March 06, 2019
If you love freshwater fishing, you can’t find a better place than Arkansas.
We have almost everything you could want, from black bass to white bass, striped bass and hybrids; crappies; bream; walleyes; saugers; multiple species of trout; and catfish.
Better yet, we have some beautiful places to catch them.
Images by Vic Dunaway
Arkansas River | Sauger
Saugers congregate below the dams on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System, making it easy to catch tasty limits for the grill or frying pan.
Saugers bite best in cold, drizzly weather. Use long, light-action spinning rods with 6-pound-test line.
Saugers have sharp teeth and gill plates, so I also use braided leaders of 6-pound test to discourage breakoffs.
Try 1/8-ounce pink or chartreuse ball jigs tipped with live minnows. Cast into current near riprap and retrieve slowly, close to the bottom. Current is essential. If water isn’t flowing, proceed to the second option.
Access below the dams is excellent, so there’s plenty of room for anglers to chase them below Murray Lock & Dam at Little Rock, David D. Terry Lock & Dam near Scott and Toad Suck Ferry Lock & Dam at Conway.
Other Options:White River Rainbows: Troll small stickbaits near Buffalo Shoals for limits in frigid weather. Felsenthal Pool Largemouths: Fishing jigs around brush in rising water will catch bass up to 7 to 8 pounds.
Lake Catherine | Rainbow Trout
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocks about 12,000 rainbows below Carpenter Dam in Lake Catherine’s headwaters in February, making this one of west-central Arkansas’ hottest winter fishing spots.
The best fishing is from a boat, but you can catch limits of rainbows from the bank in low water with corn, wax worms, redworms or nightcrawlers. Low water is also great for fly fishing.
Power baits floated over the bottom under a bobber are effective, as are light jigs that imitate threadfin shad that are sucked through the hydropower turbines. Cast them across current flowing over and past exposed rock structure.
Trolling the main channel with shallow-running crankbaits that imitate crawfish or minnows is effective.
Because this is largely a put-and-take fishery, trout do not live long enough to get educated about lures, so they’ll bite almost anything here.
Other Options: Arkansas River Largemouths: Jerkbaits, small swimbaits and squarebill cranks work around main river jetties. DeGray Lake Hybrids: Troll small umbrella rigs with 4-inch white or pink/white curly-tailed grubs between Goat Island and Point Cedar.
Ouachita River | Striped Bass
As late-winter rains swell Ouachita River above Lake Ouachita, stripers go upstream for a false spawning run.
This was March’s top pick last year, and it earns a top spot this year, too.
In early March this past year, trolling rainbow trout Long A Bomber stickbaits in the first big pool below the fall line produced well for me.
Trolling stickbaits that imitate rainbow trout or shad is always effective, but big stripers will also hit 1.5-inch Tennessee shad-colored swimbaits.
Stripers weighing more than 40 pounds are possible, so heavy tackle is recommended. I use 60-pound braided line with a 17-pound mono leader.
Other Options:Bull Shoals Lake Walleyes: Troll stickbaits on light spinning tackle to catch spawning walleyes in major tributaries. Lake Saracen Crappies: Catch slabs with 1/16-ounce white hair jigs or minnows around bank cover.
Lake Conway | Largemouths
This 6,700-acre lake on Conway’s outskirts will only get better thanks to ongoing infusions of Florida-strain bass from the Game and Fish Commission.
In April, largemouths will be in various spawning stages. Catch bedding bass on the bank, pre-spawn fish staging in deeper water or post-spawn fish.
Target flats adjacent to bends along Palarm and Gold Creeks. You’ll find a lot of wood cover on the bottom with your electronic graph that provides excellent bass habitat, especially in the lower part of the lake. Bass always orient to standing timber, as well.
Use 3/4-ounce green pumpkin jigs and preferred trailers for thick-cover bass. Soft plastics work, too. Large tube jigs with internal weights are irresistible and virtually snag-proof.
Other Options:Beaver Lake Crappies: Dangle 1/16-ounce white hair jigs under bobbers over steep bankside cover. Little Maumelle River Largemouths: Bounce squarebill crankbaits off woody cover adjacent to the main channel for bigger bass.
DeGray Lake | Hybrids
Large schools of 4- to 8-pound hybrids corral shad on flats and in coves for some exciting action in the middle and lower parts of this impoundment.
There are many ways to catch them. Schooling fish on the surface will hit small topwater plugs like Zara Puppies, but that comes in spurts. Bigger fish below the schools will also hit small swimbaits and crankbaits.
The most reliable way to catch big hybrids is to throw 2-ounce spoons as far as you can. Let them sink to the bottom and then retrieve. Hybrids often follow a spoon to the bottom and hit on the rise. The most dependable color is a yellow and white two-tone scheme.
Heavy tackle helps bring fish from deep cover. I like 4000 series spinning reels with 60-pound (8-pound diameter) with 17-pound-test mono leaders.
Other Options:White River Oxbow Crappies: Dunk light jigs in shallow brushpiles for big crappies anytime. Merrisach Lake Largemouths: Drag soft plastic frogs across water hyacinth pads for southeastern giants.
Ouachita River | Smallmouths
Last summer the upper Ouachita River became my favorite smallmouth stream.
I’d heard about its greatness but never experienced it until last June, after three epic float fishing trips.
Water was quite low, but it seemed to augment conditions that brought big smallies into open water to feed.
I caught all my fish on a Whopper Plopper topwater lure. You don’t catch as many as with soft plastic lizards and crawdad imitators, but big smallmouths couldn’t resist it.
Best fishing was in the three-mile section above the Hwy. 270 Bridge and Rocky Shoals public access.
M&M Canoe Rental (870-326-4937) is the main outfitter on the Ouachita and has access to a lot of private land, so you can tailor the length of your float.
Other Options:DeGray Lake Shellcrackers: Big deep-water redears love crickets on light Carolina rigs. North Fork River Brown Trout: Catch browns on nymphs wade-fishing in low flow.
Maddox Bay | Largemouths
This oxbow lake in the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge South Unit has great bass fishing when reservoirs hit summer lulls.
As at any oxbow, fishing is pretty straightforward. Maddox Bay has a small sampler of cover in a short area, making it more diverse than most.
I start fishing at the boat ramp. In the mornings, largemouths often feed on shad and other items where the end of the concrete ramp meets the lake bed. From there, I throw 6- to 8-inch plastic worms under the boat dock.
An indentation in the bank contains a mess of broken up concrete and rebar — cover for bass. When you catch one, another takes its place.
I go back and forth like this for hours and usually catch and release 10-12 bass before lunchtime.
Other Options:Arkansas River Largemouths: Whenever it rains, hit backwaters with 10- to 12-inch worms. Lake Overcup Bluegills: Bluegills will spawn on the full moon and will take crickets in shallow cover.
White River | Rainbow and Brown Trout
A cold trout stream is great to beat August heat, and our destination is the White River, upstream from the Sylamore Access near Mountain View. It’s not highly regarded trophy water, but giants exist, and anglers seeking stocker ’bows mostly leave them be.
Water levels are usually low, with only a spurt of hydropower generation in the morning. Water will drop by mid-morning and remain stable through evening, which will concentrate trout in the shoals and pools.
In the day, catch rainbows by trolling stickbaits or casting buoyant spoons in pools or anchoring and fishing redworms on dropper rigs.
The real action happens at sundown, when big browns leave deep haunts to prowl for sculpins and even small trout in shoals. Fish with shad-colored stickbaits or Sebile Stick Shadds.
Other Options: Greers Ferry Hybrids: Throw small silver spoons for schooling surface hybrids. Pottsville Reservoir Largemouths: Small, shad-colored flukes at grass edges produce at dusk.
Lake Nimrod | Crappies
A Fourche LaFave River impoundment, Nimrod is one of our best crappie lakes, and it shines in September.
Electronics — a side-scan graph or a GPS with waypoints — is essential for finding brushpiles on flats adjacent to the main river and creek channels.
Anchor the bow and stern a few yards downwind of a brushpile and cast beyond it with a Tennessee shad-colored tube on a 1/32- or 1/64-ounce ball jig. Count the jig down until level with the top of the brush. Slowly reel it over the top. You’ll know it’s in the right spot when you feel it nick wood.
Crappies will rise and grab it. You won’t catch limits in September, but fish you do catch will be quality slabs.
Other Options:Little Red River Browns and Rainbows: Cast nymphs and small stickbaits in the riffles near Cow Shoals. Lake Dardanelle Channel Cats: Soaking stinkbaits on a bottom rig works well on main river bends.
Buffalo National River | Smallmouth Bass
School is in session, and the raucous crowds of summer are gone, leaving America’s first national river and its abundant smallmouth bass in solitude.
Every year I take an October float on the Buffalo with some friends, and it treats us to excellent numbers and quality of smallmouth bass. Our favorite stretch is from Spring Creek Access to Rush, where bass bite all day.
The river is usually low, and the current is gentle in October, allowing you to linger in the best holes and pockets. The most productive lures are YUM Craw Papis, Zoom Mini Lizards and Zoom Tiny Brush Hogs in watermelon/red flake or watermelon/candy. They’re great in constricted channels.
For topwater lures, a Whopper Plopper reigns supreme. A small chugging plug is almost always good for a lunker in the early morning fog, too.
Other Options:Black River Kentucky Bass: Big “spots” can’t resist soft plastic grubs when the water clears. Lake Charles Largemouths: Try buzzbaits or swim jigs off the bank on overcast days, especially in the rain.
Lake Ouachita | Smallmouth Bass
Many years ago, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocked Tennessee River-strain smallmouth bass in the lower end of Lake Ouachita to create a trophy smallmouth fishery.
The fish vanished, anglers forgot about them, and it seemed a failure.
In 2018, they finally showed up in the form of 3 1/2- to 5-pound smallies. They’ll only get bigger, as it’s unlawful to keep them on Lake Ouachita.
In November, smallmouths feed aggressively around varied and abundant rock cover near Brady Mountain and elsewhere in the extreme lower end.
Throw topwaters and big wake baits like a C-10 Cordell Red Fin in the morning.
Soft plastic swimbaits are the most dependable smallmouth lures this month. Any shad color with a tint of lime, pearl or lemon will work, as will traditional smallmouth offerings like crawdad-colored soft plastics and spoons.
Other Options: Norfork Lake Walleyes: Try small spoons and jigs with grub trailers on creek and river bends. Millwood Lake Largemouths: Chunky bass hit big spinnerbaits around standing timber next to creek channels.
Lake Hamilton | Hybrids
My best hybrid trip was on Christmas Eve, at the mouth of Hot Springs Creek. The fog was white-out thick, but a massive school of big hybrids was camped on a big flat.
My fishing partner and I threw spoons a short distance, let them sink to the bottom and then reeled up the slack until they dangled about three inches off the bottom.
The strikes were swift and exceedingly violent, and the action persisted well into the morning before the fog lifted and sunlight dispersed the baitfish on which the hybrids keyed.
Every fish weighed a minimum of four pounds, but we caught several in the 8- and 9-pound range.
Of course, Lake Hamilton’s giant stripers run with hybrids this time of year, and they snapped the line with ease.
Since then, I always make at least one hybrid outing on Hamilton around Christmas time, and they always deliver.
Other Options: Beaver Tailwater Rainbows: Stockers will hit Powerbait, Trout Magnets and nymphs all winter. Lake Enterprise Crappies: Sweep spider rigs tipped with live minnows around cypress trees and brush.
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