January 26, 2017
As duck season fades to a memory and archery deer season creaks to its usual cold finish, most Arkansas sportsmen are dreaming about fishing.
In fact, many of us have already gotten a head start on our fishing counterparts, and we've got some exciting stories to tell as we savor tasty filets from the bass, crappie and walleyes we've caught.
Don't let the cold weather discourage you. The days are getting longer and warmer, and you won't notice the chill when the fish are biting.
We've got great largemouth bass fishing all over Arkansas, and some fabulous places to catch smallmouths, too. A mess of fried Kentucky bass would help take the chill off a cold winter night.
Speaking of skillets, we've got some fine walleye fishing in many lakes and rivers, and even better crappie and bream fishing.
If I want to give my tackle a real workout, I can catch big stripers and hybrids, and some huge catfish, too.
I can catch white bass, saugers and saugeyes around the state, and I can catch some monster brown trout in our White River tailwaters.
I'm tired of writing about it so I'm heading out. Here's where; I'll see you there!
White River Rainbows - Every January, I join Bill Eldridge, Rusty Pruitt and Ed Kubler for a long weekend of trout fishing on the White River between Rim Shoal and Buffalo Shoal.
Our base is Cedarwood Lodge near Flippin (870-453-7785), a plush and spacious lodge owned by Ken and Mary Ann Green.
The fishing is excellent this time of year for rainbow and brown trout. You usually can count on long periods of large-volume hydropower releases from Bull Shoals Dam during the days, but you can always catch fish somewhere.
Eldridge, Kubler and I spend the days catching rainbows in the shoals with Gulp! Alive! baits. If the generators are idle, we anchor behind big rocks at Buffalo Shoal and fish a stationary pattern. If water is high, we drift the Gulp! baits over the shoals near the mouth of Crooked Creek.
In high water we also hunt for big browns and rainbows with stickbaits. My favorite is the Sebile Stick Shadd, but Luck-E-Strike RC Stix work too.
Bull Shoals Stripers
Thanks to a controversial stocking program conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation, Bull Shoals Lake has quietly become the state's hottest striper fishery in recent years.
It is common to catch stripers exceeding 40 pounds, and nobody will be surprised if the big White River reservoir doesn't produce a 70-pounder or better in the near future. Rodney Ply of Diamond City caught one in 2012 that reportedly weighed 68 or 69 pounds, which would easily beat the current record of 64-8, but several miscues prevented Ply's fish from being certified.
Nevertheless, fish of the same year-class will have grown during the past five years.
You can catch big stripers right now on umbrella rigs with soft-plastic swimbaits, or by trolling single swimbaits. If you go far up to the skinniest parts of the White River near Lead Hill, you can catch them with hard, jointed swimbaits or big soft-plastic swimbaits.
You will need tough line and heavy tackle to handle these brutes, but you can come away with the fish of a lifetime.
MARCH - Blue Mountain Lake Crappie
For many years, anglers disregarded Blue Mountain Lake as a "dead sea," but it is now one of the state's hottest crappie lakes.
An impoundment of the Petit Jean River near Danville, Blue Mountain Lake was very low for a number of years after a drawdown that coincided with prolonged droughts. Vegetation grew up on dry land, and when the lake refilled, it rejuvenated the fishery.
In March, crappie are moving to the bank to spawn. Look for them around any kind of cover near the bank, including fallen trees and large rocks. You also can catch them near the bases of standing trees.
My favorite way to catch them is to fish 1/64-ounce white marabou jigs under a pencil bobber near the tops of fallen trees. I move along the trunk toward the shore until I find the fish, and when I do, I find them in bunches.
APRIL - Lake Conway Crappie
Crappie continue biting well into April across the state, and we'll catch a cooler full at Lake Conway, between Conway and Little Rock.
Since crappie are still spawning, we'll catch them with the same baits and techniques that we used at Blue Mountain Lake.
The hottest spot for crappie in recent years has been a big cove up Gold Creek near Mayflower. Aquatic grassbeds lining the shore make ideal crappie spawning habitat, and you can catch some big ones with live minnows fished shallow under slip-corks or by tightlining light tube jigs or marabou jigs.
You'll move slowly down the bank and pick up a fish at a time, but it doesn't take long for another crappie to move up and take its place.
There's also a hump in the middle of the cove that is good for slow-trolling jigs or minnows on spider rigs.
MAY - DeGray Lake Hybrids
This month you can enjoy the next best thing to saltwater fishing by hanging into big hybrid stripers at DeGray Lake near Bismarck and Arkadelphia. This big impoundment of the Caddo River is very similar to lakes Ouachita and Hamilton. It is deep, clear and rocky, and it is also famous for its hybrid fishery.
Catching them is easy. Finding them is the hard part. Look for schools hitting the surface in the morning and catch them with thick spoons weighing up to 2 ounces.
This is now Big Sam Richardson and J.O. Brooks do it almost every day. Hurl the spoon as far as you can and let it sink to the bottom. Hybrids will follow it down, and one might hit the spoon as soon as you start to retrieve it. You can count on catching fish in the 4- to 8-pound range, and they'll give you an epic battle on medium to medium-heavy tackle and 10-pound-test line.
JUNE - Beaver Lake Smallmouths
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocked smallmouth bass in a narrow portion of Beaver Lake in the early 1990s, and that experiment blossomed into a highly successful and exciting fishery.
June is a good time to catch them in the lower end of the lake on all manner of tackle. At dawn, you can have a blast catching 2- to 4-pound smallmouths on stickbaits on the sides and at the ends of main-lake points. They'll also hit stickbaits and crankbaits near shore on windswept banks.
You can catch them offshore in deep water with soft plastics on Carolina rigs or shaky head rigs.
Wind can be challenging when fishing deep structure in the middle of the day, but a good graph and mastery of a trolling motor can keep you on station to catch fish that might need a little extra cajoling.
These fish are brown and brawny, and catching them is a real treat.
JULY - Arkansas River Largemouths
When bass fishing shuts down on our lakes in the middle of summer, it comes alive on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System. That's a system of impoundments of the Arkansas River stretching from Catoosa, Okla., almost to the Mississippi River, and includes lakes Dardanelle and Ozark.
Water flows diminish in the summer, and the water gets very clear. You can catch largemouths with jigs on the outer edges of wing dams that divert current to the middle. You can also catch bass that are chasing baitfish along the upstream sides of the wing dams.
In the evenings, near downtown Little Rock, bass often herd baitfish onto the sandbars near LaHarpe Boulevard, and you can catch them on swimbaits, buzzbaits, spinnerbaits and topwater plugs like Zara Spooks and Zara Puppies.
You can catch big fish off shallow cover like stickups and laydowns too.
To escape the heat, try fishing in the shade of the cypress and tupelo trees in the Little Maumelle arm near Little Rock, off River Valley Road.
AUGUST - Little River Catfish
The weather is as hot as a $100 Rolex this month, but you can catch a mess of catfish on the Little River below Millwood Dam.
River catfishing depends on flow in the summer, and that can be spotty in a dry summer.
Just a little flow through the gates can generate enough current to energize baitfish and prompt catfish to feed.
Start your day throwing a cast net to get shad or skipjacks. Cut them into chunks and attach them to a large hook. Attach a large bell weight to the line terminal and tie a dropper line 12-18 inches above the sinker. A three-way swivel is best for the dropper line to prevent your line from twisting in the current.
You'll also want a stiff rod — like a Shakespeare Ugly Stick — and a saltwater bait-casting reel.
Drop anchor from the bow, facing upstream. Throw the bait parallel to the boat and let the current carry it downstream. A catfish will find it eventually, and bites will be plentiful.
SEPTEMBER - Lake Maumelle White Bass
Fishing is great for largemouths and crappie in September at this reservoir west of Little Rock, but when a big school of white bass breaks the surface, you can't resist.
The best time and place to experience a good white bass brawl is in the last two hours of daylight near the lower end of the lake across from Jolly Rogers Marina. White bass will chase baitfish to the surface in schools that can cover half an acre. It's pointless to predict the direction they are going because they'll be one place for 30 seconds and then resurface elsewhere 15 minutes later.
If you're in that area, they'll generally be near enough to throw a lure to, at least close enough to get their attention. My favorite is a bone-colored Zara Puppy. It's the right size and color to match the baitfish, and it's a ton of fun to watch a 2- to 3-pound white bass blow up on a small topwater plug.
OCTOBER - Bull Shoals Smallmouths
Table Rock has the best smallmouth bass fishing on the White River system, but Bull Shoals is close.
This vast White River reservoir is a textbook example of the rocky and pea-gravel habitat that smallmouths love, and they are aggressive in October as they fatten up for winter.
They get increasingly active as the water cools, and you can catch them with suspending jerkbaits and deep-diving, wide-bodied crankbaits, like the Storm Wiggle Wart.
In the mornings, they also hit big stickbaits, like a Red Fin, at the ends of long main-lake points and off islands. Fish them slow, with just enough motion to make a big V on the surface. You'll be amazed at how viciously a smallmouth will hit such a big bait.
If the fish are deep, try 3- to 5-inch swimbaits on 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigs.
NOVEMBER - Bear Creek Lake Largemouths
Covering only 625 acres, this little lake atop Crowley's Ridge in Lee County is full of largemouth bass, and there's not a better time to fish it.
The crowds are gone, the campgrounds are empty, and the bass are fattening up for the winter. You can catch them with anything you care to throw, including Luck-E-Strike RC crankbaits, RC stickbaits, Zoom Brush Hawgs, plastic worms, and jigs. Bring buzzbaits, too, because the cool weather and soft sunlight will bring the bass shallow to hit noisy lures on top.
Because of its small size and the cozy nature of its cover, Bear Creek Lake is ideal for fishing from a kayak. In this way you can slow down and fine-tune some of your favorite techniques in a place that virtually guarantees a very high level of success.
The lake is chockfull of bass so do the fishery a favor and keep a few of the little ones to eat by the campfire. I can't think of a better way to spend a mid-autumn day.
DECEMBER - Lake Hamilton Hybrids
On a cold morning when the fog is thick in the air, launch your boat at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Hatchery Ramp on the lower end of the lake and head to the mouth of Hot Spring Creek.
Once there, toss a silver jigging spoon a short distance and let it sink to the bottom. Bring it back in short hops until your line comes even with the boat and then suspend the spoon about 6 inches off the bottom.
Chances are you'll get a strike from a hybrid striper ranging from 4 to 8 pounds. That action will last until the sun clears the neighboring ridges. You'll get enough excitement to make you smile all the way to New Years.
Here's the deal, though. You'll need fairly light line and tackle. That's fine for hybrids, but there's a good chance of hanging into a striper of 20 pounds or better.
If you land that fish, good. If not, you just tie on another spoon and try again. It's been a great year for fishing, and this is a superb way to go out on a high note!