2023 RSFF Coldwater Trip to Arkansas

I was able to attend this year’s Red Stick Fly Fishers (“RSFF”) Coldwater Trip to Arkansas, and man, what a blast! The club has been making the trip up to the Little Missouri River (aka “the Little ‘Mo”) tailwater below Lake Greeson near Murfreesboro, Arkansas for the past few years, and this is the first time I have been able to go. I had to pass on last year’s trip because I had already made separate plans to chase some Arkansas smallmouth later in April. This year I decided to join, thinking I could probably find some bass in addition to the stocked rainbow trout if the weather was warm enough. Stocked rainbows don’t really do it for me these days, especially dedicating a whole trip to them, but luckily the Ouachita Mountains are home to a large diversity of fish habitat, and to some fish species not found in Louisiana. Since I made two trips to the area last year, I knew several good fishing spots, and had since researched some other areas I wanted to hit. In addition to wet wading gear, I brought my kayak this time so I could explore some new, and larger, water than I had in the past trips.

Day 1

I left Baton Rouge around 6:00 am planning to head straight to a smallmouth stream, as the weather that day was going to be a little warmer than the next, and the low that night was dipping into the 40s. I made it up to a dispersed camping spot up in the national forest next to a tributary to the Little Mo around 1:30 pm. Arkansas had gotten a huge amount of rain in early 2023, but it had been about a week without rain when our trip started, and by looking at some river gauges online, I knew the water would be low. This spot had one of the deeper holes I found on the creek in my prior visits, so the plan was to try there first. The water seemed deep enough to hold fish, but drifting flies through the hole got a few follows from likely creek chubs, but I did not see any larger fish move. I worked this stretch for about an hour without seeing any fish before deciding to move on. This creek was great last April after the area had gotten about 2 inches of rain, but when the water is low the fish seem to disappear.

The first stop. Always beautiful up in the mountains, the trees were just starting to leaf out.

My next stop was the biggest plunge pool at the bottom of Little Missouri Falls. I caught a couple smallies up there in October 2022, when the water was also very low, so I was sure I could find a couple there this time. One difference from my trip last fall, on this trip I arrived on a Saturday, and there were people everywhere. Luckily, the people hanging out by the plunge pool were just relaxing and enjoying the views and not swimming or throwing rocks. The first several cast landed a couple creek chubs on a size 12 Rio Getter tied in crawfish orange, but I did not see any bass chasing. I decided to tied on a larger crawfish pattern, Blake’s Crawfish Fly in a size 2, which is also much heavier, in order to get down deeper in the pool. This move paid off as I pulled up a little smallmouth one on of my first few casts. Trying for a bit longer I didn’t see any other fish follow, and it was time to start making my way out of the mountains to head to the cabin and meet up with the other club members.

I arrived at the cabin around 5pm and the other six members all arrived around the same time. We had a nice dinner, some drinks, and swapped fish stories and planned our tactics for the next day, we even tied a few flies. I didn’t bring my tying gear but thankfully Laura and Patrick brought an extra vice, it was nice to be able to tie during the trip in case you were low on whatever fly seemed to be working during the trip, Ill definitely bring my stuff next time.

Creek Chub. The colors were way different this time of year than in October. They had more color, but less of a solid stripe.
Ouachita Smallmouth Bass
Blake’s Crawfish Fly

Day 2

Day 2 of the trip would be mostly dedicated to trout fishing. Due to the high rainfall in Arkansas this year, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working to keep Lake Greeson low enough to accommodate the coming spring rains, meaning they are running alot of water through the generators at the base of the dam. This makes the river below the dam too high and fast to wade fish, which was bad news for us because our cabin was right on the tailwater. So instead of being able to walk out and fish at the cabin, we had to drive up to the Albert Pike Recreation Area in the national forest, where the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (“AGFC”) also stocks trout. Trout are stocked from winter to spring up there, as the Little Mo is a freestone river above the dam, and gets too warm for trout during the summer. The upshot is that we could try to find some bass or sunfish comingled with the stocked trout, and the scenery is beautiful with rock walls, boulders, and turquoise blue water everywhere.

“The Swimming Hole”

The trout fishing was fairly slow for me to start the day. I was swinging and swimming olive wooly buggers through and slower water I could find, but wasn’t seeing any fish. In one of the bigger pools upstream of me I noticed a rise, so I figured I’d try drifting some nymphs. With my mindset for this trip more geared to bass I didn’t pack any indicators, so I rigged up a hopper-dropper set up with a Chubby Chernobyl on top with a pheasant tail nymph and then a chartreuse bead-head CDC soft hackle below. It took about 10 minutes but once I found the right seam to drift I landed a trout and had one more get off.

Patrick, another RSFF member, fishing a nice pool. My first trout came from this pool, in a seam to the left of the large boulder in the middle of the pool
First trout, fell for a bead-head pheasant tail nymph

A bit farther upstream Laura was having success fishing a brown wooly bugger with a downstream presentation in a nice run-riffle section of water. I managed another trout on the hopper dropper in this area before we decided to go meet up with the other RSFF members who were fishing a big hole known as the “Swimming Hole” downstream of us. I had been surveyed by an AGFC officer who said he had talked with them as well, and that they were doing quite well with the trout.

A nice long run, I caught my second trout at the top of the run
The second trout, also taken on the pheasant tail

When we got down to the Swimming Hole area we saw the other club members, and by the time we could get from the car to the water I think they landed 4 trout between the 2 RSFF anglers (Cole and Felipe) we could see fishing. I wasn’t able to land any from the deep section, but I had a couple bites before the bassy-looking water started tempting me to change flies and try for smallmouth. I scrambled up and around the boulders trying to drop the crawfish into the small nooks and crannies where a bass might be hiding, and I had a couple noses poke out to look but no bites. I did eventually find a deep and still pool that I could see sunfish hanging out in, and I was able to catch some Longear and a Green Sunfish from that hole (all on the Rio Getter), but surprisingly no small bass were sharing the hole. (Note: Cole did catch a couple smallmouth bass out of the swimming hole the following day.)

Longear Sunfish from deep down in the swimming hole
The Rio Getter worked well on this trip
Green Sunfish

I wasn’t planning on making this much of a multi-species trip, but after catching the Green Sunfish I was up to 5 species, without doing any real microfishing, not bad! We ended the fishing day exploring the water downstream of the swimming hole. There were no deep pools to speak of, but Laura was catching fish swinging the same brown wooly bugger through the riffles. I tied on a size 6 Slumpbuster streamer and caught one trout on the swing while getting some bites that didn’t connect, but it was a bit heavy and was catching on the bottom a bit, so I switched it out for a size 14 March Brown Soft Hackle and caught another trout or two. Its hard to beat catching fish on the swing, roll casting across and then following the fly down with your rod tip and waiting for the strike. Swinging flies is quite relaxing compared to indicator nymphing, where you are obsessing over getting a perfectly drag free drift in just the right seam.

That evening was my night to cook dinner for the group, so we left the stream around 4pm so I could get back and start prepping. I make some chicken and skirt steak street tacos that came out pretty good (if I do say so myself), and we had a really enjoyable evening once again. We talked alot about the club, and how to promote it and attract new members, as well as plans for other trips we might organize in the future, more good things to come! Throughout the evening some thunder was rumbling in the distance, and we did get about a quarter inch of rain overnight, but not enough to affect any of the rivers in a noticeable way.

Day 3

Day 3 was kayak fishing day for Patrick, Laura, and I, the three members who brought kayaks. We had discussed doing a float on the Caddo River, but decided it would be easier logistically to just do a paddle up. I had been looking at maps the week before the trip and noticed there was a combat launch below where Highway 70 crosses the Little Mo. This is right where the river slows down, widens, and turns in to Lake Greeson. A short quarter-mile paddle upstream and you are basically in the free flowing Little Missouri. My planning was based around finding some quality Smallmouth, thinking the lunkers might be hanging out in the slow water.

The launch. We launched right below the bridge, but I think there were better spots down the river road a bit, we saw several people fishing from the bank upstream.
My Wilderness Systems Commander 140 has been great for me in the last year I’ve had it, Laura has the 12ft version
The big water, with some bank fishing or kayak launching area to the left

When we got to the launch, the wind was down and the skies were overcast, and I saw several fish splashing. As I paddled in some shallow water near a gravel bar, I saw a small largermouth swim by, another good sign. My tackle set-up for the day was geared for bass, I was using an 8-weight Echo Bad Ass Glass rod, with an intermediate sinking line to throw some big articulated streamers. As I paddled over to a large outcropping near where I had seen some splashes earlier, I cast my streamer (a white articulated “Flugenzombie“) towards the bank, and after I had retrieved it almost all the way back to the kayak, I saw a fish maul it. Setting the hook and pulling the fish in the short remaining distance to the kayak, it showed itself to be a White Bass.

I had mentioned to the others before the trip we might find some White Bass and maybe even Walleye in this area, but I didn’t quite expect how this day would unfold. As it turns out, we were smack dab in the middle of a huge White Bass run. This happens in the spring when the bass move out of the reservoir, and head up into the shallow waters of the feeder stream to spawn. As I made my way further upstream into the shallower and faster moving water I started seeing more and more fish. Once I got up to where the boulders started poking up out of the water and creating small rapids, the fish were literally everywhere. The water was super clear, and at no point for the rest of the day did I look down and not see a fish swimming somewhere.

The first White Bass of the day, and only the second one I’d ever caught.

After getting passed the first set of rapids, the river calmed down a bit and there were several laydowns on the outside bend bank. This was looking to me like great smallmouth water, so I headed to the top of this run to fish and drift down. I’ve learned from my river fishing trips in Louisiana that an anchor is a must in these situations. Even if the current is slow, fly fishing moving water from a kayak is so chaotic that being able to control at least one variable, your kayak position, helps tremendously. I anchored down stream from a downed tree trunk near the bank and started casting. It didn’t take long before I started catching bas s after bass after bass. I probably caught a dozen or so in this spot, while also missing twice as many strikes. I assume the spawning instinct is to kill other fish to defend their territory as most strikes were super quick and you needed a quick hook set to get the fish on. The white bass also fight really good, especially the few larger ones I nabbed.

This was probably my biggest White Bass of the day, and pulled on my fiberglass 8-weight pretty good!

Mixed in with the White Bass, I also caught a Spotted Bass when I cast right up against the bank. This was a nice surprise, but I also began to worry that this meant I wasn’t far enough upstream in the river system to run into any Smallmouth. Spotted Bass are probably my favorite freshwater fish in Louisiana, but I was having mixed emotions about them here. I stated to figure out the pattern of the Spots being closer to structure, and a biting a little deeper than the Whites, and I started to catch more of them, while also hoping some Smallies would be mixed in. I worked over this stretch of river a few times, catching only Spotted Bass, one small Largemouth, and more White Bass before deciding to try further upsteam in hopes of finding Smallmouth.

Pretty pretty Spotted Bass in this clear water
The lone Largemouth, this would mark my 8th species caught on the trip
I stuck with this White/Purple Flugenzombie all day pretty much

Getting farther upstream meant paddling up some swift current, and having to get out and walk the kayak up through some shallow rocks that I couldn’t float over. Once I got above that shallow section there was a night straight run with some deeper channels near both banks. This part of the river looked pretty similar size to one of the creeks I fished in April of ’22, so my hopes were getting back up for finding a brown bass. Casting towards the soft water near the bank I caught my nicest Spot of the day, another beauty. I worked over both sides of the river, casting upstream and retrieving back, the water here was much faster, so I started throwing some upstream mends to help the fly get down a bit. On one of these retrieved as the fly was swimming though a deep channel I saw a big brown sillouhette appear out of nowhere, but only briefly. Was it a big Smallmouth following? I’ll never know for sure but I believe it was.

The biggest Spot of the day

We decided to wrap things up after being out there for a good 5 hours at least. Overall it was an amazing day of fishing, in terms of numbers of fish caught, I think this was probably my best day ever out of the kayak. The setting could not be beat either, beautiful water loaded with fish, what else could you want? I guess if you’re spoiled like me, you could be bummed about not getting that personal best Smallmouth, but that’s fishing, there’s always that “big one” you know has to be out there somewhere, taunting you. This was the last full day of fishing in Arkansas for this trip, and I was tempted to get up early the next morning to head back up towards the mountains and find a nice Smallie, but that would require some back-tracking to get home and add a couple hours to the total drive, so I came to peace with it and decided to break up the drive back with a stop-off in the Kisatchie National Forest.

Overall the time spent back up in Arkansas was amazing as I have come to expect, and I’m already itching to plan the next trip. When I do I think I’ll try and hit the Caddo and Ouachita Rivers, as I haven’t found the smallmouth fishing to be that good in the small streams unless a big rain has recently fallen. Hopefully I’ve learned enough over these three trips to return a more effective fisherman, that should be the real goal of every trip. We’ll see.

Day 4 – Bonus Fishing

Every time I drive on Interstate 49 between Baton Rouge and Shreveport, when I get near Natchitoches I start looking west towards the forest, knowing Kistachie Bayou is over there being a great wading stream. Kisatchie Bayou has been written about many times, and seems to be the crown-jewel of wadable streams in Louisiana’s only national forest. Unfortunately its a 3-hour drive from my house, which puts it out of day-trip territory. There are only rare occasions when I’m passing through the area by myself with a little time to spare, and this was going to be one of them. I had an obligation in Baton Rouge at 5pm, and I left the cabin in Arkansas a little after 7am, so I had a brief window to fish once you factor in the added time of getting to the bayou.

When I arrived at the parking area I knew I had a little over an hour to fish, so I worked quickly and covered water and changed flies until I had success. I ended up catching about 5 Spotted Bass and 5 Longear Sunfish (plus a bonus Striped Shiner) on a Chubby Chernobyl in that brief time. The water was absolutely beautiful, a bit tannin-stained compared to the crystal clear water in the Ouachita Mountains, and with a white sand bottom instead of gravel, but stunning nonetheless.

I wished I had more time to fish, because there was endless fishy looking water with laydowns consistently lining the banks. I may have to plan a camping trip up there one of these days and suffer through a night of sleeping in warmer than comfortable air, I think the fishing would be worth it. I did fire up the GoPro for this outing, the video is linked below, enjoy!

Longleaf Pine Savannah
The wind was blowing but mostly blocked by the dense forest. You can see the endless string of laydowns in the distance.
A fly fishers dream
The bass where not huge, but they were all very healthy and had a nice gut on them
Look at this little chunk
The best one I landed this day
Kistachie Longear
This Longear had no ear, at least on this side of him
A one-eared Lonngear

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