Five great floats are found on Arkansas’ mountain streams

By Keith Sutton Originally Published April 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 19, 2013 at 2:04 p.m.
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Keith Sutton

The Kings River in the Arkansas Ozarks serves up some of the state’s most scenic floating and fishing.

Arkansas encompasses more than 9,000 miles of streams, and in early spring, many of those miles are perfect for floating by canoe, johnboat, raft or kayak. Our rivers

provide remarkably wide-ranging experiences, from matchless fishing trips to rugged whitewater runs and peaceful passages ideal for first-timers. The rivers are, in a word, inviting.

If you want to experience these joys, here are five fun floats to try this season.

Upper Ouachita River

Nearly 70 miles of the Ouachita River above Lake Ouachita can be floated when water conditions are right. My favorite stretch is the 10-mile section from the Arkansas 379 bridge at Oden (Montgomery County) to the Rocky Shoals campground at the U.S. 270 crossing east of Pencil Bluff. This float features deep pools, stimulating rapids and beautiful scenery, including a towering bluff a few miles above the take-out. The fishing ain’t too shabby either, especially for high-jumping smallmouth and spotted bass.

A major draw of the Ouachita River is its location within the Ouachita National Forest. The Forest Service provides campgrounds, picnic areas and access points along the river, but with only sparse population along its banks, the Ouachita also offers a wonderful sense of solitude for those who love this aspect of the backcountry.

Saline River

The Saline is the last major undammed stream in the Ouachita Mountains. Several stretches offer great canoeing water, but the best for a short float is from Benton’s Lyle Park (just off Arkansas 5 on the north side of town) to the Cherry Gingles access (off the eastbound Interstate 30 access road at exit 116). The distance is only three miles or so, but if you stop to swim, picnic and fish the pools thoroughly, it’s a nice four- to five-hour trip with a short shuttle.

A couple miles into the float, you’ll encounter a lowhead dam barely noticeable from upstream. This forms a deep pool from which Benton draws its water supply, and you should be attentive to avoid the sharp drop at the dam’s edge. This is a good place to fish and swim awhile, because you’ll have to portage around the dam anyway. Big smallmouths, rock bass, sunfish, walleyes and catfish congregate in the pool, providing fine fishing for savvy anglers.

Kings River

It’s hard to find a more peaceful, scenic float stream than the Kings River. Gentle and clear, the river twists through an endless expanse of the rolling north Arkansas Ozarks, from the Boston Mountains of Madison County to southern Missouri’s Table Rock Lake. At every bend, there’s another surprise: a deer at streamside; deep blue swimming holes full of fish; colorful wood ducks, herons and songbirds flushing before your boat. Such ingredients make a float on the Kings totally delightful and unforgettable.

The U.S. 62 bridge put in between Eureka Springs and Berryville is the starting point for one memorable run on this 90-mile-long river. The 12-mile float down to Summers Ford (off Arkansas 143) has pretty gravel bars where you can picnic and swim, and plentiful rock bass, catfish and smallmouths for fishermen.

Caddo River

I’ve caught all sorts of fish in the Caddo River: fat channel catfish, colorful sunfish, hard-fighting white bass, good-eating rock bass and more. When I fish here, however, I’m usually targeting the river’s abundant smallmouth bass. Those in the Caddo are fat and spunky. They average a pound or so, but on a good trip, you’re likely to catch a few that weigh more than 3 pounds.

The best float-fishing starts on the six-mile stretch from Caddo Gap to Glenwood, west of Hot Springs. The take-out is at the U.S. 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 eight-mile float to the Arkansas 182 bridge north of Amity, where you’re seldom far from civilization, but in a peaceful setting on clear water full of fish.

Upper White River

Many fly-fishing enthusiasts consider the White River the best year-round trout-fishing stream in North America. But float fishing, not fly fishing, put the river on the map. This technique was refined to its truest form here by guides floating trout anglers through emerald-green pools walled by limestone bluffs that curve to the sky.

The standard White River rig is a long, lean vessel called a “johnboat” for some long-forgotten hill-country reason. The boat comes fully equipped with captain’s chairs for comfort, a drink cooler amidships, a 10- to 20-horse motor to take you back upriver to your resort at day’s end, and a guide who knows every riffle and pool in the river.

The White’s trout water stretches from Bull Shoals Dam to Guion, a distance of about 90 miles. The best way to enjoy a float here is to hire a local fishing guide and let him do all the work. This allows you to absorb the scenic views and enjoy fishing for rainbow, brown, brook and cutthroat trout that sometimes reach world-record sizes.

On my last White River float trip, I stopped to visit a friend fishing with his young son. The boy showed me a nice trout he had just landed.

“I caught it by myself,” he said, grinning.

As I snapped the youngster’s photo, I thought how fortunate we are in The Natural State to have such magnificent streams where we can enjoy adventures of all sorts. Our rivers are unforgettable playgrounds for the thousands who float them each year. And for those who love the outdoors, these rivers are little short of paradise.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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