January 26, 2015
Our climate is right for yearlong fishing, and we have 12 months worth of opportunities. Excellent largemouth fishing is available anywhere, anytime on big lakes, small lakes, rivers and streams. Smallmouth bass and Kentucky bass, too!
We've got giant stripers in our big lakes and on the Arkansas River. We've got big white bass/striped bass hybrids on many lakes, and white bass practically everywhere. We have some of the best walleye fishing in the country, as well as some excellent sauger and saugeye fishing.
We have some of the best trout fishing in the world in the White River tailwaters, but we also have some excellent cold-weather seasonal trout fisheries in southwest Arkansas.
Catfish? They're everywhere. Ditto for crappie, and double ditto for bream.
To help you plan your outings, look over our calendar that shows you some of the best opportunities. Check these off your list, and make a new list of your own destinations.
Lake Hamilton Hybrids
Lake Hamilton is a popular party lake in the summer, but it's deserted in the winter, which means you'll have world-class fishing for white bass/striped bass hybrids to yourself. Anglers know what they're missing, but apparently most don't want to deal with the cold.
Hybrids often school in the mornings when anglers can catch them on the surface with small topwater plugs, crankbaits and in-line spinners. Bigger fish lurk from the middle depths to the bottom. To catch those, you can't beat a heavy spoon. It excludes the small fish on the surface and gets down quickly to the big fish waiting to pounce on wounded and struggling shad.
You can jig the spoon a foot or so off the bottom, or you can cast it a long distance and retrieve it up through the school. That greatly enhances your chances of catching hybrids starting at 4 pounds.
Keep your drag set loose, though, because stripers run with this crowd, too. There's a chance of sticking a striper that weighs 40 to 50 pounds!
Saline River Walleyes
Walleye fishing in north Arkansas gets all the press, while the excellent walleye fishing in central Arkansas remains a well-kept secret. You can experience it yourself less than a half-hour from downtown Little Rock on the Saline River at Benton.
Walleyes begin their spawning run up the Saline this month. Most anglers concentrate around the lowhead dam upstream from the I-30 access, but there's also some excellent fishing in the shoal areas between Prattsville and Benton, and also upstream from the Benton Water Works, from Lyle Park to the fall lines of the North and Alum forks of the Saline.
You can catch big walleyes trolling stickbaits through the deep pools, but you can catch them with big minnows on bottom rigs in the shoal areas too.
While many anglers sit in anchored boats waiting for walleyes to grab a minnow, some anglers do well casting and stripping light-colored streamers on fly rigs. It's an unconventional tactic in these parts, but it can be very effective when fish are active and aggressive.
White River Brown Trout
Every year, a group of outdoor media types convene at Gaston's White River Resort for two days of superb trout fishing that always satisfies.
We catch our share of stocker-sized rainbows for the daily shore lunches, but each of us always catches at least one bragging-sized brown trout, too.
Catching big browns depends on current from the hydropower releases from Bull Shoals Dam. Those fish come out from their hideyholes to hunt in high water, but the fishing is best on the rise.
Anglers have the most success catching big browns with Excalibur or Lucky Craft stickbaits. Last year I gave them a different look with a Sebile Stick Shadd in natural shiner color. It's a lipless jerkbait that sinks to about 4 feet, and at 5/16 ounce, you can cast it a mile. Its belly has a slight keel that makes the lure dive and dart when you jerk the rod tip. It has rattles, but the body cavity also contains glitter suspended in a clear, heavy solution that flashes brilliantly under water. The liquid flows back and forth through the body, so it constantly changes the center of gravity and makes the lure move unpredictably.
In consecutive casts I caught two browns measuring 21 and 23 inches, respectively.
When water is high and muddy, cast stickbaits in clear water next to the bank and jerk them through the mudline. Browns prowl those transition areas looking for anything that might make an easy meal.
Ozark Reservoirs Largemouths
Thanks to several strong spawns in recent years, bass fishing on Bull Shoals and Beaver lakes is better than it's been since the lakes were new. We've seen evidence of it over the last four years at two Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments at Bull Shoals, and at the annual FLW Tour events at Beaver. Those were all April tournaments, and it took heavy limits just to contend. That also translates to great fishing for recreational anglers, too.
Those fish are all in their prime now, so 5- to 7-pounders are fairly common.
In April, bass stage on main-lake points and main tributary points to spawn. Once you find them, you can catch them with anything, including stickbaits, square-billed crankbaits, swimbaits, umbrella rigs, jigs and worms. When you catch a bass from a piece of cover or structure, another one will move in quickly to take its place, so you don't have to run and gun to find fish.
We should include Table Rock Lake in this list, too. It's mostly in Missouri, but with a $10 White River Border Lakes permit, you can fish all three without having to buy a separate non-resident Missouri fishing license.
Lake Dardanelle Largemouths
Considered Arkansas's best bass lake, this giant Arkansas River impoundment impressed the anglers of the Bassmaster Elite Series last spring with its ample supply of big largemouths.
In May, Dardanelle's largemouths are firmly in their post-spawn period. You'll find them suspended around big schools of baitfish on main-lake points, and those are great places to catch fish from 3 to 7 pounds.
Swimbaits are excellent choices for this period. However, bass key on specific sizes of baitfish, and so it's important to match your baits to the size of shad the bass are eating. Umbrella rigs with multiple swimbaits are fine tools for catching big bass from suspended schools.
Of course, bass that spawned early have already moved into their summer patterns. You can catch them with big plastic worms and lizards in rocky cover in the Strip Pits north of I-40. That is a favorite tactic for Tyrone Phillips of Little Rock.
Grassbeds in Shoal Bay and Delaware Bay are excellent places for catching big bass. You also can do good at the riprap along the various bridges and railroad rights-of-way.
Lake Conway Crappie
By June, the high volume crappie fishing that anglers enjoyed in shallow grassbeds is long finished, but you can still catch limits of slabs from deep cover in the main lake.
Lake Conway has distinguished itself in recent years as being a prime fishery for big crappie. For that reason, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission established a 10-inch minimum length limit for crappie on the lake. Previously, there was no length limit on crappie. Anglers take a lot of crappie out of the lake, but high production and fast growth rates contribute to excellent quality that the length limit will facilitate.
As you can see when you drive past on I-40, Lake Conway has a lot of visible cover, but it also has a lot of submerged cover. The huge tornado that struck the area in April 2014 put a lot of new green trees in the lake as well.
It pays to spend some time mapping areas you want to fish with a graph. This will show you a lot of submerged treetops and brushpiles. Mark them on your GPS, and they'll produce fish for you this month and on into the fall.
The best way to catch them is always with live minnows. Sometimes rosy reds are best, while other times fish prefer regular shiners. Dangle the minnow just over a top or high to the sides.
Crappie often feed in flurries during the summer, so don't let the down periods discourage you. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen, too, because the summer sun in central Arkansas will roast you.
Mississippi River Blue Cats
In the blistering heat of July, you can take a big flat-bottomed boat onto the sprawling waters of the mighty Mississippi and catch the biggest fish you'll ever find in fresh water.
Big blue cats approaching 100 pounds lounge around in the cool waters of deep holes in the river. They conserve their energy in the heat, but won't turn down an easy meal that plunges into their abodes.
To catch them, anchor your boat upstream from a deep hole on an inside river bend. Cast a big hunk of cut skipjack on a bottom rig upstream of the hole and let the current carry it down. If a big blue is home, it will inhale the morsel, and then you'll have a fight on your hands.
Think your heavy bass tackle is up to the job? Think again. You'll need big, thick, heavy-action rods with saltwater baitcasting rigs and sinkers big enough to knock King Kong off the Empire State Building.
This is gritty, bloody, messy work, but if you like a fish that will strain heavy tackle to its limits, this is definitely the game for you.
DeGray Lake Hybrids
We tend to think of hybrids schooling in the springtime, but DeGray Lake is famous for that kind of excitement in the heat of summer.
It hit a fever pitch last August, when Mark Hedrick of Little Rock and his son Matt caught and released 150 hybrids in one day. Consider the workout you'll get fighting that many fish 4 pounds and better!
Sam Richardson, a guide from Malvern, is the godfather of DeGray Lake hybrid fishing. He's after them almost every day in August, and he catches them with his custom, homemade spoons with their jaunty powder-coat paint jobs. Some weigh 2 ounces. He keeps scores of them in his boat in peanut butter jars to sell to anglers on the water. Hedrick calls them, "Peanut Butter And Jelly Sam Rich's."
When you find a school breaking, cast your spoon as far as you can, let it sink to the bottom and reel it back quickly. You'll get hit almost every cast, as I did when I fished with Richardson. We only caught nine fish that day, but we caught them all before 10:30 a.m.
Ozark Streams Smallmouths
By September, streams in the Ozark Mountains have been running low for a while, and smallmouth bass have eaten almost everything there is to eat. That makes them aggressive and eager to hit plastic lizards and small crankbaits.
I hit the Buffalo River with a couple of friends every year, and the fishing is always outstanding. We usually catch a few really big smallmouths, and even some big largemouths and Kentuckies, too.
School is back in session by then, and so you'll have the water and its fishing all to yourself.
We catch the most fish with Zoom Tiny Lizards or Zoom Tiny Brush Hawgs on 6-pound-test line and 1/8- to 1/4-ounce weights. I also catch big smallmouths early and late on Excalibur Zell-Pop topwaters and Luck-E-Strike RC Freak crankbaits.
This works just as well on streams like the Kings River, Big Piney River, Mulberry River, the forks of the Spring River and Crooked Creek.
Lake Ouachita Crappie
This is another popular lake in the summer, but it's deserted in the fall, which leaves its world-class crappie fishing to a diehard few.
Bill Eldridge of Benton is one of those. He doesn't hunt so he enjoys excellent crappie fishing in October by fishing deep brushpiles with tube jigs on 1/16-ounce or 1/32-ounce jigheads. He anchors downwind of a brushpile and casts over it. He counts the jig down to a point where it's just over the brush and slowly retrieves it. The jig should nick the top of the brush. It's a good way to catch a lot of big crappie.
Lake Greeson Crappie
This scenic reservoir in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains is slam full of brushpiles, and you can catch big crappie the same way Eldridge catches them at Lake Ouachita.
Or, you can drift live minnows around and over the brush at different depths until you find the depth holding the most fish. Then, you can make a milk run of brushpiles at that depth and get a limit pretty fast.
Rosy red minnows are the bomb at Lake Greeson. Because it's so far south, the weather usually is pleasant at Greeson in November, even when it's wet.
Lake Millwood Largemouths
This big, shallow impoundment of the Litttle River is notorious for its big largemouths, and December is an excellent time to catch them.
Look for cover or structure adjacent to or in main creek channels, and thump it good with heavy jigs. You can also score big with square-billed crankbaits. When the weather is right, the action can be as fast and as furious as it is in the peak of springtime.
The only requirement is heavy line and tackle. The cover is thick and the fish are big. They'll break light stuff.