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Scenic hot spots

Season’s beauty, warming waters enhance fishing action

By Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer

This article was published March 16, 2014 at 1:53 p.m.

lake-ouachita-is-encompassed-by-a-setting-of-incredible-beauty-within-the-ouachita-national-forest-west-of-hot-springs

Lake Ouachita is encompassed by a setting of incredible beauty within the Ouachita National Forest west of Hot Springs.

It was noon when we pushed our boats from a gravel bar and began day 1 of a two-day float down north Arkansas’ Buffalo National River. We quickly became absorbed in the scenic Ozark Mountains landscape encompassing the river.

Cold, crystalline water carried us through gorgeous passes cuffed with green hardwoods. Waterfalls cascaded down tall riverside bluffs. Wildlife was everywhere, including elk, deer and colorful wood ducks. As we paddled farther from civilization, we became enveloped in the stark, elemental beauty of this incredible mountain realm.

Casting topwater plugs and jigs in pools and riffles, we caught dozens of smallmouth bass. They lurked behind every rock, small fish mostly — 1 to 2 pounds — but occasionally our poles bent against the weight of a 4- or 5-pound bronzeback.

In late afternoon, we pitched a tent on a gravel bar and built a campfire over which to cook some of our catch. As I smelled the aroma of those fish sizzling in the skillet, I found myself extremely content to be sitting comfortably in the backcountry surrounded by stunning scenery. It was a fun outing I knew I wouldn’t forget.

If you get cabin fever this month, perhaps you’ll want to get away from home and experience your own spring bassing excursion on one of The Natural State’s many beautiful lakes or streams. If so, consider these destinations, where fishing is great and the panoramas are breathtakingly beautiful.

Buffalo National River

The Buffalo River tops the list of Arkansas’ best-known smallmouth streams. Folks from all over the country come to float this scenic stream, the country’s first national river. There’s no better place to enjoy a peaceful, relaxing float through gorgeous canyons with sky-high bluffs.

The Buffalo is a model smallmouth stream, with clear, fast water and a gravel bottom and boulder beds that smallmouths love. Most bass are welterweights, but there are plenty to be caught, and there’s always the chance of boating a trophy fish.

A good all-round lure choice is a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce brown leadhead jig dressed with a No. 11 pork frog. Use your rod tip to control lure depth and action, bouncing the bait along the bottom like a scurrying crayfish. Other productive lures include crankbaits fashioned to imitate crayfish and minnows (the smallmouth’s favorite prey), and small soft-plastic jerkbaits weighted for an underwater retrieve. Don’t overlook live baits, either. Live crayfish, minnows and night crawlers, available at many local bait shops, are extremely effective smallmouth baits.

The Buffalo stretches over 150 miles of scenic mountain territory from near Boxley in Newton County to the river’s junction with the White River near Buffalo City in Baxter County. Some of the many float stretches to check out are the Ponca to Arkansas 7 float (25 miles with access points and campgrounds at Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie and Ozark); the stretch

between Arkansas 7 and 123 (10 miles with accesses and campsites at Carver and Hasty); the float from Arkansas 123 to U.S. 65 (32 miles with access/camping areas at Mount Hershey and Woolum); the U.S. 65 to Buffalo Point float (27 miles with access points at Gilbert, Maumee North, Maumee South and Arkansas 14); and the final stretch from Buffalo Point to Buffalo City (30 miles with a single takeout point at Rush).

For more information, visit www.nps.gov/buff/.

Lake Ouachita

This big blue impoundment, often called “The Cleanest Lake in America,” sprawls across 40,000 acres west of Hot Springs National Park, the lake’s clear waters bristling with largemouth and spotted bass. Recent stockings of smallmouth bass have made that species available on a limited basis, too.

Numerous trophy-class largemouths are taken here every spring. There’s a distinct possibility of catching a 7- or 8-pounder, and while larger bass aren’t common, they do surface occasionally.

Most Ouachita anglers begin their search for spring largemouths “in the moss” — in beds of coontail and elodea. A fish-finder can pinpoint these mats of vegetation in 15 or 20 feet of water around islands and coves. Many anglers favor a deep-diving, minnow-imitation crankbait for fishing this submerged vegetation. Cast near a weed bed; then crank the lure down deep and retrieve stop-and-go fashion right over the top of the vegetation. Bass will come up out of the moss to nail the lure.

Ouachita’s spotted bass are usually deeper than largemouths in spring, holding on rocky ledges, points and humps as deep as 40 feet. Catch them by dropping live crawfish into their feeding zone. Many lures entice “Kentuckies” as well, including crawfish crankbaits, jig-and-pigs and small spoons.

Productive spring fishing areas include the Joplin, Tompkins Bend, Crystal Springs, Mountain Harbor and Big Fir public use areas on the south side, and Irons Fork, Avant and Buckville on the north shore. For more information, visit the website of Mountain Harbor Resort (www.mtharbor.com) or the Mount Ida Chamber of Commerce (www.mtidachamber.com).

Lakes Dunn and Austell

On the other side of the state, just west of the Memphis metropolis, there’s another retreat where you can enjoy laid-back fishing for lunker largemouths this season. Village Creek State Park near Wynne encompasses two fine bassing lakes, Dunn and Austell, that have produced some of the state’s all-time biggest bucketmouths, including dozens of bass in the 10- to 13-pound range, and a 16-pound-plus fish that would have been a state record had it not been caught illegally. Superb fishing is just one facet of Village Creek, however. The park is nestled in the beautiful hogbacks and hollows of Crowley’s Ridge, a landscape so peaceful and pretty you’ll find it difficult to focus on the fishing.

Dunn covers 65 acres, Austell 85. Despite the lakes’ diminutive sizes, however, local anglers catch lots of 6- to 9-pound bass during spring. Reports of 10-pound-plus lunkers still surface now and then, despite the fact that anglers who catch fish that size would prefer the world doesn’t know about the fabulous fishing in these honeyholes.

On Dunn, look for fish around brushy points and in coves with dense stands of dead timber. The arm of the lake running north from the boat dock can be productive, but most anglers have their best luck fishing the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach. On breezy days, concentrate your efforts around the numerous points in this area, where shad and other baitfish stack up and attract feeding bass.

Look for Austell lunkers hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach. This arm has produced several of the lake’s largest bass. Also productive are shallow, timbered flats adjacent to the creek channel running through Austell’s southwest arm, two deep wooded coves on the lake’s south side, and around logs and brush adjacent to the riprapped dam.

Top spring lures are weedless offerings because the fish tend to hole up in the tightest cover they can find. Try plastic lizards or worms, jig-and-pork combinations and slow-moving spinnerbaits.

Village Creek State Park lies between Wynne and Forrest City on Arkansas 284. For more information, visit www.arkansasstateparks.com/villagecreek/.

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