Southern Arkansas' Post-Spawn Giants

Warm weather brings hot action for big largemouths on these small southern Arkansas hotspots. (June 2009)

The big Corps of Engineers lakes in northern Arkansas play host to swarms of summer anglers, leaving bass in smaller southern waters to grow bigger than their northern neighbors.

Photo by John E. Phillips.

Because of hot weather, June can be challenging for bass fishermen in southern Arkansas, but it can also produce superb opportunities to catch monster largemouths.

While the big U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs in the mountain regions absorb most of the bass-fishing pressure, those lakes aren't known for producing largemouths bigger than 5 pounds. That's not to say you can't catch trophy largemouths up to and even exceeding 10 pounds in the big lakes.

You can, but huge fish are rare in sub-prime habitat that must support not only largemouths, but also spotted bass, smallmouth bass, white bass, striped bass, hybrid stripers, walleyes, saugeyes, crappie and even rainbow trout. Account for their intense tournament fishing pressure, and it's easy to see why lakes like Beaver, Greers Ferry, Ouachita and DeGray produce a lot of small to mid-range fish, but rarely any giants.

You'll find those in the flatlands of southern Arkansas, where small waters grow greater numbers of big largemouths. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manages a handful of lakes in the Gulf Coastal Plain and Arkansas River Valley for trophy largemouths, giving anglers legitimate chances to catch bass exceeding 10 pounds.

At lakes like Columbia, Monticello and White Oak, you're disappointed if you don't catch a 7- to 8-pound largemouth, but you also know that every cast is capable of hooking a bass that might challenge the state record of 16 pounds, 4 ounces. That record has stood since 1976, but it's always at risk in the big-bass waters of south Arkansas.

The terrain, substrate and mineral composition of lakes in southern Arkansas are very similar to those in east Texas and northern and central Louisiana. The land is flat, with subtle topographic variances, so the lakes in this part of the state are shallow. The mineral content in the soil is also richer than in the mountains and their foothills to the north. That helps sustain healthy amounts of vegetation, which, in turn, help support healthy populations of invertebrates and shad. In other words, they're full of fish food.

Besides habitat and food, another major reason lakes in southern Arkansas produce bigger bass than the mountain lakes is because the AGFC stocks those lakes with Florida-strain largemouths. Since most of these lakes are impounded from small single creeks, they are relatively closed systems in which Florida-strain bass can thrive and flourish with relatively little competition from or interbreeding with northern-strain largemouths.

That keeps the gene pool relatively pure. Also, these lakes don't have any other major predators, like stripers and hybrids. Lack of competition for food allows bass to grow bigger.

Of course, you can always find big bass hotspots in surprising places, including places where Florida bass were never stocked and do not exist. The commonality in such waters is low fish density and low fishing pressure. You might not catch a lot of fish at such places, but any fish you do catch has a good chance of being huge.

One place that comes to mind is Ozark City Lake, a few miles north of Ozark in the mountain foothills of southern Franklin County. This tiny lake fills a small canyon, and its steep dirt ramp discourages people from launching big, heavy bass boats.

Mitch Looper of Hackett, one of the state's premier big-bass specialists, caught an impressive roster of giants from Lake Ozark, including one that weighed 14 pounds, 7 ounces. That was a pure northern-strain fish, one of the biggest ever caught in Arkansas. Similar places known to produce giants are Waldron City Lake and Charleston City Lake, as well as lakes Hinkle, Sugarloaf and Atkins.

All of those waters, by the way, are in western Arkansas. To catch giants there, you must target giants exclusively, you must be competent at catching them, and you have to be there at precisely the right time on precisely the right day or night.

Finding giants is considerably easier in southern Arkansas because there are so many more of them. However, they're just as hard to catch, and because of the wood and vegetation, even harder to land. If you think you've got the game, this is where you want to be.

LAKE COLUMBIA

A water supply reservoir for the city of Magnolia, Lake Columbia covers about 3,000 acres about six miles west of town. The AGFC stocks about 95,000 Florida-strain largemouths in the lake annually, which augments good natural reproduction. The lake also has diverse habitat, including standing timber, deep structure and large amounts of shoreline vegetation.

During the AGFC's 2008 electro-fishing surveys, AGFC personnel shocked up 224 bass at Lake Columbia, of which 194 were bigger than 8 inches, including 22 fish that measured 19 inches, and 16 that measured 20 inches.

It has everything going for it, but it's not as popular as Lake Monticello. That simply means it isn't as crowded and doesn't get fished as hard.

Lake Columbia has clear water, and Beech Creek is its only tributary.

In June, the weather is usually clear and hot, with water and air temperatures reaching into the high 80s. That's a comfortable range for Florida-strain largemouths, but after the spawn, they seek deep water to escape the bright sunlight, while the "homebody" fish burrow into thick, shallow cover.

The best time to start is at sunrise. A few hundred yards from the launch ramp is a large hump that rises from about 30 feet. The crest is about 7 feet deep, and bass like to school on shad there in the morning.

To find it, you must have a good electronic depthfinder. I've fished the lake with Chris Canfield of Little Rock, Josh Klober of Magnolia and Doug Ruby of Waldo, and we've always had a fast morning bite over and around that hump. Bass hover at the base of the hump, and they rise in unison to eat. In early June, that bite can last until about 9 a.m.

The most effective way to fish it is with swimbaits, shaky head jigs or, if the fish are really aggressive, a lipless crankbait. The last time I fished with Canfield and Ruby, we started at first light catching fish by hopping plastic grubs down the hump on shaky heads. We caught a few on spinnerbaits, but had no luck with tradition

al crankbaits. Ruby caught some nice fish in rapid succession on a lipless crankbait, but we struck gold when we tied on a Pop R. Our biggest bass that day weighed about 8 pounds.

When the hump cools off, you can usually find bass near deep bends in the creek channel. The bends are subtle, and some of them still have stumps and other cover. Bass congregate there to ambush food and to escape light and heat, but patterning a bite can be tricky. I strongly recommend following the solunar tables published weekly in the Outdoors section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It lists two major and minor activity periods per day, and it has proved dependable.

The challenge is targeting and catching big bass. Small bass will school during the day, and occasionally, you'll luck into a big fish or two hovering under the schoolers to pick off stray and wounded baitfish, but not often. For big bass, you need heavy tackle to put something big and noisy down where they dwell. A wide-bodied, deep-diving crankbait will earn you some reaction strikes if you can bounce it off stumps. You can also catch them by working 12- to 16-inch worms through deep cover. The most dependable way to catch them, however, is to use live shad on some kind of a bottom rig. In June, all three of those techniques work best at night, or at dusk and dawn.

LAKE MONTICELLO

For monster largemouths, this small lake is the best in Arkansas. Covering about 1,520 acres about 10 miles north of town, Lake Monticello is similar in many respects to Lake Columbia. It is clear, with a number of long, tree-studded points. It also has a lot of lily pads in the coves. It's deep in places and sports the biggest redear sunfish I've ever seen.

In 2008, I accompanied an AGFC electro-fishing crew to conduct a nighttime shock sample, and while we didn't pull up any double-digit largemouths, we saw several in the 7- to 9-pound class. Tournaments are not allowed on Lake Monticello, but fishing pressure is intense at times. In June, the best time to fish is at night, during the week.

Scott Rook of Little Rock, a Bassmaster Elite Series pro, said that to catch big bass in June, you have to look for creek channels.

"At Monticello, those fish will pull back out and get in the heaviest cover they can find in 6 to 8 feet of water," Rook said. "They won't go real deep until the water gets in the upper 80s and 90s. They won't get in the creek channels, but they'll get close to it, and you can usually find them stacked up pretty thick."

On sunny days, Rook looks for trees on creek bends. Chances are, it'll get windy fairly early, and that can help mask your approach. You just need something big enough to get their attention.

"They'll get in the thickest tree you can find," Rook said. "I always catch them flippin'. A big plastic worm or an 8-inch lizard has worked really well."

On cloudy days, Rook added, bass might move into shallower water, where you can catch them with moving baits. That's when it can get really fun.

"On an overcast day, they'll get in 3 to 4 foot of water, and you can catch them on spinnerbaits," he added. "I jacked them one day on a square-billed crankbait."

That was on a day when the fish had abandoned the deep trees. Rook said he used his trolling motor to cross a cove, and he threw the crankbait just for something to do until he got to the next clump of trees. He never made it.

"It was post-spawn, and I'd been catching them out around those trees in the middle of those pockets," Rook recalled. "I wasn't catching all that much, but as I crossed that pocket, I threw that crankbait out there and caught a 5-pounder. And then I caught another one. I just started hitting anything out from the pads that was 3 to 4 feet deep."

Rook said he caught 30 bass that day, many of which were between 3 to 5 pounds. The biggest weighed about 8 pounds.

"That's fairly common down there," Rook said. "I've seen days when I could catch 30 bass, and 20-plus were over 4 pounds. I just throw a shad color or something in bream color about 90 percent of the time. That day I was throwing white with a real light gray back. I throw them on 17- to 20-pound fluorocarbon. I'm not trying to run it real deep. I want it to run about 5 feet."

The frustrating thing about Lake Monticello, and fishing for Florida bass in general, is that you can have a day like that, and then go back the next day and catch nothing. If the sun is out, they'll be back against the trees in depths of about 8 feet.

Kevin Short, a Bassmaster Elite Series pro from Mayflower, has a slightly different approach. Like Rook, he said bass in June will suspend among flooded timber at Lake Monticello, but he likes to catch them with topwater lures.

"Down there, the topwater bite in June is unbelievable," Short said. "You can also catch them with big crankbaits off points, but it's also a really good time to fish at night with big worms off creek channel points."

Short likes to use a big cigar-shaped plug, like a Zara Spook, in any kind of shad-imitating color. He looks for a place where a creek channel swings against a timbered point. The best points are within a couple hundred yards of a spawning flat.

"That lake is small enough where fish are not going to move far, a quarter-mile at most, because they don't have to," Short said.

First-time visitors to the piney flatlands around Lake Monticello are often very surprised to discover how deep the lake is, and how diverse the structure is. Short said it sure surprised him.

"There's some 35- and 40-foot water in it, and I was not expecting that the first time I went down there," Short said. "It's clear, and you can see 6, 8, 10 feet at times. It's got a lot of timber, and bass are bad about suspending in that timber. That's one of the things makes them kind of hard to catch sometimes."

WHITE OAK LAKE

This fantastic water body is the wild card in south Arkansas' big-bass triple play. The 2,675-acre lake is the centerpiece of White Oak Lake State Park. State Route 387 splits it, essentially creating two different lakes. Big bass inhabit both portions, but the AGFC manages Lower White Oak for trophy largemouths with a 16- to 18-inch protected slot length limit, while upper White Oak is where you go to catch a lot of bass.

Of course, trophy management requires a certain amount of harvest. The daily limit on lower White Oak is eight bass per day. The AGFC encourages anglers to keep fish above and below the slot limit, but they can only keep three fish per day larger than 18 inches.

White Oak is famous for its flooded timber, and all post-spawn fishing patterns here revolve around trees. As at the other two lakes, trees on points near deep water are the most attractive to bass.

Unlike the other two lakes, some anglers like to use live shad to c

atch big largemouths at White Oak. That came about in the mid-1990s, when a funky slime coated much of the woody vegetation. It was hard to fish artificial lures around woody cover at that time without fouling. A live shad or minnow, on the other hand, could get into the cover without making a mess.

Naturally, it was a successful way to fish, and it persists.

Live bait had some significant drawbacks, however. Tight-lining a live shad in heavy cover is risky because it's so hard to work a bass out of heavy cover. Some anglers now fish live shad under balloons, the way striper fishermen do on lakes Ouachita, Greeson and Hamilton. When a bass hits a shad, the balloon makes it difficult to run back into cover.

Another attraction to fishing White Oak Lake is the park. You can park your camper in a lakeside spot, or you can rent a cabin. You can also rent boats, motors and even tackle. For more information about camping, boat rental or fishing, call White Oak Lake State Park at (870) 685-2748 or e-mail whiteoaklake@arkansas.com.

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