“THIS HAS TO be the only place in Arkansas you can fish while you listen to that,” my friend Kevin joked, as the eerie calls of a bugling elk floated over the water. I chuckled my agreement as I dipped my paddle blade gently into the current, correcting course. We were floating the Buffalo River just outside Ponca, having slid our kayaks in at the low-water bridge earlier that morning as wisps of mist played across the water. With my fly rod, I sent another cast sailing toward the bank, while Kevin used a conventional rod and reel to flip a frog-shaped plastic lure at submerged logs.
Kevin and I were bound for Kyle’s Landing on what may be Arkansas’ premier river float. Our primary target—smallmouth bass—are aggressive eaters, dogged in a fight and abundant in the Buffalo, but they’re only one of the many species of fish you can target from a kayak. (There’s nothing quite like the pull of a 10-pound-plus striped bass towing you around the river on what whalers used to call a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”) Kayaks also allow stealthy approaches on wary old largemouth bass in impoundment lakes—or even carp, which have become especially popular targets for fly anglers.
The boats, originally an Inuit invention made of sealskin and whalebone, have come a long way in recent years. Advanced plastic-forming machinery now lets kayak manufacturers offer a wide variety of boats, ranging from the tiny, lawn-chair-sized playboats used by whitewater aficionados to modern, dedicated fishing craft (typically of the sit-on-top variety). Even better, the Hobie company recently took a page out of Hawaiian canoe lore, debuting an inexpensive, inflatable pontoon system that can be mounted to any brand of kayak. These pontoons allow you to stand up while you fish, and they really work.
Floating beneath the iconic bluffs at Steel Creek, with the hawks reeling overhead and the campers just beginning to stir, I contemplated just what a blessing it is to have easy, relatively inexpensive access to such grandeur. A kayak is something you can keep in the corner of your garage, doesn’t require maintenance and will last for many years. Even better, they’re a heck of a fishing tool, and we both went home with a brace of nice smallmouth for the frying pan.
The best kayaks for fishing
1. Native Ultimate
12-foot model, $949
The Native Ultimate is indeed the ultimate when it comes to versatility. Its completely open floor plan resembles a kayak-shaped canoe, while a modular system of rails lets you configure the boat in multiple ways, including as a two-man craft (great for those with children). The Ultimate’s specially designed hull resists tipping, making this one of the few kayaks in which an athletic angler can stand up without any form of lateral bracing.
2. Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120
12-foot model, $939
This fishing-specific, sit-on-top kayak may be the most refined dedicated fishing craft on the market. The kayak’s innovative anchoring system is designed to shift the point at which the anchor line attaches to the craft, which lets you adjust so your boat doesn’t swing back and forth in the current when you want to stay still. The craft comes with abundant sealed storage, convenient places to lock in your paddle, and rod holders capable of handling either fly or conventional tackle. This is the perfect system to pair with Hobie’s SideKick Outrigger pontoons ($182) to give you the ability to stand at will. (The pontoons easily flip upside down, out of the water, so they won’t drag and slow you down when you need some speed.)
3. Chesapeake Light Craft Sea Island Sport
15.5-foot model kit, $1,295
Unquestionably the most beautiful fishing kayak on the market today, this stitch-and-glue wooden model is assembled from furniture-grade marine plywood and copper wire “stitches,” then covered in clear fiberglass and epoxy for durability. The final configuration is up to you, as this boat is sold as a kit for your own home assembly. (The difficulty level is moderate, but some familiarity with woodworking is recommended.) If you’re particularly skilled, you can purchase the plans for $99 and work entirely from scratch.
Float Your Boat
Where to launch your kayak-fishing expedition
Bass, bluegill, catfish and crappie are abundant in this small impoundment just a few minutes north of Conway. Early in the morning, you may see locals getting their exercise in low-slung scull rowing boats, slicing like razors through the still waters. By midafternoon, watersports enthusiasts churn up as many waves as they can, so plan on an early-morning or late-evening fishing window. For fly casters, Dahlberg divers and Clouser minnows will produce bass, crappie and bluegill, while conventional anglers can never go wrong with a Carolina rig and a rubber worm.
With a multitude of access points and varying degrees of moving water, Arkansas’ most diverse fishery is our eponymous river. This vast belt of water crosses the whole state and offers some of the best places to catch monster striped bass, which congregate in the tailwater sections below the river’s 12 dams. Lock and Dams 7 and 8 are both conveniently located near Little Rock. Topwater plugs, flukes and even large baitfish flies will produce fish, especially if you concentrate on the low-light hours. Remember: the Arkansas is big water, so always wear your life jacket.
Bayou Meto Urban Canoe Trail
This 2-mile, largely shaded paddle passes through cypress swamps that are home to abundant largemouth bass, bluegill and shellcracker panfish, as well as catfish. The trail can be accessed from Dupree Park and Reed’s Bridge Battlefield Heritage Park in Jacksonville. The Urban Canoe Trail program is a project of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, designed to open up paddling access to urban residents who may not have convenient ways to get to Arkansas’ more famous floats, like the Mulberry.
As a spring-fed, cold-water river that does not depend on a tailwater dam to stay cool, the Spring River is completely unique in the southeast. Thanks to the massive upwelling at Mammoth Spring, this is moderate, year-round trout territory, with rainbow, brown, brook and even tiger trout. (A tiger trout is a lab-bred cross between a brown and a brook trout, which are distant relatives). Hydropower generation is never an issue on the Spring, which flows through picturesque Hardy and is well worth a weekend visit.
Lake Ouachita State Park
Lake Ouachita is arguably Arkansas’ most famous striped-bass water, producing state-record fish that contend with saltwater stripers for world-record status. (One fish caught and released in 2005 may have weighed upward of 80 pounds.) While best known as a powerboat lake, its waters offer plenty of opportunities for kayak anglers to catch fish as well—especially early in the morning when the birds are diving on swirling balls of panicky baitfish, visibly marking out the schools of feeding stripers that lurk below. This is good water for a pedal-assisted kayak, which enables quick moves from place to place.