The Caddo tribe of Native Americans hit the nail on the head when they named Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains. To the tribe, the word Ouachita has two meanings, “good hunting grounds” and “sparkling silver water.” One look at the heavily forested and untamed mountains and a glance at the free flowing Ouachita River and you’ll understand.

The Ouachita River starts as a mountain stream near Eagleton, Ark., not far from the Oklahoma state line. From there it gathers other creeks and streams as it winds more than 600 miles before emptying into the Red River and then the Mississippi River. Along the way the river is dammed to create Lakes Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine near Hot Springs, and Lake Jack Lee in the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge near the Louisiana border.
I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days floating a portion of the Ouachita River near Oden, Ark., a free flowing stretch of super smallmouth habitat above Lake Ouachita. Guiding me was Rebel Lures General Manager Bruce Stanton, who’s been floating and fishing this stretch of river for almost 20 years.

Our base of operations was RiverView Cabins. We arrived the day after Labor Day and the rustic cabin perched on the edge of a mountain overlooking a stretch of river created a perfect scene and fed the urge to hurry up and put the canoe in the water. Because of our post-holiday timing we only saw one other canoe on our stretch of river.

We rushed to the water that afternoon to get in a short 4-mile float from the Shirley Creek camping area to the bridge at highway 379. A good rain had the water slightly stained and flowing incredibly well for early September. Having never fished the river I had no idea what was in store. Stanton, on the other hand, looked like the cat that ate the canary. He knew.

The first few miles of fishing produced constant action for largemouth and smallmouth bass, green sunfish, pumpkinseed and rock bass, all on topwater. Our lures of choice were Rebel Bighoppers, the largest size in the super-realistic Crickhopper series, Stanton in yellow and I threw the black cricket color.
The Bighopper and Crickhopper lures are true multi-purpose baits that can be worked on top like a grasshopper that made an errant jump and landed in the water, waked just under the surface or cranked to produce a wide, “X” pattern swimming action. We mostly worked them on top, because who hasn’t seen a live grasshopper jump into the water and kick a few times before being devoured in a violent strike? Both Stanton and I would rather catch one on top than 10 any other way, but we did have a few strikes swimming the lure.

In mid-sized rivers like the Ouachita, most of the fish relate to the shoreline and shoreline wood or rock cover, although any boulders or rock outcroppings in the deeper water of the middle of the river are where the biggest smallmouth bass often hold, and that’s what we were looking for. We came upon such a spot just past the two mile mark. A boulder the size of a couch protruded above the waterline right in the middle of the river, breaking the current and creating swirling eddies. We both cast to the target anticipating a strike from another of the river’s spunky smallies.

It was then that the yellow Bighopper opened my eyes to what the river held. As Stanton walked his realistic hopper imitation a few feet from the rock a smallmouth bass smashed the bait and immediately started pulling drag. Unable to turn the fish, all Stanton could do was hold on and pray. I quickly reeled in as Stanton hollered for the net.

After a brief fight in which Stanton might as well have been a bystander, the smallie shot three feet out of the water and spit the bait back at the canoe. I sat with wide eyes and slack jaw. That smallmouth weighed between 4 and 5 pounds.

“You didn’t expect that, did you?” Stanton said. “You thought we were just going to be catching 13-inchers all week. You had no idea fish of that size were here.”

It was true. I had no idea. The Ouachita River doesn’t get the press other Arkansas streams and rivers receive. Everyone knows Crooked Creek is the Natural State’s “Blue-Ribbon Smallmouth Stream,” and that the Buffalo River – our nation’s first National River – consistently produces smallies up to four pounds or so, but where’s the love for the Ouachita? I’ll tell you, it’s got another fan now.
The Bighopper is the perfect lure for stream and river fishing during late summer and fall. Grasshoppers are big and plentiful during that time and fish are well accustomed to dining on them. With clear water, realism is of utmost importance, and no other bait more-perfectly matches the hatch than this Rebel version.

The second day we spent the day floating a little more than 10 miles, from the day before’s take-out point to the Highway 270 bridge. As the morning wore on we kept a few rock bass, green sunfish and a few smaller largemouth bass and I filleted them on a flat rock while Stanton built a fire and got the grease hot. Soon the smell of frying potatoes and onions wafted on the breeze and reminded me that catching fish cast-after-cast will create a powerful hunger, and there’s nothing better than a shore lunch of fish so fresh they were swimming just moments before they hit the grease.

That afternoon it was my turn to lose the big one. A smallie with broad shoulders hit like Tyson and I fell apart faster than a cheap toy. By the time we hit the take-out area at sundown each of us landed more than 40 fish, all on the Bighopper walked on top.

Our third day on this scenic river found us back on Shirley Creek looking for that big smallmouth. It was Stanton’s turn to lose it again, but it didn’t matter that much. We got the strike and fought the fish a while before losing it, and we always release smallmouth anyway.

At least that’s the silver lining I try to find. Besides, who could be disappointed with three days of floating a beautiful, clean, mountain river watching bald eagles, deer, squirrels, snakes and turtles, and taking in the sights and smells of the country? Throw in first class accommodations and a nightly soak in the hot tub while listening to the night sounds, and reflecting on the ones that got away, and it just “don’t get no better than that!”