Laughing crowds of canoe and kayak paddlers ride the fast flow of the Buffalo National River during spring. Come fall, the Buffalo can turn to a mere trickle with nary a soul seen along the clear stream.
No one, that is, except Pat Bodishbaugh of Fayetteville. The avid fan of Ozark streams relishes the low water of autumn to hike and wade his way along the Buffalo, fishing as he goes.
Fall is one of his favorite seasons to walk along the river bank and in the shallow water from the Ponca low-water bridge to Steel Creek campground. It’s a stroll of about two miles that is one of the most beautiful walks in Arkansas.
The curtain had barely risen on the Ozarks’ show of fall color Sept. 30 when Bodishbaugh started his walk at Ponca. There was hardly enough water the first 200 yards to wet the soles of his wading boots. He took his time on the sometimes slick rocks walking to the first deep pool downstream from the bridge. A 15-foot bluff cradled the lagoon of clear water while Bodishbaugh cast his small Mepps spinner.
“The Buffalo is so beautiful I expect to catch a fish on every cast,” he said, stepping along a gravel bar with his ultralight spin-cast outfit.
“You know, a buddy I fish with said he’s never caught a fish out of this hole,” the angler added. The smallmouth bass were no-shows for Bodishbaugh, too. He became a hiker again, walking downstream to the next hole.
Walking, wading and fishing in pools along the way puts smallmouth bass, Ozark bass and all kinds of colorful sunfish on the end of his thin fishing line. While he’s knee-deep in the Buffalo, Bodishbaugh is steeped in the beauty of the wild stream surrounded by forested banks and sky high cliffs.
“It’s a whole new way to experience the Buffalo,” Bodishbaugh said.
Some of the most jaw-dropping bluffs on the Buffalo are between Ponca and Steel Creek. Gray rock wall with streaks of black rise 150 feet from the water.
On days when Bodishbaugh fishes solo, he might start at Steel Creek, wade upstream a ways then return. Most trips, like this one, he’ll fish with a buddy and the two will leave a car at the Steel Creek campground, then drive back to Ponca. They’ll walk, wade and fish their way back to Steel Creek and their waiting car.
Most of the two miles is walking out of the water along the gravel and rock shoreline. Wading is usually knee-deep or less. There’s one short stretch close to Steel Creek where Bodishbaugh is up to his hip pockets in the cool water. He wears long pants and boots on these hiking-fishing expeditions. A wading staff helps keep him upright when navigating slick rock.
Small lures are key for catching fish in the low, clear water. Bodishbaugh carries miniature Mepps spinner and Beetle Spins in a pocket-size container that fits in his fishing vest.
When Bodishbaugh walked out of the water at Steel Creek four hours after leaving Ponca, his fish count included a dozen little small-mouth bass, three Ozark bass, one pumpkinseed and two green sunfish.
Fishing was on the slow side this trip, but that didn’t faze Bodishbaugh or his fishing buddy. Cackling kingfishers, blazing fall wildflowers and the beauty of the Buffalo National River are the catch of the day.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAFlip.