Arkansas' World-Class Hybrid Action

If you're looking for fishing action that can truly be described as world-class, look no further than the Natural State's hybrid bass fisheries. These five hotspots are out of this world!

Lake Hamilton was glassy at first light that June morning, but we knew it wouldn't stay that way when the ski-boaters and joyriders woke up and hit the lake. But for the time being those folks were still in bed, and we were taking advantage of the moment. Three boats besides ours were sitting quietly around the point, the occupants occasionally making small talk as the mist rose from the water and the eastern sky went from pink to red to pink again. Everybody had a casting rod close to hand, but nobody was doing any casting.

"It's getting to be about that time," Dice Harrington said as he bumped the trolling motor to keep the boat parallel to the shoreline. "They've been breaking right about sunrise for the past week or so."

On cue, the water behind him erupted in a sudden sprinkle of shad. As the small baitfish dropped back into the water, a series of energetic swirls rippled on the surface. Hearing the commotion, Dice whirled around to reach for his rod, but I was already facing that way with my rod in my hand, and that gave me a two-second advantage. My crankbait landed in the worried water just as Dice drew back to make a cast, and before his lure hit the water I'd hooked my first-ever hybrid striped bass: It felt like I'd foul-hooked a small submarine.

Dice missed a strike from a fish that slapped his topwater back into the air the second it touched the water, but it didn't matter - another fish was waiting on it when it came back down. A couple of minutes later we boated fish at the same time, released them, and fired new casts back into the water, which by now was alive with feeding hybrids and fleeing baitfish. The other three boats were also casting to and catching hybrids from other parts of the extended school, which - as near as I could tell from the two or three quick glances that I had time to make - stretched for a quarter-mile around the point.

The action wasn't continuous: Every once in a while the schools of bait would manage to get below the marauding hybrids, and the surface would subside into smoothness again. But the lulls never lasted long, and pretty soon there'd be another flurry of activity within casting range. During the next hour - after which the sun started driving both the bait and the hybrids into deeper water - Dice and I caught close to 20 fish between us, none smaller than 4 pounds, none larger than 8. The action was just about over with, anyway, when a careless latecomer came roaring excitedly into the schooling area; his outboard put the fish down for good.

That was more than a dozen years ago. Dice Harrington is gone now, but I haven't forgotten the day he introduced me to the adrenaline rush produced by Arkansas' hybrid striper action. Since that day - thanks to the impression Dice's demonstration made - I've sought and caught these interesting foreigners in almost every corner of the state.

On light tackle, even a small hybrid will put up a battle you won't soon forget. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

AN EXPERIMENT IN FISHING FUN
What most fisheries biologists once thought of as a radical and ill-advised experiment has resulted in Arkansas' anglers now having the opportunity to tangle with hybrids on more than a dozen state waters. It started in the 1960s, when fisheries folks in North Carolina took eggs from female striped bass and fertilized them under controlled hatchery conditions with milt from male white bass. The resulting hybrid fish, like many other hybrid animals, is sterile, so it's a safe candidate for stocking in new waters. Hybrids borrow good characteristics from both parents: They don't get as big as stripers, but they grow faster and are easier to catch, and they get bigger than whites. And they fight like the dickens.

The first Arkansas lake stocked with hybrids was Lake DeGray. In 1975, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists were unable to catch any male striped bass in Lake Maumelle for the agency's annual efforts at propagating striped bass. They'd caught plenty of big females, however, and as they had the eggs available, they caught male white bass and used their milt to fertilize the eggs. Bingo: The AGFC was in the hybrid business, later that year releasing thousands of 2-inch hybrid striper fingerlings in DeGray.

The rest, as they say, is history. The following year, Greers Ferry Lake was stocked in a big way - with more than half a million fingerlings obtained as fry from Georgia. Both DeGray and Greers Ferry are now among the top hybrid striper fisheries in the nation.

Greers Ferry and DeGray aren't the only Arkansas waters offering anglers a shot at trophy-quality hybrids, though. Hybrid striped bass have been stocked in lakes Beaver, Catherine, Charles, Chicot, DeQueen, Fort Smith, Hamilton, Harris Brake, Hinkle, Horseshoe (Crittenden County), Maumelle, Millwood, Neark, Nimrod, Norfork, Shepherd Springs, and Storm Creek; the Little River below Lake Millwood is a hybrid site as well.

No one was sure in those early years if hybrids were suited to Arkansas waters, but it didn't take long for the question to be answered. Only a year after the first stocking, the first state record was established with a 1-pound, 9-ounce fish from DeGray. During the next 12 years the record was broken a total of 24 times by fish from DeGray, Greers Ferry, the Little River and Lake Hamilton. The first 20-pound hybrid came from Greers Ferry in 1988; it weighed in at 11 ounces past that threshold. Eight years later, Bull Shoals yielded a 22-pound, 1-ounce hybrid that was a new state record and is still the line-class world record for 8-pound-test. And on April 24, 1997, Jerald C. Shaum caught a hybrid from Greers Ferry that pulled the scales down to 27 pounds, 5 ounces and still stands as the all-tackle world record hybrid striper.

Although many bass fishermen believe hybrids are heavy predators on small largemouths and compete with largemouths for available food, this simply isn't the case. Hybrids are open-water fish, while bass are cover-oriented. Studies in Arkansas and elsewhere have proved again and again that 85 to 95 percent of the hybrid striper's diet is made up of shad. If you want to catch hybrids, then, the first two clues are obvious: Fish open water, and use something that looks like a shad.

Here's a run-down on some of the better waters for your getting into big hybrids:

BEAVER LAKE
This 28,000-acre highland lake has never produced a state-record hybrid, but there are lots of big fish here anyway. The unofficial lake record is held by a fish that weighed more than 20 pounds, and several fish in the 15-pound range are taken each year.

At Bea

ver, a long, relatively narrow lake with many coves and arms, hybrids join with white bass to form large schools that in summer roam the open water in search of shad. The most consistent action is at dawn and sunset, but on heavily overcast days, they may appear on top at any time. Most of the schooling takes place near creek mouths and in open water near the dam, but sporadic activity can be found practically anywhere.

The best tactic involves patrolling open-water areas early and late in the day; look for schooling fish, approach them, and cast. An area in which you find them schooling will usually be good on subsequent days as well. For your best chance at finding schooling fish, stick to the lower (northern) half of the lake and cruise the edge of the main channels, running from point to point and island to island until you happen upon your quarry.

The closest town with motel accommodations is Eureka Springs, but there are campgrounds and rental lodging facilities on the lake itself. Lost Bridge, Indian Creek and Starkey public-use areas in eastern Benton County and two boat ramps at the dam in western Carroll County (all accessible off Highway 62 and/or Highway 187 west of Eureka Springs) provide access to the best schooling waters.

In addition to artificials, live shad and shiners are also effective for Beaver Lake hybrids outside the normal schooling times. Locate schools of suspended fish near the schooling sites during the brighter hours of the day; then use a balloon to float a shiner or shad to them, making sure to tie it around the line at the proper distance to get the bait down.

BULL SHOALS LAKE
Although it's not thought of as a hybrid striper lake, Bull Shoals does have some big ones, as was evidenced by the 22-pound, 1-ounce fish it gave up in 1996. They're hard to find, though, because of the lake's size and depth. Bull Shoals' hybrids are mostly mixed in with whites and stripers. Thus, if you see a school of fish breaking on top in the summer, it's probably composed of white bass for the most part, with some hybrids tagging along; if you find a school of big fish suspended in the summer, it's probably made up chiefly of stripers, with a few hybrids swimming among them.

This makes fishing for hybrids something a hit-and-miss proposition at the Bull: You may be fishing right in the middle of them and catch nothing but whites or stripers. Still, it's worth the effort, because most of the hybrids caught from this lake are good ones - from 6 to 8 pounds on up. Small surface and shallow-running lures fished for the whites will take the hybrids schooling with them, and deep-trolled crankbaits, spoons, spinners and jigs will fool hybrids suspending along with the stripers.

One hybrid-fishing method that shows promise on Bull Shoals is the use of live bait (shiners or shad) at night under lights along the rock cliffs and in the open water near the dam. Lights attract insects and underwater plankton, which attract minnows, which attract larger predator fish. Hook a shiner or shad through the eyes or lips and fish it at depths varying from about 20 feet to 50 feet or so until you begin drawing strikes. You'll catch crappie, white bass, trout and walleyes, but there's nothing wrong with that. And the next bite might be from a 20-pound hybrid.

Do most of your fishing within a few miles of the dam for the best summer hybrid action on Bull Shoals. Lakeview and Howard Creek ramps off Highway 178 at Lakeview on the Baxter County side of the dam, and Point Return and Dam Site ramps on the Marion County side in the town of Bull Shoals provide good access to the lower lake.

LAKE DeGRAY
As they do on Beaver, DeGray hybrids school in open water with white bas. The best fishing is to be had during low-light conditions. Most of the summertime action takes place near the dam and around the islands between Iron Mountain and the DeGray State Park Lodge.

The best technique to use on these schooling fish? Patience. They usually school and break in the same general area, so it's best to get there before you think the action is going to start and be there when it happens. Have several rods ready and rigged with various lures; spoons, diving crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, topwaters, jig-and-spinner combinations and other shad-imitating lures are all good. Since these are open-water fish, hangups aren't usually a problem, so keep the drags set light enough so the fish can take line rather than break off.

Sit quietly and wait for the action to begin, and cast to the edges of the feeding school. If you're too far away to reach the fish, it's best to approach with a trolling motor if possible, to minimize the chance of spooking the fish. If they're too far away, keep your outboard speed down and try not to push a wake. When the school goes down, you might pick up some fish with the underwater lures, but usually the best bet is simply to get everything ready again for the next spate of surface activity.

Several launch ramps in the lower half of the lake are within easy striking range of the best schooling sites. DeGray State Park and DeRoche Ridge landings are accessible off Highway 7 on the north side of the lake about 12 miles north of Arkadelphia, and there's a ramp at the dam spillway on the south side of the lake also off Highway 7.

GREERS FERRY LAKE
That world-record fish from five years ago had some age-classmates, and it's likely that a few still swim this lake. In addition to the standard wait-and-cast method employed when going after schooling fish early and late in the day, many Greers Ferry hybrid chasers fish at night with large (8-inch to 10-inch) gizzard shad. The usual rig is a circle hook or Kahle hook run through the lips of the shad, which is fished straight down with a 1-ounce egg sinker to hold it at the thermocline (usually about 18 to 20 feet). The usual tackle is a 7-foot medium-action baitcasting rod with 20-pound line.

The best summertime schooling action for Greers Ferry hybrids is in and near the Narrows. For night-fishing with live shad, anchor near but outside of standing submerged timber. Launch at the Narrows landing off Highway 16 to get to the Narrows. The best access to the fishing on the lower end of the upper section of the lake is at Devil's Fork, off Highway 16. For fishing the upper part of the lower lake, put in at Shiloh Landing off Highway 110. Motels, restaurants and campgrounds are available in and near the town of Greers Ferry.

STORM CREEK LAKE
On the south end of Crowley's Ridge, only a mile or two from the West Helena city limits, lies Storm Creek Lake, the smallest of Arkansas' hybrid striper waters - 420 acres - and the only one in eastern Arkansas. Size notwithstanding, it's home to a healthy hybrid striper population, a respectable percentage of which are in the 10-pound range. There are even some fish approaching 20 pounds.

Hybrids do sometimes school on Storm Creek, but most of them are caught by anglers trolling at depths of 12 to 20 feet with deep-diving, shad-imitating crankbaits. The greater part of the action with both schooling and deep-holding fish comes early and late. The most-likely fish-holding places are off th

e points and on the flats near the old submerged channel of Storm Creek near the dam.

To reach Storm Creek Lake, take Highway 242 north from West Helena and enter the St. Francis National Forest; then follow the road to the lake. Primitive camping is allowed throughout the forest, and motels are available less than 10 miles away in Helena.

* * *
There are worse ways to spend an early-summer morning than sitting quietly over a known hybrid bass schooling ground as you wait with casting arm cocked for that first swirl to mark the glassy surface. A lunker hybrid on a light-action rod can get your undivided attention, and the experience is well worth the bother of getting up early to get out there when other, saner folk are still in bed. Try it this summer and see for yourself.



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