This is to the ones who got away - the elusive trophies that slip behind rocks and into the depths. The picky eaters who spit and snub. The infuriating challenge to land the one who will finally give you bragging rights. That is the essence of the Buffalo River. Pristine in its glory and clear in nature, this river is a protected piece of God's land, and for the next couple of days, our heartbreaking fishing floats to grind out a trophy smallie. But mostly, this is about the ones who got away. But before we begin, a quick history lesson to set the scene.
About the Buffalo
The Buffalo River holds a special place in Arkansas history. This cherished waterway winds through the Ozark Mountains, carved through ancient rock to form dramatic bluffs and lush valleys. Native Americans first inhabited the river valley over 12,000 years ago, drawn by the abundance of fish, game, and edible plants. Early European explorers then christened the Buffalo River for the bison they spotted grazing along its banks.In the 19th century, homesteaders and pioneers settled the region, sustaining themselves through fishing and hunting along the river. During the Civil War, the Buffalo provided a vital transportation route and served as a dividing line between opposing forces.
The 20th century brought lumber and mining interests to the watershed. Conservationists grew alarmed at the environmental degradation and pushed for protective measures, culminating in 1972 when the Buffalo National River was established as America's first National River. Today the Buffalo remains a near-pristine refuge thanks to its federally protected status. The cool river teems with smallmouth bass eager to strike a skillfully cast lure. For those seeking communion with nature, the Buffalo beckons - a rolling ribbon of Ozark beauty that offers a window to the past.
And here is where we find ourselves, putting in for a float to chase those trophy smallies.
These proverbial barroom brawlers of bass are known for being a more rewarding quarry than their cousins. This reputation is warranted due to their ferociousness, but at the same time, elusive when you want them most. This species, despite specimen size, is a tireless fighter that uses every advantage available on the playing field. Although the small ones don't have a clue they're small, a true 18" trophy smallmouth in the Ozarks is typically at least a 10-year-old fish. At four years, a smallie reaches about 13", but after, growth rates slow to less than an inch a year. Despite the slow growth rate and environmental challenges that have defeated many other aquatic life, these fish remain prolific. Populations are self-sustained and are holding firm without the help of stockings in the Buffalo.
The Bonafide crew met up with guides Danny, Kenley and Duck Camp friend Aaron to put our RVR119 kayaks to the test along with our skills. Equipped with fly and conventional gear, our hopes were high. The water level was low, yet we still managed to glide through crystal clear waters with ease.
"We were hoping for more water. Even at flows that we consider low on the Buffalo, there are still plenty of runs and riffles with hungry fish making mistakes" -Danny
"About a mile in, Danny and I realized it would be spooky fish due to the low flow, water clarity, and full moon driving them to be nocturnal. The cycling through fly & lure colors, different retrieves, types of structure and searching through different water columns began." -Kenley
Kenley, our guide can be best described as an intellectual redneck and river rat. Basically the perfect combo to be stuck on the river with. Kenley is always looking for the next new stretch of river to explore. In the last 16 years, all his time off from surveying land and developing multi-family properties has been spent doing multi-day paddle trips with a fly rod close to hand. Danny, the other guide, is as fishy as they come. He is a full-time fishing guide, fly tier, and overall fishing nut. He got the addiction to the bite at the early age of 3 and hasn’t looked back. Danny’s passion is infectious and his talent is unmatched. If someone was going to get us on fish, it was going to be Danny.
As gorgeous as the waters were, the clarity went from amazing us to infuriating us. We saw them - the bronze-back teasers. Staring up at us with zero intention to bite. Cast after cast. Lure after lure. No matter how long we meticulously picked apart a spot, we just could not get a good bite. The occasional sunfish or sucker was salt in our wounds.
We kept our spirits high. After all, the scenery was stunning, the water refreshing, the company good, and nothing beats camping under the stars next to a gently flowing river. Then finally, Justin hooked into a good one on a wacky rigged senko.
“I enjoy utilizing the wacky rig technique because, when skillfully skipped, it adeptly, imitates the movements of leaping baitfish. As it descends through the water column, it orchestrates an irresistible dance that entices smallmouth bass to emerge from their concealed sanctuaries,” said Justin.
With a newfound sense of hope, we fished harder. And got skunked harder. But sometimes that's just the way fishing goes. It was a gentle reminder that fishing is about more than the catch - it's about community, experience, and connecting with nature and places. And what better way to do that than from a kayak, which brings you closer than ever to the process? It also allows accessibility for spots that can not be reached by boat while still covering distance.
"Kayak fishing allows a level of accessibility and intimacy with the river that you just can't get from shore or a bigger boat," said Kenely.
The day ended and we set up camp and were treated to a gourmet campfire meal from 4 H champion cook Kenley. He smoked some steaks and paired them with a wild mushroom cream sauce with bacon-wrapped asparagus. As we discussed plans for tomorrow under the moonlight, laughter, and smoke filled the crisp night air. A new day offered new hope to apply the hard lessons we had learned. We stumbled upon some locals bank fishing, and pride gave way to curiosity - we asked what they were catching the smallmouth on. Crawfish, they told us, were on fire. We quickly changed tactics, and soon enough, we were hauling in feisty smallies on crawfish imitating crankbaits. Redemption! It was a little too late, but we were able to land a couple more beauties to restore our pride.
When asked why kayaking is such a challenging fishery, Justin replied, “With every paddle stroke, we unveil those elusive waterways and this serves as a reminder that this is not about just catching fish; it’s about the profound experience that brought us there.”
So this trip is dedicated to all the ones who got away. The fish that just look and won't bite, and the never-ending challenge of landing the next trophy. We all know that feeling a little too well. And more importantly, the ones who will bring us back to the spots we love.
Learn more about river fishing:
Looking to get into river fishing? Check out the RVR119. A kayak built to take on the river, We have tips and tricks on how to maneuver as well.
Looking for the basics of targeting smallies on the river?
1. A lot depends on time of year, fishery, and what they are eating, but there are a couple universal truths to get you going: 1. Fish the current seams. Smallmouth love hanging out in the transitional zones where fast-moving water meets slower pools and eddies. Target these current seams with crankbaits or jigs. The movement of your lure across these breaks will trigger instinctual strikes.
2. Fish shallow early and late. During low light conditions, smallmouth cruise the shallows looking for an easy meal. Focus on fishing topwater lures and shallow running crankbaits in 3-6 feet of water around dawn and dusk. Prime spots are around laydowns, overhanging vegetation and side channels.
3. Downsize your offerings. River smallmouth often see a lot of tackle and can become wary. Scale down your lures and lines to present a more natural looking target. For example, use 4-6 lb test line, 1/16 or 1/8 oz jigheads, and 3-4 inch plastic trailers. Finesse tactics like this will draw out stubborn fish.
4. Do some digging and see what their behavior is when you are fishing and what they are feeding on from local experts and tackle shops.
The river smallmouth is a worthy adversary, but armed with these tips you can tempt some trophy bronzebacks. Now get out there and chase down some river hogs! Let me know if you need any other smallie tactics and I'd be glad to share more insider knowledge.