Arkansas' Top Lunker Lakes
September 24, 2010
A few lakes in the Natural State just seem to have bigger bass than you'll find anywhere else. Come along as we give you the inside scoop on how to fish them. (February 2007)
Photo by Tom Evans
With more than 600,000 acres' worth of fishing lakes in their state, Arkansas sportsmen should find plenty of places to catch bass this year. While anglers can expect to catch some lunker largemouths in most lakes, a few venues stand out for consistently producing whoppers.
For big bass in Arkansas, head south! Unlike the native northern strain of largemouth, fast-growing Florida-strain largemouths can't tolerate extreme cold. However, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocks Florida bass in many lakes across the southern half of the state, and these typically yield the biggest bass in the state each year.
Ask fishermen to name the top lunker lake in Arkansas, and some accord the honors to Millwood Lake; others give the nod to Lake Monticello. Either could take the title, since both frequently produce giant bigmouths.
"The best bets for catching trophy largemouth bass in Arkansas are lakes Monticello and Millwood," said Sam Barkley, an AGFC district fisheries biologist in Jonesboro. "Bass weighing 10 pounds or more are caught regularly in both lakes. Largemouths from 5 to 10 pounds are plentiful in both of these lakes as well."
About nine miles east of Ashdown in southwestern Arkansas, 29,200-acre Lake Millwood is impounded by a 3.33-mile earthen dam, the longest in Arkansas, across the Little River. Opened in 1966, the lake swallowed acres of timber, creating abundant woody cover with about 5,000 acres of open water near the dam. Besides flooded timber, there are also lily pad thickets, stumpfields and thick weed patches in the shallow lake.
Over the years, said Stuart Wooldridge, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Hot Springs, the state has stocked Florida bass in Millwood Lake. Feeding on abundant shad, bream and other forage species, these largemouths grow to huge proportions. The lake regularly produces bass in the 8- to 12-pound range, with many fish in the 3- to 5-pound range. Anglers may only keep three bass, each at least 16 inches long, per day. (Continued)
"Millwood Lake is full of big bass," offered George Cochran, a legendary professional bass angler from Hot Springs. "It is probably the No. 1 lake for big bass in Arkansas. Several years ago, the AGFC netted a bass in the 17-pound range. It's a very good lake, with every type of cover, but it's not fished as often as some other lakes, because it is so remote."
Most fish the stumps and weeds. Given the lake's huge amount of cover, you can find big bass just about anywhere. In spring, bass follow creek channels into the shallows to spawn. People work the channel edges with spinnerbaits and soft plastics or flip tubes into thick cover.
"I fish the lily pads and wood," said Chris Elder, a guide for Hugh Albright Guide Service, (870) 867-3000. "I also like to fish the river or oxbows and backsloughs off of it. Many people fish Carolina-rigged lizards. I also work a Yumdinger along the outside edge of the pads. I let it crawl it across the pads and then slowly sink. The area has a lot of small sloughs and openings. I fish a Yumdinger around the mouths of those little openings. I also like to fish a smoke and red flake tube."
About five miles northwest of Monticello in southwestern Arkansas, Lake Monticello doesn't approach the size of other lakes, but it looms large in the imaginations of trophy bass hunters. Opened for fishing in 1997, the 1,520-acre impoundment can produce bucketmouths in the 14-pound range. Anglers may keep four bass per day, only one of which may exceed 21 inches, and must release everything between 16 and 21 inches.
"Right now, Lake Monticello is probably the hottest lake in Arkansas for producing big bass," said Jeremy Risley, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Monticello. "On a regular basis, people catch some 10-pound bass in the lake, especially in the spring. We fertilize it every year and stock it with about 100,000 Florida largemouth bass every year."
Mostly shallow except around the dam, the lake resembles Lake Millwood. Standing timber provides the dominant cover with lily pads and other vegetation filling in the gaps. People fish the vegetation mats with Texas-rigged soft plastics or work spinnerbaits around the edges.
"I've heard of one bass in the 14- to 15-pound range that came out of Lake Monticello," Risley said. "I've heard reports of bigger ones. In the spring of 2005, an angler caught a 13-pounder. This is probably one of the better places in the state to produce a 10-pound bass. There are plenty of slot fish in the 3- to 7-pound range that people must release."
Somewhat overshadowed by Millwood and Monticello, Lake Columbia also produces some double-digit largemouths. The 3,000-acre lake stretches for six miles along Beech Creek about six miles northwest of Magnolia in south-central Arkansas. Built in 1986, the lake contains a small area that's off limits to all unauthorized visitors, but anglers can fish in the rest of the lake.
"Lake Columbia is the best lake for large bass in this district," said Jason Olive, an AGFC fisheries biologist in Camden. "It's probably the second-biggest producer of bass over 12 pounds in the state behind Lake Monticello. I know of one 14-pound bass that came out of the lake. Quite a few bass over 10 pounds come out of the lake every year. It also produces a handful of bass in the 12- to 14-pound range."
Fairly shallow, Lake Columbia reaches about 20 feet deep in places, but it averages about 7 to 8 feet deep. Most people fish the flooded timber and creek channels in the northeastern part of the lake by flipping jigs along the timber edges.
"About half of Lake Columbia is in standing timber," Olive said. "There is a lot of vegetation along the shoreline from different types of lily pads and other submerged vegetation. In the springtime, a soft-plastic lizard is probably the top bait down there. A lot of people throw jigs tipped with pork chunks or craw worms around the woody cover."
Three lakes created by dams on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs offer anglers in that part of the state plenty of places in which to lip bass. In Hot Springs, a dam separates Lake Hamilton from Lake Catherine. Farther upriver, another dam separates Lake Hamilton from Lake Ouachita.
"All the lakes around Hot Springs are good for largemouth bass," Wooldridge said. "People might not catch a lot of 12-pounders, but they do catch a lot of fish in the 3- to 5-pound range. Lake Catherine produces many bass in the 4- to 6-pound range with som
e larger ones. Lake Hamilton has some in the 8- to 10-pound range; occasionally it produces an 11-pounder."
One of the cleanest and most pristine lakes in the Natural State, Lake Ouachita spreads like an octopus through 40,100 acres of the 1.6-million-acre Ouachita National Forest northwest of Hot Springs. Created in 1953, the lake averages a depth of about 50 feet, but some holes drop to about 200 feet. Numerous creeks create 970 miles of shorelines stretching across 40 miles of mountainous terrain. Some better places to fish include Iron Folk and Twin Creek. Many people fish around the more than 100 small, uninhabited islands dotting the largest lake completely within Arkansas.
"I've fished all over the United States and in many other countries, and I've never seen a lake more beautiful than Ouachita," Cochran asserted. "The entire lake is very good for bass, but at different times of the year. It has three rivers running into it. It's almost like fishing three lakes in one. The lower end near the dam is clear and deep. The middle of the lake is full of vegetation, timber and creek channels. The rivers go for miles, and each of them looks different. Ouachita has produced a lot of 10-pound bass over the years."
Abounding in cover in its numerous coves and creek channels, the lake can grow double-digit bass, some of which break the 12-pound mark. In 2005, Wooldridge explained, the state dropped the 13- to 16-inch-slot limit and established a 13-inch minimum-size limit to increase the harvest of smaller bass. Anglers may keep up to six bass per day.
"Ouachita is a great bass lake," said Scott Rook, a professional bass angler from Little Rock. "Several years ago, it was probably the best bass lake in Arkansas. It gave up incredible numbers of 3- to 5-pound bass and some 10-pounders. It has several rivers that run into it with a lot of hydrilla and milfoil in it. Any lake with good coverage of hydrilla and milfoil will be a good bass lake."
Lake Ouachita produces many big bass in February. In early spring, look for long, sloping points with plenty of grass that offer fish easy access to both shallow and deep water. Some grass beds might grow in water as deep as 20 feet. Fish staging for the pre-spawn often move up the sloped points until they find good bedding sites. In the morning, throw topwater baits, jerkbaits or spinnerbaits. Later, run deep-running crankbaits along the points or drop Texas-rigged lizards along the edge of creek channels.
"Lake Ouachita has some really big bass," Chris Elder noted. "In 2001, I caught an 11-pounder. I also know of several fish in the 8- to 10-pound range. I heard of a 13-pounder. In June 2002, I was fishing with Mark Davis, the bass pro, when he caught a 12.2-pounder. Grass and brushpiles are the dominant structure on Lake Ouachita. I like to use a 7-inch ribworm or a 6-inch worm in tequila green, cherry seed or camouflage on a jighead. After the water warms up, throw at grass in about 8 to 10 feet of water and work the bait along the bottom to about 20 feet deep."
Cutting across the central part of the state, the Arkansas River contains several pools that offer excellent bass fishing. Known more for numbers than for big fish, it has a few river pools that can give up some creditable lunkers.
Lake Dardanelle, northwest of Little Rock, flows through 34,000 acres of channels, backwaters and coves of the Arkansas River channel. "Lake Dardanelle is more like a lake than other pools on the Arkansas River," said Frank Leone, an AGFC fisheries biologist in nearby Russellville. "In 2006, we saw more 5- to 7-pound bass brought to the weigh-ins in tournaments than in a long time. We've also recorded a lot more fish exceeding 5 pounds when electrofishing. The biggest that I know about in 2006 weighed 8.75 pounds."
Also in District 9 is Lake Atkins, which may well provide big-bass opportunities in the near future, according to Leone. In order to eliminate many rough fish, mainly smallmouth buffalo, the state completely drained the 752-acre lake near the town of the same name in 2002. Exposed to sun, the lake bottom cracked, releasing many nutrients. In addition, the AGFC fertilized the lake with 750 tons of lime to encourage plant growth and built numerous brush piles. Workers also made repairs to the dam.
"We stocked the lake with Florida bass in 2003 and reopened it to fishing in 2004," Leone said. "We've already seen some tremendous growth in the bass. By the late summer of 2006, we saw some fish in the 6-pound range. That's an extremely good growth rate. We should start seeing some fish breaking 8 pounds in 2007. It could potentially produce some double-digit fish in a couple years."
Built in 1956 on a feeder stream of the Arkansas River, Atkins Lake has never contained Florida bass before 2003. Wood from standing timber and cypresses along the margins form the dominant cover in the lake, which reaches a depth of about 20 feet deep in places. Before the state introduced Florida bass, the lake produced bass in the 5- to 8-pound range. To give Florida bass a chance, the state stocked no crappie into the rebuilt lake.
"It's fairly far north for Florida bass, but it's in the river valley," Leone observed. "If the lake ices over, we could lose a lot of our fish. It has iced over before. If we don't have any problem with winter mortality, it could produce some really big fish."
Lake Austell, in Village Creek State Park near Forrest City, is about 30 feet deep in places. The 85-acre lake surrendered a 15-pound, 12-ounce largemouth a few years ago, reported Jeff Farwick, an AGFC biologist in Brinkley, and produces many bass in the 8- to 12-pound range as well. Many fish the old standing timber and fallen trees along the shorelines.
Lake Conway underwent a partial drawdown in 2006. The 6,700-acre lake near Conway usually averages a depth of about 6 feet, but contains some holes down to 18 feet. Built in 1948, the lake contains about 52 miles of shorelines.
"Lake Conway has produced some bass up to 14 pounds," said Carl Perrin, an AGFC biologist in Mayflower. "Going back to 1976, we've stocked Floridas in Lake Conway about every three to four years. We drew it down in the fall of 2006 to do some work on the shorelines. The lake has about 1,500 acres of lily pads."
Known primarily for big smallmouths, Greers Ferry Lake, near Heber Springs also holds some big largemouths. In fact, it holds every species of game fish native to Arkansas in its 40,000 acres of clear, deep water -- about 190 feet deep in places, Perrin stated. Opened in 1963 by John F. Kennedy in one of his last acts as president, Greers Ferry offers more than 460 miles of shoreline.
"Greers Ferry is fair for largemouths and occasionally produces a big fish, but it's pretty good for smallmouths and spotted bass," Perrin said. "It produced a few 14-pound largemouths and at least one 15-pounder that I know about. We stocked Florida bass into the lake years ago. The biggest largemouth that I've heard about in the past several years weighed about 9 pounds."
In northeast Arkansas, anglers might fish Lake Charles, a 645-acre lake near Powhatan, or Lake Frierson, a 350-acre lake in Lak
e Frierson State Park near Jonesboro. Either can produce bass in the 7- to 10-pound range.
"Lake Frierson is the best lake in northeast Arkansas for big bass," asserted the AGFC's Sam Barkley. "There are not a lot of bass in that lake. It's a very muddy lake, but the bass that are present are huge. It does produce some double-digit fish. It's a really shallow lake. Because of the drought, it was almost inaccessible in the fall of 2006."
In 1976, Mallard Lake produced the state record, Aaron Mardis' 16.25-pounder. However, the 300-acre reservoir near Big Lake Wildlife Management Area hasn't produced any big fish in a while. Renovated several times in the past 30 years, it can still, according to Barkley, produce bass in the 7-pound range.