Smallmouth Bass. I became really interested in smallmouth after hearing them talked about on a few podcasts I regularly listen to. They all talked about how aggressive they are and how hard they fight, how they are a native species in most places they are fished for, and how they are a great fly rod fish. Being that it was the dead of winter when I got the smallmouth itch, I had plenty of time to daydream about chasing a fun new species, and I started to look into planning a trip.
One thing became clear early on in my planning: a decent drive would be required to find the closest rivers that hold smallmouth. From southeastern Louisiana the closest options are Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama. Smallmouth are not native in Texas and are only located in a couple streams where they compete with the native Guadalupe Bass (a species I hope to target soon as well). In Alabama they are only located in the Northeast corner of the state, and access to rivers seemed daunting with no major public land areas to be found. In Arkansas, smallmouth are found in most of the mountain streams in the Ozark and Ouachita ranges. The Ouachita range being the closest to Baton Rouge, only a 6.5 hour drive, as well as having numerous streams in the national forest, seemed the best choice.
I booked a cabin for a couple nights, and over a couple months leading up to the trip I marked some potential fishing spots on the map, and tied up some streamers and crawfish patterns. The weeks leading up to the trip were spent feverishly watching the weather forecast and streamflows, trying to get an idea of what conditions I could expect when I arrived. Being April, every week brought a storm front with about an inch of rain, swelling the rivers for the couple days afterward. A front was predicted to blow through early in the morning before my arrival, but this one was only supposed to drop about a half inch of rain, and the next days were dry. Perfect!
As is many times the case, the forecast was not totally accurate. The front came through, rain starting around 1 am. I planned on leaving Baton Rouge by 6 am, and when I got up that morning the first rain bands had already gone through, and the radar looked to be clearing. Unfortunately for me, as I was driving up, the rain clouds just kept hanging out and dumping rain over the mountains. When I arrived at my first spot, the river was raging and rain was still coming down. The picture below shows the conditions I arrived to. Later in the post, you’ll see the same area 2 days later.
I spent some time stretching my legs, made a sandwich, and rigged up a rod as rain came down. Unfortunately the picnic area here didn’t have any covered pavilions, which would have been nice. After driving through an hour of rain, seeing the river raging, a nice dry place to sit would have helped my attitude, which was starting to get a little bummed out. I went out to the river, threw crawfish fly at some slack water, but didn’t have any success, or any real faith in my chances.
It was now late enough that I could check into the cabin, which was on a medium size creek, so I figured I’d at least go somewhere where I could fish in the rain more comfortably than the picnic area. The creek by the cabin, being more up the watershed, was moving pretty good but looked more fishable than the first river I stopped at. I tied on one of the more heavily weighted flies in my box, a black over olive half and half with large dumbell eyes, and threw into any spot that the water was a little slow moving. After hitting some spots I thought looked good with no action I dropped the fly in some really slack water, almost a slow eddy, a few feet out in front of me, and surveyed the creek for the next likely spot to cast to. As I went to pull the fly out of the water I felt some familiar resistance, fish on! I was able to pull the fish out pretty quickly with my 8 weight since it was right in front of me, and man, what a fish. This would end up being the best fish of the trip. My first smallmouth was a beauty.
My mood instantly improved, and my confidence ticked up a bit, even if there was a bit of luck involved at least I had a pattern I could follow. That pattern proved successful, as the fished were stacked up in these slack currents due to the high water. What was once a curse became a blessing and I pulled three more nice fish out of the same general area.
The photo below shows the honey hole on this day. The dark color material is dead leaves that had piled up, this would be a tell tale sign of where to target fish over the next day as well, with the waters still being relatively high.
On day 2 my original plan was to fish the larger rivers in the national forest. After all the rain, I figured I’d be better off heading up any tributaries I could find. This was the right idea. After stopping by the river I had originally planned on, and seeing the flow and the level, I knew wading would be borderline unsafe, and I couldn’t really see any places I thought would hold fish. Below is a photo of the river, the brown section in the middle is a gravel bar that is usually exposed.
Driving up one of the forest roads that parallels a creek, I parked at an established disbursed camping spot and scoped out the creek. It was also moving pretty good, but being smaller and shallower over all, I could at least feel safe wade fishing a bit. There was an old two track trail that followed the creek about a mile downstream, which made for great access. The surroundings where absolutely stunning, with full cloud cover and still some moisture in the area, the bark of the wet trees was so dark and contrasted beautifully with the bright foliage.
The creek itself was also a gem, even when high the water was crystal clear, and the surrounding land still draining led to little waterfalls coming down the rocks everywhere.
This little pool with the big boulder in it provided the first couple smallmouth of the day. After making several cast across the pool, it wasn’t until I let my olive wooly bugger swing down near the bank I was standing on that i saw a fish attach the fly. I was in the process of pulling it back to me to make another cast when he followed it, so he missed it, but when i tossed it back to the same spot he crushed it! As I pulled him in one of his buddies followed him right up until I pulled him out of the water. I couple casts later and I caught the other one.
The main river in this area of the national forest is seasonally stocked with Rainbow Trout, and I had seen reports of them being up in the tributaries as well. So when I swung my wooly bugger down by some big boulders and got a hit that felt a bit different that the smallmouth, I wasn’t surprised to see a rainbow on the end of the line. They are not native to this area, but they fit right in, these streams could all pass for trout streams anywhere else.
After the trail along that stretch of the creek dead ended, I walked back to the truck to go find another stretch to fish. There were actually a few groups out camping at some of the spots, this must be a popular area, even on a weekday. I found a nice empty spot and hopped in the creek. There was no established trail here, and the creek braided a bit into smaller channels, so I did a bit more wading and exploring here.
It was in some of these small shallow side channels that I started seeing some smaller fish go after the wooly bugger. I thought they were just tiny smallmouth, but after I tied on a smaller streamer I came to find out they were Creek Chubs. This was a new species for me, always exciting, and something kind of exotic to add to my bag for the 2022 Jambalaya Challenge.
I ended up fishing that area for a bit longer, but only finding one good hole, which featured the tell tale piled up leaves in slack current. I caught two more smallmouth there, and another rainbow that was hanging out by a boulder that was in a little more current than where the smallmouth were holding. Overall that creek was one of my favorite parts of the trip, I’d love to explore more of it some day, and hopefully with lower water.
I headed back to the cabin, and more importantly, the creek behind the cabin. With a whole day to drop, the level and flow of that creek was great. I was able to catch some more quality fish from the same areas as the day before, but I also wading much farther upstream than I was able to the day before. In this upstream stretch I really started to get into the swing of swinging my double wooly bugger downstream in the current, and the fish pictured below almost scared me with how aggressive the take was. What a feeling!
I headed back to the cabin after that fish to fire up the grill, crack a beer, and celebrate a great day fishing and exploring the mountains. After dinner, as the light dwindled, I figured I’d try seeing if I couldn’t get a strike on topwater. I managed one, who didn’t really explode on the Boogle Bug, but kind of slurped it in as it drifted by. Another first checked off the list.
Day 3 had originally planned as a kayak float fishing day on the Caddo river, but after checking with the kayak rental guys, it seemed the water was still too high for good fishing. As a backup plan I decided to explore the more western side of the mountains that I did on day 2. I drove through the whole range from north to south, with a pretty cool bit of driving through Wolf Pen Gap. The road was windy, rocky, and a bit steep. It wasn’t too hairy, and I didn’t need any rock crawling skills, but it was a good bit of fun to drive. On the other side of the pass lies the headwaters of one of the mountain’s designated scenic rivers, and boy does it live up to that name. There are some breathtaking views and great dispersed camping sites along this river. Even to come set up a little picnic for a day at one of these spots would be great. I imagine these see alot of use during the summer, and similar to the other creek, a few of the campsites had guests.
I fished the pool above for a bit, which I thought would be a slam dunk, but I didn’t see any action. I might not have been deep enough, as the middle of the pool seemed to be several feet deep from what I could tell. Driving downstream a bit to another stretch, I found a really nice long run/pool. I finally slowed down enough to think about setting up my mini-tripod and putting the camera on interval timer mode to take a self portrait. I caught one smallmouth in this stretch, swinging the double wooly bugger in front of a submerged boulder. I also saw one come up and inspect my fly on the swing, but he didn’t go for the attack.
I did manage to catch a Bigeye Shiner in this area as well. As you can see below, he is about the same size as the fly he went for. I was fishing in some really shallow side pocket, and I kind of saw a flash, but then as I let the fly swing down stream and thought i had snagged a leaf. Just as I was about to try and violently shake the leaf off of the fly, I realized it was a fish!
I kept driving through the mountains until I got out of the national forest, and then headed back the picnic area where I first arrived on Day 1. As mentioned earlier, the river looked completely different. Turquoise green water, the sun finally out, this is how I pictured it in my mind when planning the trip. I stuck with the white double wooly bugger, and threw into some of the side eddy water that I had been having success in, and I had a few follows in the turbulence, but not smallmouth landed.
I decided to switch to a crawfish pattern and fish some slower water. I hooked up soon after the switch, and pulled out the nice Longear Sunfish pictured below.
I tried some other really great looking spots, but didn’t move any fish or entice any strikes. While the water was lower and more fishable than it was a couple days before, it was still a bit high for me to try to wade across and access any more spots that I could see. I took in the beautiful scenery one last time, packed up my gear, and headed home.
I now know why the smallmouth is such a revered sport fish, and I will be back to the majestic Ouachita Mountains to chase them again. Hopefully sooner rather than later.