If you think fishing was good in the Natural State in 2009, just wait until you try the 36 trips we've targeted for you this year!
Let's get right to the point: You're going to remember 2010 as one of the best years ever for fishing in the Natural State.
High water in many lakes and rivers after record-breaking rains in 2008 and 2009 created perfect conditions for fish reproduction and growth. And fishing pressure was down due to flooded access areas and damaged ramps and roads. By now, game fish spawned in 2008 are reaching catchable sizes, and the unfettered older fish simply have fattened up.
Like a sampler platter at your favorite restaurant, we hope our annual menu of recommended fisheries and fish species will whet your appetite for the outstanding angling that awaits us.
Florida-Strain Largemouths, SWEPCO Lake
If you're a bit leery of a lake unnaturally warmed by a coal-powered electricity plant, we understand. But when you hook that first bucketmouth on a topwater bait in the dead of winter, we predict you'll get over it. Florida-strain bass grow year 'round in the 530-acre hot tub known as SWEPCO Lake, located near Gentry in northwest Arkansas' Benton County.
Because SWEPCO's bass school during winter, expect surface action on poppers, chuggers and jerkbaits. Then switch to shad-imitating spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits when the topwater bite cools. Work toward or away from the crystalline, 100-degree water flowing out of the Flint Creek power plant, and when the temperature's just right, the bass will let you know you've found the sweet spot.
A few years ago, a forage shortage caused underweight bass, but SWEPCO now boasts plenty of 3- to 5-pounders, with granddaddies up to 11. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission encourages you to thin the population with a daily limit of 10, but only one can exceed 18 inches. Access SWEPCO from Cripps Road, which runs off state routes 12 and 43. Anglers who battered their trucks and trailers in the field opposite the ramp will appreciate the 23,000-square-feet of blacktop parking added in 2008.
Rainbows, Upper White River
This is one of the months (January and March are the others) when a legendary phenomenon can occur. Water temperatures in Bull Shoals Lake plummet, sending countless dead and dying shad through Bull Shoals Dam into the White River. These "easy pickin's" trigger a trout feeding frenzy, making that your best chance to land one of our most elusive trophies: a 5-pound or better rainbow.
Monitor Web sites operated by outfitters or fly shops and be prepared to call in sick and head to Bull Shoals Dam when the kill starts. We like the Mountain River Journal, via e-mail, from mtnriverflyshop.com.
Fly-anglers use white streamers on sink-tip lines while spin-fishermen score with silver or white jerkbaits, in-line spinners, spoons and jigs. Fifty-fish days aren't just possible; they're common!
Review regulations for seasonal closures and species-specific length limits at www.agfc.com before you go. For the best action near the dam, launch or wade from Bull Shoals-White River State Park, off State Route 178 west of Mountain Home. You'll need a fishing license and $5 trout stamp.
White Bass, Lake Maumelle
Central Arkansas' so-called "Dead Sea" becomes downright lively when the siren song of early spring calls countless white bass out of the Maumelle River and into 8,900-acre Lake Maumelle. As the water reaches 60 to 65 degrees, these sporty fish become as hyperactive as sticky-mouthed kids on a sugar high. They roam the lake in packs, alternately wreaking havoc on the shad population and making baby white bass -- with equal enthusiasm.
Launch at Jolly Roger's Marina off State Route 10 (Cantrell Road) a few minutes west of Interstate 430 and head west. Probe riprap along the highway bridge with in-line spinners, jigs or lipless crankbaits or cast gurgling topwaters to the edges of schooling fish. If you don't make contact there, ease through the opening in the bridge and work through the west end of the lake and up the river.
For 3-pound whites -- the wise ones that leisurely gulp crippled shad missed by smaller schoolmates on the surface -- go deep with fluttering spoons or tailspinners, such as a Little George. For more information on Maumelle, see www.carkw.com, Central Arkansas Water's Web site.
Crappie, White Oak Lake
It's tough to single out a south Arkansas crappie lake in this or any other month because so many grow impressive numbers of slabs. With many worthy runners-up, we'll declare White Oak Lake, northeast of Camden in Ouachita and Nevada counties, our top choice. The upper and lower lakes, split by a highway, cover more than 2,776 acres.
AGFC fisheries biologists regularly apply lime and fertilizer there to improve acidic water and jump-start the lake's food chain. Teamed with plentiful downed timber, cypress trees and a healthy baitfish population, these enhancements make White Oak a crappie haven.
Access Upper White Oak from three ramps off Highway 387. The lower lake has four ramps, including one in White Oak Lake State Park, where you can camp, buy bait and supplies and cast from a handicapped-accessible pier. The park is also on Route 387, south of Bluff City in eastern Nevada County. For a detailed lake map, enter "White Oak Lake" in the search engine at www.agfc.com.
Smallmouths, Lower Buffalo National River
Despite the Buffalo's overwhelming popularity with paddlers (and young folks who party), you can catch 18-inch or better smallmouths there. Your odds increase when you launch early on weekdays and dodge the raucous Memorial Day weekend crowds. The National Park Service also recommends floating and fishing the middle and lower sections of river -- from Carver to the Buffalo's confluence with the White River -- to avoid the "aluminum hatch" of canoes that drives smallmouths into hiding.
For average, 12-inch smallies anywhere on the Buffalo, 1/8-ounce in-line spinners and jigs in dark tones, imitating sculpins and crayfish, are fine. But for the lower river's heftier bronzebacks, pack some largemouth-sized tackle and plenty of spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jigs and grubs.
Floating and fishing depend on water levels and rainfall. For example, a depth of 2.1 feet is floatable at the State Route 7 bridge, but a minimum of 4.6 feet is required for easy passage around the U.S. Route 65 bridge. For details about access, canoe concessionaires, river gauges and planning your Buffalo River trip, see the National Park Service's Web site, www.nps.gov/buff.
Redears, Maddox Bay,White River
Redear sunfish, better known locally as shellcrackers or stumpknockers, are the heavyweights among the bream clan, and Maddox Bay on southeastern Arkansas' lower White River teems with them. Fish larger than your hand are common, and the state record, from Bois d'Arc Lake, was only 2 ounces shy of 3 pounds.
Redears feed on the bottom, munching snails, crayfish and other crunchy critters, thanks to hard plates in their throats. Despite their soft texture, red worms tempt shellcrackers, as do crickets and crayfish. Miniature jigs and grubs substitute for live bait.
Maddox Bay lies within the White River National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Monroe County. Access is at Maddox Bay Landing (870-462-8317) at Holly Grove, off State Route 17. And if you're willing to ride rough roads and fight the mosquitoes, even better stumpknocker fishing awaits you in the refuge's remote, unnamed and untamed lakes. For more information, see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site, www.fws.gov/whiteriver or stop by the refuge visitor center on state Route 1 at St. Charles, a few miles south of Maddox Bay on the other side of the river.
Hybrid Stripers, Greers Ferry
Schooling hybrid striped bass, the rip-snortin' crosses between a striper and a white bass, will chase shad all over 32,500-acre Greers Ferry Lake in Cleburne and Van Buren counties this summer. School-feeding activity typically peaks at dawn and dusk, but voracious hybrids feed opportunistically all day. Most are 3 to 7 pounds, but bruisers beyond 10 are common; the lake produced the 27-pound, 5-ounce world record in 1997.
To find these free-ranging fish, patrol main-lake points and creek channels with your fish locator on and binoculars in hand. For action at any depth, rig several rods with noisy topwater baits, lipless crankbaits and spoons. Shad are the live bait of choice. Hook them through the lips and free-spool them under a bobber or balloon, or work closer to the bottom with a heavy sinker followed by a barrel swivel and a few feet of strong leader.
Access is plentiful in both counties, with ramps at more than a dozen U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas, several more privately owned accesses and seven marinas for guides, supplies and more. For details, go to www.corplakes.usace.- army.mil/visitors and click on the map of Arkansas.
Catfish, Arkansas River
Sweltering August turns fish and fishermen into nocturnal creatures, making it the perfect month for old-school catfishing on the Arkansas River. Any stretch will do, from Lake Dardanelle to the west, Willow Beach in central Arkansas or the legendary Coal Pile and Pendleton areas in the southeast corner.
The river's channel cats have the most democratic appetites; our polite way of saying they gobble anything that'll stick to a hook, including the most horrifying stink baits you can buy or concoct. Blue catfish savor oily chunks of shad or skipjack herring, but persnickety flatheads demand live shad, skippies or sunfish.
We like to arrive at parks on the river at sunset. Then we set up lawn chairs on the shore, cast hooks baited with worms or liver and try not to wander too far from a cooler of soft drinks and sandwiches. A lantern and bug spray completes our gear.
Largemouths, Lake Atkins
As Atkins continues to boom after its 2002 renovation by the AGFC, it's become one of the state's best largemouth bass fisheries, thanks to a high percentage of fish bearing those Florida genes. Our experiments with tiny in-line spinners drew strikes on every cast, proving the lake holds droves of hot-headed youngsters under 12 inches. And our best fishing buddies consistently land 3- to 6-pounders on standup jigs. Even better, fisheries biologists frequently shock up 10-pound lunkers.
Expect to find plenty of others angling for space on the 750-acre lake, which also boasts a thriving crappie population. However, finding fish is relatively easy: Many folks simply rotate through a series of huge, marked brushpiles, catching a couple and moving on to the next pile.
To reach Lake Atkins, take exit 94 off Interstate 40 at Atkins, turn south and follow State Route 105 or 324. You'll find ramps scattered around the AGFC-owned lake and a bait shop on the southern shore. If you bring the family, consider a picnic in the city park in the northeastern corner of the lake.
Largemouths, Village Creek State Park
Here's a two-for-one bass-fishing deal: Village Creek State Park in east-central Arkansas' Cross and St. Francis counties. In addition to great fishing in spring-fed lakes Austell and Dunn, you'll enjoy the fall colors of Crowley's Ridge as its sugar maples, beeches and butternuts turn crimson and gold.
Austell made headlines with a 15-pound Florida-strain largemouth 20 years ago, and it continues to reward anglers with more 8-pound Florida-native crosses than you'd think possible from an 85-acre lake. Dunn, a snug 65 acres about a mile away, also produces bass up to 8 pounds, but its population of native, northern-strain fish tends to offer anglers higher numbers of fish up to 4 pounds.
Both lakes feature standing timber in coves and thickets of fallen trees on the bottom, so you'll need weedless lures and sturdy gear to dredge largemouths from their woody lairs. To reach Village Creek State Park from Interstate 40, take the Forrest City exit and head north on state Route 284 for 13 miles. Call the park at (870) 238-9406 for information.
Striped Bass, Lake Ouachita
As fall water temperatures reach the 60s in reservoirs, stripers shift into higher gear, arising from lies deep in the summer thermocline. Hunting them, while they restlessly stalk shad on 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita, means a legitimate shot at fish of 30 pounds or more this month.
Experts from the Arkansasstripers. com Web site target long points on the main lake, humps and creek channels now, trolling or casting progressively from deeper to shallower water until they find stripers. Later in the month as stripers stoke themselves for winter, you can fish faster with oversized crankbaits, spoons or chuggers. If you're new to striper fishing, consider hiring a guide for a day to learn the techniques and current patterns, and then venture out on your own.
The bulk of Ouachita lies in western Garland County, featuring more than a dozen accesses, including Brady Mountain to the south, Lake Ouachita State Park to the east and the northerly Irons Fork area. In eastern Garland County, seven more accesses are available. For details, call the Corps of Engineers' Ouachita project office at (501) 767-2101.
Brown Trout, Little Red River
Yes, we know the brown trout spawned on the Little Red just a few weeks ago, but we prefer to head to Heber Springs now. We don't have to worry about foul-hooking trout while they're busy making the next generation, and all the other Arkansas sportsmen are in the deer woods, leaving the best shoals to us and to the bald eagles.
When water rushes through Greers Ferry Dam, big browns relocate to the edges, ambushing prey from grassbeds and timber. That's when you fish the home of the 40-pound, 4-ounce world-record brown like you would the North Fork or White River: from a boat, casting jerkbaits to the banks. This is visual and visceral fishing with big trout flashing out of cover to your lure. In low water, gear down to bait, jigs, spinners or flies.
Boating and wading access to the Little Red begins at John F. Kennedy Park, off State Route 25 northeast of Heber Springs in central Cleburne County. Good ramps are scattered along its cold waters for more than 30 miles downstream.