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The smallmouth streams of Arkansas

Spring is upon us.

I look forward to that first wilted salad of fresh lettuce, radishes and bacon grease.

I look forward to frying up some crappie.

I look forward to the dogwoods and azaleas blooming as April begins.

And then, as April turns into May, I look forward to the water warming in our Arkansas streams and the smallmouth bass beginning to bite.

My grandfather, my grandmother and my father taught me to enjoy all types of fishing.

I first learned to use a fly rod not by going after trout in a mountain stream but instead fishing for bream while using a popping bug on the slow streams, bayous and sloughs of south Arkansas.

I enjoyed being out with my grandfather in the middle of the night, jug fishing for catfish while using empty Clorox bottles.

I had just as much fun fishing with my dad in a tiny flatbottom boat for crappie on the secluded slough at the Pennington farm near the Ouachita River as I did being in his bass boat on DeGray Lake fishing for largemouth bass.

Our trips to Empire in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana to fish alongside oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and to Lake of the Woods in western Ontario to fish for walleye will long be remembered.

For my money, though, there’s nothing finer than floating the mountain streams of Arkansas in search of smallmouth bass.

The fewer people I see on those trips, the better. Dennis Whiteside, a stream guide who knows the Ozark rivers and creeks better than most anyone, is a master at guiding a canoe. Dennis has put me on some smallmouth streams that I never would have thought of.

For instance, I crossed Long Creek at Alpena near the Boone County-Carroll County line while driving on U.S. Highway 62 for years without ever thinking of it as a smallmouth stream. Several years ago, however, Dennis and I caught the water just right on Long Creek. It was a day to remember.

When I was growing up in south Arkansas, the Caddo River was our smallmouth stream of choice. The six-mile float from Caddo Gap to Glenwood is probably the most popular, but smallmouth can be caught further down the river as it makes its way from Pike County into Clark County and forms DeGray Lake.

Our state is blessed with talented outdoors writers, and one of the best is Keith Sutton. Here’s what he had to say about the Caddo in an article for Arkansas Sportsman: “Launch at the low-water bridge west of Arkansas Highway 8 in Caddo Gap; take out beneath the U.S. Highway 70 bridge at Glenwood. In between, you’ll encounter small rapids, long gravel bars and plenty of good smallmouth fishing around boulders and fallen treetops. Bait choices run the gamut from live crayfish to willow-leaf spinnerbaits. Try to be on the river at daybreak, as peak smallmouth activity is usually during the day’s first couple of hours.”

Another quality southwest Arkansas stream is the Little Missouri River before it empties into Lake Greeson. Sutton calls it a “strikingly beautiful smallmouth stream” that “harbors plenty of feisty smallmouths within its rock gardens and deep pools. The bronzebacks are suckers for live crawfish, and if you take time to turn over a few rocks and leaves in small feeder creeks you pass, you can often gather a dozen or more in just a few minutes. … Most smallmouths will be holding on the downstream side of boulders, treetops and other current breaks, so cast upstream and allow the bait to drift by this cover naturally.”

My dad grew up in Benton fishing the Saline River and its forks that flow out of the Ouachita Mountains — the North Fork, the Middle Fork, the Alum Fork. All of those forks can still offer excellent smallmouth fishing if you catch the water just right.

The upper Ouachita River also can provide opportunities to catch smallmouth bass. Sutton likes the stretch from Oden to the Rocky Shoals Campground.

“Smallmouth fishing on this stretch of the Ouachita is exhilarating with fast-paced action for bronzebacks up to three and four pounds,” he writes. “Put in early and take out late to get the most from this scenic 10-mile float. The put-in point is the Arkansas Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden. The campground takeout is at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing.

“The water here is clear, cool and fast flowing, and there’s a good mix of long, deep pools and rapids. There are lots of big rocks, deep runs under steep banks and downed timber offering shade, food and protection from the current. That’s where you find smallmouths.

“Most local smallmouth anglers prefer to use live baits, particularly live crayfish and minnows. However, any artificial designed to imitate the smallmouth’s natural prey will usually prove productive.”

The Ozark streams, of course, are the state’s best-known places for smallmouth bass. Jerry McKinnis made Crooked Creek nationally famous with his many visits there for his television show. The most popular stretch runs from Kelly’s Slab to Yellville and takes about half a day.

The Kings River is my favorite Ozark stream (I’ll write more about it in a later post). Sutton calls it a “dream stream beyond compare, beautiful and pristine. It transports the float fisherman back in time to a simpler, less complicated era. … If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. Some people expect bass from this smallish river to be smallish too, and that can cost you some trophy fish. A baitcasting reel, medium-action rod and 10- to 20-pound-test line are appropriate. Big smallmouths hit large crankbaits and large tandem spinners with trailing pork rind.”

The Buffalo National River is by far the state’s most popular river for floating. The smallmouth fishing can also be good. I prefer solitude when fishing, though, and the Buffalo can become awfully crowded (and those kids in canoes can be awfully loud) when the weather warms, especially on weekends. The same is true of the Spring River, which has become known as a “party stream” if you can imagine such a thing.

This time of year, when the spring rains come and the water levels rise quickly, the Mulberry River and the Big Piney Creek are best known as whitewater streams. But the smallmouth fishing can be worth the float when water levels are down. If the water is right, Sutton suggests floats on the Big Piney from Arkansas Highway 123 to Treat and on the Mulberry from Arkansas Highway 23 to Milton’s Ford.

The Eleven Point River also can provide fine smallmouth fishing, though the best fishing on the river seems to be on the Missouri side of the state line.

“The Eleven Point enters northeast Arkansas from Missouri near the town of Elm Store and courses southward to merge with the Spring River near Old Davidsonville State Park, a distance of about 40 miles,” Sutton writes. “Floating can be tough thanks to stream obstructions, but it’s worth trying. Smallmouths from one pound to two pounds are abundant with bigger specimens possible.

“The nine-mile run from the state Highway 93 bridge at Dalton to the Arkansas Highway 90 access has vertical banks that rise more than 10 feet. The banks often are undercut and cave in, taking trees and undergrowth that clog the stream. But the cover provides a haven for outsized brownies. An old stone dam must be negotiated about eight miles downstream, shortly after an island and its accompanying brush-filled channel. Walk your craft through to the right.”

I’ve also had good luck with Dennis fishing the South Fork of the Spring River.

The water quality, cool water temperatures, quality habitat and long growing season make the above streams good bets for smallmouth fishing. Smallmouth bass can reach up to six pounds in these streams.

Floating the streams can be work due to fluctuating water levels and debris blocking your path. But the work is worth it for what is pound for pound the hardest-fighting fish in Arkansas.

Smallmouth spawning usually begins in April and can continue until late May. If you like to fish and like the Arkansas outdoors, you should make plans to get out on one of the state’s smallmouth streams during April and May.

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