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I love being on a lake on a gray winter day.

To urban eyes it looks desolate and bleak. If it were human, it might rebuff your advances with an icy stare. Its wit is sarcastic and biting, and it will dull your humor with stories of hardship and deprivation.

It's an act, refined to deter the insincere and uncommitted.

Lake Ouachita is not as dapper as in April, but if you can tolerate its bluster, you're as welcome now as you are in its finest seasons.

Though in a relatively benign humor, Lake Ouachita was not in a visitational mood Monday when my brother Brad and I attempted our year's first striper and walleye foray. The temperature was about 40 degrees, but the head wind of a boat underway exposed January's fangs. Brad prepared for this by wearing a face mask. I did not, and I regretted it.

My War Eagle tasted water for the first time this year at the Arkansas 27 access on the upper end of the lake. Brad is intimately familiar with the big lake as far upstream as Shangri-La, but this was his first visit this far west.

"What's between here and Shangri-La?" Brad asked.

"That's in the South Fork," I said. "You have to round a bend into the main lake and then pass Big Fir and Little Fir," I said. "From here, it's another 3 miles or so to the 'fall line' where the Ouachita River dumps into the lake. That's as far as you can go in a prop-driven boat unless it's really high. You can go a lot farther in a jet boat."

The Arkansas 27 Access was deserted, and the lakescape was deathly quiet except for the occasional vehicle rumbling over the highway's bridge.

With some coaxing, my Yamaha 25 purred from its slumber. We strapped on our life jackets, and I activated my depth finder. It comes in very handy in the upper reaches of the lake where the channel winds a serpentine path, especially in low water. Veering out of the channel can connect you with a stump or put you aground, but that threat was remote with the lake's present high level.

This was my first outing since installing a Stingray hydrofoil on my outboard. I did this on the advice of a friend that swears by it, but I was not pleased. The foil planes the boat instantly, but at the expense of speed and fuel consumption.

It took a long time for me to summon the courage to drill holes in the motor to install the hydrofoil. I'll fill them with JB Weld and consider it a lesson learned. Or maybe I'll keep it attached and evaluate its contribution after a year.

Brad soaked in the landscape as we cruised upstream.

"Water's not as clear as it is down in your part," I said.

"No, but I like it," he said. "It has a whole different personality."

We started trolling stickbaits at a point where I thought fish might be, and while I marked some big fish on deep stumps, we got no bites.

A long while passed before I started getting suspicious. I saw no familiar landmarks, and the channel made a few unexpected jags where I had to hug the bank to stay in navigable water. We topped a couple of unfamiliar shoals and roared through a few unfamiliar pools. There was no current in the lake, but here it was very swift.

"Something isn't right," I finally said. "We should have been at the fall line a long time ago."

Then I glanced up on the bank and saw a familiar fish cleaning table.

"Well, I'll be!" I said. "We're at High Shoal! This is where I launch my canoe. We're way above the fall line. I've never been this far in a prop boat before, but this is where the fishing usually gets good."

We trolled all the way to the next shoal, which was our limit because of water depth. When dark water gave way to rocks and gravel, I conceded the point and let the current sweep the boat to safety.

We made several passes but got no bites.

"If they were here, we'd have gotten bit by now," I said. "I think we're about a month early. You want to try again in February?"

"Absolutely," Brad said.

"Good. Let's get out of here."

The trip back to the ramp was a lot faster, but also a lot colder. That's the toll one pays to enjoy an Arkansas lake in winter.

Sports on 01/20/2019

Print Headline: Winter bares teeth during Lake Ouachita foray

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