What a great month to be an angler in our state! Take your pick of species for April fishing in Arkansas.
Fishing in Arkansas is like an all-you-can eat buffet. The selection is so vast and the quality so good that you can hardly decide what to sample first.
Welcome to the angler's April dilemma, when all of our most popular game fish are in shallow water, close to the bank and fairly concentrated. Best of all, they are aggressive and eager to take a bait.
It's so easy to catch fish in the Natural State this month.
If you can cast and retrieve, if you are patient and willing to learn, then April is the month that can turn an occasional or novice angler into an enthusiast.
In short, April is the magic month when it's almost impossible to go wrong.
Here are some of our favorite places to wet a line this month.
OUACHITA RIVER: WALLEYES AND MORE!
Without a doubt, the upper Ouachita River above Lake Ouachita is my favorite place in Arkansas to fish from mid-March to early May. Why? Because you can catch walleyes, trophy striped bass, white bass, hybrid stripers, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and panfish in very compressed sections of water.
In April 2017, it all came together for a month of truly magical fishing.
The first couple of trips I made were in late March with my friend Rusty Pruitt, a commercial lending officer for Bancorp South in Little Rock.
Because of its shallow, rocky shoals, the upper Ouachita is very hard to reach with a propeller-driven boat. You need a jet-drive outboard to get there from the AR-27 access, and that's a long, boring ride.
Or, you can do what I do and launch a canoe or flatbottom at an undeveloped dirt access. My vessel for this work is a 10-foot MichiCraft square-stern canoe powered by a 2-horsepower Honda 4-stroke. It can go anywhere, and, if necessary, you can pull it through shallow shoals and rapids.
On our first visit, Pruitt and I caught and released a big mess of smallmouth bass at the bottom of a shoal in a place known locally as "Striper Corner."
In 2009, I caught and released a 19-pound striper on 6-pound-test line, but it's also a great walleye hole in the spring because walleyes throng into these waters to spawn. If the water is high enough, you can catch them all the way to River Bluff Access.
My next visit was last March with Chris Larson of Little Rock. We took the long ride in his jet-drive aluminum boat and enjoyed the most fabulous day of fishing I have ever experienced in fresh water.
With my customary walleye rig, consisting of a light-action rod and 6-pound-test line, I first hooked up with a striper that was well north of 20 pounds. It took nearly one hour to land the thing.
We went up to the next pool and caught smallmouth bass, plus another striper that I did not land.
Then we returned to the lower pool where I caught two big walleyes. The last fish of the day was another striper that I fought for one hour. It took us downstream through two pools and three sets of rapids.
When I finally got it to the boat, Larson's net was too small. The fish still had plenty of fight, and it was unsafe to drift through the next rapid, so I had to break it off.
My personal best striper was in the mid-40-pound range. This one was in that class.
The next week, Pruitt said, "I'd sure like to see that Striper Corner one last time this spring."
We went a few days later and spent an entire day catching smallmouth bass and several largemouths in the 3- to 4-pound range. We also caught white bass. We topped it off with a trio of big walleyes that hit Rapala Shad Raps.
You can experience the same thing in the White River headwater of Bull Shoals Lake, and in its big secondary tributaries, and also in the Lake Hamilton headwaters below Blakely Dam, and in the upper Caddo River above DeGray Lake.
DeGray doesn't have stripers, but it does have big hybrids that migrate upstream for a false spawning run. You'll find them, walleyes and white bass in the same waters.
BIG RESERVOIR CRAPPIE
DeGray Lake is also an excellent place to catch a big mess of tasty crappie, as is its twin sister, Lake Greeson, near Murfreesboro.
Like almost every lake, anglers have seeded DeGray and Greeson with vast numbers of brushpiles and other structures that attract crappie.
The spawn is in various stages in the state from north to south, and it arrives first at Greeson, which is farther south. DeGray is next in line latitudinally, followed by the Diamond Lakes — Catherine, Hamilton and Ouachita.
With an electronic graph, look for brushpiles on wide flats that have deep water nearby. Crappie stage in the brush during the pre-spawn and return to the brush to recover in post-spawn. Use multiple lines with live minnows under bobbers rigged to suspend at various depths and slowly troll across the brush. Crappie fishing guides on these lakes have their poles color-coded to their bobbers so that they know the depth at which fish are most consistently biting. When they dial in the right depth, they rig all their lines to that particular depth.
The results can be spectacular. Every rod can go down at once, and anglers practically knock each other over trying to reach a plunging rod. The fish are almost always big, and you can fill a cooler in a hurry.
Well farther north, at Lake Conway, the spawn can be in full stride. Look for spawning slabs in openings in shoreline grassbeds. You can catch them with 1/16- to 1/32-ounce jigs with small plastic tubes, or with live minnows dangled under long rods. You'll need the long rods to avoid getting too close to the fish and spooking them.
Away from the bank you can find crappie staged in deep brushpiles. You can catch them by trolling spider rigs across the tops or with the same coded rod/bobber setup used at lakes Greeson and DeGray.
If you're in a part of the lake where there aren't any brushpiles, you can find staging crappie at the bases of dead trees, cypress trees, and in root wads and tops of fallen trees near channels.
Still farther north at Lake Dardanelle, Alan Thomas and I look for crappie among brushpiles in Piney Creek and Illinois Bayou. Our favorite technique is to tie a bell sinker to the terminal end of the main line and attach dropper lines in staggered depths. We put crappie hooks on the droppers and use minnows. It eliminates a lot of guesswork about depth because it pretty much ensures you'll have at least one minnow in a strike zone.
If you get hung up, you probably will lose only one dropper line instead of the entire rig.
In the northern lakes — Beaver, Bull Shoals and Norfork — crappie will be near woody cover near the bank. Catch them with live minnows or marabou jigs under slip-bobbers in depths of 3 to 6 feet near downed trees.
LITTLE RED RIVER TROUT
Volumes are written about trout fishing on the White River, and that causes many anglers to bypass the fine fishing on a river much closer to Little Rock.
The Little Red River is a great place to catch stocker-sized rainbows, but it is best known for its trophy brown trout. In fact, it held the all-tackle world record — 40 pounds, 4 ounces — for many years.
Pruitt and I fish the Little Red often. If there's no water coming through the hydropower generators at Greers Ferry Dam, we launch a boat at Barnett Access and motor upstream to Richey Shoal. We secure the boat and spend the afternoon fly-fishing in the riffles, laydowns and rootwads that define the area.
Pruitt does well fly-fishing with his "flashback" rig. It is a brown nymph with a strip of silver tinsel down the length of the back and a light split sinker a foot or so above. Trout usually hit it on the rise.
I prefer a small Rapala stickbait in brown trout pattern. It's a dependable brown trout catcher, but big rainbows seem to have a special affinity for it.
The trip back to Barnett Access involves long stretches of flat, deep water. It's full of rainbows, but some big trout live there, too. I catch rainbows with Gulp Alive! San Juan worms and other prepared baits.
If current is running, I break out a clear Sebile Flat Shadd. It is the best bait I've found for big browns, and they will abandon cover to smash it.
MOUNTAIN STREAM SMALLMOUTHS
A float-fishing trip on a mountain stream in the springtime is the quintessential Arkansas fishing experience.
The weather is warm and the hillside foliage is soft and pastel. The rivers usually run a bit high and stained in April, which entices big smallmouths from their deep lairs and makes them easier than usual to catch.
With access points staggered along its length, the Buffalo River is our most popular float stream. The best sections for fishing are from Woolum to Rush, and from Rush to the White River, if you have the time. There is no access in that 32-mile stretch, so it takes about three days to float and fish.
I use tube jigs with internal weights in heavy flow because they get to the bottom quickly and resist snagging. In moderate to low flow, I use Texas-rigged, 3-inch plastic lizards or Tiny Brush Hawgs with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce bullet sinkers.
The best places for soft plastics are at the mouths and tails of riffles because that's where smallmouths feed, but you can catch big fish in seams where swift water meets slow or slack water.
My favorite method for catching big smallmouths this month is with topwater lures. A Tiny Torpedo can be very effective, but my favorite is the Excalibur Zell Pop. Retrieve it as fast as you can with a popping, jerking motion that resembles baitfish fleeing from a predator. Smallmouths will come from afar to eat it.
This will surprise some folks, but topwaters can be deadly in riffles and rapids. Big smallmouths hunt in such shallow water in low light conditions, and they'll smack a topwater being retrieved upstream in the middle of the rocks.
Other places for great stream smallmouths in the Ozarks are Big Piney Creek and Crooked Creek. In the Ouachitas, try the Caddo and Ouachita River from Pencil Bluff to Rocky Shoals Access.