Top Spots for Natural State Bass

Wherever you turn in Arkansas, noteworthy bass angling is nearby. We spoke with biologists in all parts of the state to determine where the action will be hottest this year.

After 11 interviews, one conclusion jumped out with the certainty a bucket-mouthed bass inhaling an injured shad: Regardless of whether you like to tangle with largemouths, smallmouths or spotted bass, there's plenty of good news in the Arkansas bass outlook for 2005.

The rainy spring season of 2004 created excellent spawning conditions at many lakes through much of the state. After the adult bass did a better-than-average job of making baby bass, they rewarded themselves by gorging on the rich array of foods available in the flooded timber. Thus, biologists confirmed good growth rates on many lakes during the past year.

And the bad news? Really, the only bad news is that we still have the problem of sorting out the best places to cast our lures as we choose from 600,000 acres of lakes and more than 9,700 miles of rivers and streams. Fortunately, the fisheries experts who know our bass fishing waters inside-out were willing to provide this annual report on the state of bass fishing in the Natural State.

NORTHWEST CORNER

District 1 covers Benton, Carroll, Washington and Madison counties in the fast-growing northwestern corner of the state. Thanks to high water levels during recent spring seasons, the bass (and everything else with fins) in Beaver Lake are growing fast, too.

"High water means more surface area, which leads to better survivability for young fish, and there's more cover and food in flooded timber," explained Clinton Ricker, a fisheries technician for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

This 28,000-acre lake will continue to be reliable this year. For anglers with physical challenges, Ricker recommended the Prairie Creek access on Beaver Lake, which accommodates wheelchairs and includes nearby fish-attracting structures.

"Lake Elmdale has bass of good size and numbers of fish," Ricker said, bragging on this 200-acre jewel in northwestern Washington County. "We shocked up a 10-pound bass three years ago, and anglers frequently catch 6- and 7-pound fish there," he said.

Ricker also recommended Lake Fayetteville and Lake Bob Kidd in Washington County, where studies show good bass populations in addition the well-known crappie fisheries.

NORTH-CENTRAL

"The bass up here are probably growing as fast as northern-strain largemouth bass can grow," reported Mark Oliver, the biologist in charge of District 2 in north-central Arkansas, which includes lakes Bull Shoals and Norfork.

"In 2002, we had extremely high water and good spawns for largemouth bass. Plus, we had a huge amount of nutrients that washed into the lake and helped to produce forage for them. It's as good as I've ever seen it, and I've been here 24 years."

Oliver rated both lakes equally for 2005. "We're seeing lots of 3- to 5-pound fish and anglers always catch some 6- to 7-pound fish, which are big fish in this district," he said.

Because these U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes and nearby Table Rock Lake also stretch into Missouri, consider buying a border lakes license, which covers both states. "For $10, you get 59,000 more acres to fish," Oliver said, "and Missouri people get 51,000 acres of some of the best fishing in the world. It's a great deal.

"Smallmouths are going really good. In 2003, we still had nutrients left in the lakes from the high water of 2002, and we got good growth on smallmouths."

In the late 1990s, many anglers won bass tournaments with stringers of smallmouths, and there's no reason to expect that trend to change.

NORTHEAST CORNER

"Lake Hogue is our best-balanced lake," said biologist Sam Henry, who works in District 3. Those who hadn't heard of the 280-acre lake may have seen headlines last summer as the state record for tilapia, an imported panfish, was broken at Lake Hogue at least four times. Lake Hogue lies within the AGFC's Earl Buss/Bayou DeView WMA in western Poinsett County.

In recent years, Lake Charles has been swamped with undersized bass — and it still is, to a degree. "While we were taking samples for largemouth bass virus testing (in the fall of 2004), we were pleasantly surprised," Henry said. "The bass were bigger than in the past, and their condition looked good."

If you're hungry for a fish dinner, do yourself and Henry a favor and keep your limit of small bass from Lake Charles — he needs for anglers to thin the ranks of smaller fish, which will decrease competition for limited forage and enable more bass to grow larger.

Lake Poinsett, in Poinsett State Park near Harrisburg, is chock-full of bass in the 11- to 14-inch range, and a few are starting to look downright skinny, Henry said. Keep your limit there, too.

Lake Ashbaugh (northwestern Greene County) was renovated in 2002, and, unfortunately, a vandal apparently reintroduced yellow bass to the lake. You might want to give Ashbaugh's largemouths, which are catch-and-release only, another year or two to grow up.

Mallard Lake carries a big-fish reputation but seems to be in the midst of changes. "Yellow bass have showed up again, and it's as green as a gourd right now, and extremely fertile," Henry said. Only time will tell whether the lake can handle the influx of yellow bass, which are harmless in some waters and as destructive as pollution in others.

WESTERN REGION

In District 9, Lake Dardanelle, a pool of the Arkansas River, is the major bass-fishing destination. It holds a few big bass and plenty of average-sized fish.

"Dardanelle is the best place for big fish in this district," said fisheries biologist Frank Leone. "There's been an upward trend in our catch per unit of effort (a measure of electrofishing success) the last three years."

If you like heart-pounding action, Pool 9 of the Arkansas River, just downstream from Dardanelle, is your spot — for spotted bass. "There are excellent numbers of spotted bass in that pool," Leone said. "You can go out and catch 10 to 30 spotted bass on a consistent basis. There are lots of fish in the 12-inch range."

Seven out of every 10 bass in Pool 9 will be spotted bass, but no one will be complaining as long as these feisty fish continue to readily take lures and bait.

The Florida-strain largemouths stocked into Lake Atkins (southern Pope County) after it was renovated in 2002 "are achieving outstanding growth rates," Leone said. "The numbers appear to be good, and we have fish that are 13 or 14 inches long in 1 1/2 years." A new 15-inch minimum-length limit will protect most of the bass there this year.

Leone also mentioned good reports from anglers on Lake Hinkle, a 960-acre AGFC lake in southern Scott County, where the bass likely benefited from a drawdown in 2003. Low water tends to concentrate predator fish with their prey, allowing them to grow quickly.

CENTRAL ARKANSAS

"Harris Brake would be my first choice for bass," said Carl Perrin, who began his 35th year of stewardship over the fisheries in central Arkansas's District 10 in February. "We put 1,000 tons of lime in there during a two-year period to raise the pH, and it seems to have made a tremendous difference."

Adding lime is just one of several improvements the AGFC instituted after forming a special citizens' committee. Perrin noted that during the past few years, the lake went from having a low bass population with almost all big bass to high numbers of fish and a good balance of sizes.

For trophy hunters, Perrin recommended Barnett Lake in western White County. Formed from an inundated canyon, this quirky lake, Perrin said, "year in and year out produces 10-pound fish."

Greers Ferry, like many other Corps reservoirs, benefited from high water in the spring of 2004. "Spotted bass reproduction was particularly good, and the smallmouths look good, too. The largemouths from the spawn in 2002 will be in the 12- to 15-inch range, and in good numbers," Perrin said.

When Perrin and assistant biologist Tom Bly sampled Pool 7 of the Arkansas River last year, they found better numbers of bass, particularly in the Toadsuck and Palarm Creek areas.

Add Pulaski County fisheries biologist Clifton Jackson to the list of folks who believe that fishing on the Arkansas River will improve next year. In the Little Rock pool, he said, "there's been a total turnaround as far as having a good base of 2-pound fish goes."

While many tournament anglers pass through multiple locks after launching from the ramp near ALLTEL Arena in North Little Rock, Jackson recommended staying within sight of the capital city's skyline.

"Lots of fishermen catch lots of fish in other pools, but they all come back there to weigh their fish in. Research done in other states suggests that bass don't go very far after they've been released, so I might stay right around ALLTEL arena," Jackson said with a laugh.

Lake Maumelle, west of Little Rock, still brims with undersized largemouth and spotted bass, but not many sizeable fish. With its clear, infertile water and lack of structure, its capacity for producing forage is limited. It takes bass several years to reach the 10- to 12-inch range, where their growth then seems to stall. "But it has a good number of bass for the kind of lake that it is," Jackson said.

EASTERN ARKANSAS

Beautiful scenery in the St. Francis National Forest is a bonus for bass fishermen who give Bear Creek Lake a try this year. Biologist Jeff Farwick rates the 625-acre U.S. Forest Service lake as the best bass fishery in District 4. "Bear Creek Lake has a 13- to 16-inch slot and a good population of fish over 16 inches long. You're going to catch a fair number of 16- to 18-inch bass there," he said.

For fast action and the chance to fill a very generous 10-bass stringer, Farwick recommended Lake Austelle in Village Creek State Park (southern Cross County). Late last year, he said, the AGFC planned to change its 16- to 21-inch slot (with a four-fish limit) to a 13- to 16-inch slot with a 10-fish daily limit.

"Small fish are stockpiling in the lake due to competition for limited food sources, and we want to get those numbers down, so we need the fishermen to help us," he said. "Of course, there's still an occasional lunker out there."

Nearby 65-acre Lake Dunn, also in the state park, is still capable of surrendering bass in the 8-pound range, as is Austelle.

OUACHITA MOUNTAINS

Lake Ouachita should continue to be one of the state's most popular and reliable bass fisheries in 2005, despite a slight decline in the numbers and size of bass. The big news this year is the new 13-inch minimum-length limit, which went into effect Jan. 1.

"The 13- to 16-inch slot had been on there for 10 years, and we didn't produce the fish we wanted to, so this change should allow enhanced growth for larger fish," fisheries biologist Brett Hobbs explained.

For a chance at outsized bass in his district, Hobbs recommended Lake Catherine — "old as the hills and kind of an underdog," as he described it. "But," he continued, "it's a fairly consistent producer of 6- to 8-pound bass with the possibility for bigger fish. It doesn't have the Ouachita Mountains in the background or the undeveloped shoreline that so many people seem to like, but there's plenty of laydowns, and it's a good lake."

Catherine lies southeast of Hot Springs in Garland and Hot Spring counties.

Hobbs expects DeGray Lake, a Corps reservoir in Clark and Hot Spring counties, to provide fast action from a strong population of young bass. "An 11- to 13-inch bass in good condition will fatten up pretty nice," he said, encouraging anglers to keep a limit and help manage the bass by harvesting enough to allow others to grow up.

SOUTH ARKANSAS

The AGFC's investment in Florida-strain bass planted in the warm waters of south Arkansas continues to pay off handsomely.

Anglers take a few 10- or 11-pounders from 3,000-acre Lake Columbia (western Columbia County) and l

ower White Oak Lake (1,200 acres, western Ouachita County) each year. These two lakes continue to top biologist Don Turman's list of trophy destinations in District 6. "Upper White Oak has more vegetation and lily pads and is doing about as well as our trophy lakes without being managed like a trophy lake," he explained.

The 800-acre reservoir produces outsized largemouths without the 16- to 21-inch slot that appears to be an important factor at both Columbia and lower White Oak.

For those looking to catch larger numbers of fish as opposed to focusing on larger individual fish, Turman recommended the Ouachita River and lakes within the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in parts of Ashley, Bradley and Union counties. Lake Jack Lee is the largest and best-known of the lakes within the refuge.

The key to fishing these highly-vegetated lakes consists in understanding seasonal changes in oxygen levels, Turman said. The bass head to the deeper, clearer water when oxygen levels get lean in the summer. In the fall and winter, when oxygen levels rise, fishing can be excellent.

The bass population in Calion Lake (northern Union County, near El Dorado) also has taken an upward swing in recent years, providing lots of action from small bass.

SOUTHWEST CORNER

Fishermen head to District 7 year after year because Millwood Lake is one of the most reliable lakes in the state. "It's perennially good," said biologist Les Claybrook.

The AGFC has maximized Millwood's potential by stocking Florida-strain bass. "Tissue samples show that 80 percent of the bass have Florida genes — at least one gene — which means we've actually altered the gene pool on this lake," Claybrook said. Unfortunately, siltation threatens spawning environments in the same way that silt clogs portions of Lake Conway and the Arkansas River.

If you're after fast action from cooperative bass and a good setting for teaching kids to fish, Claybrook would send you to the lakes within the Rick Evans Grandview Prairie WMA. The 4,885-acre WMA offers two small lakes where Claybrook has caught bass up to 7 pounds. Spotted bass are becoming the featured species on DeQueen Lake, where there are a lot of fish, and some nice ones, according to Claybrook.

SOUTHEAST CORNER

Bass in the 12- and 13-pound class were almost common on Drew County's Lake Monticello during the 1990s. While the 1,500-acre lake is no longer red-hot, it's still producing occasional bass up to 10 pounds, according to biologist Diana Andrews. "It's not uncommon for us to get several 5-pounders while we're electrofishing. The population density and condition of the fish are good."

As for Lake Chicot in Chicot County, "(It) doesn't have as many big fish, but 3-pounders are common," Andrews reported. Shad and bream provide a solid forage base, and Chicot is, she added, "very productive, because it receives a lot of agricultural run-off, which makes it fertile."

She also recommended the new Morgan Point Bendway Lake near Pendleton, a 7-mile waterway constructed in 1999, which is refreshed by flooding from the nearby Arkansas River each year. "We've heard nothing but good reports from there, and we always see plenty of fish," she said.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The AGFC's Arkansas Outdoor Atlas shows all the public facilities on every fishery mentioned in this article and many more. You can buy one for $18 with a credit card by calling 1-800-364-GAME.

G&F

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