The hundreds of miles of spring-fed, crystal clear streams in the Ozarks, provide top quality smallmouth fishing. Names like the Gasconade, Meramec, Huzzah, Jacks Fork, White, Buffalo and Eleven Point, in Missouri and Arkansas, have stirred the hearts and minds of smallmouth fishermen for decades.
Each of these jewels in the crown of Ozark smallmouth streams lend themselves well to float tube fishermen.
Float fishing an Ozark stream is most often enjoyed from the relative comforts of a canoe or jon boat. Despite their comforts, these crafts can cause problems that cost smallmouth fishermen some fabulous fishing. Fishermen perched in the seat of a canoe or jon boat very often float too fast to adequately fish the available structure. Also, a large, cumbersome watercraft prevents a fisherman from taking advantage of some of the fishiest-looking spots on a stream. Most of these backwaters, small bays and stranded oxbows can only be reached by a float tube.
As a kid, I often toyed with small crafts to fish otherwise unreachable waters. Large washtubs and small-pole rafts failed because of instability. The huge inner tubes from our old two-ton farm truck worked fairly well, except for the fact that I needed an interior seat and fins. Those early attempts at floatation innovation failed, but I didn't drown, and the desire lived on in the back of my mind.
I pretty much forgot about the idea of a small craft from which I could fish, until I landed a park superintendent job in the Missouri Ozarks. The abundance of fabulous smallmouth streams rekindled my dreams of floating in a small craft that would put me close to the water, offer mobility and the ability to pick up my boat and walk. I simply had to get a float tube, or belly boat, as I discovered ardent anglers called them.
Once my search for a belly boat began, I found that major sporting goods dealers, Cabela's included, offered a variety of boats from which to choose.
I studied long and hard before making a purchase. A high quality boat was a must, since I had ambitions for heavy use. Round or U-shaped was the next question to address. The U-shaped boats offered a bit more versatility. The legs on the U-boats provided more storage space. Some models even sported back rests. That feature eventually cost me fishing time. I occasionally nap in my belly boat.
Safety is a major concern to keep in mind when purchasing a belly boat. Look at the boat carefully. How easy is it to get into? Getting into and out of a poorly designed belly boat is a concern. Spills or falls onto rocks or other objects, in and along streams, can cause painful injuries. The U-shaped boats are much easier to get into. A cross bar holds the legs of the U-boat in position. You only have to remove the cross bar to climb into the seat. The bar straps into place. A fabric platform kwik-snaps across the front, providing a work bench for lure, line and other equipment.
The belly boat you buy should contain several air bladders. To do otherwise is to invite disaster. Also, a personal floatation device should be worn while in the boat. I prefer the type that doubles as a fishing vest, although a vest is not mandatory. A good belly boat will have several pockets for lures, lunch, a first aid kit, rain suit and other necessities.
A good pair of fins that strap over wading shoes is another necessity. The fins allow you to propel yourself in any direction, once you get the hang of it.
I will never forget my first belly boat trip on an Ozark smallmouth stream. I floated two miles of Huzzah Creek. I worked every inch of cover in about four hours. Often, I drug my fins to slow my float pace. Occasionally, I tied my tube to a stream-side tree or overhanging limb to hold me in place, while I conveniently and thoroughly fished a likely looking spot.
In very shallow water, I simply stood up and duck walked to the next hole. If holes were far apart, I hit the bank and packed the tube to the next available spot to float.
I caught lots of smallmouth on my Huzzah trip, one fish in particular is embedded in my memory. I was drifting through a turn of fast water. A log jam blocked the inside turn. My buzzbait fell perfectly into a hole between two logs near the bank. I ripped the buzzbait back, fearing a tangle with the thick cover. As the bait cleared the obstructions and entered the open stream, a brown bullet shot from beneath the outside log and clobbered the buzzbait two feet from the end of my spinning rod. What a startling, but fun, experience. Smallmouth encounters, at water level, almost eye-to-eye, stimulate an adrenaline rush for even the most jaded angler.
Belly boating an Ozark stream requires some planning regarding tackle as well. Five- to six-foot spinning rods work best for me, but a good baitcaster is hard to beat. Longer rods are difficult to handle in tight spots. If I am fly-fishing, I try to stick with a 7- to 8-foot rod.
Many times I carry two rods, which requires them to be two-piece. My boat has Velcro straps that hold a broken down rod in place. I almost always pack a fly rod and either a spinning outfit or a baitcasting rig, depending on my preferred method for the day.
For the fly-fishing rig, I carry an assortment of surface poppers and streamers, that imitate minnows and crayfish. A large assortment of baits will attract action to the business end of a spinning or baitcasting outfit. Buzzbaits are great early morning bass aggravators. However, they will often work all day. Chuggers, such as Green Dragon Chugger and the popular Storm Chug-Bug, provide explosive top-water action. Soft plastics should not be overlooked, either. The Zoom Super Fluke has been a hot bait for stream smallmouth, as has Gene Larew's plastic craw.
Float tubing a beautiful, Ozark stream for smallmouth adds a whole new dimension to the sport. I even pack a swim mask to take an occasional dip below the surface! The thrills await those longing for an exciting "in your face" fishing adventure!
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