Arkansas 2007 Bass Forecast

Although drought has hampered the action in some areas of the Natural State, the overall picture for our bass fishery looks pretty good for the current year. (March 2007)

Photo By Jeff Christopher

The 1 million resident and non-resident anglers who fish Arkansas waters this spring should have no trouble finding abundant largemouth bass, including some real whoppers.

"The Arkansas largemouth bass population remains relatively robust and stable," said Colton Dennis, coordinator of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's black-bass program. "Fishing conditions should stay about the same or slightly improve in the state. In 2003, a person needed to fish 1,052 hours to catch a 5-pound or larger bass. In 2005, that number dropped to 487 hours."

Many biologists credit stockings of Florida bass in several Arkansas lakes for increasing the amount of big bass. Because Florida bass cannot tolerate extremely cold temperatures, most stockings occur in the southern half of Arkansas. Consequently, the lakes in the southern part of the state typically produce the most and largest bass each year.

"We've stocked more than 1.2 million black bass each year since 2002 into approximately 40 different water bodies throughout the state," Dennis said. "Some of those waters include Chicot, Columbia, Monticello, Millwood, Lower White Oak, Atkins, Bois d'Arc, DeGray, Erling, Gurdon, Mercer Bayou and Greenlee. We will continue introducing Florida largemouth bass into the Brushy Creek arm of Lake DeGray to evaluate the effectiveness of this stocking technique in an effort to establish Florida genes into the bass population."

With good populations of Florida bass, Lake Monticello, a 1,520-acre impoundment near the town of Monticello, continues to produce outstanding catches, with plenty of largemouths in the 5- to 10-pound range and some bigger ones. State biologists began an age and growth study of largemouth bass to determine if the reservoir needs any regulation changes. Currently anglers may keep four bass per day, but only one of those fish may exceed 21 inches in length; every fish between 16 and 21 inches must be released.

"We have no regulation changes planned for 2007, but we are studying to see if we need to make any changes," said Jeremy Risley, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Monticello. "Lake Monticello is probably the hottest lake in Arkansas for producing big bass. It's also a good numbers lake. There are plenty of slot fish in the 3- to 7-pound range that people must release."

In southwestern Arkansas, near Ashdown, Lake Millwood also produces large numbers and big bass. Opened in 1966, the 29,200-acre lake contains abundant standing timber and thick vegetation. The lake regularly produces bass in the 8- to 12-pound range, with some larger ones. Anglers frequently catch bass in the 3- to 5-pound range.

"Lakes Monticello and Millwood continue to improve and are the best places to go for the chance of catching trophy-sized bass," Dennis said. "Both receive annual Florida largemouth bass stockings. The introduction of Florida bass with appropriate regulations has helped produce older, larger bass, especially in Millwood, Monticello and Lake Columbia."

The regulations for Lake Columbia, a 3,000-acre impoundment near Magnolia, changed to increase the harvest of small bass. Previously, anglers could keep four bass per day, but none between 16 and 21 inches. Anglers could keep one bass over 21 inches per day. As of Jan. 1, 2007, anglers may keep eight bass per day, but none between 16 and 18 inches long. People can keep up to three bass exceeding 18 inches long per day.

"Lake Columbia has been one of the best trophy bass lakes in the state, but it dropped off a bit in the last couple of years," said Jason Olive, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Camden. "We did an in-depth study of the bass population and found that the growth rates weren't where they needed to be. There are many fish stacked up in the 18- to 21-inch range. If we thin the population of 18- to 21-inch bass a bit, we might see more 10-pounders in a year or two."

Severe drought affected many other lakes throughout Arkansas during the summer and fall of 2006. In the long run, a drought can help. Baked portions of lakebeds crack and release nutrients. Terrestrial grasses grow on the dry mud. When high water returns, these plants die, releasing more nutrients into the waters.

In addition, a drought concentrates fish into smaller areas, making them easier to catch. Predators find easier prey in the limited remaining water, eating many rough fish. A drought followed by a spring flood can produce an excellent spawn. When waters rise, spawning fish find more cover in newly inundated habitat and face less competition from other fish.

Aided by the drought, the state conducted a partial drawdown of the 6,700-acre Lake Conway, a popular bass lake in central Arkansas. Normally the stumpy, weedy lake averages about 6 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 18 feet. Previously stocked with Florida bass, the lake can produce bass exceeding 14 pounds.

"Going back to 1976, we've stocked Floridas in Lake Conway about every three to four years," said Carl Perrin, an AGFC biologist in Mayflower. "We drew it down in the fall of 2006 to do some work on the shorelines. The lake has about 52 miles of shoreline and contains about 1,500 acres of lily pads."

In the winter of 2005-06, the state drew down Lower White Oak Lake in Ouachita County between Camden and Prescott. Separated by a levee, Upper and Lower White Oak lakes combine for about 2,000 acres. Weeds dominate the upper lake. The 1,200-acre lower lake contains much standing timber. The lakes produced bass exceeding 13 pounds in the past, with each lake harboring some 10-pounders.

"Lower White Oak Lake could have a phenomenal year in 2007," Olive said. "The drawdown released some nutrients from the soil when the lake bottom was exposed for several months. When the water came back up, it flooded vegetation that grew on the lake bottom. It's almost like a new lake situation, so the survival of young bass was incredible in the spring of 2006. It had gobs of 6- to 8-inch bass in the fall of 2006. The forage base also went up, and that helped the bass. People won't catch a lot of monsters in that lake in 2007, but there's a ton of 12- to 15-inch bass."

The 2006 drought negatively affected Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. A weedy, shallow Ouachita River floodplain lake dotted with cypress trees, Felsenthal Pool expands from 15,000 acres to about 36,000 acres during winter flooding. The largest greentree reservoir in the world, Felsenthal Pool can produce double-digit bass. In the spring, anglers often catch five-fish stringers weighing more than 25 pounds.

"The drought of 2006 had a negative effect on Felsenthal NWR and a lot of the oxbow lakes along the Ouachita River," Olive said. "As a floodplain river lake, that system depends on extended spring overflows. We didn't have a good spawn in 2006. That shouldn't hurt much in 2007, but it could hurt two or three years down the road."

The state began studying the feasibility of stocking sterile grass carp into Felsenthal Pool to clear some holes in the plant coverage. During the summer, as much as 90 percent of the lake contains matted vegetation. If the experiment works, they might stock more carp.

"Over the next couple of years, we're going to experiment with some different vegetation-control measures," Olive said. "We will stock 50 sterile grass carp with radio transmitters into the reservoir. The fear has always been that grass carp might escape into the Ouachita River and go downstream. We'll monitor the movements of those grass carp to see where they go. If they don't leave the reservoir, we might stock more grass carp to control some of the vegetation."

In 2006, the state stocked Florida bass in oxbows along the Ouachita River. In previous years, the AGFC stocked Florida largemouths into the river itself, but these stockings didn't produce the desired effect. Biologists reason that stocking the fish in the backwater "nursery" areas instead of the capricious river might allow Floridas to establish themselves and expand throughout the river system.

State biologists also stocked bass in oxbow lakes along the lower White River in eastern Arkansas. The river and its tributaries generally produce good catches in the summer and fall, when water levels reach the lowest and clearest conditions. Despite the drought, though, hard rains in late September 2006 caused the water to rise 10 feet almost overnight.

"A flood is good for a river," said Jeff Farwick, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Brinkley. "It cleans out the system and recharges it. It refloods and restocks backwaters. Freshly flooded vegetation releases nitrogen and phosphorus -- good fertilizer for water -- when dying. This increases the food supply for small fish; big ones eat the small ones."

Also in eastern Arkansas, 600-acre Bear Creek Lake continues to improve, Farwick said, but Lake Greenlee struggles with muddy conditions and poor spawns. Horseshoe Lake suffered from the drought, reduced to 1,500 acres from about 2,500 by fall 2006. Burnt Cane Lake, a 240-acre oxbow off the St. Francis River in St. Francis County, could use a few more anglers.

In northern Arkansas, the state will conduct several habitat enhancement projects to benefit bass and other fish. With acres of lily pads and thousands of stumps, many lowland lakes don't need habitat help. However, lakes in the rugged Ozark and Ouachita Mountains typically run deep with clear water and little or no cover for fish except rocks and bottom structure. To help fish in these lakes, the state acquired two "habitat barges" to transport trees, stumps and rootwads. The state loads the barges with wood obtained from the shorelines and sinks the debris into deeper water to create more fish habitat.

"In 2006, the AGFC received its second habitat barge," Dennis said. "The first barge was donated by Bass Pro Shops and is shared on our northern border lakes at Beaver, Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfork with the Missouri Department of Conservation. The second barge in the southwest part of the state will be used primarily on Lakes Greeson, DeQueen, Dierks, Gillham, DeGray and Ouachita. This effort is greatly needed on older U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes, which have lost a lot of their woody debris and standing timber throughout the years."

The state also began projects to establish more aquatic vegetation in clear mountainous lakes such as Bull Shoals, Greeson and Greers Ferry, Dennis said. Biologists put vegetation on some muddy flats and surround these grass patches with cages to keep animals from eating the grass. Once the vegetation sprouts and seeds spread into surrounding areas, the grass should provide nursery cover that might enable young bass to survive their first few months.

Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes should produce good catches in 2007, said Ken Shirley, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Mountain Home. Bass spawned in the excellent spring of 2002 should reach good sizes this year. People should catch plenty of fish in the 16- to 18-inch range.

"Since 2002, reproduction has been going down, so the populations have declined in Bull Shoals and Norfolk," Shirley said. "I'd say that 2006 was probably better than 2007 will be, but the fishing should still be pretty good. Norfolk will probably be a little better than Bull Shoals, but populations will be quite similar. We put 400 fish attractors on Bull Shoals and 200 on Norfork. These were built with hundreds of large trees, some up to 18 inches in diameter. We cut trees along the shoreline and stacked them about 100 yards along the bottom contour in about 20 to 25 feet of water. We started the attractors in the late 1980s and replenish about a quarter of the trees each year."

In northeast Arkansas, Beaver Lake had excellent spawning conditions in 2002 and 2004, which created exceptional year-classes. Survivors from those year-classes grew and now produce some excellent catches, said Ron Moore, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Rogers.

Moore also recommended SWEPCO Lake, a 500-acre cooling lake for a power plant in Benton County. With warm water from the power plant, the lake remains mild even during the coldest winters. The warm water discharge allows Florida bass to survive despite the chilly winter climate in the mountains of northern Arkansas.

"SWEPCO Lake has about 25 percent pure Floridas with about 50 percent of the fish having some Florida genes as hybrids with native northern largemouths," Moore said. "It's always been an excellent bass lake and a good trophy lake, but in the early 1990s, it lost the threadfin shad and the bass population crashed. We closed the lake to harvest until it gradually came back. Now, people could catch 15 to 50 bass a day with each one ranging from 1 to 3 pounds.

"In the past couple of years, the conditions of fish started to go down because we've had an overabundance of bass. Without anyone harvesting the fish, it has more bass than the carrying capacity of the lake."

Since Jan. 1, 2007, anglers may keep 10 bass with no minimum size per day. Each angler may keep only one bass per day longer than 18 inches. The lake contains a sizeable population of 17- to 20-inch fish. Some skinny bass weighing about 7 pounds could weigh more than 10 under more favorable conditions.

Anglers fishing Mallard Lake must keep fewer fish: only one bass a day with a minimum size of 21 inches. In 1976, the 300-acre reservoir near Big Lake Wildlife Management Area Lake produced the state record, a 16.25-pound fish caught by Aaron Mardis. However, Mallard Lake hasn't produced any huge fish in a while, although it can still produce some 7-pounders, said Sam Barkley, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Jonesboro.

"We are going to a much more conservative harvest on Mallard Lake because historica

lly, the lake has had problems with fish growing into the medium size," Barkley said. "We heavily stock the lake with fingerlings, but they are just not growing to intermediate sizes. The lake has some big fish, but just not a lot of them."

In 2002, the state completely drained 752-acre Lake Atkins to renovate it. After fertilization and restocking with Florida bass, it reopened to fishing in 2003, said Frank Leone, an AGFC fisheries biologist in nearby Russellville. Now, it produces bass exceeding 6 pounds.

Arkansas sportsmen should also find good catches of bass at Greers Ferry Lake, Lake Ouachita, Lake Dardanelle, Lake DeGray, Lake Hamilton, Lake Catherine and many other water bodies just a short drive from almost anyplace in the Natural State.

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