February 22, 2012
If you love fishing and you live in Arkansas, you're living the good life, indeed. Few places in the U.S. offer the astounding variety of freshwater fishing opportunities that are available in the Natural State.
Regardless of the time of year, the fish are always biting somewhere. Try your hand for monster catfish in the broad bottomland rivers of the Delta or fly-fish for trout in the clear streams of the Ozarks. Fish the Coastal Plain lakes for crappie and bream or try for white bass and hybrids on a Ouachita Mountains reservoir. The opportunities are almost endless.
That said, here's a road map to guide you to some of the state's best fishing destinations this year.
Mississippi River Blue Cats
Most folks are backed up to the fireplace this month, but not serious catfishermen. These guys know January is the time to bundle up and chase blue cats, and no place offers better action than the Mississippi River, home of the former 116-pound, 12-ounce world record caught at West Memphis just downstream from the Interstate 55 bridge.
Use sonar to pinpoint deep wintering holes anywhere on the river from Blytheville to Chicot County. Then drop a chunk of fresh skipjack or shad to the bottom and hold on. Thirty- to 50-pounders are common, with 100-pounders always possible.
One important thing to remember about these big whiskerfish this season is that where you catch one, you probably can find others. Blue cats often gather in huge concentrations in relatively small deepwater areas in January. From one wintering hole in the Mississippi River, you might catch a dozen or 100, including several trophy-class specimens.
Today's catfish fans usually keep smaller cats (to 5 or 10 pounds) if they want some to eat and release older heavyweights. Remember the motto, "Today's releases are tomorrow's trophies."
Old Town Lake Crappie
Old Town Lake, southwest of West Helena, warms up earlier than many other Arkansas lakes. Crappie usually move into the shallows to prepare for spawning around the middle of February. That oxbow is separated from the Mississippi River by a levee and drains into Big Creek in the White River drainage. It creates better fishing conditions for anglers who like fishing oxbow lakes, as water levels are generally quite stable with no fast rises or falls as are often seen on other Mississippi River oxbows in the area. The lake is at the town of Lakeview on Arkansas Highway 44 in Phillips County.
As the water in Old Town Lake warms this month, anglers start catching crappie around the dense stands of cypress trees in shoreline shallows. It's not uncommon to take a 30-fish limit of crappie that weighs 40 pounds or more when working jigs or minnows around good cover. The lake is extremely shallow, averaging less than 6 feet throughout, but on February's warm bluebird days, most crappie will be in 2 feet of water or less.
Beaver Lake White Bass
On this huge northwest Arkansas U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake near Rogers, anglers can enjoy some hot action for fat white bass this month. These temperate bass are gorging on schools of shad, and near dawn and dusk, they run the baitfish to the surface. Watch for surface disturbances as the predators herd the shad, and then move in quietly and start casting to the schools.
Any shad-like lure will catch the whites, but it's hard to beat a silver jigging spoon worked vertically beneath the boat. Free-line one to the bottom, then rip it upward a few feet at a time. Most anglers fish for white bass using light or ultralight fishing combos, but there on Beaver Lake, it's best to use a sturdy baitcasting outfit, as hybrids up to 3 pounds and more are common and will make a shambles out of smaller fishing gear. Dress warm; weather can turn frigid quickly at this time of year.
Lake Dardanelle Crappie
This honeyhole on the Arkansas River spreads westward from Dardanelle Lock & Dam at Russellville to cover 35,000 acres in five counties. When the dogwoods start blooming in April, crappie begin spawning in shallow, timbered coves and backwaters.
Just a few years ago, shad populations in Dardanelle fell dramatically due to a winter die-off, and crappie, which feed heavily on shad, became less abundant as well. Enough time has now passed that crappie fishing should have greatly improved, making this a must-fish honeyhole for any Arkansas angler who loves targeting these good-eating panfish.
You won't go wrong fishing live minnows or shad-like jigs around any woody cover you see there: stumps, brushpiles, standing snags, and so on. Dardanelle has lots of fast-breaking rocky structure that attracts crappie as well. Dozens of fish can be caught on spawning beds around gravel-covered points and shallow flats with very little cover at all.
Two excellent crappie-fishing areas are the Spadra Creek and Little Spadra Creek arms south of I-40 at Clarksville. In those areas, you'll find 5- to 10-foot depths that jump up to 2- and 3-foot flats. Woody cover on those flats attracts crappie that sometimes weigh 2 pounds or more. The Shoal Bay area near New Blaine on Highway 22 provides similar conditions, with loads of crappie-attracting stump flats.
Check out page two for the top spots for Arkansas fishing for May, June, July and August
Lake Ouachita Walleyes
Lake Ouachita west of Hot Springs is a top destination for world-class walleye fishing this month. This 40,000-acre Corps lake always has been a good walleye producer, but local aficionados say it just keeps getting better. The lake is bristling with 'eyes weighing 1 to 4 pounds, and 5- to 12-pounders are common, especially around weedbeds and humps. It's probably a bit of an exaggeration, but some longtime Ouachita anglers say the walleye explosion may have placed these good-eating fish above largemouth bass on the list of most-caught sportfish.
Many fishermen complain that Lake Ouachita's walleyes disappear in May and June after spawning in tributary streams. But savvy local anglers know some fish always can be found in areas where walleyes are making vertical migrations from the depths to the shallows at dawn and again near dusk. These spots include rocky points, bars adjacent to deep water and bottom channel edges.
Often these are fished using slip-bobber rigs with live baits, particularly minnows and nightcrawlers. Bottom-bouncing a leadhead jig tipped with a lively crawler or minnow also produces. When fishing lures alone, popular choices include jigs, 3- to 6-inch deep-diving minnow plugs, vibrating lures such as the Rat-L-Trap, in-line spinners and trolling plugs such as the Flatfish and Hellbender.
White River National Wildlife Refuge Bream
Bream fishing on the oxbow lakes in White River National Wildlife Refuge is not only good, but also spectacular! Stringers of 50 bluegills and redears weighing 50 pounds aren't unheard of. And there are a wide variety of other bream you're likely to catch as well, including warmouths ("goggle-eyes" to many of us), green sunfish and longears. Knowledgeable anglers can enjoy extraordinary action in June when the bream spawn is in full swing.
There are literally hundreds of lakes to fish. Favorites with local anglers include Swan, Brown's Shanty, Goose and Buck just north of St. Charles off Highway 1, and Columbus, Escronges, Horseshoe and others near Ethel on Highway 17. Live crickets and worms tempt big bream, which usually haunt shoreline shallows near buckbrush, cypress trees and fallen timber. Plan a trip during this month's full moon for peak action.
Lake Conway Flathead Catfish
This 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake just off Interstate 40 east of Conway serves up some of the world's best fishing for trophy-class flathead catfish. Last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, Conway gave up numerous flatheads in the 50-pound-plus class. And there's no reason to expect that will change in 2012. Two- to 10-pound flatheads, the best size for eating, are as common as bluegills by a boat dock. I heard numerous reports last summer of Conway regulars taking 300 to 400 pounds of catfish a week, which included numerous "yellow cats."
This stump-filled lake 2 miles east of Conway can baffle the first-time visitor. Everything looks pretty much alike, so it's hard to decide where to fish. A sonar fishfinder will help you pinpoint the best areas, particularly inundated lakes and creek channels like Adams Lake, Greens Lake and Palarm Creek. These are excellent locations for bait-fishing with a rod and reel, and none is that difficult to find if you inquire at local bait shops about their whereabouts. When you're in the general vicinity, you can run sonar to pinpoint each structure's exact location, and watch for signals indicating big fish holding near edges and on drops.
The top baits for flatheads are live fish, with small live sunfish being most used by regulars. Chances are some state-record-class (80 pounds plus) fish inhabit Lake Conway, but they won't be caught by slouchy anglers. Be prepared with heavy tackle suited for landing behemoths.
Horseshoe Lake Catfish
Horseshoe Lake off Interstate 40 near Hughes is a favorite with Arkansas catfishermen. Flatheads aren't too common there, as they are in Lake
Conway, but angling for blue and channel catfish is excellent in summer. Blues weighing more than 30 pounds are possible, and 10- to 15-pounders are common. Channel cats run only slightly smaller, with numerous fish in the 5- to 12-pound range.
Channel catfish in this big Mississippi River oxbow lake lurk in stands of flooded tree stumps and around fishing piers. Blue cats are more likely to be found in open-water haunts following schools of shad, which rate high among their favorite eats. Other catfishing hotspots include humps and old boats on the lakebed, flooded riprap along shore and inundated timber.
Catalpa worms, nightcrawlers, goldfish and chicken liver are favored baits for smaller eating-sized cats. When trophies are being targeting, go with cut shad baits for the greatest chance of success.
Discover the top spots for Arkansas fishing for September, October, November, and December on page three
Arkansas River Striped Bass
In terms of the number of fish it produces, the Arkansas River is one of the best striper waters in Arkansas. There are few days when a dedicated angler can't hook several nice fish, and the abundance of 5- to 15-pound stripers provides all the action most fishermen need.
September finds stripers chasing shad on the surface. The fish may roam large areas as they follow bait, but some action continues day after day in the same locales, usually around dawn and dusk. Fishermen watch the water for feeding fish, and when they're sighted, they rush to get in a cast before the stripers dive. Any topwater plug or light-colored jig popped across the surface will draw strikes when fish are in a feeding frenzy.
Stripers can be taken on any of the river pools from Ft. Smith in the west to the river's confluence with the Mississippi in the east, but the best striper pools, perhaps, are lakes Dardanelle and Ozark in the western part of the state.
Big Piney Creek Smallmouths
In October, mountain streams are at their best for casual float-fishing. There's hardly a better time to fish for battling smallmouth bass, and Big Piney Creek is one of the best places to go.
Two excellent smallmouth floats are the 10-mile section from Forest Service Road 1004 at Limestone to Arkansas Highway 123, and the eight miles from Arkansas 123 to Treat (Forest Road 1805). Good lures include jigging frogs, minnow- and crayfish-imitation crankbaits, and small plastic worms.
Use medium to heavy tackle. Some people expect bass from this smallish stream to be small, too, and that can cost you trophy fish. Cast to rocks, underwater ledges and submerged timber.
Little Red River Trout
The Little Red below Greers Ferry Lake is among the blue-ribbon trout streams of America, serving up fine fall fishing for visiting anglers. Although plenty of nice rainbows, brook trout and cutthroats are caught there, brown trout are in the spotlight this month as they hit the shoals to spawn. Lots of 3- to 5-pounders are caught by savvy anglers, and there's always the possibility of a world-record-class fish. Fly-fishermen take most, with a variety of patterns used by local anglers.
When fishing for rainbows, brookies and cutts during high water this month, drift-fishing with the current is favored. Bait is cast upstream and allowed to bump the bottom as it drags behind the boat. On low water, still-fishing deep holes, weedbeds and timber from an anchored boat is preferred.
Lake Greeson Chain Pickerel
Few Arkansas anglers target chain pickerel, but these neglected fish are superstar fighters, putting up a battle that will make your knees shake. Best of all, this power-packed predator fires up with the urge to feed at the same time many other game fish are holed up for the winter. December fishing is excellent, especially on 7,000-acre Lake Greeson west of Hot Springs.
Pickerel, being fish eaters, are drawn to lures mimicking baitfish. Spinners, chugger plugs, slim-minnow lures, jigs, streamers and even plastic worms will elicit strikes. Cast around Greeson's numerous points and pockets, reeling with a steady, moderate-speed retrieve. And when you land one of these predators, use care in handling it. These toothy critters have been known to mangle the digits of careless anglers.
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Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of "Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State" ($28.25). To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order to C&C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal orders, visit www.catfishsutton.com.