White River Basin Bassin'
September 24, 2010
In the summer, few places in Arkansas offer more picturesque surroundings or more productive bass fishing.
Eastern Arkansas' White River is a big river, certainly, but size isn't all that distinguishes it. It's also one of the most fertile rivers in the nation, offering everything from the limestone substrate in its Ozarks headwaters to the rich delta soils at its mouth in the southeast Arkansas flatlands. Home to trout, smallmouth bass and walleyes in its upper reaches, and harboring largemouth bass, spotted bass and a host of panfish and catfish species in the warmer waters farther downstream, the White supports a phenomenal fish population all along its length.
Hot-weather angling is excellent all along the river, but in the delta portion, from Batesville downstream, this solid fishing goes largely unappreciated, as many avoid the dog days of summer by staying indoors. For the benefit of those willing to brave that heat, then, here's a run-down of some of the best options in the lower half of this great stream for high-summer bass action with largemouths and Kentuckys (or "spotted bass").
GEARING UP A discussion of tackle and general techniques is in order here, since the same general methods and equipment are applicable along the entire course of the lower river.
While bass boats can be used for fishing the lower White, you'll usually be better served by a 14-foot johnboat - particularly one fitted out with swivel seats and a good bow-mounted trolling motor. Fishing the banks of the river (which are where the fish are) often requires threading your boat through narrow gaps between the limbs of treetops that have fallen in or washed against the bank, and a smaller boat with a shallower draft is more maneuverable. You'll find yourself having to steer wide and miss some worthwhile fishing if you use a big fiberglass bass boat. Most river anglers position their boats bow downstream, but I've found it's often more effective to keep the boat turned against the current, using the trolling motor both to slow the rate of drift and to hold a position at the right distance from the bank. Try both methods; use the one you like best.
The best all-around tackle is a light 5-1/2- or 6-foot casting rod with some strength in the butt section and a fast tip. Most of these river bass don't run terribly large - a 3-pounder is a very respectable fish here - and you don't need a brute of a rod to handle them. A short, light rod makes for accurate short-range tosses, and it doesn't wear you out with the effort of casting.
Since most of the fish are going to be right against the bank, keeping your boat close in and making a lot of short casts, rather than staying farther out and making fewer long ones, is the trick to catching them. However, your line should be a little heavier than what you'd normally use on a light rig like this, because you're going to get hung up a lot, and, with the current sweeping you along the bank, your window of opportunity to get a snagged bait loose is brief. I prefer 17-pound or 20-pound-test: With that I can point the rod at the hangup, crank everything down tight and muscle the lure loose with brute force. It saves a lot of valuable fishing time and lures - and you can't do it with light line.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Cast as tight to every piece of cover - logs, brushtops, irregularities in the line of the bank, whatever - and if you don't get a strike immediately or in the first 5 or 6 feet of the retrieve, rip the lure back to the boat as quickly as possible and make another cast. Because of the current, most of the fish will have a favorite lie, usually behind or beside one of these shoreline irregularities. They'll flash out from the cover, grab the lure - or miss it - and quickly return to the hideyhole.
If you miss a strike, cast back to the same spot, or make sure your buddy in the back of the boat does. Frequently these river fish will make repeated short strikes; whether this is because they can't get a good shot at it in the current, or because they're just trying to run it off, I couldn't say. But it's not unusual for a river bass (especially a spotted bass) to strike the same lure a half-dozen or more times before getting hooked.
Because of this characteristic, the antique technique known as "doodlesocking" is very effective on the White and its tributaries. A doodlesocking rig consists of a 10- or 12-foot jigging pole rigged with about 3 feet of 20-pound-test line and a lure tied on the end. You simply drift along with the current, using a trolling motor to keep the boat a pole's length away from the bank, and run the lure back and forth along the shore, keeping the lure as close as possible and working it in and around the cover.
Doodlesocking has several advantages over conventional casting in a situation like this. First and foremost, it allows you to cover every foot of the shoreline as you drift along, whereas you have to pick and choose spots when casting. Second, doodlesocking allows you to get right back in the face of a bass that just slashed at but missed your lure. Third, the shorter line lets you hook more fish, since there's very little chance for you to have any slack in the line. Fourth, you can get away with line that's a little heavier (I sometimes go with 25-pound-test when doodlesocking), and so can snatch your lure free of hangups more easily and effectively. And fifth, doodlesocking more often than not elicits violent strikes and - since you're right there on top of them when they occur - makes the fishing more exciting.
Now, a discussion of the various sections of the river and its tributaries:
BATESVILLE TO NEWPORT From Dam 1 at Batesville all the way to the mouth of Black River - approximately 35 miles - the river runs fairly cool, even in the hottest part of summer. This, of course, is mostly due to the influence of the cold-water releases from Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes, which provides the cold water that makes possible the upper White's phenomenal trout fishing. But the water is just the right temperature to keep the Kentuckys and largemouths (and an occasional adventurous smallmouth) happy and in a feeding mood, and anglers in the know do well here by drifting with the current and fishing the steep banks.
Crawfish-imitating crankbaits with chartreuse or orange bellies are effective lures here, as are spinnerbaits and, early and late in the day, topwaters. Because of the cooler water, this stretch of river often provides active fishing even in the heat of the day.
About eight miles downstream from Batesville, Salado Creek joins the river on the west bank. Fishable in a small boat for a considerable distance upstream, this stream's a good one for both bass and panfish action. The doodlesocking technique isn't usually very effective here, but by switching over to an ultralight outf
it, you can have a busy time of it with largemouths, Kentuckys, smallmouths and a wide variety of panfish along the shady banks and deeper holes. There's usually much less current in the creek than there is in the river, so smaller lures and lighter equipment are more effective. Salado is a great place to escape the worst of the blazing midday heat, since the creek is narrower than the river and there's more overhanging shade.
Three public boat ramps provide access to this stretch of the river - at Batesville, Oil Trough and Jacksonport State Park.
BLACK RIVER This major tributary comes down from Missouri and flows through delta farmland for most of its journey through Arkansas before merging with the White just upstream from Newport. In a normal summer, the Black runs considerably "dirtier" than does the White, with much more of a silt load. Even so, the Black is very fishable for many miles above its mouth during summer's low flows, providing notable bluff-bank action and fishing conditions similar to those on the White.
The only two public ramps giving anglers access to the Black are the ramp at Jacksonport State Park on the White (less than a mile downstream from the Black's mouth) and at Elgin Ferry, about 20 miles upstream on Highway 932.
NEWPORT TO AUGUSTA In this 55-mile stretch, the White begins to get a little warmer and takes on more color as the water of Black River exerts its influence ever more. Under some conditions, the west bank of the White remains moderately clear and cool for several miles, while the east bank is darker, browner and warmer from the influx from the Black.
The fishing's fine on both banks, although, owing to a complex mix of factors it's often better on one or the other side. Try both to see what's working best on the day you go out. In any case, the mixing of the two rivers is complete by the time you get five or so miles downstream from the mouth of the Black, and at that point there's no difference in conditions on either side, so just fish the structure of the bluff banks as was previously discussed.
Along toward Augusta, the river widens and deepens, so both the current and your rate of drift will begin to slow noticeably. This makes the fishing a little easier, and you can hit more of the good spots as you drift past. The slower current also gives you more lure options. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits and topwaters remain effective; jig-and-pig combos, plastic worms, lizards and grubs also have their moments.
All the streams that enter the river during this long stretch are small, and often their mouths are dry during low summer flows. But when you find one with water in it, it's worth exploring. Taylor Bay, a few miles upstream from Augusta, has silted in a lot and isn't what it once was, but its lower reaches near the river can still be worthwhile at times. Fishing here is more like fishing in an oxbow lake than in a river - because, essentially, that's what Taylor Bay is.
Public boat ramps on this long section of the White are located at Jacksonport State Park, Newport and Augusta, and there are two fee-access private ramps on Taylor Bay.
AUGUSTA TO DES ARC This crooked 60-mile stretch is a pretty respectable bass fishery from Augusta to the mouth of the Little Red River, but the sudden influx of considerably cooler water seems to put a damper on the action for several miles below the Little Red. The action picks back up, however, below Georgetown (about nine miles downstream from the Little Red) and remains good all the way to Des Arc.
Generally speaking, the Little Red itself isn't worthy of much attention as a bass river, but Glaise Creek, only a mile upstream from the Little Red's mouth, can be of some interest when there's enough water in it. Farther downstream, Bayou Des Arc just upstream from the town of Des Arc can be fabulous if conditions are right.
Public boat ramps on this stretch of river are at Augusta, Georgetown and Des Arc.
DES ARC TO CLARENDON Below Des Arc, the White begins to take on more of the aspect of a lazy delta river, getting wider and browner and slower. The approximately 45 miles of river in this section are a favorite of many Arkansans. Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and Wattensaw WMA border much of the river in this stretch. The Basin, an old river cut at DeValls Bluff, provides excellent fishing under the right conditions.
Major streams entering the river here are Wattensaw Bayou (often dry in summer) and the Cache River itself. The lower seven miles of the Cache were channelized in the 1970s, but have somewhat recovered their original character. Except during periods of extremely low water, the fishing is usually active early and late in the day above the channelized portion. If the river is high enough, the fishing for Kentucky bass on the run through Seven-Mile Chute from the White to the Cache is fast, fun and fairly intense.
Public ramps are located at Des Arc, Wattensaw Bayou, Interstate Highway 40, DeValls Bluff and Clarendon.
CLARENDON TO ST. CHARLES On this 45-mile stretch running almost entirely through White River NWR, public ramps are scarce - but the fishing is excellent. Roc Roe Bayou, which enters the river seven miles below Clarendon, offers opportunity around its cypresses and buckbrush. Below Preston's Ferry, Cutbluff Slough provides access to a whole chain of oxbows. Poplar Creek enters the river just above Crockett's Bluff; Maddox Bay Chute enters three miles below the town. Both provide good action at higher river levels. To provide irrigation water, Stinking Bay, between Crockett's Bluff and St. Charles, is cut off from the river by a dam, but it still has serviceable fishing. It's accessible for a fee from a private ramp south of Crockett's Bluff.
Public ramps are located at Clarendon, Preston's Ferry and St. Charles.
ST. CHARLES TO THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER Running almost entirely through the original territory of the White River NWR, the final 50 miles of the White are the wildest of all. Partly because access is difficult here, this stretch makes for some fine bluff-bank fishing.
Indian Bay enters the river several miles below St. Charles to offer promising fishing around its buckbrush banks. Farther downstream, Big Island Chute, which splits from and then re-joins the river, hosts solid fishing for Kentuckys when the water's at the proper level - which, unfortunately, it rarely is in late summer. Scrubgrass Bayou enters the river on the east bank at about Mile 20, and if there's enough water in the river for you to get into it, you'll find some worthwhile, if difficult, fishing. LaGrue Bayou enters the river about 15 miles from its mouth, offering good fishing in the lower reaches, and at about Mile 10 the Arkansas River barge canal enters, providing access to Merrisach Lake, Post Lake and the Arkansas River itself.
The fishing below the mouth of the barge canal
isn't usually as good as that above it, and for the next few years it's going to be further hampered by the construction of the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam - a federal boondoggle that will likely damage the fishing on the lower 20 miles or so of the White. But for now, anyway, it's still pretty good in the lower section above the barge canal, and whether you're fishing the upper end of the lower river at Batesville or way down below LaGrue, on the lower end, other fishermen won't make much of a contribution to traffic on the river at this time of year. All in all, this is a good time for getting to know this part of the state.
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