14 Natural State Streams For Winter Smallies

Catch a spell of mild winter weather in January and February, and you just might experience some of the best stream smallmouth bass fishing our state has to offer! (January 2009)

You'll find smallmouths in many of Arkansas' big manmade mountain lakes, and they occur surprisingly far downstream in some rivers. Mostly, though, smallmouths live in the upper reaches of their drainages, up there in the sparkling waters. If you've never floated an Ozark or Ouachita mountain stream in a canoe, you've missed some of the prettiest waters in the world. You've missed some of the most enjoyable fishing, too. And when you can catch a spell of mild winter weather, January and February are absolutely the best months of the year to do it.

Timing's crucial to catching Arkansas' winter stream smallies. Target a spate of mild weather, especially just before an expected patch of harsh conditions.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

It's tempting to rank the smallmouth streams of the state, but since there's no objective way to do it, the discussions that follow are arranged in alphabetical order:

Big Piney Creek: Northeast of Clarksville, the portion of this Ozark stream above state Route 123 is fast and difficult, but the eight-mile stretch from Route 123 to Treat is better. Avoid the stretch from Treat to Long Pool; it has rapids with names that will scare you. The five miles from Long Pool to state Route 164 is slower, though, and provides excellent fishing. Big Piney has a four-fish limit on smallmouths, with a 10-inch minimum.

Local outfitters: Moore Outdoors, (479) 331-3606, www.mooreoutdoors.com; River Tech, (479) 890-6980, www.rivertech.com.

Buffalo River: This is one of the most productive smallmouth streams in the state. Despite its warm-weather popularity as a canoe stream, in winter, it's nearly deserted. For a full-day float, the six miles between Maumee South (12 miles north of Marshall on state Route 27) to Buffalo Point (off state Route 14 between Harriet and Yellville), or the seven and a half miles between Buffalo Point and Rush farther downstream. Another section worth considering is the 10-mile stretch between state Routes 7 and 123, with accesses at Carver and Hasty.

If you're looking for a longer trip and want to camp two or three nights, try the 22 miles of the lower Buffalo between Rush and Buffalo City Be forewarned, though: this is wilderness all the way, with absolutely no way out except downstream, and at the end of it you're faced with either a 3/4-mile paddle against the current to the Buffalo City access on the White, or a several-mile float downstream to other access points on the White River.

Be sure to check the extended weather forecast before going -- and don't do anything risky: You're going to be a long way from any help.

The Buffalo is a Blue Ribbon Smallmouth Stream with a daily limit of two fish at least 14 inches long. Dozens of businesses offer rental canoes and shuttle service. Two of the most popular are Buffalo Adventures Canoe Rental, (870) 446-5406, and Buffalo Outdoor Center, 1-800-221-5514, www.buffaloriver.com.

Caddo River: The six-mile float from the low-water bridge in Caddo Gap to U.S. Route 70 at Glenwood is a good stretch for winter smallmouths. The stretch has many small rapids, deep pools, gravel bars and an abundance of good smallmouth habitat around boulders and fallen treetops.

The Caddo River is a Quality Smallmouth Stream, with a daily limit of two and a minimum length of 12 inches. Three outfitters in the area provide canoe rental, shuttle service and other help: Arrowhead Cabin & Canoe Rental, www.arrowheadcabinandcanoe. com, 1-800-538-6578; Caddo River Camping & Canoe Rental, www.caddoriver.com, 1-888-300-8452; and Wright Way Canoe Rental, www. wrightwaycanoerental.com, 1-877-201-9149.

Crooked Creek: Except for the Buffalo River itself, this is Arkansas' most well-known smallmouth stream. There's lots of good wade-fishing from Harrison all the way down the stream, but most of the better floating water is below U.S. Route 62 at Pyatt. The half-day float from Route 62 to Turkey (south and east of Snow) is popular, and the float from Turkey to Kelly's Slab (at the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center just west of Yellville) is a full-day float. From Kelly's Slab to the Route 14 bridge in Yellville is another popular half-day float.

All three sections provide excellent habitat and plenty of sizable smallmouths, as befits a Blue Ribbon stream. The daily limit is two, with a minimum size of 14 inches, except for catch-and-release only along the mile or so of Crooked Creek that flows by the Fred Berry AGFC property.

For a top-quality fly-fishing experience with a veteran Crooked Creek fisherman, book a trip with guide Duane Hada, www.duanehada.com, (870) 435-2787. For canoe rentals and river services, contact Crooked Creek Canoe Service, (870) 449-6203, www. carltonmarioninn.com/canoe; Dillard's Ozark Outfitters, www.dillards-outfitters.com, 1-800-423-8731; or Roundhouse Shoals Fishing Services, www.roundhouse-shoals.com, 1-888-717-8088.

Eleven Point River: This stream in the eastern Ozarks gets 70 percent of its water from springs, so it isn't affected as much by dry weather as most Ozark streams. It's also a warmer stream than most in winter, which improves the fishing. But this is no stream for a rookie canoeist, especially after a rain. There are five old stone dams and numerous willow thickets, plus deep water and lots of islands, rocks and other in-stream obstructions. These provide good smallmouth habitat, but they also make the going tricky, especially downstream from the Route 93 bridge at Dalton.

The safest stretch (and probably the best fishing, too) starts five miles north of the Arkansas-Missouri state line, so be sure you also have a Missouri license before floating here. You can make it in a day if you don't dawdle too much. Put in at the state Route 142 bridge between Doniphan and Thayer, and take out at the state Route 93 bridge at Dalton.

The nine-mile stretch between Dalton and state Route 90 east of Ravenden Springs can be rough going, but the fishing is great. The banks are vertical in much of this stretch, rising 10 feet or more, and cave-ins along the banks are numerous. One of the old stone dams is just below an island about eight miles into this float. The passage is on the right, but walk your boat through.

For canoe rental and river services, contact Woody's Canoe Rental & Campground, (870) 892-9732.

Illinois Bayou: Don't let the name confuse you. There's nothing bayou-like about this Ozark smallmouth stream north of Russellville. Avoid the headwaters, but the seven-mile float from the state Route 27

north of Hector to the state Route 164 bridge north of Scottsville provides relatively easy floating and good fishing. You'll need to bring your own canoe and provide your own shuttle; no commercial services are available in the area.

Kings River: This northwest Arkansas jewel rises in Madison County and flows northward to Table Rock Lake in Missouri. It's a small river, but it has big fish, with 18-inch smallmouths not at all uncommon, so medium spinning gear or even bait-casting tackle is appropriate.

The 11 miles from Marble Access (just off U.S. Route 412) to Marshall Ford at the tiny settlement of Alabam is a beautiful, fishy float, as is the 15 miles from Alabam to Rockhouse, off the end of Route 22 south of Berryville. Rockhouse is actually a short distance up Warm Fork from Kings River, so be careful you don't miss it. From Rockhouse, it's another seven miles of smallmouth water to Trigger Gap and then 12 more miles to the U.S. Route 62 bridge east of Eureka Springs. Twelve miles below Route 62 is the Summers Ford access.

Except for the one-fish, 18-inch minimum stretch between Trigger Gap and Route 62, Kings River has a daily limit of two fish with a 14-inch minimum length.

For river services, try Beaver Lake Canoe & Kayak, (479) 925-2313; Kings River Outfitters, (479) 253-8954; and Riverside Resort and Canoes, (800) 528-4645.

Little Missouri River: This is one of the state's most southern smallmouth streams, but it's hardly inferior. The Little Missouri is one of the best in the state, as well as one of the most beautiful.

Unless you're an experienced white-water canoeist, though, avoid the eight and a half miles between Albert Pike Recreation Area (in southwest Montgomery County) and state Route 84 (east of Umpire.) The fishing is good, but the river drops 25 feet per mile in this stretch, with some Class IV rapids. The 11-mile float between Route 84 and U.S. Route 70 just above Lake Greeson is calmer, and there are lots of smallmouths.

This is a Quality Smallmouth Stream; the daily limit is two with a minimum length of 12 inches. For river services, contact Little Missouri Cabin & Canoe, (870) 398-4700.

Mulberry River: This river gets a lot more visitation from floaters than anglers, but the smallmouth fishing can be as good as you'll find in the state. The eight and a half miles from Turner Bend (on state Route 23 north of Ozark) to Milton's Ford (on Forest Service Road 1503 west of Route 23) is a good winter float if it hasn't been too rainy. There are lots of willow strainers and Class II rapids here, though, even in dry weather, so be careful and heed the weather forecast.

On the Mulberry, a Quality Smallmouth Stream, the limit is two fish, with a 12-inch minimum. For river services, contact: Turner Bend Canoe Rental, www.turnerbend.com, (479) 667-3641; Byrd's Adventure Center, 1-888-520-7301.

Ouachita River (above Lake Oucahita): In a dry winter, the upper reaches of the Ouachita can be difficult to float, but if there's enough water, it can be hard to beat. Beginning at the McGuire Access near Board Camp is a 7-mile float that ends at Cherry Hill. Both accesses are off state Route 88 in eastern Polk County. From Cherry Hill to Pine Ridge (also off Route 88) is another 12 miles, and Pine Ridge to Oden is another nine, with the Shirley Creek access in between at about mile six. From Oden to Rocky Shoals Campground at the U.S. Route 270 bridge is 10 miles, and Rocky Shoals to Chasewood access is five miles. All of these floats are gentle and fishable on normal winter water levels, and all have good smallmouth populations. The limit on the entire stretch is two smallmouth bass, and each fish must be at least 12 inches long. For river services, try Loy's Canoe Rentals & Campground, (870) 867-4757, www.loyscanoerentals.com; M & M Canoe Rentals, (800) 993-5628; or River View Cabins & Canoes, (888-547-1146, www.riverviewcabins-canoes.com.

Richland Creek: If you like your smallmouth fishing in hard-to-reach areas, here's the place. About the only reasonable floating option is the lower four miles (or seven, depending on where you put in) of the creek, between the tiny community of Eula in western Searcy County and the Woolum Access on the Buffalo River, at the confluence of the river with Richland Creek. A gravel road leads each way out of Eula, both directions leading to fords on Richland Creek. The right (north) road results in a four-mile float; the left (south) road stretches it to seven miles. This float involves a lengthy shuttle.

If there's enough water, the nine-mile float between the Richland Creek campground and Eula can be a good one. To reach the campground, go north 12 miles from state Route 16 (east of Pelsor) on Forest Service Road 1205.

All in all, this is a better stream for wade-fishing and bank-fishing than floating. No stream services are available.

Saline River: This is another southerly smallmouth stream. The best float is from Lyle Park in the city of Benton to the Interstate 30 access, off the eastbound access road at Exit 116. It's a short float -- only about three miles -- but the shuttle is short and you can fish the water thoroughly in a half-day float. Be aware that there's a low-water dam halfway through, and it's hard to see from upstream. It requires a short portage.

The daily smallmouth limit on the Saline is two, with a 12-inch minimum. No companies in the area provide river services.

Spring River: Starting at Many Islands Campground near Hardy, where the trout water starts to play out, the Spring River changes over to a high-quality smallmouth stream. The float from Many Islands down to Hardy Beach just below the U.S. Route 62 bridge in Hardy, will take you past a lot of smallmouth bass. Watch for High Falls, a 6-foot drop that can take you by surprise. The pedestrian passage is along the right bank.

Below Hardy, the 10 miles of river to Williford also provide good smallmouth action, but the slower flow makes for a long trip. A small johnboat and outboard might serve you better in this stretch.

For river services, contact Spring River Oaks Camp and Canoe Rental, (870) 856-3885; and Many Islands Camp and Canoe Rental, (870) 856-3451, www.manyislands.com.

Strawberry River: A good smallmouth population and no whitewater -- an attractive combination for winter fishing. The upper third of this 100-mile river is usually too low for good floating, but beginning at U.S. Route 167 north of Evening Shade, the river's middle third is prime. The first 10 miles of this section is from Route 167 to a low-water bridge two miles north of state Route 56 between Evening Shade and Poughkeepsie. Nine floatable miles farther downstream is another low-water bridge just north of Poughkeepsie, and this makes for a good day-long fishing float as well. The third and final float in the river's good smallmouth water is from this second low-water bridge downstream two and a half miles to the state Route 58 bridge.

No canoe rentals or river services are available in the region.

* * *

Timing is the key to good winter stream smallmouth action. Mild winter weather is, fortunately, the best time to fish, especially if some nasty weather is about to move in. Be careful about cutting it too close, though, because a flash flood on a mountain stream is no place to be, especially in winter.

The fishing itself isn't very complicated. Being quiet is important, because stream-dwelling smallmouths are spooky. Fish during fairly low water flows. Heavy rains raise these streams to dangerous levels, and color the water too much for good fishing.

Cover the water thoroughly. Every rock, ledge, drop-off and boulder is a potential hideout. In sunny weather, fish the shadows or the busy water in and below riffles.

If you want maximum sport from your fish, go ultralight. If you want to land many of them, though, go up a notch or two. A six-foot medium-light-action spinning rod with six- to eight-pound line (10-pound line in streams with lots of big fish) will save you lots of bad words. Make sure your drag is set below the breaking strength of your line.

Basically, any lure that's a good trout lure on the White, Spring, Norfork or Little Red rivers is also a good smallmouth lure. Mepps and Panther Martin spinners, small crankbaits and spinnerbaits, Beetle Spins, Roadrunners, spoons and small minnow plugs are good, but the absolute cream-of-the-crop lure for most winter trips will be the jig and pig. A favorite size is 1/8-ounce bucktail jigs with a No. 11-size pork frog. This combination gives a slow rate of fall, which triggers more strikes than a rapidly falling lure. Jig color isn't important, as long as it's black or brown!

There are many topnotch smallmouth streams in the state apart from the ones mentioned here, so bundle up, be careful -- and enjoy!

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