Some wanderers prefer paths less traveled when they visit the Buffalo National River at the peak of autumn. Where Pat Bodishbaugh treads, there’s no path at all.
A rocky shoreline of bright gravel and rounded rocks of every size guide Bodishbaugh, of Fayetteville, downstream along the storied river. His visits are part hiking and part fishing when he works his way along the stream occasionally casting a lure into a lagoon of clear water.
Smallmouth bass are the prize he seeks when walking and wading the Buffalo. His pet section is the two miles between Ponca low-water bridge access and Steel Creek access. The angler and whoever his fishing pal is that day leave a car at Steel Creek campground, drive back to Ponca and stroll downriver, fishing their way back to Steel Creek.
Wade fishing, it’s called, but there’s little wading to it when the Buffalo is low in autumn, as it usually is. Most of the trip Bodishbaugh walks out of the water along the gravel shoreline. He’ll lob a bevy of casts into a fishy looking pool, then walk along gravel and rock to the next fishing hole.
Bodishbaugh makes this half hiking, half fishing trip in about four hours. Most days he catches and releases dozens of fish. Small brightly colored sunfish put a quiver in his ultra-light fishing pole. Hand-sized Ozark bass, tan with dark spots, ambush the Mepps spinners he likes to use. Those take a back seat to the royal smallmouth bass, a hard fighter that’s the favorite of most stream anglers.
Smallmouths were giving Bodishbaugh the slip while he walked downstream on a colorful Friday morning Oct. 7. He was already a mile from the Ponca bridge and nary a smallmouth bit.
“I don’t remember ever wading down this far and not catching a smallmouth,” he said. Conditions were tough in the super low river and nearly transparent water.
Ozark bass made up for the no-show smallmouths. Bodishbaugh and his fishing pal yanked 10 spunky Ozark bass, a fish many call goggle-eye, from a single pool. The angler’s Mepps spinners did the trick while his buddy cast a 4-inch purple plastic lizard into the lagoon full of eager Ozark bass.
Shoreline hardwoods were showing their first colors of fall on this early October morning. Yellows, reds and orange hues reflected off the mirror smooth water. Wading the Buffalo is among the Ozarks’ most scenic fishing trips.
“The first time I did this, I was blown away,” Bodishbaugh said. “It’s a whole new way to experience the Buffalo.”
Some waist deep water in the next pool finally gave up two 10-inch smallmouth. Green sunfish also patrolled the pool and hit with enthusiasm. So far his take was an angling trifecta — smallmouths, green sunfish and Ozark bass.
“We need a ‘punkinseed’ to get the Buffalo grand slam,” Bodishbaugh hollered. Punkinseeds are what most anglers call longear sunfish. These little tropical looking fish are some of the prettiest in fresh water. Ozark streams and reservoirs are full of them, but they weren’t biting this trip.
The Buffalo saved the best for last. The final pool before reaching Steel Creek campground give up a “punkinseed” or three for the grand slam, plus the biggest fish of the day.
“I think I’ve finally got a nice one here,” Bodishbaugh said, eyeing a deep bend in his fishing rod. Right then a 15-inch smallmouth bass leaped out of the water, shaking in spray like an old wet dog. Two more 12-inch smallmouth came out of the same pool. All three hit his black Beetle Spin with a silver blade.
Of the 25 fish caught and freed that day, 10 were Ozark bass.
Most river runners stash their kayaks and canoes in the garage when the Buffalo shrinks to a trickle in the fall, but smallmouth bass and other fighters await anglers who fish the the river on foot.