As the hot breath of summer blows across the land, the streams of northeast Oklahoma are starting to sizzle. Sizzling not from heat, but from the fury of their smallmouth bass.
Seeping from springs high on the Ozark Plateau, a number of limestone-fed streams tumble southward through the eastern Oklahoma hill country on their way to a rendezvous with the Arkansas River. These streams flow through some remarkably beautiful and remote countryside that ranges from heavily forested to pastoral.
Some of the best streams in the Ozark region, said Paul Balkenbush, stream biologist for the Wildlife Department, are Baron's Fork and Spavinaw Creeks. The most famous, of course, is the incomparable Illinois River, which begins at the Arkansas border and flows south into Lake Tenkiller.
"Hot fishing can be found on almost any tributary stream or river in eastern Oklahoma," Balkenbush said. "Once you get there, the rest is cheap and easy. A $20,000 bass boat and a tri-level tacklebox won't do a thing to help you land a feisty smallmouth on these small waters. All you need is a canoe or a pair of waders; a lightweight spinning or spincasting rig, and a small selection of baits that mimic the food items in the stream."
The water levels can get pretty low on these streams this time of year, and in some cases you won't be able to float through without portaging over some gravel bars. When that happens, the predator fish in the deeper pools quickly exhaust their food supplies, which means they start getting mighty hungry about mid-August. That's why now is the time to enjoy some of the finest fishing of the year.
In streams, the primary foods for smallmouths are crawdads, followed by minnows and juvenile panfish. The best bait selections to imitate these items include crawdad-colored soft plastic baits such as skirted grubs or saltcraws. Curly-tailed grubs and worms are also very effective. Be sure to bring along a small selection of crankbaits in various colors, as well. Best colors are brown, cinnamon and chartreuse.
In addition to smallmouths, you can also catch Kentucky and largemouth bass in these streams. Some of the deeper pools often hold at least one 5-pound largemouth. They are extremely wary and hard to catch, but if you manage to hook one, you gain an honorary Masters degree in advanced streamcraft.
For smallmouth bass, try fishing the tails of riffles and water willow edges for smaller fish. For larger fish, concentrate on deep, mid-stream structure. Pay special attention to root wads, rocks and eddies.
Largemouths prefer to hide in undercut banks, generally behind some sort of woody cover. The key to success is to spot the fish and then move in close without spooking it. This requires precise casting to a target area that's often no larger than a silver dollar.
Although it's loads of fun, fishing is just part of a fall floating experience. The scenery, the clean, crisp air and the many sounds of the hill country in seasonal transition will keep you coming back for years to come.