/candy Mini Lizard.
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I recall another trip on the middle part of the river with Jeff Bone. It was hot and the river was low. We put in at Tyler Bend Recreation Area and fished upstream, wading where possible and paddling where necessary.
Bone used a plastic worm and I used a YUM Craw Papi. Together, we cobbled together the best big fish day of my life. We caught multiple doubles standing side by side.
One does not expect to encounter largemouth bass that far up the Buffalo, but I caught a brute about halfway to Baker Ford in a sun-dappled pool on an Excalibur Zell Pop.
Near the end of the day, Bone got quiet and pensive. He turned slowly and said, “Today is the best fishing day I’ve ever had. We’ve caught so many, and so many big ones. Don’t get me wrong, brother. I’ve had the time of my life, but I have had enough.”
Speaking of topwater lures brings to mind a trip I took last June with Rusty Pruitt of Bryant and Ray Tucker of Little Rock. We rented a couple of canoes from Lucky’s Canoe Rental in Glenwood for a six-mile float from Caddo Gap back to Lucky’s property. His phone number is (870) 356-2772.
Uncharacteristically, we caught very few fish with our usual assortment of soft plastic lures. With a storm approaching, we neared the most notorious set of rapids in that stretch of the river. Playing a hunch, I tied on a clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo, and it transformed the trip.
The stretch between the rapids and the mouth of the South Fork of the Caddo upstream is a wide, deep pool where I seldom catch anything. In fact, it was always so sterile that I usually float through, but that day felt different.
Near the rapids are big rocks scattered on the bottom. They look like dark shadows from the surface, and the water around them is very clear and comparatively shallow.
On that day, each rock sheltered at least one big smallmouth bass. Cast after cast they savaged that Tiny Torpedo, sometimes knocking it 2 or 3 feet into the air. It was so theatrical that Tucker bought several Tiny Torpedoes of his own a couple of days later.
A week later I returned with my son Matthew to fish with Federal Magistrate Joe Volpe of Little Rock and his son John. The weather was nicer, and though Matt and I didn’t catch many fish, the Volpes smoked them using YUM watermelon/candy lizards.
While we’re on a topwater theme, I can’t forget a trip on the Ouachita River last summer with Ray Tucker and Shane Goodner of Catch ’Em All Guide Service.
This was actually a wade fishing trip, but it was almost obscene to catch as many fish as we caught so close together in such skinny water.
Goodner had a unique way of managing the water. He cast to each new hole first with a 1/4-ounce white buzzbait. Tucker and I had spinning rigs with curly-tail grubs. The combination of the buzzbait and a fish strike mimics schooling activity, Goodner said, and it will attract every bass in a pool.
“When a bass hits that buzzbait, throw that grub in behind it,” Goodner said. “Chances are there’s a big fish underneath, and that’s a good way to catch him.”
This enables a group to fish effectively and efficiently together, Goodner said. Instead of anglers rushing ahead to fish a hole first, everybody can enjoy the fun together.
I noticed that Goodner usually didn’t set the hook when a smallmouth hit the buzzbait. It was relaxing to see that the guide wasn’t out for himself, and we settled into a deadly rhythm.
Goodner’s goal was to catch 50 bass, but we hit that mark quickly. Tucker then challenged him to 75, which began a lively round of banter and trash talking.
Sure enough, we hit 75, and we kept right on catching. We ended with 82 bass in about five hours of fishing, and that doesn’t count the green sunfish, bluegills and warmouths we caught.
OUACHITA RIVER: Part II
In early June, Tucker, Pruitt and I float-fished the upper Ouachita River from Pencil Bluff to Rocky Shoal, west of Mount Ida. The water was up from recent rain, and the weather was clear and very windy. It was maddening because, no matter how the river turned, the wind was always in our faces. The minute we stopped paddling, the wind blew us back upstream.
Again, the usual array of soft plastics produced no fish, and that got my mind to working. Eventually we reached a long, deep pool split down the middle by a thin granite “razorback” ridge. Tucker and I were in a canoe together, so I wedged us against some rocks in a pocket of slack water that was out of the wind and tied on a black/silver Rapala Shad Rap. I cast toward the far bank to the other side of the submerged ridge. The lure smacked the rock, and as it skittered down the near side, a 16-inch smallmouth smashed it.
It happened again and again. Tucker got in on the act, and then Pruitt. We got nearly 30 fish in that one pool before it gave out. We scarcely caught anything else the rest of the day.
No float fishing article is complete without a section about Crooked Creek, our most famous and most productive smallmouth stream.
I fish it at least twice a year, and it never disappoints. You almost always catch a lot of small to mid-size fish, but there’s always a little window when the big fish bite. It will make all of the heat, hunger and thirst you’ve endured under the unrelenting sun all worthwhile.
It happened last June while fishing with Rusty Pruitt, Bill Eldridge, Matthew Eldridge of Dallas, Texas, and Ed Kubler of Benton. We had spent a very long, hot day catching little fish, and just enough of those to keep us interested.
We were almost to the end of the trip, about a mile and a half upstream from our takeout point at Snow Access when all of us became inexplicably focused. It all started when Matthew Eldridge nosed his canoe into a mud bank and fished a small area with great intensity. It was as if he’d drawn a line in the water and made a stand.
It took a while, but he finally caught an 18-inch smallmouth, and then another that was nearly as big.
Then I started catching them. None were 18 inches, but all were good quality fish. Kubler, who was farther downstream, started catching them, too, as did Eldridge. We’d gone from being tired and a little bit chippy to ecstatic.
It didn’t hurt that we also found wedged under a bush a tackle box that contained about $400 worth of lures, many still in their original packaging. We divided them up as war spoil.
Public access is generous on Crooked Creek, with facilities at Lower Pyatt (Highway 62), Snow, Kelley’s Slab (Yellville, at the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center) and at Yellville City Park.
Crooked Creek Canoes is our favorite outfitter. Call Miss Becky. at (608) 606-9090.
ARKANSAS WATER TRAILS
If you want to float fish more obscure waters in south Arkansas, the state has established a number of water trails on Bayou Bartholomew, Bayou DeView, Cut-Off Creek, Little Maumelle River, Robe Bayou, Wattensaw Bayou, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge and others.
These are all gentle flat-water floats that wind through cypress and tupelo forests. They are not major destinations, so you will have some of the best and most unknown bass fishing all to yourself.
These waters are typical bottomland streams, with stained water and muddy shorelines. They contain abundant cover in the form of standing timber, fallen timber, submerged timber, emergent vegetation and submerged vegetation.
A normal assortment of bass baits will serve you well. I recommend big soft plastic worms, square-billed crankbaits, a noisy topwater plug or two, a white buzzbait and a white spinnerbait.
For more information, visit the Water Trails page on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website at agfc.com. Click the drop-down menu for Explore the Outdoors, then the link for Wildlife Viewing Areas. The link to Arkansas Water Trails then appears.