When The Bite'™s Right On The White

Largemouth action on Arkansas' White River can be great when all the elements click. Here's how to fish 'em in August. (August 2006)

Photo by RON SINFELT

Most people know it more for its outstanding trout fishing or a legendary 30-foot long sea serpent that appears occasionally, but the White River offers some of the best largemouth bass fishing in eastern Arkansas.

The luxuriant Ozark Mountains near Fayetteville give birth to this 720-mile stream that wanders eastward, snaking across the Arkansas-Missouri line before heading southeastward toward Batesville. At Newport the White River abruptly turns southward for 257 miles until it connects with the Mississippi River. Along the way, it touches 18 counties, about 25 percent of all the counties in the Natural State.

Along its course, the White River changes dramatically. Several dams create Beaver, Table Rock, Bull Shoals, Norfork and other lakes on the small Ozark Mountain stream complete with rapids. While these lakes support thriving populations of bass, stripers and other fish, the rocky, clear and swift tailraces offer excellent fishing for rainbows, brown trout and other cold-water species.

After the river turns southward, though, it transforms into a slow, meandering waterway capable of supporting commercial barge traffic. At the lower end, it runs through a cypress and tupelo gum wilderness and provides excellent habitat for bass, catfish, bream, crappie and other warm-water species.

"Seasonally, the lower White River is a good bass stream," said Jeff Farwick, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission district fisheries biologist in Brinkley. "In the river proper, anglers mostly catch Kentucky spotted bass with some in the 2- to 3-pound range. People usually fish for largemouths in the slack backwaters and oxbows."

Down through eastern Arkansas, the White River flows through and nourishes a vast wetland known as the Big Woods. The Little Red River hits the White near Georgetown. The Black River merges with the White at Jacksonport. The Cache River, the major tributary, flows into the White about one mile upstream of Clarendon.

One of the last and best surviving portions of lower Mississippi Valley floodplain, the area between the Cache and White rivers supports a wide variety of fish and game. In 2004, researchers spotted ivory-billed woodpeckers near the Cache River. Believed extinct since 1944, the woodpecker can only survive in remote, old-growth wet wilderness areas.

The largest tract of hardwood bottomlands under a single owner left in the United States, the White River National Wildlife Refuge preserves about 160,000 acres of swamp in Desha, Monroe, Phillips and Arkansas counties. Created in 1935, the refuge runs about 90 miles down the White River. Low, flat and swampy, the area contains numerous small tributaries and more than 350 natural and manmade lakes or river oxbows.

Not far away, the 55,000-acre Cache River NWR runs 70 miles along the Cache River in Jackson, Woodruff, Prairie and Monroe counties. Similar to the White River NWR, the Cache River NWR also contains many fish-rich oxbow lakes, sloughs and smaller tributaries. Considered a "Wetland of International Importance" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Lower White River Basin contains more than 280,000 acres of bottomlands, forests, swamps and small lakes. Several state wildlife management areas also preserve wetlands in this area.

"The Cache River is also generally good for bass fishing when the White is productive, usually in late summer or early fall," Farwick said. "During late summer and fall, the river is generally fairly low. Neither river gets as much pressure as some of the other major lakes in Arkansas because the population in that part of the state is low. There are a lot of swampy areas with plenty of cypress and tupelo gum trees, so some of it is pretty remote."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 250-mile long navigation channel on the lower White River. The COE maintains the channel to a minimum of eight feet deep to Augusta and about 4.5 feet deep to Newport. The COE wants to lengthen and deepen the navigation channel along the lower White River.

Near Newport, area residents reported seeing "Whitey," a 30-foot long spiny snake-like creature that allegedly pops up from time to time. First reported in 1915, "Whitey" makes loud bellowing noises and frightens fishermen and campers along the river. In 1973, the Arkansas State Legislature actually passed a resolution creating the White River Monster Refuge adjacent to Jacksonport State Park as a home for the legendary creature. The resolution officially made it illegal to "molest, kill, trample or harm the White River Monster while he is in the retreat."

Whether "Whitey" exists or not, no one really knows. However, the lower White River can produce finny "monsters" of a different kind. Known for its giant catfish, the White River also provides outstanding largemouth bass fishing at times from Augusta south to its mouth.

"The river probably has about as many catfishermen as bass fishermen," Farwick said. "Traditionally, August through November is probably the best time to fish for bass on the White River. It produces good numbers of bass with a lot in the 3- to 5-pound range. A couple of good bass anglers can catch 20 to 30 fish a day with the biggest weighing about 6 pounds. It can produce some fish in the 7-pound range."

In late summer through fall, the White River drops to its lowest and clearest level, offering its best fishing conditions for the year. During late summer low water conditions, anglers might not reach some favorite tributaries or oxbow lakes. However, in waters they can reach, anglers should find some of the best action all year.

"Fishing on the river is greatly influenced by water levels," Farwick said. "It has a lot of fishable waters with many oxbows, but navigation largely depends upon water levels. When the water is fairly high, some sloughs and bays offer slack water good for fishing. When the river is up, boaters can access more oxbow lakes that are particularly conducive for largemouth bass fishing. If the river drops too low, people can"'t get into some of the oxbows and backwaters. At low water, access is limited to a few chutes that run back into oxbows."

Drought conditions in the fall of 2005 and early 2006 made the river lower than usual. By mid-winter, some lakes dropped to as much as five feet below normal. Some rains came in the late winter and spring, but the low water could affect the spawn, Farwick said.

"The drought hurt us," he explained. "If we don"'t have higher water,

I don"'t know what"'s going to happen. It might affect the largemouth bass spawn and that could affect the year class of the species if the bass can"'t find places to spawn."

During fall conditions, water drains from oxbows and other major tributaries, concentrating fish in the main channel. Often, falling water creates optimum conditions for catching bass. As water drains from oxbows and other backwater sloughs, bass and other predators stack up at the mouths of small cuts. Falling water pulls crawfish, minnows, baitfish and other morsels from their hiding places. As it flows out of the drains, it carries forage species into the main channel. At the mouths of these drains, bass wait to gobble up anything flowing toward them.

Throw crankbaits, jigs, craw worms or spinnerbaits as far up these drains as possible. Use colors that resemble crawfish or shad, such as reds, whites or pearls. Long jerkbaits, such as Rapala original floaters might also work. Fish any lures with the flow as slowly as possible, allowing baits to drift downstream naturally.

"The river has good quality water and a good forage base," Farwick said. "The main forage is threadfin and gizzard shad. The river also has a lot of native minnows. If we have high water in the spring and water floods the woods, we get a lot of crawfish in the river. At other times, fish are the main forage so use lures that resemble shad."

In late summer and fall, anglers might battle less current in the White River, but they still need to deal with the flow. On such a flowing river, current dictates where fish eat and live. Many people avoid current, thinking bass cannot survive in such flows. However, bass born in the river know nothing else. In late summer, running water often provides cooler temperatures and more oxygen than slack water. Therefore, many anglers fish the main channel currents during this season to put more White River bass in their livewells.

"In the winter and spring, I try to get out of the current," said Jay Yelas of Tyler Texas, a former Bassmaster Classic champion. "In the summer and fall, I like to fish in the current. I don"'t necessarily fish the major current. I like to fish side currents or secondary currents. They are usually narrower, more confined and have more ambush points."

Like trout farther up the same river, bass in the lower White River also use rocks, logs, points or other irregularities to break current and conserve energy. They typically face upstream and watch for succulent morsels to flow to them. When they see something they like, they dash out to gulp lunch then retreat to their slack-water lairs.

"The most important thing about rivers is knowing how to fish in current," said two-time Bassmaster Classic champion, George Cochran from Hot Springs. "The biggest mistake people make is not presenting lures in the right fashion. Most people float downstream and bring their baits upstream. When they do that, their lures are in position to catch fish only about one foot of every cast. Put the boat against the current and bring the bait perpendicular to the current or with the current. When a lure comes up behind bass against the current, it usually spooks them or they don"'t see it."

Most people understand that rocks or other structures break current and create slack spots behind them. Anglers often fish these pockets and frequently catch bass. However, tiny pockets of slack water form on both sides of available structure.

When current flows against a log or rock, it not only makes a slack spot behind the obstruction, but in front of it. In strong currents, water smashes against an object and stops momentarily before it briefly "bounces" backward on the upstream side almost like a ball hitting a wall. After it washes back upstream briefly, it swiftly flows around the end of the obstruction. Often, it forms another slack spot right at the end of the obstruction where the water "turns" to flow downstream once again. One object might possibly create three or four "sweet spots" where anglers can frequently find fish that almost no one ever bothers.

Sometimes, anglers can see where current creates slack spots. Sometimes, they cannot because currents might form slack spots beneath an obstruction. Often, water hides submerged current breaks or secondary structure. Good river anglers probe all around a blowdown, rock, stump or other current-breaking structure looking for sweet spots. Sometimes, anglers find fish behind the obstruction. Sometimes, they might find them on either end or on the upstream side.

These sweet spots might only provide room for one or two bass, but big fish usually take priority. In such a pocket, bass can face upstream to watch for flowing morsels while avoiding fighting against currents. With craw-worm tipped jigs or Texas-rigged plastics, thoroughly probe slack spots all around an obstruction. A crawfish-shaped plastic creature or a tube might work in slack pockets if flipped at close range.

Use as little weight as current will allow, just enough to reach the bottom. When fishing jigs, tubes or Texas-rigged plastics, flip the bait upstream a short distance to allow it to flow naturally with the current or vertically jig baits around obstructions. Fish as slowly as possible. Bass holding tight to structure won"'t chase baits from their lair into the currents very far. Sometimes, anglers almost need to hit them on the heads to make them bite. Drop it into a sweet spot and leave it there as long as possible to provoke a reaction strike.

When fishing current breaks, look for the oldest, most decrepit piece of wood or rock that one can find. Look for pieces sitting in that river current for eons. Look for pieces old enough to attract generations of fish, where years of currents washed out lairs for big bass. When fishing wood structure, pick hardwoods instead of pines because hardwoods attract more fish.

To probe difficult to reach sweet spots, many Arkansas sportsmen "doodlesock" around these obstructions. Using long, limber crappie poles, some exceeding 20 feet, they tie two to three feet of line to the tip. On the end of the line, they attach a worm, jig, topwater bait or spinner. Using the pole length to accurately place baits in these sweet spots, anglers frequently slap the water, vertically fish baits or run them in circles or figure eights.

With these long poles, anglers can reach spots that they cannot approach by boat and place baits more accurately than by casting, pitching or flipping. By putting the bait right in the strike zone and leaving it there, anglers antagonize fish into biting. They can often provoke a bass into striking even if it"'s not feeding aggressively just by aggravating it with an annoying lure rattling in its face. When a bass strikes and hooks itself, anglers pull in the pole overhand until they can reach the line at the end of it.

In late summer and fall, anglers might also find bass around some rocky shoals, sandbars, points or other shallows along the river shoreline. Bass suspend in deeper water, but enter shoals to feed, usually on overcast days with a slight breeze. Bass then chase shad into shallows to cut off their escape routes. Shad-colored crankbaits, white

spinnerbaits or topwaters can hammer bass at the right time.

Sandbars typically form on the inside of bends or points where current slackens and silt deposits. Often, sandbars create placid, pond-like eddies downstream of points. Weeds may grow thick in calm water, making prime conditions for running spinnerbaits, buzzbaits or topwaters.

"In rivers, I catch 90 percent of the fish in 5 feet of water or less," Cochran said. "In the summer and fall when the water is clear, fishing around sandbars is good."

During extremely hot temperatures, bass might seek deeper, more stable waters around the outside bends in the river. Water moves faster around the outside of a bend than around a shallow point on the opposite shore. This flow often creates deep scour holes that sometimes trap sunken logs or other debris directly opposite the point. Carolina- or Texas-rigged worms or heavy jigs dropped into these scour holes along the outside bends where few people fish might tempt some old mossback lunkers.

Besides the main river channel or the Cache River, anglers might fish Big Creek or Prairie Bayou. Anglers can launch their boats at facilities in Augusta, Des Arc, DeValls Bluff, Clarendon and other places. For more information, call the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at 1-800-364-4263.

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