Time for Lunkers: Early Bass Fishing in Arkansas
February 02, 2018
Looking for great early bass fishing in Arkansas? Then tap into the action offered on these waters.
We call Arkansas "The Natural State," but we might just as well call it "The Bass State."
Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass inhabit thousands of acres of lakes and thousands of miles of streams in our homeland, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 194,000 adult resident anglers pursue these hard-fighting, high-jumping brawlers each year.
From the ranks of those anglers have come such well-known bass fishermen as Larry Nixon, George Cochran, Mark Davis, Ricky Green, Forrest Wood, Bobby and Billy Murray, Jerry McKinnis, Bill Norman and Cotton Cordell, each of whom cut their bass-fishing teeth on Arkansas waters famed for producing great catches of black bass.
Yes, if you're an Arkansas resident who enjoys bass fishing, you are fortunate, indeed, to live where so many great bassin' opportunities are available.
Even before the prime time spawning season in March and April, you can float a mountain stream and cast for acrobatic smallmouths, ply the depths of an upland lake for scrappy "Kentuckies" (spotted bass), or target brawling "bigmouths" in darn near any body of water within our borders.
Opportunities for exciting catches of numerous fish, including some true trophies, exist within a short drive of every Natural State angler. During the pre-spawn period, you're likely to find bass ravenous and ready to strike as winter wanes and warming waters bring on a burgeoning hunger.
Of course, some waters always seem to stand out from others in terms of their productivity. If you're hoping to catch a wallhanger, certain waters outshine their counterparts. If you aren't concerned about the size of your catch, other places serve up great "fish-a-minute" action where you can expect to hook and land dozens of bass during a few hours of fishing. Many rivers and lakes provide the best of both worlds — lots of bass, with enough heavyweights in the catch to keep things exciting.
To sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, we provide this compendium of hotspots for early season bass fishing in Arkansas.
Cast. Catch. Enjoy!
MILLWOOD LAKE LARGEMOUTHS
This 29,200-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment in southwest Arkansas' Howard, Hempstead, Little River and Sevier counties was one of the state's hottest locations for big largemouth bass in February and March last year.
As water temperatures slowly rise in late winter and early spring, largemouths begin moving from deeper winter holes to shallower spawning areas. Anglers often catch males running in and out of bedding areas in February, with the big females staging slightly deeper.
Male bass often stage on points and around bottom ditches and creek channels. Local anglers like to entice them with big bulky lizards, 10-inch plastic worms, Rat-L-Traps and slow-moving crankbaits. The key seems to be finding water that is 5 to 8 degrees warmer than surrounding areas.
Pre-spawn females typically stage a few feet deeper in creek channels running adjacent to timbered flats, and it's not unusual for savvy fishermen to catch several egg-filled mamas in the 5- to 9-pound range when conditions are ideal. Top spots are usually away from heavily stained water, with deeper sections of in-flowing creeks often producing the biggest largemouths.
Based on last year's fishing reports, more good lures to try include slim-minnow plugs like the Smithwick Rogue; chatterbaits in black/blue/purple and spring bream colors; big skirted, weedless jigs in combinations of blacks, blues, oranges and greens; willow-leaf spinnerbaits with gold blades and white/chartreuse or gold/white/black skirts; and soft-plastic jerkbaits in shades of green and gold.
Hotspots that produced lunker largemouths in early 2016 included pockets and coves near the lakeside golf course and Millwood State Park, and the McGuire Lake oxbow off Little River upstream from the main lake's west side.
For more information, visit arkansasstateparks.com/millwood/.
ARKANSAS RIVER POOL 2
LARGEMOUTHS AND SPOTS
Excellent early fishing for largemouth and spotted bass is available along the entire Arkansas River, from border to border. But if it's trophy-class fish you want, the lowest river pool in southeast Arkansas — Pool 2 — is among the best.
Pool 2 lies just above Dam 2 (the Wilbur Mills Dam), covers 10,600 surface acres and extends upstream 35.9 miles. This section of the Arkansas has a reputation for producing lots of bass in the 5- to 10-pound-plus range. The Pendleton area in particular contains a variety of good bass-fishing spots, including two huge off-river oxbows, Moore Bayou and the Coal Pile, as well as Merrisach Lake.
Coal Pile is on the right bank of the river (heading downstream) at about Mile 23. This area offers ideal bass habitat, with plenty of logs, cypresses, rocks, channels and flats to fish. Moore Bayou is three miles downriver on the opposite side. Flooded timber is abundant, and anglers who like shallow water will find it there.
Merrisach Lake, just above Lock No. 2, is on the Arkansas Post Canal, which leads out from Moore Bayou. Like Coal Pile and Moore Bayou, it is essentially shallow with heavy cover. And like its sister waters, it often produces giant early bass.
The only certainty when fishing this portion of the river is the unstable nature of the river itself. During late winter and early spring, the Arkansas and adjacent waters could be clear and stable, high and muddy or anywhere in between. Anglers with the best chance of catching fish are prepared to deal with whatever conditions the capricious river throws their way.
If spring rain and runoffs are heavy, and the river is high, anglers will probably be forced into backwater sloughs and off-river lakes where topwater plugs, buzzbaits and minnow-imitation crankbaits can be retrieved around timber, rocks, pilings and vegetation. Jig/pork-frog combos are good around fallen logs and treetops.
With more stable water conditions, backwaters will be good early and late with topwaters, buzzbaits and plastic worms. Midday patterns revolve around the main river channel and include riprap with crankbaits, worms or spinnerbaits, and flipping shoreline cover with worms.
When the weather is unseasonably warm, riprap wing dikes figure prominently in some anglers' game plans. These long walls of rocks often stretch perpendicular to the shore on both sides of the river, especially near dams and along bends.
Water around them ranges from 5 to 15 feet deep, and if the backwaters warm early, schools of bass probably will be holding near those rocky embankments. Crayfish and shad are attracted to these boulder-strewn hideouts, and so artificials imitating these forage animals are among the best bass catchers.
MOUNTAIN SMALLMOUTH STREAMS
Want smallmouths? Head straight for one of the dozens of streams flowing through the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains where bronzebacks are abundant and eager to bite this season.
One of the best in the Ozarks is Big Piney Creek. The section from Arkansas Highway 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1802) lies entirely within Johnson County northeast of Clarksville and covers about eight miles. The water upstream is fast and sometimes difficult to navigate, but on this stretch, the stream's pace slackens to allow casual fishing. Skittering a jig-and-pig across the bottom is a good way to nab some nice bronzebacks.
Buffalo National River, despite the hordes of canoeists that travel it each year, also serves up good Ozarks-style smallmouth fishing. Floaters are much fewer in late winter, and the average size of the bass you'll catch seems larger that season, too. Most will be 1- to 2-pounders, but my last float produced several topping 4 pounds, all caught on live crayfish.
One of many good sections for float-fishing is the 10-mile Highway 7 to Highway 123 stretch, with accesses at Carver and Hasty in Newton County. Another good stretch farther downstream covers 7.5 miles between Buffalo Point and Rush in southeastern Marion County.
Farther east in the Ozarks, the Spring River near Mammoth Spring on the Arkansas/Missouri border harbors an almost untapped bounty of smallmouths that sometimes tip the scales at 4 or 5 pounds.
Most folks come here for the excellent trout fishing, and many are unaware the Spring is a great smallmouth fishery, too. Anglers can put in at Many Islands Camp west of U.S. 63 between Hardy and Mammoth Spring (Fulton County) and float eight miles to Hardy Beach, a public park below the U.S. 62-167 bridge, to sample some of the best action.
Over in west Arkansas' Ouachitas, I'm particularly fond of the upper Ouachita River, a stream that has produced numerous wallhanger bronzebacks for me during several decades fishing there. Most locals prefer natural baits such as live crayfish and minnows.
However, any artificial designed to imitate the smallmouth's natural prey usually proves productive, including plastic worms and salamanders, crayfish- and minnow-imitation crankbaits, and crayfish-colored jig/pork-frog combos. Great action can be had on all of these, if you fish the 10-mile stretch from the Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden to Rocky Shoals Campground at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing.
I've enjoyed great smallmouth action on the Ouachitas' Little Missouri River, too, which has been set aside as part of our Natural and Scenic Rivers System.
Most sections require wade-fishing, but the 10- to 11-mile stretch from the Highway 84 bridge west of Langley down to Lake Greeson's Star-of-the-West Campground is perfect for canoeing and harbors plenty of feisty smallmouths within its rock gardens and deep pools. Blue-ribbon enticements include live crayfish and crayfish-imitation lures.
For river maps and a guide to outfitters providing canoe rentals and guided fishing, visit arkansas.com and click on Outdoors, then Canoeing, Rafting and Kayaking.
BULL SHOALS LAKE
Want to fish where you might catch all three species of Arkansas black bass? Bull Shoals Lake in Marion, Baxter and Boone counties on the Arkansas/Missouri border is one of the few waters here that harbors healthy populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Fish sampling and tournament information collected over the years show largemouths make up approximately 60 percent of the catch, spots 25 percent, and smallmouths 15 percent. With more than 45,000 acres to fish, it's not hard to find action away from the crowds, especially in winter.
An Alabama Rig dressed with small swimbaits is one of the favorite local bass catchers this time of year, especially for largemouths. Small crankbaits work great, and spinnerbaits with small willow blades when it's windy.
For smallmouths and spots, try finesse plastics or jigs, 1/2-ounce or smaller, on steep rock bluffs and points. If you can get your hands on some, live crayfish are top enticements for all three black bass species. Local bait shops sometimes carry them.
Local anglers are pretty tight-lipped about their favorite Bull Shoals fishing locations, and extremely variable weather and water conditions often dictate the best bass areas. Check the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission weekly fishing report at agfc.com to determine good options. The Web site and fishing report also provide good information for anglers visiting the other waters in this state.
We've only covered a few of the many great early season bass hotspots in Arkansas. Others you should check out include lakes Chicot, Hamilton, Catherine, Dunn, Austell and Ouachita (for largemouths); the Kings, Caddo and Saline rivers (smallmouths); and lakes Greeson and Norfork (spotted bass). Good fishing.