Top Places for Bass Fishing in Arkansas
April 04, 2014
Spring is unfolding, with all of its promise of renewal and regeneration. The Arkansas hillsides are unfurling flags of warm greens, sprinkled with white garlands of dogwood and garnet jewels of redbud.
This is a time of life and birth and celebration. We might see deer fawns in the shadows, and we hear turkeys yelping, gobbling and chattering in the forests.
Of course, one of the main things we celebrate in March is the start of the year's best bass fishing. Years ago, spring fishing patterns hit their stride in April, but in the last six or seven years, spring has started progressively earlier, but it doesn't necessarily end earlier. It's just longer.
Every pocket of water holds a hungry bass just waiting to smack your favorite lure. They teem in every lake, pond, river, stream and bayou. In some places, you can even catch them in irrigation ditches. We all have our favorite destinations, but why not branch out and fish some new places this year? Here's a little primer to help you plan a month-long milk run of hotspots.
Here's what to expect for bass fishing in Arkansas.
We'll start the month at Beaver Lake, the first major impoundment of the White River chain. Its clear, deep, rocky waters cover 28,000 acres near the towns of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville. In 1967, It was the site of the first bass tournament for an organization that later became BASS. It was a great bass lake then, and it is still a favorite stop for anglers who enjoy catching big largemouth, smallmouth and Kentucky bass.
Due to extended periods of high water in 2008 and 2011, Beaver Lake produced two stellar year-classes of largemouths. Those fish are in their prime, and there are plenty in the 4- to 6-pound range, as evidenced by the bulging limits that professional anglers brought to the scales in the last three FLW Tour events.
In March and April, you can catch largemouths almost any way you want. In the main tributary arms, you can catch them in buckbrush and other wood cover with Texas-rigged worms or jig-and-pig combinations. In the main-lake area, from Prairie Creek to Lost Bridge, you can catch them with stickbaits and deep-diving crankbaits. For schooling bass, you might consider throwing an umbrella rig, a device that allows you to present multiple baits at once. If you've ever wanted to double up on 4-pound bass, this rig offers that possibility right now.
If you want to catch big smallmouths, try a shaky head jig on spinning tackle in deep water near Beaver Dam. You can also catch big smallmouths on spawning beds with jigs or small lizards, but that can be tricky. The beds are usually deeper than 6 feet, and persistent wind makes it hard to keep your boat on station, but the rewards can be memorable. That's how Andre Moore and Shinichi Fukae won consecutive FLW Tour events on Beaver in early spring of 2005-06.
TABLE ROCK LAKE
Just downstream of Beaver Lake is Table Rock. Most of its 43,000 acres are in Missouri, but it is very popular with anglers in northern Arkansas. With a $10 White River Border Lakes permit, we can fish every inch of it without having to buy a non-resident Missouri fishing license.
Like Beaver, its best largemouth fishing is in the upper end, especially in the remnants of standing timber near the community of Beaver. As good as its largemouth fishing is, however, Table Rock is known for its healthy population of big smallmouth bass. It also has big spotted bass, and equally big Kentucky/smallmouth hybrids known locally as meanmouths, but no matter how you shake it, the smallmouth is king there.
My favorite spots are around Kimberling City and east to Table Rock Dam. In April, a popular tactic for catching monster smallies is to slowly retrieve a Cotton Cordell C-10 Red Fin so that it barely wiggles under the surface to make a wake. That is a popular striper-fishing technique, but when employed off of island flats in the calm water of morning, it is deadly for big smallies.
Soft-plastic worms, lizards, centipedes and spider grubs on Carolina rigs are very effective on deep gravel flats in the middle of the day when the wind chops the water. In late afternoon and early evening, you can catch monster smallies on spider grubs on 1/8- to 1/4-ounce leadhead jigs off the leeward side of main points inside coves.
Fishing with Bill Chester of Reeds Spring several years ago, I lost one at the boat that exceeded 6 pounds. My heart has yet to mend.
BULL SHOALS LAKE
Our White River reservoir tour ends at the last big impoundment in the chain, 45,500-acre Bull Shoals Lake.
Considered a "dead sea," in the early 2000s, Bull Shoals best bass days as a largemouth fishery were long behind it just a few short years ago. It was a good smallmouth lake, but it didn't have the number of high-quality smallies that Table Rock had.
Then came a 100-year flood in 2008, followed by a 500-year flood in 2011. Bull Shoals was at flood stage for months, and its waters inundated many thousands of acres of shoreline that usually was high and dry. The result was two mammoth bass spawns that dwarfed those at Beaver Lake. Those fish are also in their primes, and Bull Shoals went from dead sea to one of America's best bass lakes at the snap of a finger. Its bass population stunned the pros on the Bassmaster Elite Series Tour in 2012. It fell off a little in 2013 due to unfavorable weather, but the big lake is nevertheless full of big largemouths in the 4- to 6-pound range and better.
In March, the most dependable largemouth fishing for those who prefer traditional power-fishing methods is in the river section above Lead Hill. If you like offshore presentations such as stickbaits, crankbaits, Carolina rigs and umbrella rigs, you can score just about anywhere.
To catch big smallmouths, concentrate on deep water at the end of main-lake points, and on rocky structure in deep water. The area near Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock, near Lakeview, is a good place to start. That's where Zeke Horn and I caught big bass of all three species one cold March day. We caught the smallies on a B-43 Storm Wigglewart crankbait. We caught 4-pound Kentucky bass on olive-colored jig-and-pigs, and we caught big largemouths on purple jigs. There's enough bass cover in all those big bays and coves to supply enough fun to last the whole month.
WHITE RIVER OXBOWS
The lower part of the White River, in southeast Arkansas, is nothing like the Ozark sections. The river is wide, with a wild world of oxbows and sloughs in the neighboring White River National Wildlife Refuge. There are so many, including Green Lake, East Lake, Pecan Bayou, Forked Bayou, Jack's Bay and Maddox Bay, just to name a few.
George Cochran of Hot Springs, Jimmy Gill of Stuttgart, my son Matthew and I enjoyed an excellent day of spring bass fishing in Maddox Bay. We all caught limits of chunky largemouths off a section of bank that stretched a half-mile at most. It was some of the easiest fishing I've ever done. With four of us in Gill's bass boat, and with scarcely enough elbow room to cast, we caught bass after bass from cypress knees, from sunken logs, from sunken tires, from irrigation pipes, from chunks of concrete, from boat docks and from plain old mud banks that showed no obvious reason for a bass to be there. We used watermelon worms with red flake.
Cochran, who was in the back of the boat, got so tired of trying to glean scraps behind the three of us that he threw crankbaits in the deep water on the opposite side of the boat. And he caught bigger bass than anybody. He always does.
Bass anglers either love the Arkansas River, or they hate it. Tyrone Phillips of Little Rock is one who loves it, especially in March. That's when the biggest largemouths in the river start migrating into the backwaters and side waters to spawn. Be there at the right time, and the fishing is pure magic.
Phillips and I took a memorable foray last March into a backwater near Conway. It doesn't look like much, and in hot weather it's just a gar and catfish hole. First, we had to strip down to our skivvies and jump in the water to push Tyrone's bass boat over a sand spit that separates the mouth of the backwater from the main river. The sides of the backwater are bounded on two sides by rock revetments. The other two sides have natural banks. Deep water drops off a wide, shallow flat. There's grass, brush and some downed trees. And there were bass everywhere. Using a combination of watermelon/red and red pumpkin worms, we caught bass out of visibile cover, and off the sand banks. Phillips also caught them with a Lucky Craft stickbait that he customized by drawing gill flares with red fingernail polish. He said that's the reason bass like it so much.
Almost every bass we caught that day was in the 3- to 4-pound range, and they were all healthy. That's just one spot. The Arkansas River is full of them.
Another so-called dead sea, Lake Maumelle has gotten a second wind of late and has quietly become a topnotch bass-fishing hotspot. It's not a place that surrenders a lot of big bass, but if you like to catch a mess from 12 to 14 inches, this is your place.
Mike Romine of Mabelvale and I make it a point to fish Maumelle together at least once every spring. It's simple fishing, and the catching is easy. We always go to the north shore, where an abundance of aquatic grass grows in the springtime. We use cheap white spinnerbaits with a single small Colorado blade. The brand is Tumbleweed Charlie. Romine got a bunch of them in a closeout bin for 50 cents each, and for some reason, Maumelle's largemouths love them.
We work along the grass mats that extend from the main banks and the islands, nicking the grass tops with the spinnerbaits. Bass come out of the grass to bite early in the morning. Later, we catch cruisers and schoolers away from the grass in deep water. They are usually in some sort of travel conduit between expanses of deep water, such as troughs that run between a bank and an island.
At the end of the trip, I always love to stop at Jolly Rogers Marina and buy a refrigerated candy bar and listen to the latest political commentary from the irrepressible Roger Nesuda.
Most bass fishermen overlook the northeast Arkansas, but if you like large numbers of bass in the 16- to 20-inch range, Lake Charles is one of our best lakes. It's in Lawrence County, about 10 miles west of Walnut Ridge
Sam Henry, assistant fisheries biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's District 3, said it probably has the best bass population he's seen in his career.
"There are lots of 20-inch fish. They're in excellent condition, and they're just everywhere," Henry said.
It's only 650 acres, so it's an easy lake to learn and become proficient at fishing.
It's huge, but Lake Ouachita is easy to fish in March. That's when I fished as a non-boater in a bass tournament with Gary Hubble of North Little Rock. Although it was brutally cold that morning, we caught a lot of big bass in the flooded timber of a remote cove on the north side using Lucky Craft stickbaits. The fish were in the timber, and they were aggressive.
Later in the day, we caught them off shallow banks at Lena Landing, also on the north shore. Hubble caught some good fish out of bankside brush and laydowns with jigs, and I caught a couple with spinnerbaits.
I won the non-boater division. It's the only tournament I ever entered!
LITTLE MAUMELLE RIVER
This waterway joins the Arkansas River at Two Rivers Park in west Little Rock, just upstream from the I-430 Bridge. It is technically part of the Arkansas River system, but one visit will demonstrate that it's a world all its own.
You can launch at Two Rivers Park, or you can save some time and gas reaching the most productive waters at a private ramp off River Valley Road, a couple of miles north of Highway. 10.
Romine and I fished that bass-fishing paradise last spring and had the kind of day they write magazine articles about. We started a couple of hundred yards upstream of the River Valley Road Bridge. Flooded timber lines the channel, but there's a veritable forest of fallen trees and brush along the north bank. I caught the biggest bass of the day, about 4 pounds, off a stickup next to the channel.
Farther upstream, the creek widens into a big cypress and tupelo swamp. Wide, shallow bays branch off, with various cuts and notches leading to small backwaters. Flipping jigs and worms, Romine and I caught largemouths up to about 14 inches all morning.
We took a Coke and cracker break among the cypress trees. Pinnacle Mountain, the centerpiece of one of our state's busiest state parks, loomed in the background. All was quiet except for the rapping of woodpeckers and the occasional squeal of wood ducks.
"Can you believe such a place exists just 15 minutes from downtown Little Rock?" Romine asked.
If you're not an angler, you'll never know it's there.
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