Summer Bassing Along The Arkansas River
September 24, 2010
The Arkansas River yields unsurpassed summer fishing opportunities to anglers who understand the dynamics of the pools on the waterway. Read on for places to go and methods to try once you get there.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
For many Arkansans, the Arkansas River is a part of life that's taken for granted. This great stream spans the breadth of the Natural State, from Ft. Smith in the west to its juncture with the Mississippi River in the east. Many Arkansans fish it, cross it, drive alongside it every day. Yet few except fishermen and barge workers know the Arkansas River with any great measure of familiarity.
What many people do know is that the Arkansas River serves up extraordinary largemouth bass fishing for anglers in the know. Spotted, or Kentucky, bass also are common in many stretches of the river. During summer months, fishermen who unravel the secrets of black-bass fishing in a particular river pool can enjoy plenty of action throughout the day.
The Arkansas River has its beginnings in the Rocky Mountains near Leadville, Colo. Before it empties into the Mississippi in Arkansas' Desha County, the river travels 1,460 miles through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In Arkansas, it stretches 310 miles, from border to border.
This massive delta river hasn't always been held in high esteem as a bass-fishing hotspot. Prior to 1970, the Arkansas was wild and muddy, frequently flooding surrounding countryside. It was fished by the brave and the few, usually commercial fishermen or recreational anglers seeking catfish, buffalo or drum. Bass fishing was excellent, even then, but relatively few anglers were willing to challenge the treacherous currents that characterized the river much of the year.
Today, the Arkansas resembles a series of lakes more than a river. In 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation Project, the largest inland waterway project in the Corps' history. The project included construction of 12 dams in Arkansas, turning the once-untamed river into a series of comparatively tranquil reservoirs. The project not only improved navigation on the river but also provided flood control, prompting the development of cities, suburbs and roadways immediately adjacent the waterway. Fishing improved as well, and tales about huge stringers of giant Arkansas River bass began making the rounds of the nation's bassing fraternity.
By the mid-1970s, local, state and regional tournaments were being held on the river nearly every weekend year 'round. And as more and more anglers experienced its sensational bass fishing, the Arkansas River gained a well-deserved and highly publicized reputation for serving up jumbo bigmouths, and lots of them.
Unfortunately, bass fishing became rather poor in many areas during the 1980s and 1990s. This was partly due to a loss of backwater spawning habitat for bass. Backwater areas behind the river's many wing dikes silted in and became infertile grounds for spawning bass. But thanks to a cooperative project between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, many backwater areas were restored to their former fertility. Dikes that kept the river out of these areas were notched to allow inflow again. Long-accumulated sediments were removed in dozens of areas; then, the AGFC stocked millions of largemouths at sites up and down the river.
Thanks to these efforts, excellent bass fishing is once again available along the entire Arkansas River, from border to border. But space doesn't permit detailed descriptions of fishing opportunities in all pools. That being the case, we'll zero in on two major sections of the river, both of which attract many anglers seeking big summer bass.
POOLS 2 THROUGH 6
Avid bass anglers who follow tournament fishing know about the excellent fishing on the 94-mile stretch of river from Terry Lock and Dam near Little Rock to Dam No. 2 near Dumas. This is the area where bassing great Rick Clunn set a new three-day BASS Masters Classic record with 75 pounds, 7 ounces of bass in August 1984. And it's the place where Jack Chancellor worked magic with his "Do-Nothing" worm rig to win the 1985 Classic with 45 pounds of fish. This stretch offers some of the best bass fishing in the state.
Largemouths and spotted bass are especially plentiful in the five pools formed by Murray Lock and Dam (L&D) at Little Rock, L&D 5 just below Redfield, L&D 4 just below Pine Bluff, L&D 3 near Grady and L&D 2 near Dumas.
Pool 2 above Dam 2 contains 96 miles of shoreline at normal navigational pool and covers 10,600 surface acres. This pool extends upstream 35.9 miles following the river channel.
This section of river has a reputation for producing bass in the 10-pound-plus range. The Pendleton area contains a variety of good bass fishing areas, including two huge off-river oxbows, Moore Bayou and the Coal Pile, as well as Merrisach Lake.
Coal Pile is on the right bank of the river (heading downstream) at about Mile 23. This area offers ideal bass habitat, with plenty of logjams, flooded cypress, rocks, channels and flats to fish. Moore Bayou is three more miles downriver on the opposite side. Flooded timber is abundant here, and if an angler likes shallow water, this is the place. Merrisach Lake, just above Lock No. 2, is on the Arkansas Post Canal, which leads out from Moore Bayou. Like Coal Pile and Moore Bayou, it is essentially shallow with heavy cover. And like its sister waters, it often produces giant bass.
Continuing upstream, anglers can explore Big Bayou Meto, Mud Lake Bend (a major backwater) and Little Bayou Meto. Little nooks and bays off the main portion of this river lake also contain good cover and excellent shallow-water fishing.
Pool No. 3 is the smallest of these four Arkansas River lakes. This pool has 36 miles of shoreline and 3,670 surface-acres at normal levels. It's mainly just straight river channel, but there are a couple of backwaters between Richland Bend and Trulock.
This section contains a large number of bank-stabilization structures, which consist mainly of large wooden pilings driven into the sandy bottom. At times, these attract heavy concentrations of bass.
Pool 4 begins just below Pine Bluff and contains 5,680 surface-acres along with 58 miles of shoreline in its 20-mile length. This is the pool made famous by Rick Clunn. His fabulous three-day stringer of bass came from the Slack Water Harbor area near Lake Langhofer. Clunn found a shallow ledge holding an immense population of black bass and used crankbaits to establish the record catch. In its eight-mile length, the harbor contains a variety of cover and structure, including flooded timber, shallow vegetation,
riprap and 2- to 80-foot holes.
Lake Langhofer and the Slack Water Harbor area contain some of the best backwater areas on this section of the river, but there's also a small, often productive backwater near the Hensley Bar Cutoff. The remainder of the pool is mostly river channel with several miles of channel-stabilization structures.
Pool 5 extends upstream from White Bluff some 21 miles with 6,680 surface-acres and a shoreline length of 50 miles. This pool contains several backwater areas. Brodie Bend, an old oxbow with acres and acres of timber, is one of the most heavily fished of these areas, but the areas around Case Bar Cutoff and Warings Bend also provide excellent backwater bassing. Several small creeks also enter this pool, and they often hold bass, especially at the point where they enter the main pool of the river.
Pool 6 at Little Rock isn't known for producing the big bass often caught downstream, but it receives a lot of fishing pressure and is one of the river's hottest pools for consistency and numbers. The first mile below Murray Lock & Dam and the North Little Rock hydroelectric plant is frequented more by catfishermen than by bass anglers, but largemouths often are caught around wing dikes and rock riprap here.
When flows through Murray Dam exceed 30,000 cfs, bass move into the few backwater areas here (including several downstream from the Interstate 440 bridge) and to the downstream edges of the dikes and bridge piers. (There are several bridges crossing the river from Little Rock to North Little Rock.) Fishing the first mile of the Fourche Creek tributary just above Interstate 440 is also popular with local anglers.
When rain and runoffs are heavy and the river is high, anglers fishing these pools will probably be forced into backwater sloughs and off-river lakes, where topwater plugs, buzzbaits, minnow-imitation divers and crankbaits can be retrieved around timber, rocks, pilings and vegetation. Jig-and-pigs can be good around fallen logs and treetops.
With more-stable water conditions, backwaters are good early and late with topwaters, buzzbaits and plastic worms. Midday patterns revolve around the main river channel and include working riprap with crankbaits, worms or spinnerbaits and flipping shoreline cover with worms.
During summer's hot weather, riprap wing dikes often figure prominently in the game plans of most savvy river anglers. These long walls of rocks help prevent shoreline erosion by directing water straight downstream. They often stretch for hundreds of yards on both sides of the river, especially near dams and along bends. Water around them ranges from 5 to about 15 feet deep, and if the backwaters have warmed, schools of summer bass often will be found holding near these rocky embankments.
Sometimes bass hold right off the ends of the rocks. Other times, they're at a specific spot along the rocks. And still other times, they're scattered all along them. Crayfish and shad are attracted to these boulder-strewn hideouts, so artificials imitating these forage animals are among the best bass-catchers.
Situated several pools upstream from Little Rock, Lake Dardanelle is one of the most accessible and scenic bass fishing sites in Arkansas. Spreading westward behind Dardanelle Dam, the lake covers nearly 35,000 acres in Pope, Yell, Logan, Johnson and Franklin counties. The lake is two miles at its maximum width and 50 miles long, reaching upstream to the Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam. About 315 miles of shoreline afford prime fishing waters.
Within Dardanelle's murky waters lies a diverse smorgasbord of fish cover -- rockpiles, channels, submerged timber, shallow flats, jetties and islands. There is still water, moving water, open water and brushy water; there are dropoffs, points, coves and tributaries. With these confusing masses of fish habitat and structure, it's easy to see why tenderfoot and veteran anglers alike can find fishing Dardanelle a perplexing experience. There are "bassy" places to tempt you from every side, but it takes hours of fishing to truly know such a vast lake.
During summer, many bass are taken early and late in the day by fishing flats edging Dardanelle's feeder creeks. For example: Spadra Creek and Little Spadra encompass two such sites. In the back end of Little Spadra are two or three creeks that intersect. There are some little islands and channels that run 5 to 10 feet deep before jumping up on 2- and 3-foot flats. Those flats are where bass are likely to be found.
Many anglers used to the fish in large impoundments such as Beaver, Ouachita or Greers Ferry go to Dardanelle expecting the bass to behave identically and insisting on using the "big-lake" tactics appropriate to more stable waters. Unfortunately, many such fishermen go home skunked, because they never realize that bass in the continually changing environment of the river behave differently from their big-water brethren.
One example of such a behavior difference is the fact that Dardanelle bass rarely venture out of crankbait range. Even in fall, when a cold front passes through, they'll go on a feeding spree right before a front, and then settle down a bit and move into cover. And most cover in Dardanelle is in shallow, not deep, water.
This is one reason so many anglers who fish Dardanelle rely on crankbaits to catch their bass. Worms, jigs and other such lures work fine at times, but a slow-moving crankbait often proves more effective than these because of the lure's greater versatility. With the other lures, you basically just hit the bottom and hop the lure. But Dardanelle fish aren't always on bottom. They may be lying near a log or suspended in a brush top. If you parallel these areas with a crankbait and use a slow retrieve, you can catch a lot of really good fish.
A crawfish-imitation crankbait is just the ticket for big Dardanelle bass, especially where there are lots of rocks in the water. Riprap areas are especially good, such as those found in the Piney Creek area. The Flat Rock area before you get to the Piney bay has a lot of big boulders and rockslides in the channel, and has a very good population of spotted bass. In these places, bass are looking for their natural prey, the crawfish, which makes its home among the rocks. And most of the fish caught this time of year have crawfish in them.
Many Dardanelle bass fishing enthusiasts fish with colors that imitate small baitfish. Small crappie and sunfish are favored foods this time of year. Many anglers also prefer smaller crankbaits that don't dive very deep. At other lakes, bass may go deep, and anglers must fish deep to catch them, but Dardanelle bassers quickly learn that you don't think deep here. Local anglers often say: "If you can't touch the bottom with your rod, you're too deep." You should be able to run a medium-sized shallow-running crankbait and bump the bottom with it for best results.
The Arkansas River is without doubt one of the best bass-fishing hotspots in Arkansas. There's not a 100-yard stretch of river that doesn't produce good numbers of big bass at one time or another, and they're caught using every fishing tactic and lure in the book.
The river can be fickle at times. During some weeks anglers find it clear and stable; at other times, it's high and muddy. And sometimes it's somewhere in between these extremes. But anglers prepared to deal with whatever conditions the capricious river throws their way will find it much to their liking.
For Arkansas River access information, purchase a copy of the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available by phoning 1-800-364-GAME or by logging on to the AGFC's Web site,
www.agfc.com. The atlas has detailed access information on 75 county maps. Additional information on the various Arkansas River pools is available by contacting the Little Rock District Corps of Engineers at (501) 324-5551. For information on fishing licenses and current fishing conditions, visit the AGFC Web site. Regulations are explained in detail in the 2005 edition of the Arkansas Fishing Guidebook, which is available at sporting goods retailers statewide.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $28.25 -- Arkansas residents should add sales tax -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.)