Backwoods Bassin' At White River NWR

With 160,000 acres and 300 bodies of water, the vast expanse of Arkansas' White River National Wildlife Refuge presents bass anglers with an equally vast range of opportunities. (April 2008)

Though access has improved in recent years, much of White River NWR is still remote, and many of its waters feel little fishing pressure.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

It wasn't easy getting in there.

First we'd suffered through the pre-dawn drive from Little Rock to St. Charles, a trip of about 100 miles. Then there'd been another 15 miles or so over gravel roads in bad need of attention from a grader.

And that was the easy part; the last half-mile was the back-breaker. We bogged down more than a dozen times in the series of mudholes that passed for a road, and we had to winch out of six of them. We finally arrived at the lake we wanted to fish at 8 a.m., having left Little Rock five and a half hours earlier.

Was it worth it? Well, my fishing companion and I -- the only anglers on the lake that day -- caught and released more than 125 largemouth bass between 1 and 6 pounds, 30 or so chain pickerel (they stayed in the air almost as much as they did in the water) and a double-dozen hard-fighting grinnel that turned our spinnerbaits into scrap metal. Just before we put the little johnboat boat back in the truck and fought our way back to the gravel road, we switched to ultralight tackle and used small curly-tail jigs to catch 25 fat crappie for the ice chest.

Was it worth it? You be the judge.

That fishing trip took place more than 20 years ago, in 1987. At the time, that sort of difficulty was pretty much par for the course if you wanted to fish the more remote lakes of White River National Wildlife Refuge. The gravel road network was small then, and most of the refuge lakes were hard to reach.

In 2007, we fished that same lake again. This time, we drove on gravel for only four miles, all the way to the lake bank, where a concrete ramp provided us an easy launch. We could have driven there in a Mazda Miata.

Not surprisingly, we didn't have the lake to ourselves this time. Four other vehicles were parked near the ramp when we arrived, and another one showed up before we were through launching. Equally unsurprising, we didn't catch as many fish. It was still a productive trip, with about 25 keeper-sized bass and a few pickerel and grinnel to show for the day, but that's a long way from our tally in 1987.

This isn't intended to be one of those things-aren't-like-they-used-to-be whinefests, but the comparison of two fishing trips on the same lake represents a microcosm of what's happened in east Arkansas' White River National Wildlife Refuge over the past two decades. The refuge is much more accessible and user-friendly now, and that's resulted in increased fishing pressure on the easier-to-reach lakes. Overall, the fishing in these more accessible waters isn't as good as it used to be.

SIZE MATTERS
Fortunately, White River NWR is a big place. Excepting the Ozark and Ouachita national forests, it's the largest contiguous chunk of public land in Arkansas. Originally 113,000 acres, a large land acquisition in the 1990s brought the total to more than 160,000 acres, and the refuge property now stretches from Clarendon downstream to the mouth of the Arkansas River navigation canal southeast of Tichnor. Almost all of it is overflow bottomland, dotted with lakes and subdivided by a web of interconnecting bayous and sloughs. There are 300 bodies of water inside the refuge boundaries, ranging in size from less than one to more than 200 acres. Much of this huge refuge is still remote and without a network of gravel roads, with entry permitted only by foot, boat or ATV on designated trails.

This combination of lakes both big and small, both easily accessible and almost impossible to reach -- with lots of waters falling between those extremes -- makes for a fine largemouth and Kentucky bass fishery that has something to offer just about every angler. The more accessible waters can get pretty crowded, especially on weekends, but some of the more remote fishing holes aren't fished a dozen times in a decade. In this modern age, that's a rarity.

WHERE TO STAY
There isn't much in the way of accommodations in and around White River NWR: a few small (and, to put it kindly, rustic) motels in the nearby towns of DeWitt, Gillette, Marvell and Clarendon. Most diehard refuge bass fishermen -- those who don't live within easy striking distance, anyway -- prefer to camp on the refuge in one of the many designated campgrounds. All the campgrounds are primitive, with no hookups, but they're spacious, well-shaded areas that provide anglers with the chance to be right where the action is. There's also a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground at Merrisach Lake, a few miles west of the southwest corner of the refuge, that has hookups.

Regardless of where you camp, be prepared to deal with mosquitoes. You might get lucky and miss the worst of it, but bug season starts in April and goes to the first killing frost, so odds are you'll have to contend with them.

TIMING IS IMPORTANT
White River NWR is unusual among Arkansas fisheries in that some refuge lakes and waters are closed to fishing during December, January and February to provide sanctuary for wintering waterfowl. Even so, there's still plenty of water on these 160,000 acres that's open to year-round fishing. According to the White River NWR Web site (www.fws.gov/whiteriver), "Fishing is permitted year-round in LaGrue, Essex, Prairie, Scrubgrass and Brooks Bayous, Big Island Chute, Moon and Belknap Lakes next to Arkansas Highway 1, Indian Bay, the Arkansas Post Canal and adjacent drainage ditches, those borrow ditches located adjacent to the west bank of that portion of the White River Levee north of the Arkansas Power and Light Company powerline right-of-way, and all refuge owned waters located north of Arkansas Highway 1. All other refuge waters are open to sport fishing from March 1 through Nov. 30 unless posted otherwise."

When you look at a refuge map, that paragraph makes sense. What it says, essentially, is that the refuge's North Unit -- the 40 percent of the refuge north of Highway 1 -- is open to year-round fishing, and except for the above-mentioned waters, the South Unit -- the 60 percent of the refuge south of Highway 1 -- is closed December through February.

The wintertime closure doesn't mean much in the overall scheme of things. The refuge is generally flooded at this time of year anyway. And the combination of cold weather and water temperatures, muddy water conditions and high water levels puts a damper on the bass fishing.

The flooding is important, though, because the continuing productivity of White River lakes depends largely on two things: the built-in fertility of the bottomland ecosystem, and this annual flooding that flushes the lakes and rejuvenates them. The best fishing of the year is right after the winter/spring floodwaters recede.

The timing of this varies, but in most years it happens in March or April. Sometimes the flood stays until May or June and occasionally into early July, but usually by the time the dogwoods bloom, things are looking up in the White River swamp.

RED-HOT RUNOUTS
Some of the hottest bass fishing imaginable can be found during the last stages of the receding spring floodwaters, when the water level is mostly down into the lakes and out of the bottoms. Search for places where the water is running out of lakes or sloughs and is running through pipes, over forest roadbeds and through other narrow places that cause a dramatic increase in the current. Fish these fast flows with spinnerbaits or other lures that have some flash and noise but don't get hung easily. Bass stack up in unbelievable numbers at these places, and the action can be so fast you won't believe it.

This smoking-hot fishing at the lake runouts is a fleeting thing, though, and catching it right is largely a matter of luck unless you live nearby and can keep a close eye on the situation. A particular spot may only be good for a day or two, sometimes even less. The situation is complicated by the fact that most of the refuge access roads are closed until the water recedes, so getting to these hotpots can be almost impossible.

FISHING AFTER THE FLOOD
More dependable, and longer-lasting, is the fishing in the lakes and sloughs themselves. In some of the refuge lakes, the good fishing begins while the river's floodwaters are still draining out. In most cases, these will be the lakes that have no waterways flowing into them as the water recedes. With no appreciable current flowing through the lake, the water clears and warms, triggering the bite.

In old river channel lakes and other lakes that have sloughs and bayous running in at the top end while the flood recedes out the bottom end, the bass usually don't turn on until the flow of water through the lake stops. At some point during this drain-out process, refuge personnel start opening gates to allow access to the refuge road system. Timing varies from year to year, but in general, the roads in the northern portion of the refuge are opened first, and road openings progress southward relative to the speed at which the water level is dropping.

Savvy refuge bass anglers make every effort to get to the refuge lakes as soon as they can after the roads open. The bass are almost always near the banks right after the flood, and to say they're usually cooperative is to understate the case. Catch it right, and you'll find some of the best bass fishing of your life -- even if the lakes are much more accessible than they were a few decades ago.

BOATERS: THINK SMALL
Although you can launch it and fish from it on some of the larger, more accessible refuge lakes, that big Ranger or Triton you mortgaged your soul to buy won't serve you very well in most refuge waters. You'll be much better off if you bring a 14-foot or 12-foot aluminum johnboat, either on a lightweight trailer or in the back of your pickup. Even when there's a good gravel road leading to the shore of a lake, there's not always a concrete ramp available. Sometimes the only way to launch is to manhandle the boat across a mudflat to the water's edge. You won't do that with a bass boat.

Another option that opens up more possibilities: Bring an ATV with a trailer hitch. ATVs aren't allowed on the main gravel roads, but many secondary refuge roads are ATV trails only, and they lead to some fine fishing lakes that don't get as many visits as do the ones on the gravel.

Also, many of the refuge lakes can be reached from the river by using a larger boat to run the river and dragging a smaller johnboat through the woods to the lake. A set of bicycle wheels mounted on an axle is a handy accessory for rolling a small boat into the kind of secluded, high-caliber fishing lakes most of us dream about.

BEEF UP YOUR TACKLE
Realistically, you're not going to encounter bass as big as are occasionally caught in White Oak Lake or Lake Monticello in the White River lakes. The bottomland ecosystem is extremely fertile, and growth rates are fast, but the extreme habitat swings, from raging floods to summer droughts, make life expectancy short for White River lakes largemouths. They grow fast and die young. Most run 1 to 3 pounds, with a good number reaching 4 to 5 pounds. After that, bigger fish are usually scarce in these lakes.

That said, it's still not a good idea to use tackle that's too light. These riverbottom bass are heavily structure-oriented, and in the river bottoms, "structure" is pretty tough stuff -- cypress knees, ironwood buckbrush, relic cypress logs and treetops that have been in the water since the virgin timber was cut a century ago and will be there at least that much longer. Also, there are big grinnel, pickerel and longnose gar to consider. A 12-pound grinnel will give you plenty to think about.

Therefore, think 20-pound line, a reel with good drag capabilities and a rod with some authority in the butt section. You'll still get broken off, but maybe not quite as often.

SO MANY LURES, SO LITTLE TIME
Lure selection and fishing technique in these lakes is pretty much a matter of dealer's choice. Spinnerbaits or buzzbaits in white, black and chartreuse are hard to beat, but they're by no means the only effective fish-catchers in refuge waters.

Plastic worms and lizards are deadly when fished around cypress trees and treetops. Crankbaits are almost as effective as spinnerbaits, especially floating-diving models that run two to four feet deep. Flipping jigs or small plastics is effective, but since an angler using this technique needs to be standing, sometimes it's not very practical for fishing out of a small, tippy johnboat.

Surface lures of many kinds also have their place in refuge lake bass fishing. Not only are they very effective, especially early and late in the day, but there's just something about laying an old traditional topwater lure -- a Lucky 13, a Jitterbug or a Devil's Horse -- up against a cypress trunk and watching a green-sided blackwater largemouth attack it.

The White River NWR office at St. Charles contains a well-maintained and well-staffed interpretive center, and refuge maps and permits are available here. Maps are also available through online sources such as DeLorme and MapTech. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Arkansas Outdoor Atlas -- available through the agency's Web site (www.agfc.com) -- shows the refuge lands, lakes and roads.

Wherever you get it, do get a map of the refuge. You're going to need it to find your way to many of the lakes. But after you've sampled the bass fishing in a few of them, you won't have any trouble remembering how to get back there.

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