March 17, 2016
By Keith Sutton
Folks who know me well know my nickname is "Catfish," and for good reason. When I've got a whiskerfish at the end of my line, I'm as happy as a man can be. That's not to say, however, that I don't enjoy fishing for other species. I do. In fact, I've been an avid black bass angler since I was 10, and during the 50 years since I first started casting for largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass, I've fished for these high-jumping game fish in scores of rivers, lakes and ponds throughout the Natural State.
I certainly don't know about every honeyhole where you might expect to catch lots of bass this spring. Practically every body of water in Arkansas has healthy populations of black bass of one kind or another. And while so far I haven't fished them all, I'm trying.
During the past few years, I've managed to catch and release my fair share of bucketmouths in waters throughout the state, and I certainly feel qualified to tell you about several great hotspots where a trip in March or April is likely to result in a better-than-average chance of boating bunches of bass, including, if you're lucky, a few wallhangers.
If you cast the right lures in the right spots under the right conditions, I'm certain the waters described in the paragraphs that follow will produce enough fish to give you a bad case of "bass fisherman's thumb." Give them a try and see.
LAKES DUNN AND AUSTELL: LEGENDARY LARGEMOUTHS
I lived in Village Creek State Park near Wynne for five years during my tenure as a park interpreter there. On more days than not, you could find me on one of the park lakes — Dunn and Austell — casting for bass. The lakes are small — Dunn covers just 65 acres, and Austell only 85.
But since the 1970s, when I first started fishing them, both have produced 10-pound-plus largemouths at a rate that's extraordinary for waters their size. I weighed many 12- to 13-pounders on park scales back in those days, most of which were caught in Lake Austell, the first of the pair to be stocked with Florida-strain largemouths.
One was a massive 15-pound, 12-ounce bucketmouth caught in January 1989. Folks started thinking then that a fish larger than the 16-pound, 4-ounce state record could be caught in these Crowley's Ridge impoundments.
It happened in March 2012 when a local angler landed a 16-pound, 5-ounce hawg in Lake Dunn, the heaviest largemouth ever caught in Arkansas. But almost as soon as word got out about that huge fish, it was learned that the angler who caught it was fishing without a license, and that monster bass wouldn't qualify for the record book. Despite the fiasco surrounding that fish, however, it proved that such giants do lurk in these timber-filled waters, and chances are good one of the park's lakes could someday produce another record-class largemouth.
Don't go to Dunn or Austell expecting to catch dozens of bass. You might accomplish that, but you'll hook more than you land as these fighters are adept at breaking off in the dense timber. On top of that, because the lakes are small and heavily pressured, the bass are wise to the ways of most fishermen and often refuse offerings that would garner quick strikes elsewhere.
Your success rate will improve if you try lures like giant swimbaits, big deep-diving crankbaits and foot-long lizards and plastic worms the fish less likely to have seen. Cast to good-looking spots repeatedly, and work lures enticingly.
Be darn sure every component of your tackle is tough enough to stand up against these brawlers. Use strong braided line, and if necessary, replace factory-installed hooks and O-rings with heavier models that can't be straightened or broken.
When you're on the water, it's not hard to pinpoint top bass-fishing spots visually and with a fishfinder. Just be aware that the lake bottoms are covered in gnarly stands of thick timber, and when you hook a bass, you'll have to fight it out of there. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. But the next cast could produce the bass of a lifetime.
For more information, contact park personnel at 870-238-9406 or visit arkansasstateparks.com/villagecreek/.
COAL PILE: ARKANSAS RIVER HONEYHOLE
I've fished this 528-acre backwater of the lower Arkansas River many times and rarely failed to connect with a trophy largemouth, including many in the 6- to 8-pound range. Located near Pendleton in southeast Arkansas' Desha County, Coal Pile has been a popular big-bass destination for decades despite being hard to find on maps. The winning fish in Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza, the largest tournament in Arkansas, often comes from there, as it did in 2012 and 2013, with 6.27- and 6.63-pound largemouths. Four- and 5-pounders are common, and the backwater has produced some real hawgs exceeding 13 pounds.
Thanks to a habitat restoration project funded by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 2014, Coal Pile fishing should steadily improve during the next several years. The Commission also has improved access by dredging the canal connecting the Arkansas River to the backwater and by providing launch sites at the Pendleton bridge and off nearby Highway 212.
Like most backwaters along the Arkansas River, Coal Pile is full of cypress trees. Many of the biggest largemouths caught there fall to lures worked around the broad buttresses and knees of these trees. In spring, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs are especially popular with local anglers, but live baits like minnows and crawfish also work. As the water warms in April, fishing the lake's abundant lily pads with topwaters like plastic frogs and buzzbaits is the ticket to success.
OUACHITA AND GREEN: SPOTTED BASS HAVENS
Many Arkansas waters harbor healthy populations of spotted, or Kentucky, bass. You can catch them from the clear, gravel-bottomed streams of the mountains to the broad rivers of the Delta. For fast action and sizable fish, however, lakes Ouachita and Greeson in the Ouachita Mountains of west-central Arkansas just can't be beat.
Case in point. My friends Jeff Samsel, Chris Elder and I were bass fishing on Lake Ouachita, which has healthy populations of both largemouth and spotted bass. Chris had caught an 8-pound largemouth earlier on a deep-diving, shad-colored crankbait. So all three of us started out fishing that same lure.
That paid off — at least to start. Chris hooked a 5-pound largemouth on his third cast. But try as we might, we couldn't garner another hit on the minnow plugs.
Everyone changed lures. Jeff tied on a Rebel Deep Wee Crawfish. Chris changed to a Bomber Fat Free Shad. I rigged a soft-plastic Yum Money Craw.
Chris positioned his boat over an underwater hump, and we all made casts. Wham! Jeff hooked up immediately and brought in a 2 1/2-pound spotted bass. Before his fish was in the boat, I was hooked up, too. It was another spotted bass — a twin to Jeff's.
When Jeff and I hooked up again on our next casts and brought in two more nice spots, Chris wasted no time changing lures. The crawfish-pattern Cotton Cordell Wiggle O he tied on proved irresistible to several jumbo Kentuckies.
For a solid hour, we caught one spotted bass and then another. We didn't keep count, but between us that day, we caught dozens of spots up to 4 pounds.
Later that same week, my wife Theresa and I fished with our friends Lisa and Henry Snuggs on nearby Lake Greeson. Prior to the trip, I told our guide Jerry Blake about the great spotted bass fishing I had enjoyed two days earlier. "I'll bring a bucket of live crawfish and we'll give 'em a try," he said. "If they're hitting artificials that well, we'll load the boat with them on real baits."
That we did. Jerry ran his boat to a deep, rock-strewn hump in mid-lake and all of us baited up with live crawfish. Each tail-hooked bait was weighted with two split shot, and each barely touched bottom before a nice spotted bass struck. At one time, Lisa, Theresa and Henry were all fighting bass simultaneously, and the action proved steady the entire time we were there. Henry landed one real trophy, a spotted bass weighing 4 1/2 pounds.
Lake Ouachita sprawls over 40,000 acres between Hot Springs and Mount Ida. Greeson covers 7,000 acres near Kirby. Find a hump, drop a bait or lure, and get ready for action. Both waters are teeming with nice spots, and a good day's fishing will produce dozens for savvy anglers.
MOUNTAIN STREAMS FOR SMALLMOUTHS
You can find good smallmouth action in some of our big reservoirs like Ouachita and Bull Shoals. But for the best fishing, shove off in a canoe and float-fish on one of our clear mountain streams. Fortunately, there are dozens of good ones from which to choose.
Most recently, I fished Buffalo National River in the Ozarks, and it didn't disappoint. While floating several miles on the river south of St. Joe in Searcy County, my friend Glenn Wheeler of Harrison and I caught dozens of 1- to 5-pound "brownies." Each fell for an Arbogast Jitterbug chugged enticingly across the surface.
The upper Ouachita River is another of my favorite bronzeback streams. You can wade-fish the upper reaches near Ink and Cherry, but for the best big-bass action — smallmouths here often exceed 4 pounds — put in at Pine Ridge, Oden or Rocky Shoals and float to a take-out point downstream. The stretch I float most often is from Oden to Pencil Bluff. It's an easy one-day float through gorgeous country, and the brownies there seem especially fat and rambunctious. I've caught as many as 16 2- to 5-pounders when the fishing was good.
I've floated almost the entire length of the Caddo River, too, and love the stretch from Caddo Gap to Glenwood, which is full of deep pools and boulder gardens where smallmouths lurk. I haven't caught a real lunker there recently, perhaps because it is a heavily pressured float-fishing stretch. But smallies are abundant, and any lure resembling a crawfish is likely to garner a strike from a 1- to 3-pound high jumper.
The Arkansas Parks and Tourism Web site, arkansas.com, has detailed information about floating all these streams in their Outdoors section. Included is an Outfitter's section listing canoe rental services, and there are great maps showing put-in and take-out points. For fishing regulations on all the waters discussed in this article, visit the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Web site at agfc.com.