I wish the fishing had been better for probably my last visit to Lake Conway. I hate to part ways on such poor terms.
At 6,700 acres, Lake Conway is the nation's largest lake built by a state wildlife management agency. It and Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area were built in 1948, making them the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's oldest assets. Both suffer from age deterioration, but the commission is renovating both properties.
Lake Conway's renovation began in the early summer when the commission announced an ambitious plan to drain the lake, rebuild its obsolete dam, compact the soil in the lake bed, add fish habitat structures, and improve navigation lanes. The drying-out process will take about three years. The Commission will refill the lake and stock it with fish. The fishing should be decent about eight years from now.
Rusty Pruitt and I contemplated that timeline Tuesday when we launched his boat in an expansive bay near the nursery pond. We are of an age at which the odds against planning so far ahead are somewhat skewed to the unlikely. Unless we go again before the lake is dry, Tuesday might well our last visit. The poor quality of the fishing the past two visits makes a return visit unlikely.
The gates in Lake Conway's dam are open, and the water level has dropped about 2 feet since we last visited a few weeks ago. This has exposed tree stumps that make the lake look a porcupine. A cypress-studded hump that was submerged a few weeks ago is now an island. Shady pockets along the shoreline that were sheltered beneath a low canopy of cypress boughs are now dry.
Logically, a falling water level should push fish out to deeper cover where they should be easier to find. This is not the first time I have fished under such a faulty theory.
In addition to the stumps that now poke above the surface, falling water has also brought into play hundreds of other stumps that are in a more deteriorated state but are still sturdy enough to catch and hold a boat.
This frustrated Pruitt immensely. His boat, a hulking aluminum tank, was not designed for ergonomics. Operating a trolling motor pedal contorts the back and hips in a most inhumane fashion. Pruitt attempted to remedy this by placing the pedal on a thin plywood ramp. Its springiness makes the footing even more unsure.
Also, the directional arrow atop the trolling motor housing points exactly opposite of its proper orientation. Pruitt careened the boat about like a slithering snake. If it wasn't bouncing off stumps, it rode onto them and stopped abruptly. Several times Pruitt almost got launched overboard.
The most logical place for bass, I thought, was under the vast beds of lily pads. I threw a soft plastic frog, about the only thing that won't snag in pads. I hopped it gently across the tops hoping a big bass would smash it. Especially enticing were the small pockets of open water far back among the pads. Despite scores of casts, all with exquisite retrieves and presentations, I got one weak strike.
I cast a square-billed crankbait around the stumps. A squarebill is great for cover because it tends to bounce off obstructions instead of snag them the way a conventional crankbait does. Bass were not interested in that, either.
I tried a big spinnerbait with a tandem willowleaf and Colorado blade. It made a wonderful thumping flash, but fish ignored that, too.
Finally, I tried a Whopper Plopper, a topwater lure. Pruitt threw a concave-face, chug style lure. He caught one bass that was about 5 inches long.
"If we had any sense, we'd have launched down by the dam," I said. "I'll bet the fish are following the current and the water downstream."
That theory proved faulty at dusk. Bass slammed bait on the surface all around us, but none took a lure.
As a rain front cleared to the west. The dark cloud wall diffused the sunlight into a gentle golden hue that made the landscape look as if King Midas had stroked the entire county. A rainbow appeared. It made for a splendid sunset. We will remember that long after we forget the poor fishing.