Seek a mountain sojourn for squirrels and smallmouths

By Keith Sutton Originally Published October 7, 2013 at 11:28 a.m.
Updated October 7, 2013 at 11:28 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

A float on the Big Piney River or Illinois Bayou often turns up trophy-class smallmouths like this one caught by Tennessee angler Stephen Headrick.

Arkansas hunters and anglers face a dilemma in September. The state’s cool, mountain streams often are at their best for casual float-fishing this month. There’s hardly a better time to fish for battling smallmouth bass. But September is the traditional opener for squirrel season, too, and many who enjoy hunting these nutshuckers want to be chasing bushytails as often as possible this month.

Bronzebacks or bushytails? Normally, choosing one means eliminating the other. But this isn’t so for anyone familiar with the Big Piney Creek and Illinois Bayou in north Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. Some of the country’s finest smallmouth fishing takes place on these rivers, and hardwood forests skirting the streams are a squirrel hunter’s paradise.

Neither river is large or long by Arkansas standards. Both are clear, cool and gravel-bottomed with abundant habitat for smallmouths. Catching two dozen bronzebacks during a day’s fishing is common in September, with occasional lunkers to 4 or 5 pounds.

The floats described in the following paragraphs take the visitor through the Ozark National Forest, where squirrels are plentiful in streamside hardwoods. Squirrel hunting is permitted from a boat as long as it’s not under power, but many floating squirrel hunters don’t hunt at all from their canoe. They simply use their craft to take them from one section of woods to another, taking a few squirrels from each area. Be mindful, however, that private property borders the streams in places. “Posted” land should not be entered.

Big Piney Creek hurries pell-mell over ledges and rapids

in a twisting course largely within the Ozark National Forest. A veteran fisherman will look at the cool, clear water with its rocky cover and come to one conclusion: smallmouth bass. “Brownies” are abundant here, and fishing is a year-round possibility for those willing to wade-fish or drag their boats over the shoals during drier months. In September, however, anglers usually find enough water for a leisurely float-fishing trip.

The 10-mile section of the Piney from Forest Service Road 1004 at Limestone to Arkansas 123 has numerous rapids ranging from easy to difficult. The best time to fish and hunt is when the water level is in the 3- to 4-foot range, although the upper reaches may require a reading closer to 5 feet for best conditions. At 5 feet and beyond, the stream is considered dangerous. Visitors can check the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website ( for a daily report.

Just northeast of the

123 bridge is the 15,000-acre Hurricane Creek Wilderness, an ideal location to hike or backpack in for some “get-away-from-it-all” squirrel hunting. No motorized traffic is allowed. In some remote areas, squirrel hunters can go days without seeing another human.

The next section from Arkansas 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1805) covers about eight miles. Here the valley is not so tight, and the stream’s pace slackens to allow more casual hunting and fishing. The rapids are more subdued, rated easy to medium, and provide some of the best on-the-water squirrel hunting in Arkansas.

You’ll want to get your canoe afloat well before daylight because the action starts at dawn. It’s best to move along one bank or the other, taking advantage of overhanging cover and staying within shotgun range of the trees. Move slowly, and stop when you get into a squirrelly looking area. Occasionally, it may be necessary to tie up and spend some time looking and listening.

A 20-gauge or 12-gauge loaded with No. 6 shot works well. Most hunters opt to work in pairs, one paddling the boat while the other shoots, trading places periodically. Solo hunters can also be successful if they are patient and careful. Carry life jackets for each person and a dip net to gather your squirrels.

The Treat-to-Long Pool float isn’t suitable for slow-paced float hunting, but fishing continues to be great, and there are plenty of points where you can drag your craft ashore and walk in to hunt. The hills start crowding the creek along this 10-mile run, and the result is rapids with names like Roller Coaster, Surfing Hole and Cascades of Extinction. Gravel bars are conveniently located just below most rapids, providing spots for a breather, a shore lunch or, in some cases, a salvage operation.

Sportsmen can also find smallmouth and squirrel action on the Illinois Bayou a few miles east in the national forest. Don’t be fooled by the bayou part of the name, though. There’s nothing slow and lazy about this stream. In fact, the bayou is recommended for experienced paddlers.

The Illinois Bayou is not really one stream but four: the North Fork, Middle Fork, East Fork and main stem. All these sections offer outstanding fishing for scrappy smallmouths, but public squirrel-hunting lands are not found along the main stem.

The North Fork flows through remote country. During the 10-mile float from the Dry Creek put-in (Forest Road 1310) to the Forest Road 1001 takeout, visitors pass no roads, bridges, houses or fields. The shuttle is an ordeal involving considerable driving, but the float itself is delightful with medium to difficult rapids,

great scenery, a wonderful sense of solitude and plenty of squirrels and smallmouth bass.

The bayou’s Middle Fork offers an exciting, two-mile float from the Snow Creek put-in (two miles up Forest Road 1312 off Arkansas 27) to the Bayou Bluff Recreation Area just below the junction of the Middle and East Forks. Unlike the North Fork float, this section is seldom far from roads, yet it also offers a sense of remoteness and fine bass fishing and squirrel hunting.

When conditions are right, one can also float the East Fork. The 12-mile journey from Forest Road 1301 to the Bayou Bluff campground is steep and wild, passing through the middle of the 10,700-acre East Fork Wilderness Area. Like its companion floats, this one is not for the novice. However, there are plenty of quiet pools for enjoying a fishing break and ample access for a hike-in squirrel

hunt on the steep, oak- and hickory-covered hillsides.

Stream brownies are suckers for crayfish. Feeder creeks are full of these crustaceans, and it takes only minutes for the quick-handed angler to fill a bucket with bait. Anglers catch hefty smallmouths on artificial lures as well, including jigging frogs (1/8-ounce brown jig and brown pork frog), minnow- and crayfish-imitation crankbaits and small plastic worms.

The Illinois Bayou is a seasonal stream, floatable only after extended periods of rainfall. A good indicator of “floatability” is the Scottsville reading given on the Corps of Engineers website. Levels between 6 and 7 feet are best (6.5 minimum for the North Fork), and much beyond 7.5 is considered risky.

For information on season dates and regulations, along with maps of the streams, visit the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission website at

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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