Are We There Yet, Dad?
I've never had much of a problem with cabin fever. Being the outdoor type anyway, there's always something to do. This winter there were Mallards to be hunted and naturally, I was stalking them from one of my canoes along secluded streams. As with float fishing for Smallmouth, there's nothing quite like it and more importantly, I'm out there on moving water in total solitude. The Cottontails and Swamp Rabbits finally get a break. A good friend keeps a strong pack of Beagles and we've spend a lot of frosty mornings waiting with our single-shot 410's for a slash of gray hair through a gap in the underbrush. It's always a communal hunt with sons, grandsons and friends along, all of us blazed in orange for safety. Somehow, the youngest boys get to shoot most of the rabbits. I can recall the anticipation of hunting and fishing trips as a youngster, as if they happened just yesterday. I simply could not sleep waiting for the morning to hurry up and get here. It seemed to me that adults were much too slow in preparation. "Are we there yet?" was how I felt, always. I could hardly contain my excitement! That feeling has never left me when it comes to float fishing in the spring. Old timers used to say the time to start float fishing was, "when the leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear". I threw that piece of advice out the window years ago. Not because the fishing was good; but rather, I just couldn't wait any longer! I've learned a few things by starting earlier. Kentucky bass are the first to become aggressively active. I live far enough south in the Ozarks that Kentucky's are the dominant bass on my local streams here in mid Arkansas. I don't have a thing against catching them on a float trip and will sometimes fish for them right on through the winter, weather and water permitting. True enough, they're not as much fun as a Smallmouth to catch, plus they are removing Smallmouth from their habitat on many streams, particularly those that feed to reservoirs. However, if the Kentucky's are bitting, I'm out there fishing. Not least, a corn-meal-fried Kentucky filet can hang with my hush puppies any day of the week. The fact that I might have left a spot in the creek for a Smallmouth to spawn doesn't hurt, either. So there's nothing wrong at all with an early Spring float trip. My first guided trip last year in fact was on March 15th. It was a nice, balmy day with the threat of rain. As I recall, we got a sprinkle or two on our float. We also boated and released about a dozen Smallmouth. A couple of them were in the seventeen to eighteen inch range and the clients had big smiles as I took photos. One of the keys in an early float trip is to look for what could be termed "wintering holes". Essentially it's the best places a bass can find on streams to survive the winter. Metabolism slows down for most species of fish during the winter; but it doesn't mean a bass will stop eating. I like to look for logs and boulders in some of the deeper curl-out eddies or where the river current makes a turn and slows down before passing through the next shoal. Often too, they can be found in rather non-descript places that I might term "flats". The stream bed may contain no more then "chunk rock"; but, is without strong current and usually three to six feet in depth. A bass needs cover and/or space to escape from predators such as Otter, for example. They also need as much stability in their environment as they can obtain during winter floods. All these conditions can be best found in some of the larger holes of water. That night, weather changed drastically! A storm blew through without a heavy rain. By the next morning wind came from the north with gusts to 20 mph and temperatures dropped. We never checked up on our float fishing plans for that day though, we simply adapted to the conditions. We lost our ball caps a time or who when we faced into the wind and I spent considerable time fighting the elements to keep my canoe positioned for my clients to fish. Surprisingly though, fishing improved. We caught better bass, including a 19 inch Smallmouth, quickly released after a grin for the camera. The last time I capsized a canoe was back in 1973; however, I plan every trip in cold weather as if we could spend time swimming in cold water. Being prepared is much better then being sorry. It's one of the things that must be learned if you are out floating our streams. Moving water is unforgiving and demands your respects, particularly in winter! In my youth, I've spent some time swimming in January...... on purpose! One lesson learned is that within a minute or two cold water saps your strength. Furthermore, I never intend to be dunked on a float trip in the winter, yet, I plan for the event to occur, each trip. As they say, "stuff happens"! In cold weather, I'm always wearing a life vest, sometimes two. I keep a self-inflating personal floation device (PFD) under an outer garment, and I'm also wearing a regular PFD on the outside of my clothing. I dress in layers, so that clothing can be added or removed, as needed. Keeping a "dry bag" in the canoe with rain gear and extra apparel, first aid, fire starting supplies, etc. is just common since, too. If you learn nothing else here then retain this much, if the water temperature is low, wear a PFD, no exceptions. It's a fact that you will overestimate your ability to swim and you will always underestimate the power of cold water. And yes, you can find PFD's that are not cumbersome to wear while floating. One of the most predictable factors regarding early Spring float trips is that weather and river conditions are unpredictable. Since very little slows me down for float fishing anyway, I'm always watching the weather and I stay up-to-date on current Stream flow data from the US Geological Survey (USGS). (links are available here on my website) Should I find that the weather and streams are in poor shape in Northwest Arkansas, I may find that the same conditions are just fine in Southeast Missouri, so I head that direction instead. I should also say that I've always made it a rule to not float a stream that is at flood condition. A flooding river can move a Sycamore tree weighing many tons as easily as a cup of coffee can float a sugar cube. I fully respect that kind of power! Even so, I'm ready to go just the same. I've cleaned and organized my tackle box a half dozen time and my canoes stay racked for the tie-down. From experience, I know that there are hundreds of streams in the Ozarks to choose from and I'll debate the options even as I load my gear. Just as important, there's always a new float trip that remains to be explored. Each of the options provides the very best in an outdoor adventure and come March, I'm filled with youthful excitement that seems never to quench. Very soon, I'll nose one of my big canoes into the current and lean hard into my sassafras boat paddle. Chances are, I'll not have slept much!