Here's expert advice on where to get your share of trophy panfish in the Natural State.
The white bass fishing on the upper White River near Eureka Springs that May morning was incredible. I joined Steve Matt for a day of fishing on the river near the small town of Beaver in Carroll County. Steve, a former Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife officer and now public and media relations manager for G3 Boats, calls the river "my home water" and knows its intricacies as well as any man alive. He guided me to one of the most enjoyable days of fishing I've experienced in recent years.
"Got one," Steve said, just after making his first cast.
Beneath the surface of the fast-moving water, I could see the silvery form of a big white bass struggling against Steve's line. Before my friend could boat his fish, however, another white bass nailed one of the spinners I was retrieving across the stream bottom. That was just the first of many two-man hookups enjoyed that day.
The white bass fought furiously, as white bass always do. But we brought them to the boat quickly, removed the hooks, released the fish and cast again. Sometimes we'd make several casts before we caught a fish, but often the bass attacked on consecutive casts. These were good-sized fish, too, running 2 to 3 pounds each. And on the light tackle we were fishing, they put up a battle well out of proportion to their size.
We caught dozens of white bass during the few hours we fished. We didn't keep any on this trip, as both of us already had plenty of fish at home in our freezers. But we might have otherwise. Properly prepared, white bass, like all panfish, are delectable on the dinner table, and during spring, it's not unusual to fill a cooler with a 25-fish limit in a very short time.
If you'd like to experience such action yourself, now is the time to try, for spring offers some of the year's best panfishing in the Natural State, not just for white bass but for other great-eating panfish such as crappie, redears, bluegills and bullheads. Here are some Arkansas hotspots you should include on your fishing itinerary this season.
UPPER WHITE RIVER & BEAVER LAKE TRIBUTARIES: JUMBO WHITE BASS
The White River below Beaver Lake has a northerly flow and becomes the headwaters of Table Rock Lake. During spawning runs in April and May, fish in the lake follow the urge to migrate upstream and run up the river to the base of Beaver Dam. This creates excellent fishing conditions in shoal areas from the dam all the way to the town of Beaver. That stretch of river has produced two state-record whites just slightly less than 5 pounds each, so trophy-class fish always are a possibility.
Locally popular lures include spinners, crankbaits and spoons. Favorites are Worden's Rooster Tail spinners (1/16- to 1/4-ounce sizes), Rapala's Shad Rap, Bagley's Killer B and Cotton Cordell's CC Spoon. Folks in the know say shad patterns and chartreuse colors work best in the clear water.
Steve Matt and I used medium-action rod-and-reel combos to cast Yumbrella Flash Mob multi-lure rigs (available at lurenet.com). Each rig has four willow-leaf spinners and five stainless-steel wire arms to which we attached Blakemore Road Runner lures. When cast and retrieved, the rigs create tremendous flash and vibration, which resembles a little school of baitfish. White bass can't resist it!
Spring white bass fishing also is excellent in Beaver Lake's headwater streams. This 28,220-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake is fed by one fork of the White River that goes back south and east as far as Crosses, Delaney and St. Paul. The West Fork of the White ranges southwest as far away as Winslow, West Fork and Greeland, while the Middle Fork travels northwesterly about halfway between and paralleling Arkansas Highway 16 and U.S. Highway 71. These three forks provide many miles of prime water where you can always find springtime white bass action.
Another large tributary of Beaver Lake, War Eagle Creek, flows in from the lake's east side. In this stream, running whites can swim only to the base of the dam at War Eagle Mill, where they congregate in huge numbers to create an excellent fishing site.
KEITH SUTTON'S CRAPPIE FISHING HANDBOOK
Want to learn more tips and tactics for catching crappie? "The Crappie Fishing Handbook" by Keith Sutton is an excellent source of information for beginners and experienced slab hookers alike. The content in this 198-page book, which is illustrated with hundreds of full-color photographs, includes Understanding Crappie, Tackle Tips, Lure Selection, Bait Considerations, Seasonal Savvy, Tactical Tips, Trophy Tactics, and Cleaning and Cooking Crappie. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $19.45 (includes shipping) to C&C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal
BEAR CREEK LAKE: SUPER SHELL CRACKERS
If you like catching big redear sunfish, or shellcrackers (and what panfish fan doesn't?), it's worth a drive from wherever you live to fish Bear Creek Lake in east Arkansas' St. Francis National Forest. This beautiful, 625-acre impoundment on Crowley's Ridge has lots of nice bluegills and crappie, too, but it's best known for producing redears that aren't just big; they're gigantic! A live earthworm fished right on the bottom is likely to produce a "shellcracker" weighing anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, and some even bigger. And you'll be hard-pressed to find a more scenic lake to fish anywhere in the South.
Most of the timber that once stood in Bear Creek has rotted and fallen. Veteran redear anglers usually work the shallow waters of the lake's many long fingerlike coves in spring. After the spawn, redears can be found along the edges of underwater creek channels in deep, fairly open water.
Bear Creek Lake is 7 miles southeast of Marianna on State Highway 44. Outboard motors may not exceed 10 horsepower. The Bear Creek Recreation Area in Mississippi River State Park offers camping units, picnicking, swimming, a boat ramp and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. Additional information is available at arkansasstateparks.com/mississippiriver/.
LAKES DUNN & AUSTELL: BOSS BULLHEADS, BREAM
Because bullheads rarely weigh more than a pound, there aren't many Arkansans who target them specifically. Nevertheless, many folks who visit Village Creek State Park near Wynne catch these good-eating panfish while boating or bank fishing. Both lakes — 68-acre Dunn and 64-acre Austell — have healthy populations of these bantam catfish. I've fished from docks on each lake and caught 20 bullheads in a single hour on chicken liver baits. Some weighed more than 2 pounds, which is exceptional for bullheads.
Your fishing strategy can be as unencumbered as using a cane pole and small hook to dunk a worm or piece of liver in late evening. Fish on bottom, using a split shot or a small slip-sinker to carry your bait down. You need not fish deep or far from shore.
Dunn and Austell also are home to some whopper bluegills and redears. I've seen 2-pound-plus specimens of both species caught by park visitors, and on my many spring fishing trips, I've loaded a cooler with dozens of bream too big to reach around. Fishing live crickets or worms on ultralight tackle is the ticket to success.
Both lakes in the park are restricted to electric motors only. Only registered campers can fish after 10 p.m. The park offers 10 modern housekeeping cabins and 104 fully equipped campsites. For additional information, visit arkansasstateparks.com/villagecreek/.
Other good places to try for Arkansas bullheads include Lake Conway, U.S. Forest Service lakes in Ouachita National Forest near Perryville, and the L'Anguille River between Harrisburg and Forrest City.
LAKE OUACHITA: GIANT BLUEGILLS & REDEARS
Surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita in west-central Arkansas is known for its scenic natural beauty and the clarity of its waters. Named one of the cleanest lakes in America, this beautiful Corps of Engineers impoundment is a water sports Mecca for swimming, skiing, scuba diving, boating and fishing. And the spring bream fishing there is best described in terms of temperature; it's HOT! Ouachita harbors an extremely healthy population of bluegills weighing a pound and up, and anglers in the know will catch plenty of huge redear sunfish as well. Both species usually can be found in quiet coves along the lake's 975 miles of shoreline or in deep weedbeds surrounding the lake's many islands.
Scout from a boat first, wearing polarized sunglasses to cut glare and help you see clusters of the fishes' circular nests. The lake is exceptionally clear, so it's easy to see bluegills and redears hovering over their beds.
Standard bream fishing gear is an ultralight combo spooled with 4- to 6-pound line, a cage full of crickets, a couple of boxes of worms and, of course, a cooler of drinks.
Located just a short drive from the spa city of Hot Springs on the lake's eastern shore, Lake Ouachita State Park is a good place to call your "home away from home" when visiting this popular bream fishing lake. The park's fully equipped cabins include seven that overlook the lake and one that offers a woods view. There are 103 campsites as well, plus picnic areas, trails, a swimming area and marina with boat rentals, bait and supplies. Additional information is available at arkansasstateparks.com/lakeouachita/.
LAKE GREESON: SLAB CRAPPIE
Often as not, when it's big crappie I want, I head straight for Lake Greeson, a 7,000-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment near Kirby in west-central Arkansas. The surrounding Ouachita Mountains create a scenic backdrop for my photos, the lake seldom has much boat traffic, and action for 16-inch-plus crappie — fish weighing 2 pounds or more — can be extraordinary at times, especially in spring when big egg-laden females come shallow to spawn.
One of the first things noticed when fishing Greeson is the lack of visible cover. Only rarely will anglers see stumps, treetops, brushpiles or other habitat that might be used by crappie. There are, however, hundreds of manmade fish attractors of cedar and bamboo beneath the water's surface. They were placed there by local guides, anglers and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The absence of natural cover means most crappie are apt to be gathered around these easy-to-find "crappie condos."
Use a fishfinder to pinpoint the brushpiles (there usually are several in each cove), keying in on those in shallower water during the spring spawning season. Then use a trolling motor to circle near the fish attractors while you present a live minnow, jig or jig/minnow combo right up against the brush. A slip-bobber on the line allows you to position the bait at the proper depth and provides a visual cue when a crappie bites.
On a good day in April or May, you might catch a 30-fish limit of crappie in just a couple of hours. The average fish is about 12 inches long and weighs about 1 pound, but most limit stringers will be anchored with several slabs weighing 2 to 2 1/2 pounds. When crappie are found and a pattern develops, it doesn't take long to catch enough for supper — and usually enough to share with friends and neighbors, too.
Fishing supplies, food, boat rentals and superb overnight accommodations are available at Self Creek Lodge and Marina (selfcreek.com) on Highway 70 in Kirby.