Small Lakes, Big Bass On Crowley's Ridge

Some of the hottest action for the Natural State's favorite fish comes during the blissful days of spring on the little lakes of east Arkansas' Crowley's Ridge. (May 2009)

Joey Smith of Colt displays a trophy largemouth caught on Bear Creek Lake last May. Fish this size are relatively common in all the lakes on Crowley's Ridge.

Photo by Keith Sutton.

Travelers driving across east Arkansas often are startled at the sight of what appears to be a mountain range where no mountains are supposed to be. Actually, there are no mountains in this section of the state. What the traveler has seen is a unique geological formation, a long strip of hills called Crowley's Ridge. This low, narrow ridge extends 210 miles from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to the Mississippi River at Helena. It is a beautiful part of the Delta landscape.

The Ridge, as it is known locally, provides a wealth of recreational opportunities for Natural State anglers and hunters. But just after the dogwoods bloom along its wooded slopes in spring, most outdoorsmen in this part of the state will turn their minds to only one thing: bass fishing.

Six small public fishing lakes scattered along the length of the ridge provide first-rate spring largemouth fishing. These include Walcott Lake in Crowley's Ridge State Park, Lake Poinsett in Lake Poinsett State Park, lakes Dunn and Austell in Village Creek State Park and Bear Creek and Storm Creek lakes in St. Francis National Forest. These impoundments are ideal for great bass fishing in an unspoiled setting.

WALCOTT LAKE

Located in Greene County north of Jonesboro, Walcott Lake is the smallest and northernmost of the Crowley's Ridge lakes. It is part of a popular vacation spot called Crowley's Ridge State Park. Nearly a quarter of a million people visit this 270-acre park each year. But even though the park has many visitors, Walcott Lake remains one of the most overlooked fishing spots in northeast Arkansas.

Size has allowed it to remain obscure. The lake barely covers 30 acres, but any angler worth his weight in fish scales knows good catches of big bass often come from small, little-known lakes. Walcott is one of these.

The lakeshores are open and frequently mowed, so you can walk the banks and cast to nearby structure and cover. Or, launch a small boat and paddle as you search for bass among submerged treetops and artificial reefs of tires and cedar trees.

Walcott is fairly shallow throughout, so most bass-attracting cover can be found by scouring open shores for woody cover beneath the surface. Polarized sunglasses greatly aid this endeavor. When cover is found, most anglers cast to it with spinnerbaits, medium-running crankbaits, jig-and-pigs or soft-plastic jerkbaits to entice big bucketmouths. Late in May, many anglers switch to plastic worms and lizards, which are ideally suited for fishing the thick bottom cover.

On a good May day, you're likely to catch dozens of bass up to 2 pounds, with an occasional lunker in the 5- to 7-pound range to keep things exciting. Be aware that bigger fish lurk here. I caught one of my biggest largemouths ever here in early May, a spawning female weighing 8 pounds, 15 ounces. During the year I worked as the park's ranger, I saw several 10-pounders caught by spring anglers.

Access to Walcott Lake is along three main routes. From U.S. Route 67 at Walnut Ridge, go 16 miles east on state Route 25, then two miles south on state Route 141. From Paragould, go 10 miles west on Route 25, then two miles south on state Route 168. From Jonesboro, travel 15 miles north on Route 141. All roads lead to the friendly rural town of Walcott, for which the lake is named.

The park has campsites with water and electrical hookups, hot showers, and restrooms, as well as cottages with everything you'll need for an overnight stay. Electric motors only are allowed on the lake. Phone (870) 573-6751 for more information, or visit the Arkansas Parks & Tourism Web site at www.arkansas.com.

LAKE POINSETT

Nestled in forested hills atop Crowley's Ridge, Lake Poinsett was the first Arkansas Game & Fish Commission lake built in northeast Arkansas. Just 20 miles south of Jonesboro, this picturesque impoundment is an ideal location for a peaceful spring bass-fishing retreat.

These days, it seems like most folks fishing Poinsett in spring are hoping to catch a mess of eating-size crappie. The lake is bristling with these panfish. Bass angling is popular, too, however, and fishing for lunker largemouths is outstanding here. Really big bass -- fish 7 pounds and up -- are rare, but they're always a possibility. The scarcity of "hawgs" hardly matters, though, because there are times in May when you can catch 1- to 3-pound bass one after another, as fast as you can cast.

Poinsett is relatively small -- only 640 acres -- so even without a fish-finder, an angler may be able to locate bass simply by fishing all visible cover until largemouths are found. Early in the season, however, a sonar unit is invaluable for pinpointing schools of fish in submerged cover along the old Distress Creek channel and in deeper water.

As the days warm with the progression of spring, bass move to the banks searching for spawning sites. Typically, the spawn will end late in April or early in May. But during the first half of May, it's likely you'll still find some bass on nests in the shallows if you concentrate your fishing efforts around cover such as standing trees, stumps and logs in Poinsett's numerous small coves. Spinnerbaits buzzed alongside these cover features are probably the most popular spring lures here, but Poinsett largemouths can be fooled by other lures as well, including weedless spoons with pork-frog trailers, Texas-rigged plastic lizards, tube baits, Rat-L-Traps and any lure that resembles a crawfish.

Lake Poinsett State Park on the lake's west side has picnic areas, restrooms, rental fishing boats (no motors), a concrete boat ramp and campsites with water and electric hookups. The AGFC provides two concrete boat ramps, one just north of the park and one at the dam's west end. The dam-site ramp has an adjacent courtesy dock and wheelchair-accessible fishing pier. Fishing supplies are available near the lake, with motels and restaurants in Harrisburg.

To reach Lake Poinsett from Harrisburg, travel one mile east on state Route 14, then go three miles south on state Route 163. For a lake map and additional information, visit the AGFC Web site, www.agfc.com. For additional information, contact Lake Poinsett State Park, (87

0) 578-2064.

LAKES DUNN AND AUSTELL

The 90 miles of Interstate 40 from Little Rock east to Forrest City cross flat-as-a-pancake delta farmland. At Forrest City, however, travelers notice a subtle rise in the terrain -- Crowley's Ridge. North on the Ridge, about a 15-minute drive from I-40, are two more fine bass lakes, Dunn and Austell in 7,000-acre Village Creek State Park.

These two upland waters are small, with Dunn covering only 65 acres and Austell only 85. Despite their diminutive sizes, however, both lakes are well known for producing huge largemouth bass. Numerous 10-pound-plus fish have been landed from this duo of fine waters, including a 15-pound, 12-ounce fish from Austell, the third largest ever caught in Arkansas. Both lakes are past their prime now, with fewer trophies being caught. But during the past couple of years, local anglers reportedly have been boating some 8- and 9-pounders during spring, and unverified reports of bass over 10 pounds surface now and then, despite the fact that the anglers who catch fish that size would just as soon the world doesn't know about the fabulous fishing on these Crowley's Ridge honeyholes.

By the time May rolls around, many Dunn and Austell bass will already have spawned. But some fish remain in warmer water along the banks, holding 2 to 15 feet deep in woody cover.

On Dunn, look for fish around brushy points and in coves with dense stands of dead timber. The arm of the lake running north from the boat dock is productive at times, but most anglers seem to have their best luck fishing the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach. On breezy days, concentrate your efforts around the numerous points in this area, where shad and other baitfish stack up and attract feeding bass.

In May, many anglers look for Austell lunkers hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach. This arm has produced several of the lake's largest bass. Also productive are shallow, timbered flats adjacent to the creek channel running through Austell's southwest arm, two deep wooded coves on the lake's south side and around logs and brush adjacent to the riprapped dam.

Late in the month, bass often suspend in mid-depths over a deep inundated hole where dirt was dug for the Austell dam. To locate this hole, look for a vertical, 10- to 15-foot-high gravel bank about 100 feet long on the south shore almost directly across the lake from the boat ramp. A depth sounder run across the water parallel to the cutbank will indicate a sharp drop from 20 to 30 feet of water down to 50 to 55 feet. James Maners of nearby Wynne found his 15-pound, 12-ounce lunker suspended over a flat at the west end of this hole, and when conditions are right, it's not unusual to find a dozen or more big fish suspended along the dropoff in May.

Top lures for Austell and Dunn bass this month are weedless offerings because the fish tend to hole up in the tightest cover they can find. Try plastic lizards or worms, jig-and-pork combinations and slow-moving spinnerbaits. When fishing around the deep hole on Austell, which is relatively brush-free, you might try a deep-diving crankbait, such as the one Maners used to catch his giant bass.

One angler I know caught more than 30 Lake Dunn bass one afternoon using 1/32-ounce crappie jigs. But the light tackle required to fish these dainty lures isn't recommended when you're trying for a wallhanger. Stiff two-handed rods and heavy line greatly improve your chances of wrestling a big bass from dense cover, but even with heavy tackle like this, you'll lose a lot more big fish than you catch. Dunn and Austell bass have an uncanny knack for tangling you up the very instant you hook them.

To reach Dunn and Austell, take Exit 242 off I-40 just east of Forrest City and travel 12 miles north on state Route 284 to Village Creek State Park. Signs on park roads direct you to the lakes, each of which has a concrete boat ramp and easily accessible bank-fishing areas. Gasoline motors are prohibited, but a small electric trolling motor is ample to get you around. The lakes are open year 'round from daylight until 10 p.m.

The park's overnight accommodations include fully equipped cabins and campsites with electric outlets and water hookups. For additional information, phone the park at (870) 238-9406.

BEAR CREEK & STORM CREEK LAKES

At 625 and 420 acres, respectively, Bear Creek and Storm Creek lakes in St. Francis National Forest near Marianna are among the largest bass waters on Crowley's Ridge. Both are small enough for visiting anglers to quickly become acquainted, however, a fact that makes them popular bassing spots for east Arkansas anglers.

A visit to Bear Creek on May 13 last year with my son, Josh, and Joey Smith of Colt showed the lakes' potential for producing hefty bucketmouths. We'd been on the water only a few minutes, when Joey hooked and landed a pot-bellied trophy on a buzzbait worked beneath overhanging vegetation along the shore. Bass nests were visible in many places around the banks, but the fish had finished spawning a week or so earlier and most had moved near cover in deeper water. Thousands of stumps and logs below the surface here, and in Storm Creek, too, provide a bass haven. Bass in the two lakes typically run 1 to 4 pounds, but regulars know there's always a possibility of catching one topping 8 pounds.

Early in the month, you can sight-cast to bass on their nests adjacent the shores, and many remain in the shallows even after spawning. Fish the windward shores where wave action muddies the water for best results. Baitfish are pushed shoreward by the wind, and bass will often be feeding there. Fishing runoff areas and creek mouths following a rain is also productive. Largemouth bass lie where water flows into the lakes waiting for food to wash to them.

There are many homes around the perimeter of Bear Creek, and many have boat docks that attract concentrations of bass. Use a sonar fish finder to pinpoint brushpiles placed by local anglers around the boat docks, then fish them thoroughly using a plastic worm or spinnerbait. Fishing shady cover around boat dock pilings can also produce nice bass.

Storm Creek largemouths often school near cover along inundated creek channels. Use sonar to locate the structure, beginning your search near the mouths of in-flowing creeks and following the channel drop offshore. Watch for readings that show fish suspended around bottom cover like stumpfields and sunken treetops, and work these areas thoroughly with jigging spoons, grubs or big deep-diving crankbaits.

Access into St. Francis NF is via two Forest Service roads. Forest Route 1900 runs past both lakes. The north end is reached off state Route 44 south of Marianna at the Maple Flat Recreation Area on Bear Creek Lake. The road then continues through the forest to a point on Route 44 one mile north of West Helena. Forest Route 1901 traverses the entire eastern border of the NF and is also reached off Route 44.

The Bear Creek Recreation Area offers campsites, picnicking, a swimming area and a concrete boat ramp. The Storm Creek area has similar fa

cilities. Motels and restaurants are found in nearby cities, and fishing and camping supplies are available near each lake.

For additional information, including a free map of each lake, contact the U.S. Forest Service, St. Francis Ranger District, by calling (870) 295-5278, or visit www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ ozark/.

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