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The silver December sky was streaked with snow flurries—not the best time to begin a float-fishing trip, perhaps, but such was our intent. We pushed our canoe from a gravel bar and began day one of a two-day float down central Arkansas’ Saline River.
It started as a lark. I told my friend Lewis Peeler about a co-worker who’d 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 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, Arkansas.
The Saline’s upper reaches were extraordinarily beautiful. Cold, crystalline water carried us through mountain passes cuffed with snow-covered hardwoods. Curtains of icicles sparkled along riverside bluffs. As we paddled farther from civilization, we became enveloped in the stark, elemental beauty only winter can create.
Walleyes eluded us, but fishing in the river’s deep pools, we caught many other kinds of fish: crappie, spotted bass, rock bass and sunfish. None, however, could compare to the smallmouth bass that comprised most of our catch. They were 1- to 2-pounders mostly, but a few larger fish added spice to a very memorable excursion.
If you get cabin fever before spring arrives, consider planning a smallmouth excursion of your own. It can be hard to find a quiet Arkansas smallmouth-fishing spot in spring, summer and fall. But such is not the case from December through early March. Head for a cool, clear mountain stream in the Ozark or Ouachita mountains this month, 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 darn good during the warm months. But in winter, it’s superb. If it’s big “brownies” you’re after, the cold months are the time to go. Good fishing, lots of big fish, and no crowds: those three factors make Arkansas’ mountain streams ideal places for beating the winter blues. Here are some top waters where you can give it a try.
Upper Saline River
The upper divisions of the Saline River above Benton—the Middle, Alum and North forks—contain healthy smallmouth populations seldom tempted by anglers’ offerings. One great stretch for a canoe float is from Benton’s Lyle Park (off Highway 5 just north of town) to the Cherry Gingles access (off the eastbound I-30 access road at Exit 116). This stretch covers only about three miles, but if you fish the pools thoroughly, it’s a nice three- to four-hour trip with a short shuttle. Throw a live crawfish or jig-and-pig into the deep pool above the lowhead dam you’ll encounter two miles downstream from the put-in, and chances are good for hooking some nice tail-walking smallmouths.
Upper Ouachita River
The Ouachita River above Lake Ouachita 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 rapids. Big bronzebacks hide beside boulders and rock ledges and are easy to entice with minnow plugs, spinners and jig/pork-frog combos.
One popular float-fishing stretch is the 10-mile run from Oden to the Rocky Branch Campground. Put in at the Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden and take out at campground at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing. The scenery is great, including a towering bluff a few miles above the take-out.
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.
The best float-fishing starts on the 6-mile stretch 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. It’s an 8-mile float to the Highway 182 bridge north of Amity, where you’re seldom far from civilization but in a peaceful setting on clear water full of smallmouths.
Big Piney Creek
Big Piney Creek flows largely within the Ozark National Forest. The region is rugged and remote, and “brownies,” as smallmouths are called here, are abundant.
The section from Arkansas 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1805) covers about 8 miles. The water upstream is fast and sometimes difficult to navigate. But on this stretch, the valley is not so tight, and the stream’s pace slackens a bit to allow casual fishing. The rapids are rated easy to medium. Good smallmouth fishing also is a hallmark of the 5-mile stretch from Long Pool to Highway 164, just above Lake Dardanelle.
Richland Creek, a tributary of 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.
Richland Creek is seldom floatable because of its steep drops, big rocks and narrow chutes, 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 stream bed 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 1-1/2 pounds in this smallish stream, but there are plenty to keep a winter angler happy for hours on end.
You’ll have to look long and hard to find a better winter smallmouth hotspot than the Kings River. Gentle and clear, the river twists through an endless expanse of the rolling north Arkansas Ozarks. At every bend there’s another surprise: a deer at streamside; a deep, dark lunker hole in a gigantic pool below a long, narrow riffle; eagles sitting in overhead trees. Such ingredients make a float here totally delightful and unforgettable, and cold-season smallmouth fishing is superb.
The county road access northwest of Marble is a traditional starting place for many Kings River smallmouth anglers. An 11-mile canoe ride on water with deep pools and several large bluffs carries floaters to Marshall Ford, an access point northeast of Alabam. And along the way, you’re likely to enjoy some fabulous winter smallmouth fishing.
River/access maps, shuttle/outfitter information and detailed facts about additional floats on these and other streams can be found by visiting www.arkansas.com. Click on Outdoors, then on Canoeing/Rafting/Kayaking, and you’ll be taken to a list of 18 rivers from which to choose. Licensing information and fishing regulations can be found on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s website, www.agfc.com.
Looking for fishing shows on Outdoor Channel during the months of October – December? “The Hunt for Big Fish”and “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” both air in the last quarter of the year. Check the schedule for updated air times.