If the word bayou conjures up a picture of still water lying around moss hung dead snags and filled with snakes and 'gators, stop and think again. The Illinois Bayou won't fit into that picture at all. In fact, this stream, commonly called just "The Bayou" by its avid floaters, starts high up in the southern slopes of the Ozarks and races head-over-applecart down towards Russellville and the Arkansas River, flaunting some Class II and Class III whitewater on the way.    Its really four streams, each distinctive, within a relatively small watershed. Because of this, it takes a lot of rain to make the Bayou floatable, but when it gets there its for experienced paddlers only.

    The North Fork is one of the most remote floats in the south. Put on at Dry Creek on Forest Road 1310 and float ten miles to Forest Road 1001 and you will not see a single road, bridge, house or field. While the shuttle is a long and tedious journey, the float is awesome with its 19 feet per mile drop. The narrow channels, bluffs, and short pools make a breathtaking river experience.

    The Bayou's Middle Fork offers a short float, just two miles, but it is continuous whitewater and the canoeist will remember it as a blurring mad dash downstream. Put in at Snow Creek, two miles up Forest Road 1312 from Arkansas Highway 27, and take out at Bayou Bluff Campground, just below the junction of the Middle and East Forks. The drop on this stretch is 20 feet per mile and there are Class II and Class III rapids. While this fork is seldom far from roads, you can still experience a feeling of remoteness.

    The drop on East Fork is even greater, 25 feet per mile, making it the steepest descent. It's also the wildest, passing through the middle of the 10,800 acre East Fork Wilderness Area. The scenery is superb with rocky outcrops and steep hillsides.

    Downstream from Bayou Bluff, below where the Middle and East Forks come together, is the most commonly floated section. This four mile Main Stream trip to the Arkansas River bridge north of Hector has many Class II rapids, including one just above the takeout that has large standing waves. The second part of the float is about seven miles down to the Highway 164 crossing and is considerably slower. About halfway down, the North Fork joins the Main Stream. There are still some fun rapids, but most are Class I.

    The Bayou is a seasonal stream and is floatable only after extended rainy weather. Floaters can call the Corp of Engineers at 501-378-5150 to get river levels. Best is 6.0 to 7.0 and anything beyond 7.5 is considered pretty risky.

    Camping is at Bayou Bluff and Brock Creek and Long Pool are near enough to be an easy drive. There is no outfitter on Illinois Bayou. The nearest is on Big Pine Creek to the west.

    Fishermen know Illinois Bayou as a premier bass fishing stream and laregemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass in lunker sizes have been taken. The fishing is generally best in spring. The Bayou also offers the largest fish available to float stream fishermen, the coldwater flathead catfish, which may reach 50 pounds or more. Bait with small sunfish or large minnows and fish at night for the best chance to take one and try the washouts around downed timber and deep holes in bends of the stream. For plain old fun fishing, especially for kids who like to hand a hard-biting scrappy fish, try worms, crickets, and mini-jigs for the green and longear sunfish that are abundant.

    Another interesting area is the East Fork Wilderness. It is sometimes possible to reach it by canoe, but traveling by foot is the best way to enjoy the upland swamps and waterfalls.

    The towns of Atkins and Hector are near enough to Bayou access points to provide any needed supplies. The historic Sand Gap store at Pelsor is a supplier worthy of a stop because of the preservation of a portion of the old pioneer store.