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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Melissa Nichols releases a largemouth bass she caught Sept. 15 on Little Sugar Creek. "Free the fighter" is her motto when she floats and fishes the creek.

Melissa Nichols wears a yellow bracelet that is dear to her heart when she floats and fishes on Little Sugar Creek.

"Free the fighter," her wrist message says.

Float Little Sugar Creek

A two-mile float begins at the Missouri 90 bridge at Jane, Mo., and ends at Griffin Ford low-water bridge on a county road near Jane.

Havenhurst mill dam and campground is five miles downstream from Griffin Ford on Missouri Route K. Little Sugar meets Big Sugar Creek one mile downstream from the dam.

Go to nwadg.com to see a video of the fishing trip.

Every smallmouth bass she brings to her kayak goes back in the stream. Largemouth bass, too, were freed to fight again when Nichols floated the creek during summer's last days.

Little Sugar gets its trickle start in Benton County. The stream's clear water meanders near Bentonville, forms tiny Lake Bella Vista, then angles its way into Missouri. Little Sugar meets Big Sugar Creek at Pineville, Mo., to form the Elk River.

Nichols knows every crooked turn on her beloved waterway. She's fished and played on Little Sugar and Big Sugar creeks since she was a little girl. The two streams aren't far from Nichols' cabin near Jane, Mo.

"My dad would bring me to the creek every weekend," she said. "We'd fish and swim and just do outdoor stuff. That's how I grew up. I hunt mushrooms on this creek. I've seen deer come out of the woods and swim across. I've had deer walk up to me while I've been laying in the creek."

A 2.5-mile stretch of Little Sugar is one of her favorite floats. Nichols launched her kayak at the Missouri 90 bridge Sept. 15, a sunny Friday, and took out at a friend's property one-half mile downstream from Griffin Ford low-water bridge.

Nichols knows almost everyone who lives on Little Sugar or Big Sugar creeks. Her family has deep roots in the rocky McDonald County hills and valleys that hold its lovely creeks.

Fishing with live bait was the way of the Ozark anglers long ago. Some anglers prefer to feed 'em, not fool 'em today.

"We used to use hellgrammies, crawdads, catalpa worms, plain worms," Nichols said. Nowadays she fools 'em with lures. Jigs and an array of soft plastic lures decorate her small tackle box.

Little Sugar enjoys less traffic than Big Sugar. Outfitters rent boats mainly on Big Sugar and the Elk River. Come fall, these streams and Little Sugar Creek become deserted. Nichols saw one other paddler on this trip.

"People think there's not as much water in Little Sugar, but there is. And there are just as many deep holes," she testified. Nichols operates Sugar Creek Kayak shuttle service on Little Sugar, Big Sugar and Elk River for paddlers with their own boats.

Nichols wrangled several smallmouth and largemouth bass from Little Sugar. She freed the fighters, all right, but she's also on a mission to keep the stream as free-flowing as it can be. Nichols is active in the Friends of Little Sugar Creek. The group wants to see the Lake Bella Vista dam on the creek removed so the stream flows free.

Before her float trip, Nichols and Greg Van Horn of Bentonville walked the Lake Bella Vista trail that crosses the dam. Van Horn founded Friends of Little Sugar Creek.

The dam remains damaged from recent flooding. Water flows through the spillway so Little Sugar Creek is only partially impeded. Lake Bella Vista today is only half full. Recreational use of the lake is almost nil. Boating and fishing were popular when the dam and lake were built in 1915.

Some want the dam rebuilt and the lake restored.

Now that more of Little Sugar flows through the damaged dam, the water quality downstream has improved, Nichols said. Algae was thicker when the dam was intact, she said.

Little algae was seen while Nichols drifted and fished. She's proud to campaign for a free-flowing Little Sugar Creek and freeing the fighters that fin in its clear water.

"Sometimes the fish win and sometimes you win," she said. "I feel like a winner every time I come out here."

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAFlip

Sports on 10/03/2017

Print Headline: Little pinch of sugar

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