Ouachita And Hamilton for Summer Bass Action

When the mercury screams "Stay inside!", these two reservoirs make a very good argument for hitting the water and catching some bass.

Chris Elder of Mount Ida says that Lake Ouachita tends to produce larger bass than does Lake Hamilton. Photo by Jeff Samsel

By Jeff Samsel

Undaunted by the wake of yet another pleasure boater, an angler rides out the biggest swells and then pitches his jig inside a big boathouse. The jig falls between the dockside and a shiny, fast-looking ski boat. Before the jig ever reaches the bottom, the line races sideways, so the fisherman sets the hook. A few minutes later he is releasing one of more than a dozen bass he has caught in only a few hours, a 1 1/2-pound largemouth. Soon he will call it a morning and get off the water before the boat traffic gets too intense.

Not far away, as a bird flies anyway, another angler is flipping a jig in a thick stand of hydrilla. He is fishing right through the thick stuff with a heavy jig and stout gear. Strikes are infrequent, but any bass that hits is apt to be a hawg. A few pleasure boaters have found their way to this lake too, but not nearly as many, and most are on the open waters of the main lake. Fishing a grassbed atop a hump near the midpoint of a big creek, this angler has seen only a handful of boats all morning, and most of those belonged to other fishermen.

Lakes Hamilton and Ouachita, neighboring lakes on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs, are in some ways quite similar. In several ways, however, these lakes are strikingly different. Important among the things that these two lakes have in common is the fact that both support great black bass fisheries. Because of that common denominator, anglers are wise to learn as much as they can about these lakes' similarities and differences and how they apply to bass fishing patterns. With that in mind, we spoke with a couple of guides who have fished these lakes all their lives.

The most obvious difference between the two lakes is that Lake Ouachita is much larger. In fact, Ouachita is the largest reservoir located wholly in Arkansas at 48,000 acres, and Lake Hamilton, at 7,500 acres, is less than one-sixth the size of its upstream neighbor.

From the water, the most striking difference between these two lakes is in the make-up of their shorelines. Lake Ouachita has no development along its entire shoreline, other than marinas. Lake Hamilton, on the other hand, has heavily developed shores all the way around it, being right on the edge of Hot Springs.

A third difference, which is a combined byproduct of the first two, is that boat traffic and fishing pressure are far more intense on Lake Hamilton than they are on Lake Ouachita. While Ouachita attracts a fair number of boaters, including fishermen and non-fishermen alike, they have far more room to spread out than they do on Lake Hamilton.

Looking at the actual black bass fisheries, Lake Hamilton is a better "numbers" lake, but Lake Ouachita yields better quality bass overall and more really big bass, according to Hugh Albright of Mt. Ida, who guides on both lakes.

"Lake Hamilton probably has as many bass in it, acre for acre, as any lake in Arkansas," Albright said. "I've fished both lakes all my life, and Hamilton has always been a good place to go and catch a bunch of bass. Lake Ouachita produces better quality fish overall, though, and you're more likely to catch a really big bass there."

Chris Elder, who guides bass fishermen and fishes tournaments on both lakes, agreed with Albright's conclusions. Elder caught an 11-pounder out of Ouachita last year, and he noted that he never hears about that size of fish coming out of Lake Hamilton.

Similarities between the two lakes begin with their location. Ouachita and Hamilton sit side by side, both impounding the Ouachita River. In fact, the upper end of Lake Hamilton includes the tailwater of Lake Ouachita.

Because they impound the same river through the same type of natural landscape, lakes Ouachita and Hamilton have several similar characteristics. Both have steep banks, overall, and very clear water. Both lakes also have grassbeds, which the bass make heavy use of. Ouachita's vegetation is much more widespread and diverse than Hamilton's, however, and Ouachita has much deeper water and a more mountainous appearance.

Like the characteristics of the lakes themselves, bass behavior and fishing strategies are in some ways quite similar from one lake to the next and in other ways quite different. Lets look at these lakes individually and focus on how to find the best action on each this time of year.

About the time that school lets out for the summer, schooling bass activity tends to heat up on Lake Ouachita. The bass have come off the beds by then, and most have moved out of the really shallow water, according to Albright. The fish will stack up over ledges, often near the ends of long points. They often will suspend and can become pretty finicky during the day, but they will school on the surface in the morning, making fishing easy and fun.

"They'll school early and late, most days. On really cloudy days they might school all day long," Albright said. They're running threadfin shad and busting them on the surface."

For schooling fish, Albright and Elder both will start out with topwaters, and both mentioned stick baits as their topwater plugs of choice for schooling bass on Ouachita. Albright noted, however, that at times even surface-schooling fish will respond better to a subsurface offering that imitates a shad. He likes either a 4-inch smoke-colored grub or a jigging spoon for fishing beneath the surface. For either, he will vary retrieves until the bass show him what they want.

Albright pointed toward waters around Crystal Springs and Buckville and up the North Fork of the Ouachita River as good areas to look for schooling fish. He stressed, however, that the type of area is more important than the actual spot. "The same thing goes on all over the lake that time of year," he said.

Most good schooling spots are long points that stretch out to creek or river channels and have vegetation - whether coontail, milfoil or hydrilla - over them. Just out from there, the grass stops reaching the surface and matting up, and that's where most fish generally will school, he said.

When the bass stop coming up in the morning, Elder likes to rig up a jighead worm and go down after them. "They don't go anywhere - except down. They just stop schooling," he said.

Elder will position his boat a cast's length out from the edge of the moss and cast right to the edge. His offering consists of a 5-

inch plastic worm on a 1/8-ounce leadhead, with the hook turned back into the worm so it will fall through any vegetation along the edges. Many bass will hit the worm before it ever reaches the bottom. If no bass grab the worm on the drop, Elder will hop it along the bottom by lifting and dropping his rod tip before reeling it back up.

"A curlytail grub also can be really good for fishing the edge of the moss," Elder said, noting that he will fish a grub on the same size leadhead, but that he will swim it back, usually slowly enough to keep it near the bottom.

Elder noted that the vegetation should be looked at like structure. "Usually the bass will be just off points in the moss or inside little pockets," he said.

Albright also noted that fishermen shouldn't overlook the value of dropping baits right through the moss, especially for big bass. Once the topwater bite has waned, he sometimes will pull out a flippin' outfit spooled up with 20-pound-test line and drop a 1-ounce or 1 1/4-ounce jig right through the thick stuff on the tops of points and humps.

For flippin' moss, Albright will drop the bait through any hole he can get it through, let it fall to the bottom, bounce it a few times, and then bring it up and pick another hole. He works fairly quickly but covers an area of grass quite thoroughly. He pointed toward moss over bottom depths in the 4- to 12-foot range as a good zone to flip during the summer.

Albright noted that another good way to fish the thick stuff at times is with some type of weedless frog, rat or tube skimmed across the top.

More than a dozen U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas provide good access to all parts of Lake Ouachita, as does Lake Ouachita State Park at the lower end of the lake. Mountain Harbor Resort, located around midlake on the south side, offers food, lodging and fishing supplies. For information, log onto www.mtharbor.com or call 1-800-832-2276.

"Go early!" Hugh Albright stressed about fishing Lake Hamilton during the summer. He suggested that fishermen get on the water and start fishing before first light and fish until 9 or 10 in the morning, by which time boating traffic will be getting pretty heavy. An alternative approach, Albright said, is to fish at night.

The first-light bite on Lake Hamilton mirrors what occurs on Lake Ouachita. The fish school pretty regularly for the first hour or two of the morning, usually over points or humps. On Hamilton, though, Albright has enjoyed his best success with a prop-type topwater bait or a popper.

When Albright stops seeing bass breaking, he typically turns to Hamilton's many docks for the remainder of the morning. His favorite way to fish the docks is to pitch a jig-and-craw combination up under them and work it out slowly. He pointed toward black, amber, green pumpkin and watermelon as good colors.

For fishing down the sides of docks and working the brush that has been sunk around many of them, Albright usually turns to a Texas-rigged 6- or 8-inch plastic worm. Two of his favorite colors for worms are tequila sunrise and crawfish.

Albright also likes to fish the edges of Hamilton's mossbeds, most of which are found in the lake's upper end. He fishes the vegetation with a finesse worm on a jighead. Hamilton was drawn down last winter in an effort to curtail milfoil growth, but Albright was confident that there would still be plenty of vegetation to fish in the upper end of the lake this summer.

Elder said that Lake Hamilton is very straightforward, which makes it a good destination for catching fish, even for anglers who don't know the lake well. "Because of the lake's small size and because of the docks and brush around the docks, you can do well just casting at all the stuff you can see and paying attention to patterns," he said.

Most anglers will catch scattered bass throughout the day on Hamilton just by casting at everything that looks good. However, because there are so many docks around all parts of the lake, those anglers who pay attention to patterns and adjust their approaches accordingly will catch far more fish. Most days, the majority of the bass will be relating to docks in certain ways or will only be on docks that have brush sunk around them or that stretch very close to a major channel break.

Elder tends to spend more time in Hamilton's creeks than on the lake's main body. His favorite docks are located on or near points within creeks - ideally points that stretch out to fairly deep water. He stressed through, that bass might be on any docks some days, and that the best strategy early in a day is just to hit a lot of visible cover.

Like Albright, Elder likes fishing a jig or a plastic worm around Lake Hamilton's docks. In addition, however, he likes to pitch tubes under docks and to throw spinnerbaits when trying to cover a lot of water. "I really like to fish a spinnerbait around the docks on Lake Hamilton," he said.

Four public access areas and several private marinas and resorts provide good access to all parts of Lake Hamilton.

Given the choice of day or night, Elder would prefer to fish under the stars during June, whether on Ouachita or Hamilton. "Both are really good night-fishing lakes, and the fishing is pretty much the same on both of them," he said. "It's a lot more peaceful at night, it isn't so hot, and the fishing is good."

Because most pleasure boaters have gone home and the fish tend to be more cooperative, night fishing is quite popular on both lakes. Local clubs run a lot of nighttime tournaments on both lakes through the warm months. "On Hamilton, there are tournaments about four nights a week, throughout the summer," Albright noted.

Elder will fish a lot of the same spots on both lakes at night as he would during the day. On Ouachita, he likes the edges of grassbeds, where points and humps drop toward deeper water. On Hamilton, he likes brush off the ends of docks. He pointed toward the 14- to 18-foot depth range as a good range to concentrate on at night.

For either lake, Elder relies on two basic baits for most of his after-hours fishing. The first is a black spinnerbait, with a single, No. 5 Colorado blade. Usually he slow rolls the spinnerbait at a steady pace, but some nights the fish want it started and stopped or bounced through the cover. His other offering of choice is a dark-colored plastic worm, Texas-rigged and bounced along the bottom. Some nights, he will fish with a basic 7-inch worm. Other nights, he will turn to a 10-inch worm.

When night-fishing isn't an option and summer days have turned the fish fussy on Ouachita or Hamilton, Albright will sometimes turn to light tackle and live bait and tap into really good action, primarily from spotted bass.

Albright's live bait of choice is a crawfish, which he fishes on a simple split-shot rig with

8- or 10-pound test line on light spinning tackle, a No. 2 hook and a No. 7 split shot.

"Look for ledges, rocky points and brushpiles in 18 to 20 feet of water. Drop your bait straight down, let it hit the bottom, crank it up a couple of turns and hold on." Albright said, noting that live crawfish have served up some really good fishing for his clients on days that otherwise would have been very tough.

To book a bass fishing trip with Hugh Albright or Chris Elder, call Hugh Albright's Guide Service at (501) 767-2171.

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