Eastern Arkansas Oxbow Bassin'

In the areas where the mighty Mississippi River once flowed, the lakes that remain serve up some of the finest bass fishing in the Natural State. Let's look at some of the best oxbows.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Fishing in Arkansas went 21st century several decades ago with the advent of modern tournament fishing and the venues that the sport mandated. Now most of the more popular lakes are inundated with state-of-the-art fiberglass bass-fishing rockets filled with weekend warriors wanting to be national angling heroes.

But if that style of fishing isn't to your liking, or you just like truly getting away from it all sometimes, oxbow fishing in Arkansas might be more your speed. No other venue gives you more breathtaking scenery and more legitimate chances to catch bass over 5 pounds in May than the many oxbow lakes in Eastern Arkansas.

Oxbow fishing compares to river fishing in many ways, but has all the benefits of slack-water reservoir fishing as well. For the diehard angler, the return to what once was a simpler way of doing things is never more evident than when you're crawling a gurgling buzzbait through cypress knees with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve.

Numerous oxbows along the Mississippi, Arkansas and Lower White rivers provide fast action in May. Two such oxbows will be found along the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers on the eastern side of the state.

HORSESHOE LAKE

Located near the town of Hughes in Crittenden County, Horseshoe Lake provides anglers a return to the bass fishing of yesteryear. Though it is now landlocked, this lake was formed when a backwater area of the Mississippi River was cut off by the formation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' levee system. Now the backwater lake depends solely on the current water table and rainfall in the area.

According to Arkansas fisheries biologist Jeff Farwick, forage -- primarily sunfish along with gizzard and threadfin shad -- abounds in the oxbow.

The water here is largely muddy, with an average depth of 5 feet and maximum depth of just over 25 feet for most of the year. Cypress trees, lily pads and stationary wooden docks litter the small lake, presenting anglers with multiple options for shallow water fishing.

Charlie Croom Jr. and his father, Charles Sr., have been fishing the lake for over 20 years and literally know every knot on every log and cypress tree in the lake. The younger Croom has caught fish over 8 pounds, and lost fish even bigger. His best five-fish stringer in May was 28 pounds, a catch made with the help of a tandem blade Terminator spinnerbait in chartreuse and white color.

So how should you go about fishing for Horseshoe's bass this month? "Look for shad working around the cypress trees," Croom said. The lake holds an abundance of cypress trees, and finding baitfish will help eliminate unproductive trees from the search. And his top lure for catching bass near the around the cypress trees is a spinnerbait. "You can feel the shad pecking at the willow-leaf blade during the retrieve," he said. "That's the reason you should stay on the tree for a long while."

Croom suggests that anglers find the more isolated cypress trees to narrow down the search still more. In most cases after the spawn, the larger fish will take up residence on a lone cypress tree rather than a cluster of trees.

Besides a spinnerbait, he'll also fish a buzzbait or a chugging topwater lure around the cypress trees. When the spinnerbait and topwater bite slows, he generally reaches to his soft plastics. While Croom likes to fish tubes, Zoom Flukes, and worms his favorite bait is a Mann's Jelly Worm impaled on a 3/0 hook and fished with a 1/8-ounce sinker.

If the bass are in the lily-pad fields, Croom will start out working the edges with buzzbait or topwater bait like a Smithwick Devil's Horse. Then he'll migrate to the inside pads, looking for more aggressive fish. As the day wears on, he often switches to a tube or a soft-plastic jerkbait to trigger bites from more reluctant fish.

The lake can be easily accessed by way of Interstate 40; then, head south on Highway 147. There are two private pay ramps (the lake is on privately land), one on a country road two miles south of Thompson Grove, the other just off Highway 147. The lake does not have a length limit, but the daily creel limit is 10 bass per angler. More information about the lake can be obtained by calling the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at 1-800-364-4263.

MERRISACH LAKE

Lying along the Arkansas River post canal near Dumas in Arkansas County, Merrisach Lake offers anglers some sanctuary from the traffic and current of the river itself. Though it measures roughly one-third the size of Horseshoe Lake, the lake offers equal or even better fishing in May.

Farwick says that the lake is full of forage in the form of native minnows, gizzard shad, threadfin shad, and sunfish. Cover consisting of thick beds of Eurasian water milfoil and coontail moss is abundant as well. In the backwater areas, anglers will find some sparse standing timber, a multitude of underwater stumps, and logjams. Anglers should follow the boat lanes through the thick beds of vegetation timber.

According to Croom, barge traffic is often a precursor to great fishing on this lake. Though the body of water naturally has no current because of the lock and dams on either end of the post canal, when a barge locks at one end, current begins to flow downstream. The current may only last a few minutes, but he has witnessed the brief current change sending bass into a feeding frenzy.

The bigger bass can be harder to find in May, as they will often bury up in the very dense mossbeds. However, Croom's father pulled a 10-pound, 2-ounce behemoth from the weeds several years back. "Outer edges of the milfoil mats are very productive," the younger Croom said. Generally speaking, whenever a mat has a defined edge it usually accompanies a dropoff. The lake has water over 25 feet in depth in places, and a sudden drop of 2 or more feet will cause bass to congregate around cover.

Croom likes a topwater popper or buzzbait to start working milfoil mat edges in the early-morning hours. If he's deep in the backwater areas, he might alternate between his topwater offerings and soft-plastic jerkbaits and tubes. As it gets later in the day, he works the areas toward the mouth of the lake, where lots of riprap can be found. A Bomber 7A or similar crankbait in a shad pattern is hard to beat on the riprap.

Of course, in May the bass will fall for a variety of baits including spinnerbaits, crankbaits, topwaters and soft plastics. And while anglers normal

ly won't catch the numbers of bass that could be caught on the river, there are bigger bass to be had in this little lake. Bass over 5 pounds are fairly common in May, and bass in the 6- to 8-pound range would be considered big bass on this lake, with an occasional bass over 10 pounds.

While not being necessarily easy to cover thoroughly, the presence of barges can turn a bad day of fishing upside down. Croom has seen floating milfoil mats move hundreds of yards, and he's watched bass school up and then ravage the hapless shad cowering beneath the mats.

One special technique Croom shared involves a series of culverts in one backwater area on the lake. When barge traffic causes a rapid current change, water bottlenecks through these culverts. As usual, though, there's a catch: A typical boat can't make it through the culverts, which are much too small. Instead, anglers must be able to fire baits nearly 25 feet down a small culvert and out the other side to fish them.

"You better have a lot of backup baits to do this," Croom said. True: A small misdirection or miscalculation, and that five-dollar lure shatters against the side of the culvert.

Not many anglers are willing to give up their baits, however, and so usually stick to fishing the outside edges of the pipe openings. Croom, however, pulled a 20-pound stringer of largemouths from out of a culvert in May 2004.

The lake can be accessed by ramp in the Merrisach Park owned by the Corps off Highway 44, just 10 miles south of Tichnor. It can also be accessed by locking through Lock and Dam 2 or Dam 2 on the opposite end. Many anglers also choose to launch at Pendelton Bridge off Highway 165 near Dumas and run about 8 miles to Merrisach.

SUMMING IT ALL UP

Typically, oxbow bass fishing involves pulling oversized, shallow-water bass out of dense, gnarly cover. Leave your finesse rods and 6-pound line at home. For fishing these lakes you need to rig up with medium-heavy- to heavy-action casting rods and reels spooled with 15- to 50-pound line. Also, bring lots of crankbaits, spinnerbaits, topwater baits, jigs, and soft-plastics and large hooks.

Visit

www.arkansas.com for more information about both areas.

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