For most of us, the term "bayou" means one thing: a sluggish body of water.
But anybody getting on the Illinois Bayou with that thought in mind is in for a big and
The Bayou, as many of its floaters know it, has its origins high up on the south slopes
of the Ozarks. As the stream works its way toward Russellville and the Arkansas River,
there's nothing slow and lazy about it. It may be the only bayou in the country
featuring class II/III whitewater.
SECTION DESCRIBED: Entire length from backwaters of Lake Dardanelle to
headwaters in the Ozarks.
The Illinois Bayou really is not one stream but four: 1) the North Fork; 2) the Middle
Fork; 3) the East Fork; and 4) the main stem (downstream from Bayou Bluff). Because of
these divisions in what is a relatively small watershed, it takes a good amount of
rainfall to get them up to floating levels. But once there, they offer some of the
state's best whitewater. In fact, the Bayou is recommended for experienced paddlers.
It is not a good "first time" float.
The North Fork offers a trip through truly remote country. During the 10-mile float
from the Dry Creek put-in (on Forest Road 1310) to the Forest Road 1001 take-out, visitors
will be well removed from civilization, passing no roads, bridges, houses, or fields.
Prospective floaters are warned that the shuttle is an ordeal involving considerable
driving. The float itself is a delight--class II and III rapids (19 feet/mile
gradient), short pools, narrow channels, great scenery, and a wonderful sense of solitude.
In times of high water, floaters may put in at Forest Road 1000, but again, the stream is
strictly for the experienced paddler.
The Bayou's Middle Fork offers a two-mile float that is one of Arkansas's
best for continuous whitewater. It begins at the Snow Creek put-in (two miles up Forest
Road 1312, off Arkansas Highway 27) and concludes at Bayou Bluff Campground, just below
the junction of the Middle and East Forks. Along the way, the stream drops 20 feet per
mile, creating all kinds of excitement including some class II/III rapids. Unlike the
North Fork's float, this Middle Fork section is seldom far from roads, yet it also
offers a sense of remoteness.
A good float can also be had on the East Fork--when conditions are right. A 12-mile
trip from Forest Road 1301 to Bayou Bluff is steep, dropping 25 feet per mile, and wild,
passing through the middle of the 10,800 acre East Fork Wilderness Area. Like its
companion floats, this one is not for the novice.
The main stem of the Illinois Bayou begins where the Middle and East Forks run together
near Bayou Bluff and continues, for floating purposes, to the Arkansas 164 bridge north of
Scottsville. This stretch includes the most commonly floated section of the Bayou--the
four-mile trip from Bayou Bluff to the Arkansas 27 bridge north of Hector. Throughout this
trip the paddler can expect many class II rapids, including one just upstream from the
take-out that features large standing waves. The second float--from the 27 bridge to
the 164 crossing--is about seven miles long and considerably calmer than the others.
The North Fork joins up with the main stem about halfway along this float. Rapids are
present, but most are of the class I variety.
Primary points of access for the Bayou and its forks are the Arkansas 164 and 27
bridges, and several Forest Road crossings (chiefly 1000, 1001, 1301, and 1312). The
Highway 27 access is less than 20 miles north of Interstate 40.
The Illinois Bayou is a seasonal stream, floatable only after periods of extended
rainfall. A good indicator of "floatability" is the Scottsville reading on the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recording (501-324-5150). Levels between 6.0 and 7.0 are best
(6.5 minimum for the North Fork), and much beyond 7.5 is considered risky.
The scenery is superb for all floats on the Bayou. The three forks--North, Middle,
and East--provide exposure to rugged and remote country. Rocky outcrops, steep
hillsides of dense forest, and periodic glimpses of wildlife can be expected. The main
stem offers overhanging trees, interesting vistas, and occasional scenes of pastoral
Bass are king on Illinois Bayou, and anglers will find healthy populations of three
species--the largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Bass fishing is generally best
in spring and early summer, although some anglers prefer to fish the pot holes that form
during drier months.
Anglers who want to land a real lunker may want to bait up with small sunfish or large
minnows and try for one of the flathead catfish lurking in these waters. Cold-water
flatheads may reach weights up to 50 pounds or more, making them the largest fish
available to float stream fishermen. The best flathead fishing is at night, and the best
areas to try include washouts around downed timber and deep holes in the outside bends of
Multi-colored green and longear sunfish are also abundant in Illinois Bayou. These fish
readily accept worms, crickets, mini-jigs and tiny crank-baits, and while they rarely
reach even a pound in weight, they can provide hours of fishing fun for kids and adults
Most any necessity (other than rental canoes) can be obtained in the nearby towns of
Hector and Atkins.
Camping is possible at the Bayou Bluff Campground at the confluence of the Middle and
East Forks. In addition, the Forest Service has other developed campgrounds--like
Brock Creek and Long Pool--that are within easy driving distance.
One of Arkansas's more interesting geological marvels can be
observed at Pedestal
Rocks, a site within the watershed of the Illinois Bayou's North
Fork. In addition to
seeing the large, weathered sandstone columns, visitors to the area
can explore caves and bluff shelters.
Ozark bluff shelters and caves are fragile, and contain important
information on the people who have lived here for thousands of years.
Many were used by Native Americans for painting and carving pictures,
which are extremely delicate. (See Rock Art in Arkansas, edited
by G. Sabo and D. Sabo, Arkansas Archeological Survey Popular Series 5,
2005, Fayetteville). On Forest Service lands, it is illegal to build
camp fire rings in bluff shelters and caves, to dig for artifacts, or to
vandalize by carving or spray painting. Enjoy, but do not destroy. Pack
out rubbish that you packed in. It is a federal crime punishable by up
to two years in prison and a $250,000.00 to destroy or deface
archeological sites. These important areas are monitored, and violators
will be prosecuted.
Photographers will also enjoy the panoramic views of the North
Fork's valley. To get there, turn east off Arkansas 7 onto Arkansas 16, and then go
for about five miles toward Ben Hur. The parking area will be visible on the south side of
Another interesting area is the East Fork Wilderness. While it is accessible by canoe
at times, the best way to see the wilderness is by foot. Features include upland swamps,
waterfalls, and generally rugged country. The best times for visits are during fall,
winter, and spring months.
Finally, floaters should bear in mind that private property does exist within the Ozark
National Forest. "Posted" land should not be entered.