April 13, 2012
As we rounded a big bend along the Buffalo River in Arkansas, I welcomed the sight of my pickup. It announced our successful completion of a fine river float while small boat bass fishing. Having miles of river to ourselves and catching bundles of feisty smallmouth bass, I felt great satisfaction, and a bit of muscle fatigue.
Few serious bass anglers have embraced float-fishing from a small boat. Those who do tend to testify only about solitude, pristine woods, and cool water on hot days. As much as I value those aspects, the practical benefits of floating a river to catch bass shouldn't be overlooked.
Floats open access to countless miles of river that seldom see a cast from a serious fisherman, though many of these waters offer excellent fishing for smallmouths in northern and central states, along with spotted bass in southeastern waterways. And small craft are the best means to fish for the beautiful and overlooked river bass species, the shoal bass, Suwannee bass, redeye bass, and rare Guadalupe bass of Texas.
Floats also are ideal for anglers who don't own a big boat or who don't want to burn a tank of fuel for an afternoon of fishing. Bass inhabiting swift rivers are less affected by frontal systems and other conditions that bring tough bites on lakes and reservoirs. Catch rates typically are high, even for the run-and-gun approach required in fast current.
10 Picks For A Float Trip Box!
Boat options include canoes, kayaks, drift boats and other inflatables, as well as jonboats. Tote them atop a small car or in the bed of a truck, launch by hand, and navigate over shallow shoals or through rapids using a bit of muscle power. You can pick out the regulars with their sinewy arms and bulked-up thighs. The same craft are ideal for hidden oxbows, ponds way back in the woods, and other hidden flatwater gems that harbor unpestered and often outsize bass, whether you fish in Florida, Ohio, or Washington.
THE FLOAT APPROACH
Select a stream section defined by two access points. Then park a shuttle vehicle at the take-out and drive another vehicle carrying the boat to the put-in. Float to the first vehicle, fishing along the way. Rivers that offer the best opportunities, not surprisingly, often lack ramps for power boating, due to their small size, shallow shoals, or remoteness. Most rivers have canoe launches, parks, bridge crossings, or road rights-of-ways that offer access to small craft.
Minnesota guide Bill Rosner does most of his fishing on Lake Vermilion, where he targets muskies and walleyes. Through the warm months, though, he loves to take clients down a scenic section of the Vermilion River in his 3-person We-No-Nah canoe. The river's clear waters support a big population of chunky smallmouths that sees minimal fishing pressure. Bass typically strike with gusto and battle acrobatically.
Rosner keeps it simple, rigging spinning outfits with in-line spinners, Lindy Watsit Jigs and Watsit Spins, or small crankbaits like #5 Lindy Shadlings in perch and crayfish colors. He uses St. Croix Premier Pack Rods, which break into four sections for easy packing, and spools reels with 6-pound-test mono. Everything goes into a waterproof pack, set on the floor of the boat. His canoe's middle seat has a carrying yoke.
He tells clients to focus on current seams, eddies behind boulders and below drops, cover along the edges of pools, and other visible targets. Feeding bass of all species hold in ambush positions, so presentations should approach them the same ways natural foods come into view — typically by casting upstream of targets and letting current aid the delivery.
Key areas of rivers vary by water level and season, but in warmer conditions, bass often feed near gravel bars. Often the best approach is to beach the boat and wade. One full-day float that Rosner regularly runs includes two portages around waterfalls, and he regularly fishes the upstream and downstream take-out areas, as strong current on the upstream side and deep plunge pools on the downstream end lure active bass.
Some fast-flowing or boulder-banked rivers offer few opportunities to get out and fish, while others alternate regularly between shoals and pools that lend themselves more to wading than boat-fishing. That's an important planning consideration because if you wade a lot and use the boat primarily as a shuttle to access spots, you won't make much downstream progress. It's not fun to find, as the sun starts to set, that you have another five miles to float.
Float distance is an important consideration, and it depends on several factors. If you want to do a lot more fishing than paddling, select a short stretch with moderate flow rate. Or else drop in at dawn and fish all day. The worst fate, save an untoward capsizing, is to be forced to paddle past miles of great-looking water because you've run out of daylight and are still far from the take-out. There's no formula for the number of miles to float in a time period. The nature of the river, positioning of the fish, water level, and the way you prefer to fish vary. You can spend a full day fishing a mile and a half of a river or doing a 10-mile float. That's part of the appeal of small craft bassin'. Though ramps aren't needed, viable public access points sometimes dictate float distance.
One aspect of floating that's learned the hard way is to clearly mark the take-out point, if your vehicle or a substantial landmark isn't visible from the river. Note what the banks look like when you drop off the shuttle vehicle. If all else fails, flagging tape can mark the way. Also research rapids or other navigational hazards, fairly assessing what your boat and boating skills can navigate and whether portaging options exist.
Finally, when you consider rivers to float, check those that serve floaters with canoe liveries or rafting outfits. Outfitters know the character of specific floats, according to water levels, and how long it takes to float them. They can help you adjust the time frames for a fishing plan. Rental is a great option if you don't own a small boat. And if you have a boat but are short a vehicle or companion, many businesses offer shuttle services that simplify logistics.
Float Boat Options
The classic boats for floating rivers, canoes for fishing are light enough to car-top and tote down trails, able to handle modest rapids, and stable enough for comfortable fishing and carrying gear. A canoe makes a fine multi-purpose float boat for a pair of anglers.
Examples: We-No-Nah Northfork, Old Town Osprey Angler
If you want something even lighter and more agile than a canoe, a fishing kayak might be your boat of choice. There are kayaks for all kinds of waters, and some go where other boats dare not.
Examples: Old Town Camden 106 Angler, Ocean Kayak Tetra 12, Hobie Lanai
Oar systems make these boats easy to control, and some are rated for whitewater use. The seat provides a good casting position, while storage pouches and rod-holders keep everything handy. An anchor system, optional for most pontoons, allows for efficient fishing in some situations. An electric pump is a wise investment, allowing more time for fishing not pumping.
Examples: DuraPro 8-Foot River Pontoon, Fish Cat 9
Even a small jonboat is a heavier than other small craft, making it tougher to tote atop a vehicle and requiring launch facilities in some situations. They're not as maneuverable in fast water, but fine for ponds and lazy rivers. Jonboat advantages include stability, room, and dry storage for gear, and adaptability to small motors.
Examples: G3 Gator Tough, Tracker Topper 1032
Although most Hobie fishing boats are kayaks, this company's exclusive Mirage Drive puts their boats in a class by itself. This unique pedal-drive system provides continuous boat control and hands-free fishing. The Mirage Drive isn't designed for significant rapids or extreme shallows, but it's easily raised, then paddles take over. The large deck surface of the Mirage Pro Angler allows addition of compact sonar units, such as the Lowrance Mark-5X DSI or Humminbird 385 ci Combo. They also offer a kit to rig for fly-fishing.
Examples: Mirage Revolution 11, Mirage Outfitter (tandem), Mirage Pro Angler
*Jeff Samsel, Clarkesville, Georgia, is a freelance writer and photographer and a veteran small river angler.
Whether you fish inshore, near shore, offshore, or in freshwater, fishing from a kayak is a viable option to getting you to the fish. Some people believe the kayak is perhaps the best option. Low profile, quiet, shallow draft, customizable. Sportsman's Best: Kayak Fishing