June 13, 2023
It might not be a thousand miles from nowhere as Lyle Lovett once crooned, but it sure feels like it as Rob Woodruff pulls hard on the oars pushing us past the river’s first bend.
And as the launch site disappears quietly behind us—myself, my oldest son Zach, and my friend Woodruff—time really doesn’t matter anymore on the first leg of an all-day float down one of the wildest places left in North America.
That place is the Buffalo River, the nation’s first National River, a designation that the free-flowing stream in northern Arkansas received a half-century ago.
Many years later and on a perfect spring morning, I got to see the Buffalo up close and personal with my Orvis Recon six-weight in my hand as the cool air warmed. As the rod flexed back and forth, Woodruff settled in on top of the seat screwed into the lid of his YETI–and we were underway.
Soon, there was a steady cadence of rhythmic paddling propelling our narrow micro-raft forward as I stripped out a few feet of the fly line, made a false cast or two, and let the rod propel a yellow-hued Boogle Bug forward.
It landed with a soft plop near the weed line on the far bank, quivered on the surface for just a second, and then disappeared with a splash. First cast, first fish, a spectacularly colored long-eared sunfish.
Up at the front of the raft, I could hear my oldest son Zach sending a small streamer pattern forward, hoping to discover an Ozarks smallmouth bass–the kind of tiger-striped bronzebacks that the Buffalo is known for. If the bite is on, catching a couple dozen is entirely possible, along with loads of sunfish.
As I unhooked my beautiful panfish, cradled it in my hand, and let it squirt away into the cool water, I smiled big as the thought hit me that I was in for one fine day. The Buffalo’s incredible 74 different fish species had little to do with that. Instead, it was time spent floating an Ozark stream that time forgot that made the memories.
If I’m honest, the day’s fishing wasn’t as stellar as we were hoping for, especially where the Buffalo’s smallmouths were concerned. These stream-born smallmouth bass are part of a complex taxonomy comprised of Neosho smallmouths, the Ouachita subspecies, and introduced northern smallmouth strains, the latter of which threatens the first two native subspecies depending on where you are.
In simplest terms, these acrobatic Ozarks smallmouths are stunningly beautiful, hard fighting, and generally in the one to three-pound class–and occasionally above–across their range in northern and western Arkansas’s Ozark Highlands, in the shadow of the Boston Mountains.
If you’re familiar with the big reservoir smallmouths of the south, or perhaps the smalljaws of the North Country and Great Lakes, this is a different kind of creature that grows slowly, doesn’t get particularly big–the Missouri DNR indicates that it takes 4 to 5 years for an Ozarks’ smallie to reach 12-inches–and a trophy is 3-plus-pounds (anything above 4 pounds is a real lunker). While reasonably abundant, don’t expect to be catching the behemoth of a lifetime.
We had heard of good fishing before our arrival, both in terms of quantity and quality, and were secretly hoping for one of those days when 20-plus fish would be brought to the boat.
But that wasn’t the case–we only landed a handful of smallmouth bass, most on the smaller side. I lost one of the day’s best fish that spit the fly mid-jump, and my son Zach lost another good one that pretended to be a vaulting tarpon before becoming unbuttoned.
We saw plenty of smalljaws in the mostly clear, green tinted water, including a real toad that probably would have weighed 4 pounds or more. Trying to catch a smallmouth on a popper, I delicately laid out the Boogle Bug on the surface near a submerged boulder, watched a hard rush as the smallmouth stopped just short, and was left shaking my head as the bug remained untouched on the river’s slow current.
As he pulled on the oars and grinned, Woodruff said that had it been caught, it would have likely been the best to come aboard his raft.
National Treasure Saved
That such angling feats are even possible is a miracle of sorts, thanks to the long-ago foresight of locals, state residents, and those on the national front who believed that not everything should fall victim to “progress.”
In what was a long and arduous political battle where opposing forces sought to either dam the river or keep it in its natural state, the fight for the Buffalo River stretched back through the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even Dwight Eisenhower.
At the epicenter of this squabble was 153 free-flowing miles of the Buffalo River, including 135 of those miles that now fall within the park’s boundaries (the land within the Buffalo National River Authorized Area is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and is often considered a national park). And the remaining 18 river miles, which originate upstream of the NPS gem, actually flow through lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and are now a part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program.
Combined, that means that the river's many miles, towering bluffs, canyons, caves, waterfalls, sandbars, historic locations, and cool water are well protected from beginning to end, able to be enjoyed in their natural state by the more than 800,000 visitors that venture to the river each year.
Originating in the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Plateau and flowing to its confluence with the White River, most would agree that the Buffalo is worthy of such protection. Put simply, it’s a remarkable national treasure that finally received the protection it deserved a half-century ago.
To mark that occasion, the Buffalo National River Facebook page celebrated with a post that read "#OnThisDay in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Public Law 92-237 to establish Buffalo National River with a purpose to ‘preserve a free-flowing river and to conserve and interpret the combination of natural, scenic, cultural, and scientific features characterized by deep valleys, towering bluffs, and landscapes of the Ozark Mountains,’" on March 1, 2022.
If that Oval Office signing seems momentous, it is, coming some 100 years to the day after President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law and created the world’s first national park.
Fishing in Yellowstone actually feels similar to fishing the Buffalo–it’s hard to quit soaking in the stunning scenery of the towering bluffs that make you feel a little bit small. Maybe this Ozark river isn’t quite as visually stunning as Yellowstone, but it’s pretty close as you float by spots like Ludlow or Big Bluff, both of which tower nearly 600 feet above the river.
If you’d like to plan your own adventure to the Buffalo River, you’ll need an Arkansas fishing license and be familiar with the rules and regs regarding the river and its exploration.
You’ll also want to do some research, with the NPS’ Buffalo National River website serving as a good starting point. Add in the National Geographic Buffalo National River Map Pack and a Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer for Arkansas. Finally, the recently updated and expanded second edition of Kenneth L. Smith’s excellent Buffalo River Handbook is an invaluable resource for floating here.
You’ll want a paddle craft since wet-wading access is quite limited. For the most part, this is a float trip between the handful of river access points–be forewarned that if you put in or go past the Rush Landing access point, it’s a three-day float to the Buffalo’s confluence with the White River. For a floating adventure here, you’ll want something like an Old Town canoe, a Smith Fly fishing raft, or a BOTE inflatable kayak. And don’t forget the PFD, bug spray, and sunscreen.
You’ll also need a good fly rod or two. If you’re primarily interested in catching the long-eared sunfish, bluegills, and green sunfish, a 7-foot-6 3-weight is ideal. If smallmouths are the goal, bring a 9-foot 5-weight or a six-weight along. Fly reels don’t need to be elaborate, but you’ll want a weight-forward floating bass line and a sink-tip or intermediate line to probe deeper holes. Either a fluorocarbon or monofilament 7-½-foot 2X or 3X leader is good, although fluoro is often preferred thanks to its disappearing act underwater as well as its superior abrasion resistance.
These Arkansas bronzebacks are a bit shyer about taking topwater bugs than their northern counterparts. Bring along a few Boogle Bug poppers, but also have your box stocked with sculpin patterns, small baitfish streamers, and of course, Clouser Minnows.
Other popular flies in the #2 to #6 range include Blane Chocklett’s Mini Finesse Game Changers and the Ozarks-inspired Creek Crawler crawfish pattern from Duane Hada, Mountain Home, Arkansas’s own smallmouth expert, renowned artist, and Rivertown Gallery owner. Also popular is Rainy’s Madtom Clouser, a rabbit-strip version of the famed pattern that can elicit some vicious strikes. And be sure to visit nearby fly shops like Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher in Cotter–pick up some of Chad Johnson’s Mini CJ Sluggo flies–or Flys and Guides in Norfork–try a Mini Drunk and Disorderly streamer.
Planning a Return
As my son Zach caught the final fish of the day, Woodruff pulled hard on the oars as we rounded a final bend and found the Rush Landing takeout spot, itself an interesting location with some preserved buildings from early 20th-Century zinc mining.
I watched a bubbling artesian well as I waited on Zach and Rob to shuttle Woodruff’s pickup. Despite having fished around the globe, this particular day–even as slow as it was–ranks right up there at the top of the list.
As I pondered why, I kept coming back to the remarkable natural beauty in an unspoiled wilderness area that hasn’t changed much in the past few hundred years. I also coped with a little disappointed in myself, having lived six hours away from the Buffalo but never having sampled its rich and unspoiled beauty.
The Buffalo River is a mysteriously beautiful treasure that offers unexpected adventure and tremendous fishing opportunities. I’m already plotting a return, to this river that seems like it’s a thousand miles from nowhere, even if it’s really not.
Lynn Burkhead is a senior digital editor for Outdoor Sportsman Group.