Snow brushed the lead-gray February sky with streaks of white as we pushed our canoe from a gravel bar and began a two-day float down north Arkansas' Buffalo National River.
My friends and I had come for the smallmouth bass fishing, and those high-jumping Ozark acrobats didn't disappoint. They seemed to lurk behind every rock — 1- to 2-pounders mostly, but with occasional 3- to 4 1/2-pound bronzebacks in our catch as well. The action was steady and enjoyable.
The great fishing was just part of that memorable experience. We quickly became absorbed in the scenic Ozark Mountains landscape surrounding the river. Cold, crystalline water carried us through mountain passes cuffed with snow-covered hardwoods. Curtains of icicles sparkled along bluffs. Wood ducks flushed before us. As we paddled, we became enveloped in the stark, elemental beauty only winter can create.
If you get cabin fever this month, perhaps you'll want to plan a bass fishing excursion of your own. It can be hard to find a quiet bass fishing spot in spring, summer and fall, but such is not the case in late winter. Head for a cool, clear mountain stream this season, or visit one of the Natural State's many great bass lakes, and you'll find a pervasive feeling of peace and quiet.
"Where might I find some of this great early bass-fishing action?" you might ask. I suggest you try some of the following waters, where a winter bass fishing junket is almost certain to produce an unforgettable day.
BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER
As the previous example shows, a late winter/early spring float down this scenic river, designated an Ozark Zone Blue Ribbon Smallmouth Stream, often produces great catches of smallmouth bass. The river has clear, fast, oxygen-rich water and a gravel bottom and boulder beds that smallmouths love. Most bass are welterweights, a pound or less, but there are plenty to be caught, and there's always a chance of catching a bronzeback much bigger.
For early season fishing, one of the best lures is a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce brown leadhead jig dressed with a No. 11 brown pork frog. Use your rod tip to control lure depth and action, bouncing the bait along the bottom like a scurrying crayfish. 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. Don't overlook live baits, either. Live crayfish, minnows and nightcrawlers are extremely effective smallmouth baits.
The Buffalo stretches over 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 Arkansas Highways 7 and 123 (10 miles with accesses and campsites at Carver and Hasty); the float from Arkansas 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 Arkansas Highway 14); and the final stretch from Buffalo Point to Buffalo City (30 miles with a single take-out point at Rush).
Dozens of concessionaires rent canoes along the Buffalo and offer related services. Visit the Canoeing, Rafting and Kayaking section under Outdoors at arkansas.com for an outfitters list, map and additional information.
OUACHITA MOUNTAIN RIVERS
While the Buffalo and other Ozark rivers serve up some of the state's top smallmouth fishing, I fish for "brownies" more often in rivers coursing through the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas.
One of my favorite floats is the 6-mile stretch of the Caddo River from Caddo Gap to Glenwood. This is Class I water, with no problems for novices except two tight "S" turns and a few canoe-grabbing trees. "Brownies" are fat, averaging 1 to 2 pounds, and while casting your favorite enticements (the Rebel Wee Craw crankbait and jig/pork frog combos are hard to beat), you may catch and release dozens, including, perhaps, some 3- to 5-pounders.
On the Little Missouri River, set aside as part of Arkansas' Natural and Scenic Rivers System, anglers also enjoy great early-season bronzeback fishing. One of the most popular floats is the 11.5-mile stretch starting at the Highway 84 bridge west of Langley, with a takeout at Lake Greeson's Star-of-the-West Campground on U.S. 70 west of Daisy.
Saline River float fishermen often start at Benton's Lyle Park (on Arkansas Highway 5 at the north edge of town) and drift down to the Interstate 30 access (off the eastbound access road at Exit 116). Using enticements such as small jig/spinner combos, tiny crawfish crankbaits and live baits such as nightcrawlers and crawfish, you can expect to catch a mixed bag of smallmouths and spotted bass, with most smallies weighing 1 to 2 pounds.
The Arkansas River is well known as one of the finest bass fisheries in the U.S. This waterway stretches 304 miles from the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas to the Oklahoma border near Ft. Smith. Dams divide the river into 12 pools, all of which offer excellent largemouth and spotted bass fishing in February and March.
If the river is high following rainfall, anglers probably will be forced into backwater sloughs and off-river lakes where spinnerbaits, jigs and crankbaits can be retrieved around timber, rocks, pilings and vegetation to entice bass that often reach 6 pounds. Jig/pork-frog combos are especially good around fallen logs and treetops.
With more stable water conditions, backwaters will be good early and late with spinnerbaits, shad-imitation crankbaits and, in March, plastic lizards or salamanders. Midday patterns revolve around the main river channel and include riprap with the same lures.
There's not 100 yards of river that doesn't produce good numbers of big bass at one time or another so you can fish any pool and expect action. The only certainty is the unstable nature of the river itself. During late winter and early spring, the Arkansas could be clear and stable, high and muddy or anywhere in between. Anglers with the best chance of catching fish are adaptable — prepared to deal with whatever conditions the capricious river throws their way.
Because of its location in extreme southwest Arkansas, Millwood Lake warms earlier than many of the state's prime bass waters, with bass preparing to spawn by early March. Big catches of big bucketmouths are common this season.
In-flow from creeks and rivers keeps fresh water coming into Millwood during all seasons. That's especially important to remember in late winter and early spring when the water temperature of a feeder creek may be a few degrees warmer than water in the main lake, enough to attract concentrations of bass.
With the exception of a large, open-water area near the dam, almost all of Millwood is blanketed with timber in one form or another. Bass can be found throughout the lake in good habitat, but some of the most popular bass fishing areas include the timbered channel drops near the east end of Okay Boat Lanes North and South, the Hickory Slough area north of Yarborough Landing, and the timbered flats on the west end of the lake. If you're a first-time visitor, it's a good idea to visit with personnel at the state park marina or other boat docks to pick up fishing tips. These folks will gladly assist you by sharing the wheres and hows of Millwood bassing — hotspots where bass are likely to be hitting, the best time of day for fishing, productive lures and so forth. For more info, visit arkansasstateparks.com/millwood/.
LAKES DUNN AND AUSTELL
The 90 miles of Interstate 40 from Little Rock east to Forrest City cross flat-as-a-pancake delta farmland. At Forrest City, however, travelers notice a subtle rise in the terrain — Crowley's Ridge. North on the Ridge, about a 15-minute drive from I-40, are two more fine bass lakes, Dunn and Austell, in 7,000-acre Village Creek State Park.
Dunn covers only 65 acres, Austell a mere 85. Despite their diminutive sizes, however, both lakes are well-known for producing huge largemouth bass. Numerous 10-pound-plus fish have been landed from this duo of fine waters, including a 15-pound, 12-ounce fish from Austell, and a 16-pound, 5-ounce largemouth from Dunn. The latter would have been a new state record had it been caught legally.
Both lakes are past their prime now, with fewer trophies being caught. But during the past couple of years, local anglers reportedly have been boating some 8- and 9-pounders during late winter and early spring. Unverified reports of bass exceeding 10 pounds still surface now and then.
On Dunn, look for fish around brushy points and in coves with dense stands of dead timber. The arm of the lake running north from the boat dock can be productive, but most anglers have their best luck fishing the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach. On breezy days, concentrate your efforts around the numerous points in this area, where shad and other baitfish stack up and attract feeding bass.
Look for Austell lunkers hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach. That arm has produced several of the lake's largest bass. Also productive are shallow, timbered flats adjacent the creek channel running through Austell's southwest arm, two deep wooded coves on the lake's south side, and around logs and brush adjacent the riprapped dam.
Top early season lures are weedless offerings because the fish tend to hole up in the tightest cover they can find. Try big weedless swimbaits, plastic lizards or worms, jig-and-pork combinations and slow-moving spinnerbaits. Visit arkansasstateparks.com/villagecreek/ for more info.
WHITE OAK LAKE
White Oak Lake in southwest Arkansas has been known as a superb bass fishery since its creation in 1961. Eight-pound-plus largemouths have always been common, and this huge Arkansas Game and Fish Commission impoundment often gives up 10-pound-plus bass.
White Oak is in Ouachita and Nevada counties, 18 miles northwest of Camden. Actually, this is two lakes in one. A dam across the midsection (Arkansas Highway 387) forms two separate bodies of water — the 1,645-acre northern portion (known as the "lower lake") and the 1,031-acre southern portion (the "upper lake"). Among AGFC lakes, only Lake Conway surpasses White Oak in acreage.
An angler acquainted with the lake can catch good numbers of big bass year 'round, but January, February and March are considered the best bass fishing months by most local anglers. During that time, big largemouths usually are around stickups, fallen timber and cypress trees on 5- to 8-foot-deep flats with deep water nearby. A fishfinder can help pinpoint these areas along the inundated White Oak Creek channel. Good lure choices include deep-running crankbaits, jig-and-eels and Rat-L-Traps.