~ Canoes provide a great way to bass fish

Canoes provide a great way to bass fish

Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer Published August 13, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton/Contributing Photographer

Jim Spencer of Calico Rock lands a nice smallmouth bass on a float trip on the Ouachita River. Canoes provide the ideal means for fishing many of Arkansas’ small mountain streams.

My first time bass fishing from a canoe happened by coincidence.

One of my friends runs a bait shop, and when I asked him if he’d heard of anyone waylaying some of the local bass, he told me about a small backcountry river in the heart of an Arkansas wildlife management area.

“It’s a remote stream,” he said. “It’s full of blowdowns and snags. A big boat won’t make it through, but you can slide a canoe in at a WMA bridge and fish it just fine. A buddy of mine was there last week and caught 20 decent largemouths in just a little over an hour. And he didn’t see another soul while there.”

The man pulled an atlas from beneath the counter and showed me the put-in point. The next day, as the sun was peeking over the horizon, my buddy Jim and I were there. We carried his canoe down the steep, muddy stream bank and slid the boat in. Then we loaded a drink cooler, fishing poles and tackle boxes and headed downstream.

The stream’s cypress trees and willows proved to be ideal bass habitat. I tied on a jig-and-pig, then cast toward the cypress knees. I had just started retrieving the lure when I felt a solid hit, followed by the jump of a 3-pound largemouth.

“Way to go,” Jim said, smiling, as I landed the fish. “Our first bass of the day. And it’s a dandy.”

Jim caught the next bass at the mouth of a feeder creek. Casting beside a treetop, he waltzed his jig-and-eel through the bass refuge.

A not-so-subtle tap telegraphed the largemouth’s strike. Jim’s pole rainbowed when he set the hook. I watched excitedly as the 4-pounder tailwalked across the water. Slugging it out to the finish, the emerald-hued fish finally came to the boat. Jim released it, as I had done the first.

From many of our selected targets, a feisty bigmouth raced out to wallop our offerings. By the time we canoed to our take-out point, we had caught 16 largemouths ranging from 2 to 5 pounds and a host of smaller fish.

That day was a turning point for me. You see, prior to that time, it never occurred to me that a canoe offered special advantages over other crafts used for bass fishing. I learned, however, that some waters, like that small backcountry river, can be properly fished no other way. A canoe provides access impossible in a bass boat or even a small johnboat. A canoe carries you past snags, over boulders and around gravel bars that larger craft couldn’t navigate. A canoe lets you fish where other anglers rarely go.

You can fish from a canoe on almost any type of water, of course. A pleasant experience can be had in a quiet cove on a large reservoir or floating a popular stream in a national park. It’s adventuresome forays into the backcountry, however, that make paddle bassing among the most memorable of all ways to pursue black bass.

Remember, however, that proper pre-trip planning is very important when you’re float fishing in a canoe. If you’re fishing in mountainous areas, for example, you should know the class rating of the stream you plan to visit. The best bassing waters tend to be Class I or II, rated easy or medium because there are few or no obstructions or rapids, and the correct course is easy to determine. Class III, IV, V and VI streams are rated “difficult to the limit of navigability.” You’ll probably want to avoid these. The water moves too fast for accurate casting, and dangers are considerable.

You should also determine if you’ll be able to fish a pool or two of the river then paddle back to your put-in point, or if you’ll need to arrange a shuttle — using your own vehicles or service from a local outfitter — from your take-out point back to your launch site. If the latter is your best option, be sure you can navigate from the put-in to the take-out in the amount of time you have allotted to fish, or be prepared, if necessary, to camp overnight.

If you rent a canoe, check its condition thoroughly. Call the outfitter’s attention to any damage before you accept the canoe. Carry three paddles per canoe — one for you, one for your buddy and a spare. Have a life jacket for each person, and wear it or keep it properly secured in the canoe and readily accessible.

When you cast off, be sure your cargo and passengers are balanced from side to side and end to end, according to weather and water conditions, and the canoeists’ and cargo’s weight. Pack your clothes, bedding, etc. in waterproof float bags, and secure the bundles with shock cords to prevent shifting. When you stop to camp or fish, carry your canoe well up from the water’s edge. Stow it upside down in an area out of the wind.

Pick your fishing gear carefully so you’re not overloaded, but be sure to stow a spare rod and reel and extra lures in a safe place in case of mishaps. Many companies make great multipiece-pack-rod combos ideal for this kind of fishing.

Pick a time to travel when weather conditions are good; then prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime.

There’s a little cypress lake on a 17,000-acre wildlife area I once only dreamed about fishing. I walked to it often while squirrel hunting and knew it probably harbored abundant largemouths, if only

because of its remoteness. The lake was a mile from the nearest road.

I took a friend one time, at the end of a hunt.

“Would you look at that?!” he exclaimed. “I bet there’s bass in there long as your leg. We gotta come back and fish it.”

“Maybe you haven’t noticed,” I said. “There aren’t any roads coming in here, and there’s no way to fish it from the bank.”

“Then we’ll bring my canoe,” he said.

I didn’t relish the thought of dragging a canoe a mile through the woods, but the prospect of fishing that little lake was too much to resist. The next day we did it, and to my surprise, carrying my buddy’s canoe wasn’t much worse than toting a big tackle box. In less than an hour, we traversed the woods and launched the canoe. And though we didn’t catch any bass as long as our legs, the fishing was extraordinary. It wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t, though. The experience of fishing a scenic lake that probably hadn’t been visited by another angler in decades was enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Bassing from a canoe may seem like a lot of work at times, but almost invariably, the extra efforts prove worthwhile. No other form of bass fishing can better soothe the soul of a man weary of the modern world. Best of all, paddle bassing makes memories you’ll always cherish.

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