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Arkansas’ Kings River: Priceless

The Buffalo River hogs the spotlight when it comes to the state’s Ozark streams.

And rightly so.

It’s a gorgeous stream, and the epic battle to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from placing a dam on it led to one of the great chapters in Arkansas history.

The focus on the Buffalo, declared by the National Park Service as the country’s first “national river,” takes attention away from the equally special Kings River.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Those of us who love the Kings enjoy the solitude that often can be found there. We would hate to see it “loved to death” by tourists.

An exciting piece of news for Kings River aficionados came last spring when the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas announced that it had purchased 4,561 acres of land with seven miles of frontage along both sides of the river. That allowed the Nature Conservancy to establish what’s already one of the crown jewels in its collection, the Kings River Preserve.

“The Kings River is beautiful and forested along most of its corridor,” the Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas director, Scott Simon, said at the time of the purchase. “Our primary goal in purchasing the property is to help maintain water quality.”

The Buffalo River begins in Newton County while the Kings River begins just to the west in Madison County. While the Buffalo generally flows to the east before joining up with the White River south of Mountain Home, the Kings takes more of a northerly course, joining the White River east of Eureka Spring in what’s now Table Rock Lake.

Tim Snell, the Nature Conservancy’s water resources director, explained the plans for the preserve this way when last year’s announcement was made: “We’ll work to reduce sediment entering the stream, which can fill in gravel beds and choke out organisms at the bottom of the food chain, affecting those at the top like smallmouth bass. We hope to help the Kings River continue to be a treasured recreational resource and a prime spot for smallmouth bass fishing.”

Few people know the Kings better than Ernie Kilman of Kings River Outfitters.

“The Kings River is such an incredibly scenic place, and that’s because it’s a natural stream — one with forested and bluff-lined banks,” Kilman said. “Knowing that my son will be able to canoe on this river with his children and grandchildren and it will look the same — or better — than it does now is a wonderful thought. It’s great knowing that this land remains in good hands.”

The Nature Conservancy’s tract is a short distance downstream from the McIlroy Madison County Wildlife Management Area, a 14,496-acre operation of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission through which the Kings River flows for several miles.

The land purchased by the Nature Conservancy earlier had been a cattle ranch. The tract was a mix of forest and pasture with many of the pastures planted in fescue. The Nature Conservancy wasted no time planting trees along the banks of the river to prevent further erosion.

Here’s how the website describes the river: “High in the Boston Mountains of Madison County lie the beginnings of the Kings River. From this steep country the stream twists its way northward to the White River. … In its upper reaches, the Kings cuts a narrow gorge through sandstone, shale and limestone. On downstream, the surrounding countryside is not quite so precipitous, but the water is the same — clear and cool.

“The Kings’ most attractive features are found along the rock banks and bluffs where floaters will notice wild azaleas, ferns, umbrella magnolias and other fascinating plants. In addition, observant visitors can view a great many signs of wildlife — beaver cuttings and deer and raccoon tracks, for instance — and may even spot some of the local creatures.

“A float on the Kings River is a return to fishing in its purest form — no motors, no loaded bass boat, only your partner quietly paddling as you both absorb the untainted outdoor grandeur. The Kings has countless rock bass and hefty channel cats, but when fishing this stream, first and foremost on the minds of most anglers are the big smallmouth bass.

“If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. … Two sportfish often overlooked by Kings River anglers are the walleye and white bass. Both species are common in the portion of the river near Table Rock Lake during the spring spawning runs in March, April and early May. White bass will hit a variety of shad-imitation lures and minnows, while walleyes are usually taken on live baits such as minnows, crayfish and worms or artificial lures, particularly deep-running crankbaits and jigs.”

In a 2001 feature for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Buddy Gough described a Kings River float with a legendary Ozarks guide: “J.D. Fletcher was a grumpy old guy at the start of a recent Kings River float.

“‘All that rain didn’t do any good at all,’ he said as he eyed the river’s water level in the aftermath of thunderstorms that swept the Ozarks two weeks ago. The veteran fishing guide’s mood had been soured for weeks by a dry spring that had failed to produce runoff to flush up the river and bring the big smallmouths out of hiding.

“‘I can’t remember when the river hasn’t flushed up for us to fish in May,’ he said.

“For a fisherman whose memories of the Kings River reach back 43 years, that was saying something. For our much-postponed outing, Fletcher had hoped for a rise to allow fishing on his favorite stretch of river between Trigger Gap and the U.S. Highway 62 bridge near Berryville. Instead, he had settled for a six-mile stretch of the lower river between Stony Point and Smith’s Landing. He called it his summer float, meaning it normally had enough water flow to float fish in the summer months.”

Near the end of that day’s float, there was a narrow pool half a mile long with the current flowing over chunk rock. Fletcher said: “I got here with my son Jeff one time, and we caught 22 smallmouths before we left this pool. Another time, I caught a five-pound largemouth here. I remember because it was the 50th bass of the trip and it weighed five pounds.”

In May 2005, Gough went back on the Kings River with Tony Harlan.

“The weather and water conditions may not have been auspicious for good fishing at midmorning Thursday, but the river was beautiful to behold,” Gough wrote. “Under bright sun, the water reflected blue sky and leafy trees in many shades of green. Intermixed among the greenery were locust trees heavy with their clusters of white blooms. Although the water was low, it dazzled the eye with its sparkling clarity as it danced over clean gravel shining in golden colors.”

Spring approaches, and my thoughts turn to the Kings River. It’s an Arkansas treasure.

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