It was an extraordinary fishing day none of us will forget.
My friend Alex Hinson, my sons Zach and Matt, and I met with Lake Greeson fishing guide Jerry Blake at Self Creek Marina in Kirby at 6:15 a.m. By 6:45, Blake had us on a good striper-fishing hole near Narrows Dam.
A look at Blake's fishfinder revealed several striped bass chasing shad below us. Blake quickly baited hooks with live gizzard shad, we lowered the enticements, and each pole was placed securely in a rod holder on the boat's gunwale.
"You may need to give the stripers some line when they hit," Blake told us. "Let 'em take the bait, and then set the hook as hard as you can."
Blake had barely finished his instructions when Zach's rod tip nosedived into the water, and the action began. It was 6:55 a.m.
Striped bass are indomitable fish with a never-say-die fighting spirit. If you've never hooked one of these powerful fighters, you've missed one of the greatest thrills in Arkansas fishing. Ten- to 40-pound striped bass are caught with astounding regularity in the Natural State, and fish that size are among the most strenuous fighting adversaries in fresh water. Hook one and you're in for an unforgettable battle.
Zach discovered that fact immediately, and while he was enjoying a give-and-take skirmish with his fish, Matt hooked up with another striper. Before those fish could be landed, Alex's pole went down, too, and I was summoned to "Get the net!"
Blake netted Zach's 8-pounder, I scooped up Matt's 10-pounder, and while Blake re-baited Zach's hook, I helped Alex land a striper of similar size.
We had just started fishing and already had landed three nice stripers. But those three fish were just a few of the many gobbling up shad below Blake's boat. My sons and Alex each hooked another striper as soon as they got fresh baits in the water, and by 7:06 a.m. -- just 11 minutes after the action began -- we had eight nice stripers in our livewell.
There was a lull in the action as the striper school scattered. Within minutes, Blake had another school pinpointed on his Humminbird, and this one held some even larger fish. Once again, we had multiple hookups. Once again, we enjoyed exciting clashes with some dandy linesides. And before we were ready for it all to end, we each had our three-fish limit in the boat and it was time to go.
Less than two hours after leaving the dock, we were back again. Before lunchtime, Blake had the good-eating stripers filleted, bagged and ready for transport back home.
When our crew of four prepared to leave Lake Greeson, we all had a greater appreciation for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's efforts to introduce these sleek, brawling sportfish into Arkansas waters.
"That was some of the best action for big fish I've ever experienced," said Alex. The rest of us had to agree. Hooking up with some of these incredible, hard-hitting game fish provides an ideal way to enjoy a day on the water. And May is one of the best months to do so, particularly when fishing the waters described here.
Stripers were first stocked in 7,000-acre Lake Greeson in 1968, and fishing for these powerful brutes is exceptional there. Linesides to 40 pounds have been caught in this Ouachita Mountains reservoir, but Greeson's striper fishery is better known for quantity than quality. It's not unusual to catch dozens of 8- to 15-pounders during a day of fishing, with a few 20- to 25-pounders thrown in for good measure. But Greeson seldom produces the super-heavyweight stripers that often turn up on larger Arkansas lakes such as Ouachita and Beaver.
Jerry Blake is an experienced Greeson striper guide, and the method he uses to catch these sportfish is simple if you can obtain and keep live gizzard shad (the striper's favorite food) for bait. That's the tough part, Blake says -- finding shad, catching them and then maintaining them in a fresh, lively condition right up to the moment you put them on the hook. Special tanks and chemicals are needed, and shad can't be overcrowded or they'll die. There's no better striper bait available, however, so if you want to catch stripers on your own, you should learn all you can about catching and keeping those baitfish.
Sturdy tackle is a must when going after these fish. Blake uses 8-foot, 3-inch Shakespeare Ugly Stik Bigwater downrigger rods and Shakespeare Arsenal trolling reels with built-in line counters. The reels are spooled with 40-pound-test monofilament line. A 1 1/2-ounce egg sinker is placed on the main line, and below that a size 3 barrel swivel. To the swivel's other eye, Blake attaches a 6-foot leader of 20-pound mono, to which he ties a 3/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook.
The first order of business is to locate the fish, which Blake does using a Humminbird 797c2 sonar/GPS unit. He then baits the hooks on each combo with live shad and lowers them to the depth where stripers are holding. If the stripers are hungry (they usually are), it won't be long until one takes a bait. When that fish is landed, the line-counter reel allows the angler to return the bait to the same depth and to do it quickly, thus allowing multiple hookups in just minutes.
Lake Greeson lies north of Murfreesboro and west of Kirby, about a half-hour's drive southwest of Hot Springs. The daily striper limit is three per angler. For a map and additional information, contact the Lake Greeson Field Office at (870) 285-2151 or log on to www.mvk.usace.army.mil/Lakes/ar/greeson/. For guided fishing, contact Jerry Blake at Action Fishing Trips, (501) 844-9028, or go to www.actionfishingtrips.com.
If it's big stripers you're after, Lake Ouachita can deliver. Often called "The Striper Capital of the World," this crystal-clear, 40,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment between Hot Springs and Mount Ida produced three previous state records up to 48 pounds. Twenty-pounders are common, and 30- to 50-pound fish are always a possibility.
Like Jerry Blake on Lake Greeson, Ouachita striper guide David Cochran of Royal prefers live gizzard shad for bait. "There are many ways you can catch stripers here," he said on my last trip out with him, "but the best way is fishing with live shad, their favorite food."
Cochran often looks for stripers around river channels and humps where they congregate the fill their bellies on baitfish. A good area is the old Ouachita River channel from near the dam to where it is joined
by the Little Blakely and Big Blakely Creek channels. Pinpoint the shad schools on sonar, look for big boomerangs (stripers) around them, drop a bait down and hang on. Using this tactic, Cochran helped me and fishing partner Ian Sulocki catch several 20- to 25-pounders.
Pro angler Bobby Graves of Mount Ida likes to employ a different tactic to catch the stripers in this Ouachita Mountains impoundment: working bucktail jigs over bottom humps. In just a few hours of fishing, he and my son Matt used this tactic to land 15 stripers in the 10- to 15-pound class, a fun day of fishing in anyone's book.
The daily limit of stripers on Lake Ouachita is three per angler. About half this 50-mile-long lake lies in the Ouachita National Forest, and the reservoir's 694 miles of shoreline bump up against some of the most picturesque terrain in the Natural State. For a map and more info, contact the Lake Ouachita Field Office at (501) 767-2101 or visit www.mvk.usace.army.mil/lakes/ar/ouachita. Guided striper fishing is available through David Cochran by calling (501) 760-5071 or visiting www.cochranfishing.com.
Lake Hamilton (7,460 acres) is another Hot Springs area hotspot for big, hard-fighting stripers, a fact exemplified by two events that occurred in spring 1997. On March 21 of that year, Jim Robb of Fort Smith landed a 53-pound, 9-ounce Lake Hamilton striper. Four days later, Mike Grissom of Benton caught another Hamilton heavyweight weighing 53 pounds, 13 ounces. Both fish were new state records at the time.
Robb's record-breaker, caught on a gizzard shad, came from the east side of Big Goat Island in the White Oak Basin area, a location considered by local anglers to be one of Hamilton's premier hotspots. Grissom's monster striper was caught on a live shad, too, just south of Big Goat Island. Grissom caught another giant, a 42-pounder, the same day.
Hamilton continues churning out good numbers of big stripers every year, and May is a great time to catch them even though this can be a tough lake to fish. It gets lots of fishing pressure and has heavy recreational boating traffic. Nevertheless, if it's a trophy fish you're after, your chances are much better here than on most other striper waters in the state.
For more information, contact Entergy-AP&L in Hot Springs by calling (501) 321-8543. David Cochran offers guide service.
This 28,000-acre Corps of Engineers lake near Rogers in the northwest Arkansas Ozarks is another hotspot for giant stripers. Several 40-pound-plus state records fish have been caught there, including one weighing 45 pounds, 12 ounces. Hundreds of stripers over the 30-pound mark are caught each year, and several of them weigh more than 40 pounds.
Guide Brad Wiegmann has taken me striper fishing several times on Beaver, and each time we used fresh-caught shad to catch fish that averaged 25 pounds. One method he uses is pinpointing schools of stripers using sonar, then suspending a shad above the fish using a small, partially inflated party balloon tied around the line with a simple overhand knot. The balloon signals a strike and will break or slide up or down the line when a big fish hits.
Wiegmann also likes trolling live gizzard shad beneath planer boards. Several rods can be used this way, with each rig kept well apart from others to avoid tangling. And when stripers are busting shad on top early and late in the day, you may find Wiegmann casting big plugs like the Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper to nail hard-fighting heavyweights. Hotspots for spring fish include the huge flats near the White and War Eagle River juncture in the upper portion of Beaver, and the mouths of tributaries such as War Eagle Creek, the White River, Ford's Creek, Cedar Creek and Rambo Creek.
Contact the Beaver Lake Project Office in Rogers at 479-636-1210 for more information, or visit www.swl.usace.army.mil/parks/beaver/index.htm. Guided fishing is available through Brad Wiegmann's Guide Service in Springdale. Call (479) 756-5279, or go to www.bradwiegmann.com.
Lake Maumelle, owned by Little Rock Waterworks, covers 8,900 acres, 8 miles west of Little Rock along Arkansas Highway 10. All those acres seem to hold stripers at one time or another, and visiting anglers have a good chance to hook fish weighing up to 40 pounds. Stripers weighing 15- to 20-pounds are common.
Stripers often hold in or along the edge of the Maumelle River channel, which runs through the lake's midsection. There's only one major bottom channel there, and because the lake is only 1.5 miles at its widest point, the channel isn't difficult to pinpoint.
Pinpointing stripers isn't always as easy. Most usually gather in schools near the upper end of the lake because that's where shad also congregate. Trolling the river channel with jigs or shad is a good way to catch them, but many anglers prefer casting. It's not hard to follow the channel with a sonar unit, and you can work the edges with jigs, spoons and deep-diving crankbaits.
For further information, including regulations specific to the lake, contact the city of Little Rock at (501) 376-4781, or phone Jolly Rogers Marina at (501) 868-7812.