Monday, March 6, 2017

Ozark Bronze

Late Autumn Ozark Smallie
     It was a warm summer morning the first time my buddy Erich and I decided to head a little ways out of town to chase some native, “mountain” bronzebacks. He, recently moving from Pennsylvania, and I, from California, were seasoned trout fisherman. Each of us having been dropped into a realm of waters we knew little about. I've caught Smallmouth in a number of places, including my home waters of Lake Mendocino and even the Umpqua River in Oregon, the latter of which is considered one of the best Smallmouth fisheries in the West. However, there's something incredibly different about wading in to a new river for the first time. A river where these fish have grown and developed over hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. Small rivers that flow for miles, uninterrupted. Rivers full of fish that have never had to travel in a tanker truck.

     Within the year prior, we had both moved from our respective states to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Working together in the outdoor industry, it didn't take long before our days off were spent heading north, exploring the multitude of rivers and streams that adorn the Ozark Mountains in the northwest quadrant of the state and discovering what the area truly had to offer. Once the two of us started figuring things out, I was even able to teach my dad something new. He taught me to fly fish when I was ten but fly fishing for bass was something something new to him. Supplying the flies and paying back what he taught me some twenty or so years ago is something I won't soon forget.

     For those who have not had the privilege, the Smallmouth Bass is, pound for pound, one of the hardest fighting freshwater fish out there. While most of the bass in the Ozarks aren't near what someone would call trophy quality, their tenacity, paired with a 3 or 4 weight fly rod, brings just as much challenge and enjoyment as the largest trout. Although a couple of the larger rivers do turn out fish up to and sometimes above 4 pounds, the smaller streams we'd fish would rarely spit out anything over two, though they'd often feel much larger.

     Without flies, there's no fly fishing. Ozark Smallmouth aren't picky by any means, but, over there few years of fishing the area, there are definitely some guidelines we've noticed and followed.

Motown Slider
     While my winters would be spent on trout, deer, and ducks, Smallmouth would reign supreme from Spring through Fall. This whole time, we'd catch more fish on streamers than anything else. What started with Wooly Buggers and Clousers eventually led to bigger, deeper flies, ultimately catching larger fish. Most of my favorite streamers mimic either Sculpin and Darters or Crayfish. Patterns including my Motown Sliders, Dave Whitlock's Near 'Nuff Sculpin and Crayfish, and Rich Strolis's Headbanger Sculpin were some of our go to flies to get down into those deeper holes.

Congo Hair Silversides
     Those warm evenings of summer and fall, however, meant topwater, with popping bugs reigning supreme, followed by large hopper patters. The only “bad” thing about poppers and hoppers is the amount of Green and Longear Sunfish you sometimes have to fight through to get that bass that's on your mind.

     When the days and the waters start to cool, baitfish flies are a great way to go. These rivers are full of Silversides, shad, and any number of shiner, chub, and minnow species. Bass fishing on the west coast has always taught me that spring is for craws and fall is for minnows. Congo Hair or EP fibers, along with a strand of silver tinsel on each side make a great, simple Silverside pattern.

The other guys:

Green Sunfish
     Aside from Smallmouth, Spotted and Largemouth bass abound, though they don't deliver the same amount of energy at the end of a rod. Bluegill, Longear, and the bulldogs of the sunfish world, Green Sunfish will often intercept your cast before a bass even has a chance to see your fly. One of the most overlooked, and, unfortunately, disrespected fish you'll often run into, however, are the Gar. Spotted, Shortnose, and Longnose Gar call these waters home, and all three will actively take a fly stripped past their face. A 30” Gar on a 3wt rod is definitely something to write home about! (There will be more on that subject later!)


A harmless Northern Watersnake,
observed basking along an Ozark Stream
     Fish aren't the only wildlife you'll see, either. Numerous mammals, birds, and reptiles call the shorelines of these streams and rivers home. Eagles soar overhead while roadrunners may be seen running along the many farm roads lining the landscape. Coyotes and deer roam the meadows while a flock of Scaup swim upstream, faster than you're wading. Watersnakes and Cottonmouths can be seen basking on rocks both in and out of the water. Remember to give them their space, and they'll give you yours.

I've since moved back to California, but I can't wait to go back.

- Michael Spencer


  1. This is one of my dream trips, ever since reading Where the Red Fern Grows as a kid, I've wanted to see the Ozarks, and catch those wild smallies!

  2. Great article Mike. Can't wait to do some of that smallmouth fishing this summer.

    1. Thanks Jerry! I have Smallmouth within ten minutes of my house, but they just don't compare to what I got to experience out there!

  3. Hi, Michael. Thanks for asking me to like your new FB page. Through that I found your new blog. Very nice post to begin with. I love Smallmouth Bass fishing, but, do not get a lot of opportunities in Northern Colorado. By the way, I added your blog link to my BlogBuddies Blogroll over on my blog. If you have not checked it out already, please stop over and say hello.
    Here is my link: www.flyfishintimes.com

    P.S. I am interested in some of your dubbing also.