After Labor Day, a group of friends annually celebrates the end of summer with a three-day float fishing trip on the Buffalo National River.
The difference a week makes is glaring. Labor Day weekend is one of the busiest holidays on any Arkansas stream, but the Buffalo — America’s first national river — is practically in gridlock, with scores of canoes laden with spirited revelers. There’s no solitude or peace, and fishing is challenging amid so much commotion.
When school starts the next week, the river is deserted. The only sounds you’ll hear are the rush of wind through the bluff-lined valley, the cackle of kingfishers and the chatter of bald eagles.
The hardwoods aren’t wearing autumn colors yet, but their tint shades a bit more toward yellow than green. The days are warm — hot even — but the nights are cold. They are perfect for gathering around a campfire on a remote gravel bar before retiring to a toasty sleeping bag.
Of course, fishing is the anchor that buoys this group, and it’s never better than it is in September.
The river is low and slow after a customary dry summer. The water is clear, and smallmouth bass in rivers feed throughout the day to fatten up for the oncoming winter.
The group always catches a lot of fish, but we always expect to catch a few brutes, too. Rarely do we not catch a couple of 3- and 4-pounders, both smallmouth and largemouth. That might not seem like a big deal to tournament fishermen, but let me tell you, a fish that size on a light-action rod and 6-pound test line will separate men from boys.
The core of the group includes Bill Eldridge, a branch manager for Bank of the Ozarks; Rusty Pruitt, a mortgage broker for BancCorpSouth; Ed Kubler, a retired engineer; and me. Other people join when they can, but the core group has made this trip for 11 years. We fish a lot together through the year, but the fall Buffalo trip is the trip that we anticipate the most.
We’ve fished many sections of the Buffalo, but we prefer the stretch from Spring Creek to Rush. Its distance is perfect for one full day of fishing, two half days and two nights camping. We’ve memorized every rock and laydown, but it fishes similar to any other section.
Like all streams in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains, the Buffalo is a chain of pools separated by rapids and riffles. Fish generally don’t move between pools, but where they are in a pool depends on time of day and moon phase. Big bass keep to themselves under rocks and other deep cover during the day, but they’ll bite if you put a lure into their lairs.
The casting part is easy. It’s the presentation that’s tricky because even though the river flows gentle in September, it’s still moving water. It’s hard to keep a canoe stationary long enough to keep from dragging a bait out of the strike zone.
Mornings begin with a lazy drift away from the previous night’s campsite. Eldridge and Kubler love to fish riffles, so they dash downstream to the first bottleneck. They beach their canoes and wade knee deep to the edge of the fast water, where they drift Zoom Mini Lizards in cotton candy color on Texas rigs with 1/8-ounce bullet sinkers. They usually start the morning by catching six to 10 smallies in the 10- to 13-inch range.
I’ve found that bigger smallmouths and Kentucky bass prowl the big rocks and water willow next to the bank. I float slowly past and work a topwater as fast as I can cast and retrieve. I alternate between a white Booyah Pond Magic buzzbait and a Whopper Plopper. If bass are feeding aggressively, they will hit either of those baits for much of the morning.
When the sun gets high, the bass go deep or hide under cover. To catch them, you must be slow and deliberate. I use a Zoom Mini Lizard or Tiny Brush Hog in pumpkin/red flake or cotton candy with a 1/8-ounce bullet sinker. I give it several presentations. As a fish-finding technique, I drag it through channel troughs while I drift. If fish are active, they’ll hammer it.
If you doubt that big bass are in a pool, this scenario will change your mind. If you hook a small bass, one or two brutes will dash in and try to steal the bait from the hooked fish. If you have another rod loaded and ready to go, you can pitch a lizard or a jig into the melee and catch a broad-shouldered bass.
Bass often are inactive for a few hours in the afternoons, but they’ll still bite if you are patient. Pruitt and I usually lash our canoes together and duck into a shady eddy to chat and enjoy a cold beverage. With our canoes stationary, we cast a lizard and let it soak on the bottom. It might take a while, but a smallmouth will always come to investigate. The bite will be subtle, and you must react quickly, but it’s a dependable and effective method that we discovered by accident.
In the late afternoon, the sun’s rays are aslant, and the light is richly saturated. Bass come out for the evening feed, and this is when big fish are most active and most accessible. I am most successful with the aforementioned topwaters or a 1.5 or 2.5 series squarebill crankbait.
About two hours before dark, bass move into the riffles to feed. One of the best evening fishing spots is a long, deep run that flows beside a particular gravel bar. Before supper, we spread out and wear the bass out for about 90 minutes after we make camp.
Last year, I tried something different. After supper, Eldridge and I went to the point at the end of the gravel bar. It was pitch dark, with zero visibility. I cast a Whopper Plopper as far as I could into the pool downstream. I started retrieving it and heard what sounded like a beaver slamming its tail against the water. The noisy lure went silent. I counted to “Two Mississippi” and set the hook on a 3-pound smallmouth, the biggest of the trip.
An obscure stream in the Ouachita Mountains, the Caddo River is intensely busy during the summer, but it also changes personality in September when the crowds go home.
For years, Alan Thomas of Russellville and I held an annual “End of Summer Celebration” that began with a dove hunt on an Arkansas River sandbar and ended with a smallmouth float on the Caddo.
Instead of doing a one-way float, we put in at the Hwy. 270 Bridge in Glenwood and clipped the bow ropes of our canoes to our belt loops. Then we waded upstream and fished the pools and riffles in reverse.
That’s actually a more intuitive way to fish because bass in a stream face upstream into the current. When floating downstream, you actually cast past the fish. Walking upstream, you cast above them and work the bait down, which is a more natural presentation.
The Caddo is similar to the Buffalo except that it is narrower and rockier. The pools are shorter, and the rapids are steeper and more compact. Thomas and I waded through the shallow areas and then paddled through the deep pools. We always went about 2-3 miles upstream, and then floated back downstream and re-fished the same water. The downstream presentation gave fish a different look on the return trip, and it was interesting to note the differences in the strikes.
Again, we used Zoom Mini Lizards and Tiny Brush Hogs in the aforementioned colors. We’ve tried a lot of things over the years, but those are the most consistent performers.
If it seems that float fishing is kind of a rote exercise, a fishing trip on the Ouachita River in Montgomery County with guide Shane Goodner late last summer broadened my perspective.
Goodner, proprietor of Catch ‘Em All Guide Service, is a dedicated stream fisherman who has refined the craft to an art. Joining us that day was Ray Tucker, host of Ray Tucker’s Arkansas Outdoors, a popular radio program that airs Wednesdays on 103.7-FM in Little Rock.
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 has a unique way of managing the water. Instead of everybody splitting up and fishing independently, Goodner insisted that we all stay close together as we waded upstream.
At each new hole, Goodner cast first with a 1/4-ounce white buzzbait. He removed the plastic skirts and had a fly-tying friend replace them with bucktail.
Tucker and I had spinning rigs with pumpkin/red flake curly-tailed 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 bass hit the buzzbait. It was refreshing to see that the guide wasn’t out for himself, and we settled into a deadly rhythm. Goodner shook off two of every three buzzbait strikes while Tucker and I cleaned up behind him with the grubs.
After considerable success with that routine, Goodner suggested that I take over the buzzbait duties. Our catch rates increased dramatically, and the fish got progressively bigger the farther upstream we ventured.
To our surprise, we only caught one smallmouth. Every bass we caught was a Kentucky or largemouth.
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.
I am eager to try this group fishing method this month when my usual group gets together on the Buffalo.