Early-Season Smallmouth Bass Options in Arkansas

Ring in the New Year with hot winter fishing for smallmouth bass in the Natural State. We've got your guide to our top three bronzeback lakes in January — and a bonus prediction for the future.

Photo by Tom Evans

By Steve Taylor

If you made a promise to give up a bad habit or two for the New Year, you deserve a reward. While everyone else is at home, wishing for a warm front, why don't you treat yourself to a winter smallmouth bass fishing expedition? Our research and experts show that you can maximize your chances of success by choosing to fish reservoirs rather than streams at this time of year. We also offer up a unique cold-weather pattern that could have you fishing over sizeable concentrations of smallmouths without going far from your favorite marina.

With advice from Arkansas Game and Fish Commission experts and details on destinations, we think you'll be very happy to ring in the New Year with a resolution to go after the feisty smallmouths in Greers Ferry, Bulls Shoals, and Beaver Lake. And we'll even look into our crystal ball and tell you about the lake that's most likely to top the list of all smallmouth fisheries in the state in just a few years.

LAKES VERSUS STREAMS

Despite our state's well-deserved reputation for superb smallmouth fishing in moving water, Kevin Williams, the AGFC's assistant black-bass biologist, was moved to say that "streams probably aren't the best places to go fishing for smallmouths in January. The main reason is that the water temperatures are more stable in reservoirs, especially the deep, clear ones like Greers Ferry, Bulls Shoals and Beaver - which also have good populations of smallmouths."

Colton Dennis is the biologist in charge of the statewide black-bass program and works with Williams out of the AGFC's Andrew Hulsey warmwater fish hatchery on Lake Hamilton. In a recent interview, he offered up a unique tip, gleaned from friends who like to pursue Lake Ouachita's smallmouths during the winter. "That time of year, you can find pockets where the shad ball up," Dennis explained. "They run up into the marinas from the main lake to get away from the hybrids and stripers. If you look up under the boat docks in the marinas, you can find bunches of them in there."

Because baitfish typically behave the same way under similar circumstances within a geographic region, you can apply this Ouachita pattern to the other lakes discussed here and anticipate the same success. To help you get started, we've provided directions to many of the marinas operated within U.S. Army Corps of Engineers parks on our top three smallmouth lakes. Of course, there are plenty of other fine public and private facilities on these lakes, and you should consider them too when you're planning a winter smallmouth trip.

One advantage of fishing in January is that on the most blustery days - when the fishing is often best - you won't have much competition from other anglers. And, if this marina-fishing pattern fails to materialize, at least you won't have to endure a long, cold, empty-handed ride home!

NO. 1: GREERS FERRY

Almost all of the 33,000 acres of clean, clear water filling Greers Ferry Lake lie in Cleburne County. While the general structure and habitat on the upper lake have characteristics you'd most strongly associate with smallmouths, AGFC tests in recent years have shown that largemouths are the dominant species there. Ironically, you'll find the lake's largest bronzebacks scattered in the upper lake. You're more likely to catch good numbers of average-sized smallies in the lower section.

Choctaw Park and its namesake marina are convenient to folks who live near Clinton. Take U.S. 65 south from that city, then turn east on state Highway 330 and follow the signs for 1 1/2 miles. The Archey Creek area, north of the marina at this park, provides excellent walleye fishing at this time of year if the smallmouths won't cooperate.

You'll find Dam Site Park off state Highway 25 about three miles north of Heber Springs, in central Cleburne County. It's near the city, the Corps' Greers Ferry project office and excellent trout fishing on the Little Red River. Heber Springs Park and its marina and public boat ramp are just west of Heber Springs off state Highway 110.

The area around Hill Creek Park has long been prominent in successful fishing reports on Greers Ferry. If smallmouths aren't hanging out in the marina, look westward toward Hill Creek or the Middle Fork of the Little Red River, a major tributary with excellent walleye fishing during cold weather. This campground is off state Highway 225, northeast of the Greers Ferry community, in western Cleburne County.

From Sugar Loaf Park, there's a fine view of Sugar Loaf Mountain, one of the most-recognizable landmarks in the state. To reach it, drive northeast on state Highway 92 out of Bee Branch, in southern Van Buren County, for about 12 miles. At its intersection with state Highway 337, turn west for 1 1/2 miles.

The Narrows Park and its marina are landmarks on the distinctive (and, logically, very narrow) alley of water that separates the upper lake from the much larger lower lake. The park includes a bathhouse with hot showers to warm you after a day of fishing in the cold. You'll find these facilities off state Highway 16 near Higden. At Shiloh Park, Dennis's hint about checking marinas for concentrations of shad and smallmouths seems like an especially good idea. Thousands of acres of open water are nearby, just the sort of territory where schools of striped bass and hybrid striped bass roam like packs of wolves, terrorizing even larger schools of shad into seeking the cover of boat docks.

NO. 2: BULL SHOALS

Bull Shoals snakes through Marion, Baxter and Boone counties and slips across the state's northern border into Missouri. An AGFC biologist once wrote, "Viewed from the air, it looks like a long Chinese dragon." The Corps of Engineers has protected this beautiful reservoir by minimizing development along its 1,000-mile shoreline and establishing a buffer zone. It's easy to point your boat up a creek arm or into a cove, see nothing but trees in every direction and feel as if you're experiencing one of the most pristine fishing destinations in the country when you're on Bull Shoals.

The locations of the marinas described in the following paragraphs begin with Tucker Hollow in the western reaches of the lake and lie eastward from there on the map. Like all of these Corps parks, Tucker Hollow offers a marina, campsites, public boat ramp and other facilities. To reach it from the town of Lead Hill on the eastern edge of Boone County, head northwest on state Highway 14 for seven miles, then follow state Highway 281 for three miles. Deep spots in nearby Bear Creek should yield some smallmouths if the marina pattern doesn't hol

d true.

Lead Hill Park, the next marina eastward, lies just off scenic state Highway 7, four miles north of its namesake city. East and West Sugar Loaf creeks help form the fishy-looking point on which this park lies. Buck Creek Park, off state Highway 125 in the northwest corner of Marion County, offers access to the northern side of the shoreline. It also features a landing for the Peel Ferry, a free service of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. The barge operates during daylight hours and can take six vehicles at a time across the lake to Highway 125 Park, where you can fish for smallmouths around another marina and use the ramp to access the southern shore. The 45-minute ferry trip replaces a 90-minute drive to reach the same points across this westernmost end of the lake. And, yes, it's OK to ride the ferry for fun - but local commuters who rely on it to get to work will thank sightseers who make the crossing during off-peak hours.

Oakland Park has a marina for close-in fishing and access to an interesting mix of open water and the Ozark Isle area, which features plenty of excellent smallmouth habitat. This park is on state Highway 202 a few miles west of the Oakland community in northeastern Marion County. Continuing eastward, Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock is on Shorecrest Drive off state Highway 178 in the city of Bull Shoals, which lies north of Flippin, also in Marion County. The easternmost marina on our list is within Lakeview Park. Follow the aptly named Boat Dock Road off state Highway 178, just north of the city of Lakeview on the western edge of Baxter County. Here, as on all the large Corps reservoirs, in Arkansas, keep an eye out for bald eagles. Scan the trees along the shoreline, and you'll often see adults with fully white heads and tailfeathers perched there, waiting patiently to ambush on a fish or coot.

NO. 3: BEAVER LAKE

Benton County contains the largest share of Beaver Lake, but like Bull Shoals, it follows a winding river channel and works its way into Carroll and Washington counties, too. Like the other Corps reservoirs listed here, 28,000-acre Beaver is fed by countless creeks and provides a reliable source of high-quality drinking water and performs flood-control duty, too.

Seven of the 12 Corps-operated parks on Beaver Lake include public marinas. War Eagle Marina, in War Eagle Park, is the southernmost and westernmost place to try our winter smallmouth pattern on Beaver. Take state Highway 412 eastward out of Springdale to its intersection with Washing County Road, which you'll take for three miles northward to the marina. The one in Hickory Creek Park provides folks from nearby Fayetteville and Springdale a chance to enjoy fine fishing. You can reach this park from state Highway 264 in southeastern Benton County just north of the city of Creech. Turn onto Cow Face Road (also known, much less colorfully, as Benton County Road 602) off the highway for a mile, and then follow Hickory Creek Road and signs into the park.

Farther north, you'll find Horseshoe Bend Park, which is off the state Highway 94 spur near Monte Ne, also in southeastern Benton County. After you try the marina for smallmouths, drop a spoon or jig into the deep, outer edges of the nearby bends in the old river channel. Folks who fly in to the busy northwest Arkansas region at Rogers Airport will appreciate the nearby marina at Prairie Creek Park. Take state Highway 12 for four miles out of Rogers, and then turn onto North Park Road, which takes you directly into the park.

Rocky Branch Park is a midlake location with excellent access to limestone coves and deep, open water - plenty of choices for you and the smallmouths to ponder. You'll find these facilities on state Highway 303, 4 1/2 miles northeast of its intersection with state Highway 12 in eastern Benton County.

The Lost Bridge Park area features open water and an island with excellent habitat in addition to its marina. The facility lies off state Highway 127, six miles southeast of Garfield, in northeastern Benton County. Across the lake, you'll find Starkey Park, which serves the Victorian-style city of Eureka Springs. It's on Carroll County Road 2176, which runs off state Highway 187. Because 187 intersects twice with U.S. Highway 62 and forms a loop, it's just about impossible to get lost on it or miss the well-marked signs for the road to the marina.

THE FUTURE IS OUACHITA

If biologists Dennis and Williams have their way, Lake Ouachita, a 40,000-acre Corps reservoir in Garland and Montgomery counties, will rise to the top of everyone's list of smallmouth lakes over the next few years. Since the late 1990s, the AGFC has made a major commitment toward establishing a smallmouth fishery in the lower reaches of Ouachita. "Our current goal is to produce 100,000 smallmouth fingerlings at the Hulsey hatchery, per year, for five years and stock them in the lower end of Ouachita," Dennis said. "It's an aggressive plan to really pump them in there."

The original version of the hatchery program, which started before the turn of the century, relied on native broodstock from streams in the Ouachita Mountains to produce fingerlings in the well-managed ponds at the Hulsey facility. Biologists hoped that these native fish, which have evolved in and are specially adapted to life in Arkansas rivers, would take hold in the lake. "We've found some indications of 2-pound fish in the lower end of Ouachita from that work, but the fish just didn't do well in the lake."

In 2003, the agency switched to a strain of reservoir smallmouths from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, one of many state agencies that have supplemented AGFC stocking programs and received similar support from our commission in return. After a rough season last year, when the Tennessee broodstock didn't produce as many fingerlings as planned, Dennis and Williams both have high hopes for the program to get back on track this year.

All the ingredients for a smallmouth bass paradise seem to be in place. When you mix better brood stock into the AGFC's excellent hatchery system, the result will be fingerlings that should flourish in Ouachita's high-quality water. To that base, stir in plenty of shad, crawfish and other smallmouth treats and add pinches of decent weather and luck. Mix well with the other key ingredient, time. When the stocked fish begin to do what comes naturally to a bass and start replenishing the lake on their own in a few years, we're going to be in for some spectacular fishing.

MORE INFORMATION

Many smallmouth anglers are also avid conservationists and are even more diligent about catch-and-release for these sporty, slow-growing fish than the average fisherman. Specific regulations that govern the harvest of smallmouths apply to all the lakes mentioned here. Always consult the most current version of the AGFC's fishing regulations, a publication you can pick up for free at tackle dealers, bait shops and other retailers and AGFC offices throughout the state. Or you can request one by making a toll-free call to the agency at 1-800-364-4263.



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