Natural State Bass Forecast

High water levels in 2008 produced excellent spawning conditions on many Arkansas waters, leading biologists and bass anglers alike to predict plenty of rod-bending, reel-screaming action in 2009!

Northern Arkansas lakes like Beaver, Bull Shoals and Norfork are expected to serve up some excellent bass action this spring. Photo by Keith Sutton.

As Arkansas bass anglers shake off the winter doldrums and plan their springtime fishing campaigns, they can expect a few nasty leftovers from last year's tumultuous spring and late-summer weather, including high water on some reservoirs and rivers.

However, that same water blessed fisheries across the state, too. Bass and other game fish thronged to freshly inundated vegetation, spawned successfully and left their fry to thrive amongst cover in water rich with nutrients. High water also scattered the fish and reduced fishing pressure, which means that last year's largemouth and smallmouth bass have enjoyed a long, fruitful growing season.

In short, 2009 is going to be a good year for bass anglers in Arkansas. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission fisheries management biologists we interviewed have recommended a lively mix of large and small lunker lakes and spots where you should expect strike after strike from more average-sized fish. Here's our roundup of some of the top springtime largemouth and smallmouth bass fisheries.

This region weathered last year's incredible weather with few side effects, according to Eric Brinkman, an AGFC fisheries biologist who works out of Camden. "In general, flooding is good for fisheries," he confirmed. "It's good for spawning and creates strong year-classes, but it'll take two or three years before you get catchable-sized fish out of them."

Lake Columbia
Lake Columbia should continue its reign as one of the state's top destinations for heavy Florida-strain largemouths, Brinkman said. Its southern location, along Beech Creek northwest of Magnolia in Columbia County, makes it a perfect nursery for growing lunkers. "They're a fast-growing and aggressive fish, and there's a good forage base in there to feed them," he continued. "Our cove rotenone samples showed good numbers of the minnows and small fish they feed on."

More than 100,000 Florida-strain fingerlings were stocked there last summer. This successful program, which Brinkman calls "a definite reaction by the commission to what the public wanted," is scheduled to continue in the future.

Columbia covers about 3,000 acres. From Magnolia, follow U.S. Route 371 south and turn right onto state Route 344; at county Road 53, turn left and drive 3 miles to the lake. Facilities include three concrete ramps, two wheelchair-accessible fishing piers and courtesy boat docks, and a picnic and day-use area on the southern shoreline. A small section of the lake is off limits to unauthorized users, but the remainder is open to fishing. Expect to find bass in the coves and near creek channels at this time of year.

Upper And Lower White Oak
Both sections of White Oak Lake in Ouachita County should continue to produce the same outstanding bass action that anglers have enjoyed in recent years, Brinkman predicted. "Upper and Lower White Oak tend to be great bass lakes, and we stock the lower lake with Florida-strain bass." The upper lake covers 1,032 acres and features two AGFC ramps and a barrier-free fishing pier; the lower section comprises 1,645 acres and has three ramps. State Route 387, which provides access to the lake, splits this AGFC-owned fishery.

The lake's namesake state park on the western side of the upper lake offers a marina, supplies and bait, boat rentals, walking trails and more. For more information, call White Oak Lake State Park at (870) 685-2748.

Ouachita River And Felsenthal
Raging waters actually cleared out some of the pesky vegetation on Felsenthal Reservoir in its namesake national wildlife refuge in southeast Union County, and the Ouachita River has a new 14-inch minimum length limit on largemouths from Tate's Bluff (Ouachita County) to Felsenthal Lock and Dam (Union and Ashley counties). These developments mean that bass fishing is on the rise in both fisheries, Brinkman said.

With a sigh of relief, AGFC fisheries biologist Jeff Farwick said that access roads, ramps, and other public facilities in his 10-county district suffered little damage from 2008's storm waters. "In general, I suspect we had a great spawn and great recruitment."

Bear Creek Lake
One of the best places to catch plenty of largemouths in the 13- to 16-inch range is Bear Creek Lake within the St. Francis National Forest Wildlife Management Area. "And there's lots of bass in there over 16 inches," Farwick added. The 71-year-old reservoir atop Crowley's Ridge is "about 625 acres or so, which is actually not so small for this part of the world, and there's a 10-horsepower limit on boat motors there," he continued.

This year's anglers will reap benefits made possible by those who've abided by the 13- to 16-inch slot limit for many years, making plenty of room for bass to grow rapidly in this picturesque lake. It's on the north end of the national forest in southeastern Lee County, with a fishing pier on the west side off state Route 44 and a Forest Service ramp on the east side, south of Jeffersonville. While you're in the area, head to the south end of the WMA and check out the excellent hybrid striped bass fishing in Storm Creek Lake near Helena.

Lakes Dunn And Austelle
Village Creek State Park offers a perfect one-two punch: A lunker lake and one for catching plenty of eating-sized largemouths. At the north end of the park, you'll find 65-acre Lake Dunn, but don't let its dimensions fool you. "It produces lots of bass upwards of 8 to 10 pounds," Farwick said, predicting one of the state's best trophy destinations for 2009.

It's a short drive south to 85-acre Austelle, which used to be a legitimate trophy largemouth lake that once surrendered a 15-pound, 2-ounce monster. It's still a great fishery, but it's slipped in recent years, primarily because anglers so strongly practice catch-and-release fishing there. Instead of counting on wall-hangers, plan to fill a stringer with pan-sized bass for a shore lunch.

"Now, it's got a lot of small, skinny, undernourished fish in it, and we strongly encourage anglers to harvest more bass," Farwick said. "We have to have more harvest of the sub-13-inch fish. The limit is 10 per day, and we want people to take those smaller bass out of there."

Village Creek State Park is in southern Cross County, off state Route 284 about 13 miles north of Forrest City. For more information, call the park at (

870) 238-9406.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes that provide much of this area's best bass fishing are likely to be retaining water from last year, according to AGFC district fisheries biologist Ken Shirley. However, determined anglers who manage to get on the water should be rewarded with better-than-average bassing this spring.

Bull Shoals And Norfork
While these riverine reservoirs, which are part of the upper White River chain of lakes and tailwaters, are vastly different in size, Shirley discussed them together because conditions on the lakes and this year's outlook are so similar. "We had a tremendous spawn in 2002, and fish from that year are still carrying the bass fisheries," he said. "That's just the way Corps lakes are -- dominated by year-classes when you have high water and a good spawn in the spring, then they die out and you hope the next one comes along in a few years."

Anglers who find fish are going to be very pleased. "Those bass are 4 pounds and up now, and there were even some 7-pound-plus fish in tournaments (last) year, which is rare," Shirley explained. "Four and a half or 5 pounds usually wins big bass on both lakes. Norfork even had a bass only 1 ounce less than 7 pounds in a BASSCast tournament, which is the biggest fish I've seen in a BASSCast tournament in 16 years up here."

This spring, if the high water persists, follow the pattern of last year's successful anglers and concentrate your casts on the vegetated edges anywhere on Bull Shoals and Norfork. "Last year, the edge of the normal terrestrial vegetation was in 30 feet of water on Bull Shoals and under about 15 feet of water on Norfork," Shirley recalled. "People who got on the lake caught fish on the edges of the inundated shoreline, and it could be the same this year."

Access on both lakes may again be your biggest challenge, Shirley suggested. "In most places, you're launching from the access road instead of the ramp, and you're parking way up from the lake. Fishing is going to be pretty good. And if we have a dry winter, the water may come down. Folks are scared away more than they ought to be."

Bull Shoals covers 71,000 acres in Baxter, Boone and Marion counties, while 22,000-acre Norfork lies in Baxter and Fulton counties. For information about access and conditions on both lakes and Beaver Lake to the west, which has a similar situation, call the Corps' Project Office in Mountain Home at (870) 425-2700.

Crown Lake
For "a more stable lake" in north-central Arkansas, Shirley suggested 680-acre Crown Lake in Horseshoe Bend, which has an under-pressured largemouth population, likely because the lake is privately owned but open to the public. The AGFC has a ramp on the northernmost arm at Fisherman's Park, and a private pay ramp is available on the southeast side. Access the lake off state Route 289 (S. Bend Drive) in northeastern Izard County.

Crooked Creek
High water protected most of embattled Crooked Creek's smallmouths from last year's anglers, so you should find plenty of cooperative fish there this spring, Shirley said. By the time you read this, the AGFC will be building a permanent bridge to the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center at Kelley's Slab near Yellville. It's a beautiful spot to launch a canoe, walk the shoreline or wade on public property to enjoy the creek's feisty smallmouths. Shallow-running crankbaits that imitate crawfish or sculpins work wonders there.

Access to reservoirs should be normal in this region, and its excellent smallmouth streams should fish extremely well at their usual, optimum float-fishing levels, according to AGFC fisheries biologist Frank Leone, stationed in Russellville.

Lake Dardanelle
"Lake Dardanelle is the first place I'd send an angler in the spring," Leone said. "It's got lots of bass in the 3- to 5-pound range, excellent fishing and lots of numbers of fish. In the spring, go to the large bays: Dardanelle Bay, Delaware Bay, Piney Bay, Shoal Bay. In those backwaters and bays, fish the shallow vegetation and riprap, and there will be plenty of fish there, including some big ones."

Dardanelle is a 34,300-acre Corps lake on the Arkansas River that stretches for 50 miles from Dardanelle Dam through Pope, Yell, Logan, Johnson and Franklin counties. For information on its numerous accesses, contact the Corps' Russellville Project Office at (479) 968-5008. Access in Pope County, where you'll find part of Dardanelle State Park on its namesake side of the river and another section on the Russellville side, is excellent with at least 10 public ramps. Call the park for information about campsites, facilities and current fishing conditions at (479) 967-5516.

Lake Atkins
The AGFC's renovation of 752-acre Lake Atkins, in southeast Pope County near the city of Atkins, continues to pay dividends with perhaps our finest Florida bass action. A heavy population of bigmouth buffalo that "took up too much room in the lake" led the AGFC to poison the lake in 2002 and rebuild with a balanced mix of Florida bass, crappie, catfish, and bluegills.

"To catch 10-pound fish in this region, go to Lake Atkins," Leone recommended. "We've seen fish in excess of 9 pounds in our electroshocking surveys, and we've heard from anglers about some 10-pound-plus fish. Some of those fish we stocked in 2002 should be reaching 10 pounds [this] year." He emphasized the need for anglers to harvest smaller bass "to keep it producing trophy bass." The AGFC enforces a 16- to 21-inch slot limit; you may keep four bass daily, but only one can be over 21 inches.

Access Atkins from roads off state routes 105 and 324, which you can reach from exit 94 on Interstate 40 at Atkins. Lucky Landing on the south side of the lake offers supplies, boat rentals, bait and more. Marked brushpiles hold lots of 3- to 6-pound largemouths throughout the year. Anglers typically move from one to another in orderly fashion, allowing everyone a turn. The tornado damage and debris that littered the lake last spring is long gone, and the lake and its infrastructure are in good shape, Leone said.

Lake Jack Nolen
For a more intimate west-Arkansas fishing experience where you'll catch many average-sized largemouths, check out 207-acre Jack Nolen. You can help Farwick manage its bass population by keeping a daily limit of six bass, especially those in the overpopulated 12- to 14-inch range. "We used to have a 15-inch length limit on it, but the commission rescinded it because we had a stunted population of fish in the 11- to 15-inch size. We hope people will harvest more of those small fish. Because it's a small lake, we also reduced the daily limit from 10 to 6."

Jack Nolen is in central Sebastian County off state Route 10 near Greenwood. The AGFC maintains ramps on the east and west ends of the lake.

Smallmouth Waters
This region features some of the state's finest smallmouth stream fishing, and Leone's recommendations are classic: the Buffalo National River, Big Piney Creek, the Mulberry River and Illinois Bayou. Most anglers enjoy these streams from canoes, casting jigs, tubes and inline spinners with light spinning gear for

bronzebacks that average a pound or so. Check AGFC regulations for length and possession limits.

"If you go to the Buffalo, you're going after bigger fish, but the Mulberry, Illinois Bayou and Big Piney are more of a numbers game," he explained. "A 14- or 15-inch stream smallmouth there is going to make your day, but on the Buffalo, you'll have a chance at 18-inch smallmouths -- 3-pounders."

For details about the 135-mile Buffalo National River, see the National Park Service's Web site, www.nps. gov/buff. See maps of Pope County for Big Piney and Illinois Bayou access points and Johnson and Franklin county maps to trace the Mulberry.

The fisheries described here are just a sample of the incredible bass fishing that's available in Arkansas this year. And the most encouraging news from all these experts is that last year's high water statewide is guaranteed to bankroll tackle-busting year-classes of largemouth and smallmouth bass that will begin bending your rods in earnest in about three years. The best is yet to come!

The free AGFC Fishing Guidebook, which includes details on bass regulations across the state, is available at agency offices and bait shops, or you can download it from the "publications" area of www.agfc. com. That page also contains a link for buying the $18 Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, which shows fishing accesses on detailed county maps.

Get Your Fish On.

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