With spring now upon us, those of us who love fishing for black bass (largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass) are getting a hankering to get out on the water and do some chunkin' and reelin'. To get started, we need to decide which of the Natural State's many first-rate bass-fishing waters will be on our fishing itineraries this year. There are scores of phenomenal fisheries from which to choose in Arkansas, but all of us have limited fishing time, and we need to narrow the field to some choice locations where we'll have the best chances for success.
Nostradamus I'm not, but having fished for Arkansas bass for nearly half a century now, and having wet a hook in darn near every lake and stream in the state, I think I can predict with some degree of certainty that the following waters will produce noteworthy catches of largemouth, smallmouth and/or spotted bass this year. These lakes and rivers are on my 2012 must-fish list — and they should be on yours too.
Location: This 40,000-acre reservoir, the largest lake entirely within the boundaries of Arkansas, stretches from Hot Springs west to Mount Ida.
Fishing facts: This is my favorite Arkansas bassin' hotspot — and a favorite of thousands of other anglers — for several reasons. First, it's among the very few places in the state with healthy populations of all three species of black bass. Second, it's surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, and that makes it one of the Natural State's most scenic bass lakes. And third, big bass are always a possibility, especially trophy-class largemouths. It's not unusual to catch a 7- or 8-pounder. And while 10-pound largemouths aren't common, they do surface occasionally. Big smallmouths are present, but hard to come by. Yet Lake Ouachita has lots of spotted bass weighing 4 pounds and more that savvy anglers catch with great frequency.
(RELATED: Tips, Tactics, and More from the Game & Fish Bass Page)
Tactical tips: Most Ouachita anglers begin their search for spring largemouths "in the moss" — beds of coontail and elodea. A fishfinder can help you pinpoint these mats of vegetation, which are in 15 or 20 feet of water, often around the lake's many islands and coves. Many locals favor a deep-diving, minnow-imitation crankbait like the XCalibur Fat Free Fry for fishing that submerged vegetation. To use one, locate a weedbed, move away from it a few yards, cast the lure, crank it down deep and bring it in with a stop-and-go retrieve. Work the lure right along the top of the vegetation; the bass will come up out of the moss to nail it.
Ouachita's smallmouths and spotted bass usually are found deeper than largemouths, often on rocky ledges, points and humps. Some may hold as deep as 40 feet, and the best way to catch them is dropping live crawfish into their feeding zone. Many lures entice them as well, including crawfish crankbaits, jig-and-pig combos and small spoons.
Location: Encompassing 7,000 acres and 134 miles of shoreline, this 12-mile-long southwest Arkansas lake is in Pike County between Kirby and Murfreesboro.
Fishing facts: Greeson is less than a fifth the size of Lake Ouachita, yet there are plenty of nice largemouths and spotted bass to make any day on the water exciting. I've fished the lake often in recent years, and on some days my fishing companions and I have landed dozens of nice spotted bass and the occasional trophy largemouth. Smaller bass are the norm, but an angler might catch 50 or more on a good day of fishing.
Tactical tips: With a good fishfinder and some time, visiting anglers can pinpoint good cover and structure such as humps, manmade fish attractors and bottom channels that concentrate bass. Good areas to try include the Rock Creek arm on the west side, Self Creek on the north and the Bear Creek and Kirby Landing areas on the east.
In spring, many bass are caught in rocky shallows near shore, often on long, sloping points by anglers using crankbaits and other lures that imitate shad or crawfish, the two primary types of bass forage in the lake.
Spotted bass there, like those in Ouachita, typically stay in deeper, rocky haunts, and so live crawfish are the best enticements. Jigging spoons, jigs and other lures that can be worked with vertical presentations are local favorites as well.
Location: Millwood covers 29,200 acres in Howard, Hempstead, Little River and Sevier counties in Arkansas' southwest corner, 28 miles north of Texarkana.
Fishing facts: An excursion on this legendary lake is likely to produce an outstanding catch of largemouth bass, including some of the lunkers to 10 pounds and more that attract anglers from throughout the tri-state area of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Intensive management by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission produces big, bountiful bass.
Tactical tips: With the exception of a large, open-water area near the dam, almost all of Millwood is blanketed with timber. Bass can be found throughout the lake in good habitat, but some of the most popular bass fishing areas include the timbered channel drops near the east end of Okay Boat Lanes North and South, the Hickory Slough area north of Yarborough Landing, and the timbered flats on the west end of lake.
If you're a first-time visitor, it's a good idea to visit with personnel at the state park marina or other boat docks to pick up fishing tips for the time of your visit. Those folks will gladly assist you by sharing the wheres and hows of Millwood bassin' hotspots where bass are likely to be hitting, the best time of day for fishing, productive lures and so forth.
Location: This waterway stretches 304 miles through Arkansas' midsection, from the Oklahoma border near Fort Smith to the Mississippi River near Tichnor. It's divided into 12 pools by the locks and dams of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.
Fishing facts: The Arkansas River is well known as one of the finest largemouth bass fisheries in the U.S., and stepped-up management efforts by the AGFC are improving the quality of fishing even more. In every pool of the river, savvy anglers fishing cover and structure in the main river, shallow backwaters and tributary creeks can expect to catch good numbers of high-jumping largemouths. Spotted bass also are abundant in some areas, providing additional action for those wise to their ways.
Tactical tips: Many tactics can be used to catch Arkansas River bass, so many that we couldn't possibly cover them all here. In the 30 years I've been bass fishing there, I've had good luck fishing spinnerbaits, crankbaits and plastic worms around downed logs, riprap, channel/tributary junctions and other types of structure. The western half of the river in Arkansas serves up some excellent bass action, especially in Lake Dardanelle. The stretch I'm most familiar with, however, is from Murray Lock and Dam at Little Rock to Dam No. 2 near Dumas.
Pool 2 near Dumas is my favorite honeyhole, as this is the pool most likely to produce trophy bass sometimes weighing 10 pounds or more. The Pendleton area of that pool contains a variety of good bass-fishing areas, 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 logjams, flooded cypress, rocks, channels and flats to fish. Moore Bayou is three more miles downriver on the opposite side. Flooded timber is abundant, and if an angler likes shallow water, he'll 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 bass.
UPPER OUACHITA RIVER
Location: The Ouachita River begins life as a trickle of water just north of Mena near the Arkansas/Oklahoma border, but it's hardly even wadable until it nears Cherry Hill. Once it clears Cherry Hill, then Pine Ridge, the stream continues about 30 miles eastward, skirting the west Arkansas towns of Oden and Pencil Bluff, to below Sims, north of Mount Ida. The upper river completes its destiny to become lakes Ouachita, Hamilton, and Catherine in the Hot Springs area.
Fishing facts: When it's smallmouths I want, I head straight for this Ouachita Mountains river. In the more than 30 years I've been fishing there, I've caught hundreds of bronzebacks up to 5 and 6 pounds, with many 20- to 30-fish days.
Tactical tips: There are lots of big rocks, deep runs under steep banks and downed timber that offer shade, food and protection from the current. That's where you'll find Ouachita's smallmouths. Live baits, particularly live crayfish, are good enticements, but any lure designed to imitate the smallmouth's natural prey usually proves productive. Plastic worms and salamanders, crayfish- and minnow-imitation crankbaits, and pork-frog/jig combinations are all worth trying.
BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER
Location: This Ozark Mountains river flows through 150 miles of scenic territory from near Boxley in Newton County to its junction with the White River near Buffalo City in Baxter County.
Fishing facts: The Buffalo, our country's first national river, is Arkansas' best-known smallmouth stream. Anglers can enjoy a relaxing float through gorgeous canyons with sky-high bluffs. Most smallmouths are welterweights, but there are plenty to be caught, and occasional lunkers to 5 or 6 pounds will be hooked when conditions are right.
Tactical tips: Anglers can make numerous one-day floats on this 150-mile-long river, all good for smallmouths. One of many good sections is the 10-mile Arkansas Highway 7 to Arkansas 123 stretch, with accesses at Carver and Hasty in Newton County. Another good stretch farther downstream covers 7 1/2 miles between Buffalo Point and Rush in southeastern Marion County. The scenery astounds, smallmouth fishing excels, and the trip is short and safe, perfect for families.
The variety of lures and live baits that will entice Buffalo brownies is nearly endless. My favorite is the venerable Arbogast Jitterbug. On a recent float, friends and I worked those surface plugs across the surface at night with a slow, steady retrieve and caught several smallmouths from 4 to 6 pounds. Fish there, as noted for the Ouachita River, working your lure near bass hideouts such as boulders and other current breaks.
LAKES DUNN AND AUSTELL
Location: Lakes Dunn and Austell in northeast Arkansas are two of the main attractions in Village Creek State Park, a 7,000-acre outdoor recreation retreat south of Wynne in Cross and St. Francis counties.
Fishing facts: Dunn covers only 65 acres, Austell only 85, but these small lakes exemplify the old saying, "Good things often come in small packages."
Both waters have produced numerous largemouth bass weighing more than 10 pounds, including a 15-pound-plus monster a local angler pulled out of Austell. Trophy action isn't what it was a decade or so ago, but bassin' remains excellent on these twin lakes. If you know your stuff and hit the lakes when conditions are ideal, it's quite likely you could catch the bass of a lifetime there.
Tactical tips: Look for bucketmouths in Lake Dunn around brushy points and in coves with dense stands of dead timber. The arm of the lake running north from the boat dock is productive at times, but most anglers seem to have their best luck fishing the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach.
Look for Austell lunkers to be hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach. That arm has produced several of the lake's largest bass. Also productive are shallow timbered flats adjacent the creek channel running through Austell's southwest arm, two deep wooded coves on the lake's south side, and around logs and brush adjacent the riprapped dam.
Top lures for bass at Austell and Dunn are weedless offerings. That's because the fish tend to hole up in the tightest cover they can find. Try plastic lizards or worms, jig-and-pork frog combinations and slow-moving spinnerbaits.
And be sure to maintain a firm grip on your rod. Big bass there have been known to deep-six the tackle of complacent anglers!