If you love fishing and you live in Arkansas, you’re living the good life, indeed. Few places in the U.S. offer the astounding variety of freshwater fishing opportunities that are available in the Natural State.
Regardless of the time of year, the fish are always biting somewhere. Try your hand for monster catfish in the broad bottomland rivers of the Delta or fly-fish for trout in the clear streams of the Ozarks. Fish the Coastal Plain lakes for crappie and bream or try for white bass and hybrids on a Ouachita Mountains reservoir. The opportunities are almost endless.
That said, here’s a road map to guide you to some of the state’s best fishing destinations this year.
Mississippi River Blue Cats
Most folks are backed up to the fireplace this month, but not serious catfishermen. These guys know January is the time to bundle up and chase blue cats, and no place offers better action than the Mississippi River, home of the former 116-pound, 12-ounce world record caught at West Memphis just downstream from the Interstate 55 bridge.
Use sonar to pinpoint deep wintering holes anywhere on the river from Blytheville to Chicot County. Then drop a chunk of fresh skipjack or shad to the bottom and hold on. Thirty- to 50-pounders are common, with 100-pounders always possible.
One important thing to remember about these big whiskerfish this season is that where you catch one, you probably can find others. Blue cats often gather in huge concentrations in relatively small deepwater areas in January. From one wintering hole in the Mississippi River, you might catch a dozen or 100, including several trophy-class specimens.
Today’s catfish fans usually keep smaller cats (to 5 or 10 pounds) if they want some to eat and release older heavyweights. Remember the motto, “Today’s releases are tomorrow’s trophies.”
Old Town Lake Crappie
Old Town Lake, southwest of West Helena, warms up earlier than many other Arkansas lakes. Crappie usually move into the shallows to prepare for spawning around the middle of February. That oxbow is separated from the Mississippi River by a levee and drains into Big Creek in the White River drainage. It creates better fishing conditions for anglers who like fishing oxbow lakes, as water levels are generally quite stable with no fast rises or falls as are often seen on other Mississippi River oxbows in the area. The lake is at the town of Lakeview on Arkansas Highway 44 in Phillips County.
As the water in Old Town Lake warms this month, anglers start catching crappie around the dense stands of cypress trees in shoreline shallows. It’s not uncommon to take a 30-fish limit of crappie that weighs 40 pounds or more when working jigs or minnows around good cover. The lake is extremely shallow, averaging less than 6 feet throughout, but on February’s warm bluebird days, most crappie will be in 2 feet of water or less.
Beaver Lake White Bass
On this huge northwest Arkansas U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake near Rogers, anglers can enjoy some hot action for fat white bass this month. These temperate bass are gorging on schools of shad, and near dawn and dusk, they run the baitfish to the surface. Watch for surface disturbances as the predators herd the shad, and then move in quietly and start casting to the schools.
Any shad-like lure will catch the whites, but it’s hard to beat a silver jigging spoon worked vertically beneath the boat. Free-line one to the bottom, then rip it upward a few feet at a time. Most anglers fish for white bass using light or ultralight fishing combos, but there on Beaver Lake, it’s best to use a sturdy baitcasting outfit, as hybrids up to 3 pounds and more are common and will make a shambles out of smaller fishing gear. Dress warm; weather can turn frigid quickly at this time of year.
Lake Dardanelle Crappie
This honeyhole on the Arkansas River spreads westward from Dardanelle Lock & Dam at Russellville to cover 35,000 acres in five counties. When the dogwoods start blooming in April, crappie begin spawning in shallow, timbered coves and backwaters.
Just a few years ago, shad populations in Dardanelle fell dramatically due to a winter die-off, and crappie, which feed heavily on shad, became less abundant as well. Enough time has now passed that crappie fishing should have greatly improved, making this a must-fish honeyhole for any Arkansas angler who loves targeting these good-eating panfish.
You won’t go wrong fishing live minnows or shad-like jigs around any woody cover you see there: stumps, brushpiles, standing snags, and so on. Dardanelle has lots of fast-breaking rocky structure that attracts crappie as well. Dozens of fish can be caught on spawning beds around gravel-covered points and shallow flats with very little cover at all.
Two excellent crappie-fishing areas are the Spadra Creek and Little Spadra Creek arms south of I-40 at Clarksville. In those areas, you’ll find 5- to 10-foot depths that jump up to 2- and 3-foot flats. Woody cover on those flats attracts crappie that sometimes weigh 2 pounds or more. The Shoal Bay area near New Blaine on Highway 22 provides similar conditions, with loads of crappie-attracting stump flats.
Check out page two for the top spots for Arkansas fishing for May, June, July and August