Get Our Smallmouths While They're Cold
September 24, 2010
January might just be the best month for catching the smallies of Beaver Lake, Bull Shoals and Greers Ferry. All you need is a little expert advice. (January 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
The Natural State offers some of the finest smallmouth bass fishing on the planet in famous moving waters such as the Buffalo National River and local favorites like the Caddo and Eleven Point rivers. But in January, they're not the best places for tussling with the sportiest member of the black bass family. Instead, you'll find more stable temperatures and conditions in reservoirs -- and Arkansas is equally blessed with lakes that are heaven on earth for a smallmouth.
Colton Dennis, who leads the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's statewide black bass program, and his assistant, Kevin Hopkins, point to Beaver Lake, Bull Shoals and Greers Ferry as our top three smallmouth reservoirs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns them all, and they're sizeable enough -- ranging from 28,000 to 40,000-plus acres -- to overwhelm first-timers. Their deep, crystalline waters mandate specialized tactics at any time of year, but winter patterns can be especially challenging.
To help you enjoy these destinations in January, we talked three busy fishing guides into coming ashore long enough for interviews about their home lakes. As each man summarized his years of experience, a set of straightforward steps for locating and catching smallmouths on each lake emerged. With this advice, we believe your January smallmouth fishing will be so hot that you'll forget all about the cold!
As a bonus, we've got an update on the AGFC's efforts to establish a viable smallmouth fishery on Lake Ouachita -- a project with the potential to turn parts of the lake into the state's best smallmouth destination.
An integral link in the chain of White River lakes and tailwaters, Beaver covers 28,000 acres in Carroll and Washington counties.
"The smallmouth population in Beaver has grown sizably during the past few years," said guide Ron Crawford of Rogers, who has fished Beaver for most of his life. "They remain aggressive in cold water, and there's fish all over the lake at that time of year (January)."
Crawford calls Beaver difficult to fish "because it's so big, and there's so very little cover. You have to know how to find fish, read your electronics and the banks, and find and follow riverbeds and bluffs. It all depends on how aggressive people are in trying to learn."
Because smallmouths fancy rocky surroundings over muddy, sandy or silty bottoms, Crawford locates their lairs by spotting small rock and pea gravel ashore.
"Go right up to the face of a bluff and pay special attention to any breaks on the bank where one type of structure changes to another," he said. "That transition always attracts fish."
Beaver's smallmouths scatter in cold weather.
"Early in the year, you're liable to find them in 6 or 8 inches of water, where you can catch them on topwaters around shallow points. Or they can be 20, 30 or 40 feet offshore in little dropoffs or deep water," Crawford explained.
Anglers catch a higher percentage of smallmouths during cold weather, and Crawford often boats the largest specimens of the year when he's bundled up against the cold. He often hauls up hefty smallies that go 3 to 4 1/2 pounds in the winter.
Crawford's favorite winter strategy is a finesse technique that also covers water quickly. "I go after them with a lot of jigs with crawdad trailers," he said. "I want small, heavy jigs that fall fast -- especially when I'm fishing deep water next to bluffs and where the structure changes on the shoreline."
He dresses 9/16- or 5/8-ounce jigs with "a really small skirt to keep the bite small." His experience suggests that appetizer-sized morsels tempt larger fish better than a bulky plate-lunch sized offering will at this time of year.
As Crawford fishes deeper, he chooses lures with darker colors, such as plastic crawfish imitations in purple or black. "After 35 feet deep, it's just plain dark down there, and they can see a darker object better."
In shallower water, lighter-colored lures prevail. To help small, heavy lures fall more quickly, he prefers 6-pound-test line, which he protects with a lightly set drag.
To fish with Crawford, call (479) 925-4266, or e-mail him through his Web site, 4ACrawford.com On Beaver, any smallmouths you keep must be at least 15 inches long, and the combined daily limit of black basses (smallmouths, largemouths and spotted or Kentucky bass) is six.
North Arkansas' Bull Shoals Lake surrendered a 7-pound, 5-ounce state-record smallie almost 40 years ago, but many folks believe that the best smallmouth fishing in the lake's history is under way right now.
"The percentage of smallmouths in the lake is going up, the water is not as stained as it was 10 or 15 years ago and is cleaner and clearer, and that's just perfect habitat for smallmouth bass," said Phillip Stone, who has guided there for years and fished it for many more.
Bull Shoals is another link in the White River chain, with 1,000 miles of shoreline and 45,000 acres of lake that snake through Marion, Baxter and Boone counties and into Missouri. Interpreting how shoreline structure extends into the water is the most important factor in Stone's January fish-finding pattern.
"I'm looking for main-lake pea-gravel points that are adjacent to deeper water," he explained. "The mouths of major creeks and coves are good places to start. Pass over these areas with your electronics and look for balls of shad. They'll often be 20 to 25 feet deep, depending on the weather and the lake level."
When he locates baitfish, Stone's first option is a 1/2-ounce chrome jigging spoon. "In winter, fish are lethargic, so you don't want to work it real hard," he warned. "I'll just barely bounce it below a school of shad."
If spoons don't ring the dinner bell, Stone anchors at 45-degree angle to shore and fan-casts rocky areas with a 5-inch single-tail grub on a jig. He usually counts down to 15 before initiating a slow, steady retrieve.
If the fish eschew grubs, the next option is a 7/16-ounce Eakins jig with a twin-tail brown and purple trailer -- a traditional color combination that old-timers have used for decades. Stone fishes them at a snail
's pace on a gravel or rock bottom.
On mild January or February days "with a warm south wind and some cloud cover, the bass move into the shallows to feed, and I'll use the old style Wiggle Wart in a red or green crawfish pattern," Stone said. He retrieves slowly with 6- to 8-pound test line and bonks rocks with the jig to gain attention.
His other tactic for bluebird winter days is an ultra-slow stick bait presentation that attracts a high-quality bite instead of rapid-fire strikes from dinky fish.
"I use a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 stick bait in Chartreuse Shad color," Stone explained. "I back the boat into 20 to 25 feet of water, get it at a 45-degree angle, work the bait down quickly, and then let it sit."
Stone's favorite weighs 5/8 of an ounce, dives to a depth of 4-5 feet and suspends there. "I'll let it sit 30 seconds and twitch it once, then let it sit for another 30 seconds," he said with a laugh, admitting that few have the patience for this tactic. "Sometimes I let it sit there close to a minute. It's winter, the water's cold, and the fish take longer to move. They know they want it, but it takes them longer to go get it. Watch your line for the telltale kick, or you'll see it swimming off sideways. Ninety-eight percent of the time, they hit it when it's still, and nine times out of 10, it'll be a 2-, 2 1/2- or 3-pound smallmouth."
Any smallmouths harvested from Bull Shoals must be at least 15 inches, and the combined daily limit of black bass is six. If the Missouri stretches of Bull Shoals (or nearby Norfork or Table Rock) tempt you, consider buying a $10 White River border lakes license. It enables you to fish in Missouri without a Missouri nonresident license, and you don't have to worry about crossing over the invisible state line. Of course, you must follow all of Missouri's regulations and limits when you venture northward out of Arkansas waters.
Stone focuses on black bass, crappie and white bass on Bull Shoals and Table Rock and goes for trout in Missouri's Taneycomo tailwater. Call him in Harrison at (870) 741-2029 or view details on the Stone's Guide Service Web site, OzarksFishin.com
This 33,000-acre lake in north-central Arkansas' Cleburne County is about as fine a fishing hole as you'll find anywhere. Fishermen have taken world records for walleye and hybrid striped bass there, but the lake is home to just about every warmwater game fish -- including a feisty population of smallmouth bass.
The lake's vast reaches can have newcomers catching flies with mouths agape in awe, but "if a man can learn to catch bass on Greers Ferry on a daily basis, he can go anywhere in the country and catch fish easily," said fishing guide Tommy Cauley of Bee Branch.
At this time of year, he stalks smallmouths with simple techniques that he has refined over a dozen years of guiding and four decades of fishing Greers Ferry for his own enjoyment.
"As long as the weather's not crazy, I concentrate on bluffs and bluff ends in January," Cauley said.
His favorite bait is a jighead worm rigged with a 1/8-ounce Rite Bite jig ("the one with the eye turned sideways") and a 4-inch watermelon-colored Senko worm.
"I don't know that it's the best color, but it works for me," he said. "Every angler has his own colors that he likes. But if you'll narrow it down to two translucent colors for sunny days and two dark, non-translucent colors when it's cloudy, that's all you need. You'll become confident in them. Most people make fishing more complicated that it needs to be."
In the westernmost arm of the lake in Van Buren County, Cauley recommends the bluffs from Point 14 to Bailey Hollow, around Thompson Creek and every side of the lake's signature landmark, Sugar Loaf Mountain. Other upper-lake bluffs bracket the mouth of the Middle Fork of the Little Red River (accessed from the Corps' Hill Creek ramp) and where the Devil's Fork of the river feeds the lake.
The aptly-named Narrows, lined with fishable bluffs, separates the upper and lower lake. To fish here, launch at Lacey's Narrows Marina on state highway 92/16 near the Greers Ferry community.
On the lower lake, which lies entirely in western Cleburne County, Cauley suggests Salt Creek to Miller's Point (main lake point 6), including the area surrounding the point, and Rocky Branch and Drip Creek, accessed from ramp in the Corps' Cherokee campground southwest of Drasco. Smallmouths also haunt the bluffs around Erin Branch, Little Peter and Big Peter creeks, Spring Hollow and Robinson Hollow, Cauley says. Any standing timber is always worth a few casts, too.
Bluff ends are important, because steep dropoffs near shore enable "fish to come up and sun and move easily from deep to shallow water and find comfortable temperatures," Cauley said. "They're actually relating to little points under the water that no one can see."
Because his jig-and-worm combination sinks a foot per second, it's easy to count down to the depth where they "get bit" when Cauley searches with them. He carries a permanent marker in a handy pocket and marks his fishing line to indicate the depth of that first strike so he can return to the spot by watching the line rather than counting. When the jig bite fades, Cauley slow-rolls spinnerbaits at the same fish.
When finicky smallies force another strategy, Cauley checks the fishfinder for activity in 40 to 60 feet of water. He Carolina-rigs a dark lizard or Senko worm and creeps it across chunk rock bottoms to fetch fish from subtle points that go unseen from the topside. In the future, he hopes to experiment with a float-and-fly rig, which presents trout or smallmouth flies at very precise depths under a float that serves as a strike indicator and provides enough weight for casting on light gear.
To learn more about Cauley's Fish Finder Service at Bee Branch, check out his Web site at www.greersferry. com/members/fishfinder. He specializes in black bass, hybrid stripers and walleyes. Greers Ferry keepers must be at least 12 inches; the statewide daily limit of four is in effect.
AT LAKE OUACHITA
Smallmouths are native to Lake Ouachita's namesake river, which was dammed in 1955 to cover parts of Garland and Montgomery counties with more than 40,000 acres of water. Smallies have never been a major factor here, but the AGFC is working hard to build a robust, self-supporting population.
"About 10 years ago, several pro anglers who live around Hot Springs and some of the locals asked us about establishing a smallmouth fishery in Lake Ouachita," recalled the AGFC's Colton Dennis. "We started the project in 1996 by stocking Ouachita-strain smallmouth yearlings that were 5 to 6 inches long from Point 1 to Blakely Dam."
More young smallmouths go into this 1,200- to 1,300-acre arm of the lake each year.
Fisheries biologist Stuart
Wooldridge said the area has "the boulders, gravel and clear water habitat that's good for smallmouths."
A couple of years ago, the project switched to faster-growing Tennessee bronzebacks that thrive in reservoirs, and they seem to be a better fit.
The long-term plan calls for stocking at least 100,000 smallmouths per year for five consecutive years. However, reproduction at the AGFC's Lake Hamilton hatchery was spotty until the Tennessee broodstock finally reached reproductive maturity last year. Then, almost a quarter-million little smallmouths were stocked with help from the Arkansas Black Bass Coalition. Hopkins and Dennis believe that the broodstock now has a better chance of meeting the annual stocking goals.
Dennis emphasized that all the smallmouths stocked into Ouachita absolutely do not constitute a put-and-take fishery like those for other game fish, such as rainbow trout.
"We've got strict catch-and-release regulations on these fish on the whole lake to help them reach reproductive size in two or three years," Dennis explained. "We're trying to establish these fish as broodstock in the lake for the long-term, not to just stock it for anglers to harvest fish. We have a really large hatchery system, but it's nothing compared to the number of fish that wild fish can produce naturally."
Soon it'll be time for smallmouths in moving water, and you may want a free AGFC fishing guidebook to stay within length and limit rules set for each fishery. They're available from retailers statewide. When asked why so much work goes into smallmouth bass in Arkansas, including the creation and enforcement of such detailed regulations, Wooldridge laughed and shot back: "Are you kidding? Have you ever caught one?"
If you haven't, it's time to tangle with a few. And if you're a smallmouth veteran, you already know the value of these incredible game fish.
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