A dozen Ozark smallmouth floats

Snow flurries were falling from a silvery February sky. It seemed crazy to be starting a float-fishing trip, but that we were. We pushed our canoe from the gravel bar and began day one of a two-day float down north Arkansas' Buffalo National River. We quickly became absorbed in the scenic Ozark Mountains landscape that surrounds the river near Rush.

Cold, crystalline water carried us through mountain passes cuffed with snow-covered hardwoods. Curtains of icicles sparkled along riverside bluffs, and wood ducks flushed before us. As we paddled farther from civilization, we became enveloped in the stark, elemental beauty only winter can create.

Fishing in pools and riffles, we caught several kinds of fish — channel cats, spotted bass, rock bass and a variety of sunfish. None of these, however, could compare to the smallmouth bass that comprised most of our catch. They seemed to lurk behind every rock, small fish mostly —1 to 2 pounds —but the action was steady and enjoyable. We released them back to the river, but kept a few panfish for a gravel-bar supper that night.

As I watched those fish sizzling over the campfire, I found myself extremely content to be sitting comfortably on a remote riverbank watching it snow. This trip had seemed at first a ridiculous notion. It had become, instead, a fun and memorable outing.

If you get cabin fever this month, perhaps you'll want to plan a smallmouth excursion of your own. It can be hard to find a quiet smallmouth-fishing spot in spring, summer and fall, but such is not the case in late winter. Head for a cool, clear mountain stream in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas this season, 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 bronzebacks you're after, February is a good month to go. Excellent fishing, lots of big ones and no crowds: those three factors make Arkansas' Ozark Mountain streams ideal places for beating the winter blues.

Convinced yet? If so, consider some of these Ozark rivers when planning a trip this season.

Buffalo National River

The Buffalo, our country' first national river, is Arkansas' best-known smallmouth stream. In late winter, anglers can enjoy a relaxing float through gorgeous canyons with sky-high bluffs. Most smallmouths are welterweights, a pound or less, but there are plenty to be caught. One of many good sections for float-fishing is the 10-mile Arkansas Highway 7 to Arkansas 123 stretch, with accesses at Carver and Hasty in Newton County.

Another good stretch farther downstream covers 7.5 miles between Buffalo Point and Rush in southeastern Marion County. The scenery astounds, smallmouth fishing excels, and the trip is short and safe, perfect for families.

Crooked Creek
Crooked Creek originates in Newton County and flows 80 miles to the White River, passing Harrison, Pyatt and Yellville on the way. This scenic stream has received national acclaim for its excellent smallmouth fishing, and its reputation is well-deserved. On one of the most popular floats, between Kelly's Slab and Yellville, 2- to 3-pounders are fairly common. The put-in point for this half-day float is one mile west of Yellville at the low-water bridge known locally as Kelly's Slab. The trip concludes on the east side of Arkansas Highway 14 at the Yellville city park.

Kings River
The Kings River offers rewards that go far beyond the fine smallmouths you're likely to catch. This is a dream stream, beautiful and pristine. Long, deep pools make the segment from Marble to Marshall Ford (10.7 miles) a good fisherman's float. Smallmouths eagerly strike jigs and crankbaits, and this leisurely float allows plenty of time to absorb the Ozarks' grandeur. The put-in is northwest of Marble at a county road crossing. Take out at the low-water bridge at Marshall Ford northeast of Alabam. Both accesses are east of Huntsville in Madison County.

If a longer float tickles your fancy, you can continue downstream on the Marshall Ford to Rockhouse run, an excellent 15-mile float-fishing trip through quiet, scenic country with a take-out adjacent Arkansas Highway 221 southwest of Berryville.

Big Piney Creek
Veteran fisherman look at the Big Piney's cool, clear water and rocky cover and come to one conclusion — smallmouth bass. Brownies are abundant, with good fishing year-round. The section from Arkansas 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1802) lies entirely within Johnson County northeast of Clarksville and covers about eight miles. The water upstream is fast and sometimes difficult to navigate, but on this stretch, the stream's pace slackens to allow casual fishing. Skittering a jig-and-pig across the bottom near structure and cover is a good way to nab smallmouths.

The next section — Treat to Long Pool — has rapids with names like the Surfing Hole and Cascades of Extinction. Casual fishing isn't possible here. On the 5-mile stretch from Long Pool to Arkansas 164, however, the Piney slows down considerably and the smallmouth angler won't have to work too hard to catch a mess of fish.

Illinois Bayou

It's called by a bayou, but there's nothing sluggish and bayou-like about this stream, which has its origins on the south slopes of the Ozarks. The three upper forks dish up some of the state's best whitewater action. The main stem of the river is much calmer, however, at least in the lower sections, and the 7-mile float from the Arkansas 27 bridge north of Hector to the Arkansas 164 bridge north of Scottsville (all in Pope County north of Russellville) is a great stretch to try for the river's abundant smallmouths.

Mulberry River
Though often overlooked by smallmouth fans, the Mulberry is one of the finest Ozark bass streams. The river gets a bit wild during high-water periods, with waters rated medium to difficult, but if you're an experienced canoeist, you might want to sample the river's fast-water fishing. A good stretch to try is the 8.5-mile Franklin County run from the Arkansas Highway 23 bridge (Turner Bend) to Milton's Ford on Forest Road 1501 west of Highway 23.

Eleven Point River
The Eleven Point River enters northeast Arkansas from Missouri and courses southward to merge with the Spring River near Old Davidsonville State Park, a distance of 40 miles. Floating can be tough due to stream obstructions in places, but it's worth trying. One- to 2-pound smallmouths are abundant, with bigger specimens possible. One haven for outsized brownies is the 9-mile stretch from the Highway 93 bridge at Dalton (Randolph County) to the Highway 90 access east of Ravenden Springs.

Strawberry River
The Strawberry in north-central Arkansas is a friendly river good for family fishing excursions. The upper third is generally too low for good floating, but the 10-mile section between the U.S. 167 crossing north of Evening Shade (Sharp County) and the low-water bridge two miles north off Arkansas 56 usually has enough water for a good fishing float with plenty of smallmouths and bonus spotted bass, too.

Spring River

The upper reaches of the Spring River near Mammoth Spring on the Arkansas/Missouri border are well-known for producing giant trout, but many anglers are unaware of the blue-ribbon smallmouth action to be had downstream. Anglers can put in at Many Islands Camp west of U.S. 63 between Hardy and Mammoth Spring (Fulton County) and float eight miles to Hardy Beach, a public park below the U.S. 62-167 bridge to sample some of the best action.

A Final Note
When visiting these streams, please remember your responsibilities as an ethical angler. Obey fishing laws. Carry out all trash. Avoid trespassing on private land adjacent to the streams. Leave no signs of your visits.

Ozark smallmouth streams are special. They always have been, and always will be — we hope. Please do your part to keep them that way.

For Arkansas licensing information and bass fishing regulations, obtain a copy of the current Fishing Guidebook available from the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Phone (800) 364-GAME or go to www.agfc.com. For river maps and a guide to outfitters providing canoe rentals and guided fishing, obtain the Arkansas Adventure Guide (free) by phoning 1-(800) NATURAL or visit www.arkansas.com.