Back in the 1970s and 80s, several regional outdoor writers, including as I remember Larry Dablemont as well as a couple Arkansas Game and Fish guys, wrote several articles in regional magazines extolling the virtues of the fishing for big smallmouth on the Kings River, which fired my imagination to no end. I did make it to the Kings sometime around that time period. As I remember, I floated from Trigger Gap to the Hwy. 62 bridge one day, and from the bridge down to the next access the next day. I remember the float above the bridge being somewhat of a disappointment, as there was barely enough water to float and it was quite clear. Back then, I thought that all the best smallmouth waters had to have some color, like the Meramec, Big, and Bourbeuse that I was used to fishing. I don't remember much at all about the lower float, so it must not have been all that great, either. I have a few photos of the upper float, but not many, and I was really into photographing my floats back then and I've always been a sucker for photographing bluffs, so there must not have been that many impressive bluffs on either float.
But I had seen some photos of the river farther upstream that looked really cool, and I kept it in the back of my mind that one day I'd do a float from Marble down. I even stopped one time at the Marble Access on the way to somewhere else just to check it out. It was VERY low, just a trickle of water, and there were several filleted remains of...spotted bass? I certainly didn't remember seeing or catching any spots on that float below Trigger Gap...something made me think I caught a few below Hwy. 62, though.
Later on, I read from Dablemont or somebody that the big smallmouth had disappeared from the Kings. So the idea of floating the upper river went further onto the back burner.
So this summer, when I started thinking about my annual three day solo float, the Kings didn't pop into my mind at first. But my secret creek that used to be so spectacularly good fishing had been a little disappointing the last couple years, and I started entertaining thoughts of floating somewhere else. Somewhere new, maybe? And finally I thought of the upper Kings.
I checked the water levels a few weeks back, and was somewhat shocked to see that the only gauge on the Kings was reading 50 cubic feet per second. That's low. I don't consider a stream to be floatable without a lot of dragging and scraping bottom unless it's at least 75 cfs. I checked to see what the exact location of the gauge was, and was even more surprised to see that it's a bit downstream from the river's biggest tributary, Osage Creek. Wow, if it was that low below Osage Creek, how low would it be upstream? I started making backup plans while watching the gauge occasionally. Well, the Kings got a good rise a couple weeks ago, and it seemed to be keeping its level well above normal for this time of year. Looked like the Kings float was still on. In fact, I really like my solo float to be on water that IS a little too low for anybody else to think seriously about floating it, and the gauge was still reading well above 100 cfs.
I finally decided that the Kings was my choice. On Tuesday I called Kings River Outfitters at Trigger Gap to arrange a shuttle from Marble down to their place.
"There's not enough water to float up there," the guy said.
I explained that I was used to floating streams that were too low to float, and expected to have to get out and walk some of the riffles.
"Okay, as long as you know what you're getting into," he said.
I made the five plus hour drive to the vicinity Wednesday afternoon, staying at a nice little motel in Berryville overnight, and met my shuttle guy at 8 AM Thursday morning. We drove up to the put-in at Marble, and my first good look at the river up there was just about what I expected...fairly clear, and the riffle at the put-in looked to be flowing about 50 cfs. Yep, I was going to be walking some riffles, but I'd probably be able to float most of them at that level, though I'd scrape rocks on most of those I floated.
I loaded my two coolers, and two drybags with all my clothing, camping gear, and miscellaneous stuff into the solo canoe. I'd picked up a couple of the more expensive high tech coolers recently, and they were considerably heavier than my old cheap coolers, so the canoe seemed to sit lower in the water. I had plenty of ice in them. One held my food, the other my beverages and water. I started down that first riffle and dragged bottom with the rear of the canoe a lot worse than I thought I would, so I stopped, and reloaded everything to balance my load better.
The river looked pretty good for fishing, and I was excited to be fishing new water, but it took a while to catch the first fish, and it was a largemouth. So was the next one, then I caught a couple spotted bass. Finally a smallmouth. I was trying topwater without much success, but my homemade crankbait was catching a few, as was a spinnerbait. But the fishing was disappointingly slow. There were nice looking pools, but a lot of the river was bedrock bottomed, and even the bluff pools were different from what I was used to. The geology was such that the bluffs were layered in thin beds, and the cliffs came right down to the water and then the solid rock sloped off into the middle of the pool. Because of the thin beds of rock, there wasn't much big chunk rock underwater, just solid, flat bedrock with ledges. I just didn't think it looked like great habitat even in the deeper pools. And the low flow meant that there weren't many deep, fast runs, just shallow riffles and bedrock bottomed pools.
But the landscape was gorgeous. Some of those bluffs were a hundred feet high, came right down to the water, and the river had undercut the base until you could paddle all the way back under the overhangs. This upper river is, in some ways, pretty civilized, with a lot of cleared land and cattle, but those bluffs were really cool.
I planned on floating from Marble to a bit below Marshall Ford the first day, so I kept moving. It's a little over 11 miles between those two accesses, and I hadn't gotten on the river until after 9 AM, but I knew I could float til nearly dark...I don't cook my meals on these hot weather trips, so all I would have to do was set up my tent, which takes about 10 minutes.
I was floating over about 75% of the riffles, though almost never without scraping bottom. My biggest early problem was a private, torn up low water bridge that I had to portage over, and portaging required almost completely unloading the canoe. Then I came to a stretch where I was having to get out and walk nearly every riffle. I wondered if this was a losing reach, a geological term where part or all the flow of a stream sinks underground to emerge again farther downstream. This went on for about a mile and then there seemed to be more water again, though I didn't notice any inflow.
I finally caught a very nice largemouth, about 17 inches, on a walk the dog topwater, and a few decent smallmouth, 13-14 inchers. I think I ended up with about 40 bass for the day, almost evenly divided between the three species. The spotted bass were fat and as good as any of the bass I caught that day, and since they are native to these streams I was happy to catch them. In mid-afternoon I passed three guys in kayaks, and I wondered if they were the reason the fishing was slow, but after I passed them it didn't get any better; in fact, it got worse for a while. Then it picked up a bit, then finally just about died by the time I came to the second low water bridge that required portaging. At least this one had been furnished with ramps on both sides that appeared to be specifically for portaging canoes over it, but I still had to unload the boat again. There was a big sign saying "Marshall Ford, 1 mile downstream". I figured that some people would be confused and think they had come to the take-out, even though Marshall Ford has been a high bridge for a while now.
There had been no lack of good camping gravel bars until I passed under the bridge, and then it took more than a mile farther before I found a usable bar that didn't have a lane coming onto it or a cabin next to it. I finally picked a small, narrow bar with barely enough flat area to pitch the tent, a half hour before dark. It was a picturesque spot, though, with a smooth, colorful sandstone cliff opposite the bar. I'd noted that the geology had changed in the last couple miles, with the bluffs floored with that smooth sandstone instead of the shelving, undercut limestone, and there was more chunk rock in the pools.
I set up the tent in nearly the last light, and brought out my smoked chicken leg quarters, potato salad, and cole slaw out of the cooler, with a cold sweet tea, and ate as the stars began to appear. A single mosquito buzzed around my ear for a bit. It was warm, so when I went into the tent I lay atop the sleeping bag, reading a Kindle book on my cell phone until my eyelids drooped.
I was up at daylight, and quickly broke down the tent, loaded the canoe, and started my day of fishing. And as the morning went along the fishing got better. I hate to admit this...I've never been a big fan of the Whopper Plopper, but for some reason I decided to try one, and for the first time, it was almost magic. The water had gotten clearer...yesterday it had about 3-4 feet visibility, but it was 5 feet or better by the time I'd gotten to camp last night. The walk the dog topwater was producing a few fish, but the Whopper Plopper was doing better by far. Lots of smallmouth, almost none of the other two species. By the end of this day I had caught 113 bass, with only one spotted bass and two largemouth. Most, however, were small, under 12 inches. When I would get a strike from a 13-14 incher on the Plopper it was vicious, and often I thought it was a big one until I had it on long enough to get a good look. I remember one 14-incher that really shocked me. A couple weeks ago I'd damaged a tendon in my left arm, my casting arm. I could cast okay backhanded, but I had to use two hands on a forehand or overhand cast, and my elbow was still sore and weak. This fish clobbered the lure as it neared the canoe, and then drove toward the rear of the canoe so hard that it nearly jerked the rod out of my hand and really HURT my arm.
In late afternoon, the best fish of the trip blew up on the Plopper, coming completely out of the water and knocking the lure three feet. I twitched it once and the big smallmouth came back and got it. It measured 18 1/4th inches. I got strikes from a couple others that missed that might have been that big or bigger, but given the way I'd overestimated some of those 14 inchers when they hit, I can't say that for certain.
It's 16 miles from Marshall Ford to Rockhouse, the next access, and the bluffs, while different, are even more impressive in some ways than those undercut cliffs upstream. Some of them are over 200 feet high. I had planned to stop for the evening a mile or so above Rockhouse, but again there just wasn't the perfect gravel bar, so I kept fishing and passed the access, going nearly two more miles downstream before picking out a huge, high bar adjacent to a wooded bluff. I'd covered more than 16 miles. But one reason I'd floated so many miles is that the habitat was getting worse. There were longer stretches of shallow water with very little cover between the good pools. Some stretches were bedrock bottomed, others were wide, gravelly bottomed pools that looked good from upstream but turned out to be a foot deep when you got into them. So I'd paddle through those long unproductive stretches to fish the good water.
I passed a creek called Dry Creek, which actually wasn't very well named, because it was flowing enough water to increase the flow of the river by a good 25%. Now the riffles were all floatable--except I soon began to come to very wide, gravel riffles that were two inches deep all the way across. I later passed another creek that was flowing fairly well, but not enough to make a lot of difference.
The second night I ate smoked pork chops, bothered a bit by no-see-um gnats in the hour or so before dark.
Since I'd floated so far the second day, I only had about 5-6 miles to go. And the habitat was no better. The sheer bluffs had disappeared, too, and the scenery was less interesting, plus the very wide, inches deep riffles became very common. I only caught about 20 smallmouth, biggest about 16 inches, mostly again on the Whopper Plopper. I'd noticed a pattern the day before and it continued on this day. There would be a few fish at the head of a decent pool, but the larger fish seemed to be near the tail of the pool. Some of the pools were really nice and deep with big rocks in their upper portions, but would shallow out about halfway down. Those pools had few fish willing to bite. But if a pool stayed fairly deep toward the lower end there would often be a couple bigger fish in the lower portion. And while there were some nice logs here and there, I caught basically nothing on wood, every fish came from those chunk rock areas.
I reached the old, breached low water bridge at Trigger Gap early in the afternoon, and floated over the gap in it, then downstream a half mile to the Kings River Outfitters access. All in all, it had been a very interesting trip. But I have to say I was disappointed in the overall habitat. And often, I noticed a pretty bad smell...I think there are a lot of industrial chicken farms near the river. I was actually surprised that the water quality seemed as good as it did. I also wonder if the habitat was a lot better back when Dablemont and the others were touting the Kings, because it didn't really look like the kind of water that produce huge numbers of big fish. But it had been a good solo trip, with perfect weather, great scenery, and sometimes good fishing. The wildlife was kinda lacking...I saw two deer, and a white goat standing on a rock watching me go by, the whole trip, along with a bunch of vultures. I also noted a lot of huge redhorse suckers, something I've seen on other Arkansas rivers. Do these rivers not get gigged much? You never see big redhorse in any numbers on Missouri streams.
All in all a good trip, though I'm not sure I'll do it again any time soon.