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Ouachita River

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For many first-time visitors, the most difficult thing about the Ouachita River is learning to say it correctly. For some reason, the pronunciation--"Wash-i-taw"--bears little resemblance to the spelling. Regardless of how it's said, though, the Ouachita is a fine stream, ideally suited for family outings.

From its beginnings where two small creeks converge at the base of Rich Mountain in Polk County, the river winds its way through the scenic Ouachita Mountains and beyond. It is in these higher elevations that the stream offers a good range of recreation opportunities for floating and fishing enthusiasts alike (you'll find plenty of bass, catfish and green sunfish).

A major draw is its location within the Ouachita National Forest. The Forest Service provides campgrounds, picnic areas, and access points along the river and several of its tributaries. In addition, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintains several access areas along the stream. These developments attract not only experienced river travelers, but many people venturing out for their first trip in a canoe.

SECTION DESCRIBED: Headwaters to Lake Ouachita, a distance of about 70 miles.

Characteristics

In its upper reaches, the Ouachita is a narrow, fast-moving stream with class I (and occasionally class II) rapids. Further downstream, the river still has some interesting shoals, but the pools are a little longer and deeper.

The uppermost float on the Ouachita begins at the McGuire Access, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission development. It's located on the south side of Arkansas Highway 88 about halfway between the communities of Ink and Cherry Hill. The seven-mile trip down to the Cherry Hill Access--another Game and Fish project--should be scheduled after periods of extended rainfall to avoid a good deal of dragging. The float features narrow channels, tight turns, and quiet pools. Paddlers should be on the lookout for logjams and overhanging limbs.

The second Ouachita River float is the 13-mile journey from Cherry Hill to Pine Ridge. The take-out point is a county bridge about one mile east of Pine Ridge, just to the southeast of Highway 88. Like the earlier float, this one requires plenty of rain and cautious canoeists.

A 10-mile trip from Pine Ridge to Oden is next in the series of Ouachita excursions. Noisy shoals, quick turns, and a tunnel of overhanging trees characterize this section. The Arkansas Highway 379 bridge south of Oden is the take-out point.

One of the most popular trips on the river is the journey from Oden to the Rocky Shoals Campground at the U.S. 270 crossing. This 10-mile trip features some of the best scenery on the Ouachita, including a towering bluff a few miles above the take-out. Deep pools, stimulating rapids, and shady banks are also found along this stretch. In the springtime, quiet canoeists may hear the calls of wild turkeys up on the steep hillsides.

Canoeists putting in at Rocky Shoals have several options. They can take out at the Sims Campground, located four miles downstream, or at the Fulton Branch Campground, which is another three miles down the river. Each of these Ouachita camping/launching areas also is a good starting point for trips down to the last two public take-outs--Dragover and River Bluff. Both offer toilets, boat ramps, and campsites. The Fulton Branch to Dragover trip covers about two miles, while the float on to River Bluff covers another three miles. Several other take-outs are possible on the backwaters of Lake Ouachita around the Arkansas Highway 27 crossing.

Relatively new is a whitewater playground on the Ouachita River northwest of Malvern that has been drawing a growing number of Arkansans, with visitors also reported from surrounding states and from as far away as Illinois. At the Rockport Ledge, a drop-off and collection of boulders that span the river a few hundred yards above Interstate 30, kayaking enthusiasts gather to practice skills such as rolls, ferries, eddies, surfing and freestyle tricks.

The water comes from upstream Lake Catherine in scheduled weekend releases, generating electricity as it passes under Remmel Dam. In addition, continuous but smaller releases have made the Ouachita between the dam and I-30 a reliable but gentle float throughout the year.

Information on the Lake Catherine releases is available by phone at (501) 620-5760 and on the Entergy Hydro Web site. Instructions for receiving periodic e-mail updates (usually issued weekly) on release plans are available on the site.

Seasons

The Ouachita can be floated much of the year, particularly if its visitors don't mind getting their feet wet and pulling their boats through the shallows during drier months. The best period for good canoeing in the upper reaches is late fall to late spring--generally November through June. The lower stretches (below the 270 bridge) come closest to offering year-round floating conditions.

Access Points

Major access points include the U.S. 270 crossing, the Arkansas 379 bridge, several county road crossings off Arkansas 88, and a handful of Forest Service Campgrounds.

Scenery

The Ouachita River's scenic beauty is due in part to the bluffs along the route. Though they are common sights in north Arkansas's Ozarks, these occurrences are few and far between in the Ouachita Mountain range.

Other features of the Ouachita River are its clear water, intriguing rock formations, and a canopy of overhanging trees. In its upper reaches, the dogwoods and redbuds which bloom in the spring make for an unmatched setting of beauty. With only sparse population along its banks, the river also offers a sense of solitude. The Ouachita's long, lazy pools and sparkling shoals make the river especially inviting for families wishing to pause for a swim and/or picnic along the way.

Wildlife viewing is another distinct possibility on this river. Floaters report seeing beaver, deer, wild turkeys, and an assortment of wading birds.

Fishing

The Ouachita has been a favorite fishing spot among sportsmen for decades. Heavy stringers of smallmouth and spotted bass come from the stream year-round, although the best angling for big bass (four-pounders are not uncommon) is usually during the cooler months from October through March. In the lower reaches just above Lake Ouachita, the spawning runs of white bass always attract large numbers of spring fishermen, and, as might be expected, this cool stream supports large numbers of green sunfish and longear sunfish. Anglers will also land an occasional walleye, largemouth bass, rock bass, catfish or bluegill.

Services Available

Supplies can be obtained in Pencil Bluff, Mount Ida, or more distant towns like Mena and Hot Springs. In addition to the Forest Service campgrounds along the river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed numerous camping sites on Lake Ouachita camping sites. Rental canoes are available in Pencil Bluff.

Other Information

The Ouachita is the longest and largest river in the Ouachita Mountain region. The river is also "floatable" (and "fishable") below Lake Hamilton to Arkadelphia and well beyond. Supplies, including rental canoes, are available in Arkadelphia for this stretch.

The newest recreation developments on the stream are found in extreme southern Arkansas where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers are constructing facilities within the Fesenthal National Wildlife Refuge. Hunters and fishermen are giving the area rave reviews.