Bassin' The Diamond Lakes

These four bass lakes just outside Hot Springs offer some 63,000 acres of bass-angling opportunity for Arkansas sportsmen. (April 2010)

Mt. Ida bass angler Chris Elder hefts a trophy-sized largemouth he caught at Lake Ouachita, one of Hot Springs' Diamond Lakes.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

In 1541, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto became the first European to discover the steaming thermal springs in what is now Hot Springs, Arkansas. In the 469 years since, people from throughout the world come to this Ouachita Mountains area to enjoy the pleasures offered by the 47 natural hot springs.

Water continues to be one of the Spa City's main drawing cards. But most visitors come not for a bath in one of the city's therapeutic springs, but to enjoy the family vacation paradise created by the area's four "Diamond Lakes," those being Catherine, Hamilton, Ouachita and DeGray. Covering a combined total of almost 63,000 acres, these sparkling impoundments on the outskirts of town are a magnet for anglers. All four offer top-rated spring fishing for largemouth and spotted bass, including trophy-class specimens of both species.

The lakes are largely accountable for Hot Springs' designation as the No. 1 tourist town in Arkansas. But this bustling community in Garland County also draws visitors for other reasons. The city encompasses Hot Springs National Park, the nation's only "inner-city" national park, where visitors can tour Bathhouse Row and sample the area's hot therapeutic spring waters. Many tourist attractions also are available, such as Oaklawn Park (for horse racing), the Hot Springs Tower, the IQ Zoo, an alligator farm, the National Park Aquarium and much more. The Ouachita Mountains cradle the town, providing a setting of beauty in which memories can be made.

Nevertheless, it is the Diamond Lakes that give Hot Springs its sparkle. And fishing these waters is the primary reason many people come to visit the Spa City. If you're an angler considering a visit, here's a guide to what awaits you.

LAKE CATHERINE
Lake Catherine on the southwest side of the city is the oldest of the four Diamond Lakes. It came into being in 1924 when Arkansas Power and Light Company constructed Remmel Dam on the Ouachita River just a few miles from Hot Springs. The 1,940-acre, 11-mile-long lake was named after the daughter of Harvey Couch, the founder of AP&L and the man who originated the concept of building hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River.

Catherine provides an amazingly diverse fishery for such a small body of water. The lake contains crappie, bluegills, redear sunfish, flathead catfish, channel catfish, blue catfish, striped bass, hybrid stripers, white bass, and even walleyes and rainbow trout. Not surprisingly, however, black bass are the main drawing card for many visiting anglers.

Some folks complain that Catherine is a hard lake to fish, but it has a very healthy largemouth bass population, with fish up to 10 pounds. Spotted bass, or Kentuckies, are also present, but they're not as numerous as largemouths. Most, however, are good-sized fish.

Good bass-fishing areas include the state park bay, a small backwater area adjacent Lake Catherine State Park near the lake's east end off Highway 171; Spencer's Bay, or Spencer's Pocket, a broad finger of water on the lake's north side running parallel to U.S. Highway 270 at Hot Springs' eastern edge; and Couch's Bay, a long north-shore arm just a short distance up and across the lake from the state park. Most anglers find bass holding near woody cover in those and other areas.

Specific areas to fish include the numerous stumpfields in Spencer's Bay, and fallen trees along the bank of Couch's Bay. Lake Catherine has lots of current, and much of the cover where you find bass is material deposited by current in various areas. Outside bends in the river channel also harbor big bass, especially areas where there's timber along the drop-off. Many anglers fish ledges on the edges of creek banks along the main channel, too.

One of the best springtime lures used on Catherine is the jig-and-pig, a 1/8- to 1/2-ounce leadhead bass jig dressed with a No. 11 pork frog. Look for timber that's been naturally deposited and work the lure around it for a chance at big bass. When fishing shallow flats, many bass fans fall back on a Carolina-rigged worm or a spinnerbait. Crawfish-imitation crankbaits worked parallel to dropoffs are superb enticements.

Lake Catherine State Park offers a free boat-launching ramp, boat rentals, camping facilities and cabins. For further information and cabin reservations, contact the park at 1200 Catherine Park Road, Hot Springs, AR 71913-8605; or call (501) 844-4176. You also can e-mail the park at lakecatherine@arkansas.com, or visit the Web site at www.arkansasstateparks. com/lakecatherin/.

LAKE HAMILTON
In 1932, Carpenter Dam was built on the Ouachita River above Lake Catherine. The dam was named to honor Flave Carpenter, a pioneer peace officer who first discovered the Remmel and Carpenter dam sites while searching for outlaws along the river. He recommended the sites to Harvey Couch. Couch named the resulting 7,200-acre, 18 1/2-mile-long impoundment Lake Hamilton in honor of his attorney, C. Hamilton Moses, who later assumed the presidency of AP&L after Couch's death in 1941. The lake borders almost the entire southern edge of Hot Springs.

When searching for spring largemouths, which frequently weigh 5 to 8 pounds, Hamilton anglers often fish with spinnerbaits or Carolina-rigged plastic worms and lizards. Good areas to target include four major creek basins -- White Oak, Williams, Little Mazarn and Fourche Loop creeks. Look for shallow flats going into embayments off the main creek channels, and then look for brushpiles. That's where largemouths are likely to be. Because Hamilton is an old lake and has little natural cover, local anglers have put a lot of manmade fish attractors into the lake in different areas. Use sonar to look for the big brushpiles, and when you've found one, just bump the brush with your lure. If a bass is there, chances are you'll get a quick strike.

Docks are another place you should investigate when you're seeking Hamilton's spring largemouths. Several thousand homes line the lake's shore, and there are fishing docks with nearby brushpiles behind almost all of them there.

When fishing the docks, look for signs of crappie fishermen -- things such as chairs, rod holders and crappie lights. Docks with those features are most likely to have brushpiles in adjacent water, and knowing that can save time when you're trying to zero in on bass.

Spotted bass comprise a significant portion of the black bass catch on Lake Hamilton, but catching these scrappy fighters requires different fishing

tactics. In spring, most Kentucky bass fans fish live crawfish off the points. Unfortunately, it can be difficult finding crawfish for sale in the area. A few local bait shops sell them on occasion, but you may have to catch and bring your own if you want to be certain of their availability. Fish crawfish with just a hook and a split shot, letting them sink and tight-lining them on or near the bottom.

Lake Hamilton anglers will find a variety of overnight accommodations and fishing supply dealers in Hot Springs. Several boat ramps are available, including one at the Andrew Hulsey State Fish Hatchery on the lake's south side, off State Highway 290. For additional information on the Lake Hamilton fishery, contact the District 8 fisheries office of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in Hot Springs at (877) 525-8606.

DEGRAY LAKE
DeGray Lake, a 13,800-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment on the Caddo River, is 21 miles south of Hot Springs via State Highway 7. Completed in 1972, this deep reservoir is a real challenge for bass anglers, but 3- to 6-pound largemouths are common, and 7- to 8-pounders are not unusual. Spotted bass comprise only a small portion of the lake's black bass population.

One hotspot favored by locals is Caddo Bend, a long peninsula on the north shore just west of DeGray Resort State Park where the Caddo Drive recreation area/campground is located. The bay lies between the Caddo Drive and Arlie Moore campgrounds. A lot of baitfish flock into that big bay in the springtime, and bass fishing can be especially hot whenever high water is present. The baitfish may be up in the edge of the trees, and the bass right in on top of them. Try fishing spinnerbaits, a Smithwick Rogue or a jerkbait like a Slug-Go. Anything that imitates a shad is good for bass. The De Roche area, east of the DeGray State Park Lodge, is another prime fishing area during high water.

If the lake's not high, area experts recommend fishing around underwater beds of elodea and other vegetation that surround islands and underwater humps. There are some humps near the mouth of Brushy Creek, as well as south of the DeGray Lodge, right out in the main part of the lake. These are some old east-west-running mountains where some of the peaks come right up toward the surface. Some actually come out on top of the water. The weedbeds will be around those humps. Try working them with spinnerbaits, Smithwick Rogues or Carolina-rigged centipedes.

DeGray State Park off State Highway 7 south of Bismarck has a marina with boat rentals, bait, tackle, food, ice and other supplies. For general information, contact the park by phoning (501) 865-2801 or log on to www.degray.com. For a lake map and additional information, call the DeGray Lake Field Office at (870) 246-5501 or visit the Web site www. mvk.usace.army.mil/Lakes/ar/degray.

LAKE OUACHITA
Forty-thousand-acre Lake Ouachita is the largest lake entirely within the boundaries of Arkansas. Owned by the Corps of Engineers, this deep, crystal-clear reservoir was impounded by construction of Blakely Mountain Dam on the Ouachita River in 1953. Ouachita is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Hot Springs area, and provides excellent fishing, not only for largemouth and spotted bass, but also for the smallmouths that have been stocked in recent years.

If big bass are your quarry, Ouachita should be first on your list of Hot Springs-area lakes. Numerous trophy-class largemouths are taken every spring, and there's a distinct possibility of catching a 7- or 8-pounder; 10-pound largemouths aren't common, but they do surface occasionally.

Timbered areas attract bass anglers on all waters in spring. But on Ouachita, anglers find more spring bass "in the moss." That means in beds of hydrilla, water milfoil and elodea. A sonar fishfinder can help you pinpoint the mats of vegetation, which usually are in 15 or 20 feet of water.

Rapala's Shad Rap and Xcalibur's Fat-Free Shad crankbaits are favored by many local anglers for fishing submerged green vegetation in spring. To use those lures, locate a weedbed, move away from it a few yards and then cast the lure, crank it down deep, and bring it in with a stop-and-go retrieve. Work the lure along the top of the vegetation; the fish will come up out of the moss to nail it.

The Shad Rap and Fat-Free Shad seem to work best when bass are holding around the deeper, outside edges of weedbeds. If they fail to produce, try working a medium-running Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue in shallower water on the inside edge of the weeds. It gets down about 5 feet and is best worked using a speedy stop-and-go retrieve.

Short plastic worms are also favorites of local bass anglers. Rig each with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce leadhead jig, then swim the worm around the weedbeds and get ready for action. Spinnerbaits are superb spring enticements as well.

If you fail to pick up bass in one weedbed, move on and try another. Largemouths may be in weeds around the open-water humps one day and in weeds closer to shore the next. Keep moving from one bed of moss to the other until you find them.

Ouachita's spotted bass and smallmouths usually are found in fairly deep water in spring. Many are taken on small plastic worms, crawdad crankbaits and deep-running minnow plugs, but both species of black bass typically inhabit deeper waters than largemouths, being found in timbered pockets, moss or on the deeper rocky ledges. Some may hold as deep as 40 feet in spring. According to local guides, the best lure of all for enticing them is a jig-and-pig crawled slowly across the bottom with sporadic twitches.

Spring bass fishing seems most consistent in the upper half of Lake Ouachita, perhaps because there's more shallow water there. A lot of good bass fishing is available in the mid-lake area, too. Good bets include the Joplin, Tompkins Bend, Crystal Springs, Mountain Harbor and Big Fir public use areas on the south side, and Irons Fork, Avant and Buckville on the north shore.

Lake Ouachita is accessible throughout its length from U.S. Highway 270 west of Hot Springs (south side) or Arkansas 298 between the towns of Blue Springs and Story (north side). For additional information, contact the Lake Ouachita Field Office by phoning (501) 767-2101, visit the Web site of Mountain Harbor Resort, www.mtharbor.com; or contact the Mount Ida Chamber of Commerce at (870) 867-2723, www.mtidachamber.com.

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