One walleye: Smallmouth bass save day on Ouachita River

MOUNT IDA -- The year's first fishing trip was an early spring celebration.

It's walleye season in the rivers of the Natural State, and Chris Larson was straining at the reins on Feb. 9 to get a dose.

Historically that's early, but my main source for the upper Ouachita River has been catching a lot of walleyes at night on live bait. I don't ask where he catches fish and he doesn't volunteer, but I recognize landmarks from the photos he shares.

Joining us was David Schindler of Little Rock, who also has been eager to resume fishing after a long winter. His last trip, for steelhead on the Pere Marquette River in Michigan, was one for the storybooks. Arkansas has nothing to rival that, but what we do have is pretty cool, especially when striped bass enter the mix. Historically, it's too early for stripers to be in the river, but evidence we gathered from the site Friday suggests they might have arrived.

Since walleyes were our goal, we used light tackle. Walleyes ignore anything heavier than six-pound line. Stripers hit the same baits, and a stripe on 6-pound line is a rodeo.

Larson and I recalled a fight from several years ago when I hooked a striper late in a striper-rich day. I fought it through two pools and three sets of rapids. When I finally got it to the boat, it was too big for Larson's net.

"You hammered down on him a little too soon,," Larson said. "I think you got spooked when I said I didn't think it was safe to let him drag us through that last set of rapids."

"I was going to have to break him off sooner or later," I said. "I chose sooner."

"There was a bunch of people fishing on the bank over there," I said, turning to Schindler. "They watched the whole thing. They gave me a standing O when I popped that fish loose."

"There wasn't much left of his line after that," Larson said. "He caught three or four big stripers that day. He started out with 6-pound test. At then end, what do you think? One-pound?"

"If that," I replied. "It felt like a really thin strand of kinky hair."

Schindler practically trembled with excitement.

Larson really did tremble with excitement. It was his first trip of the year, and he shook so bad that he struggled to prepare the boat.

"You are uncharacteristically uncomposed today," I said. "Are you OK?"

"I'm like a kid at Christmas," Larson said. "I could hardly sleep last night because I've been so looking forward to this."

"You want me to tie your lures on for you?" I asked. "It looks like you're having trouble with those knots."

"If you don't mind, that would be nice," Larson said, turning away to tend to boat preparation.

The Ouachita River at the head of Lake Ouachita was high enough for unhindered passage to High Shoal. It was still a tad low for what we consider optimal fishing, but the water quality was perfect. It was slightly stained, and there was no junk in the water to foul treble hooks.

As soon as we cleared the rapid into the Powerline Hole, Larson and I cast our stickbaits to the port side, and Schindler cast to the starboard side. I trolled my stickbait inboard of Larson, who used a Long A Bomber B14, gold/black back. I used a small Headhunter herringbone/chartreuse stickbait. Schindler used a B15 Bomber silver/black top/orange bottom.

Schindler asked how Larson and I met.

"We met through a mutual friend, the late Scott Hunter," I said. "He was the guru of Ouachita River walleye fishing."

"You were fishing with Hunter one day, and I was out here with somebody else," Larson said.

"And you had a couple of walleyes and we didn't, so I took your picture," I added.

"We started fishing together shortly after that," Larson said.

"All this stuff we have tied on," I said. "Hunter would have a fit. According to him, the ONLY thing walleyes will bite up here is a Long A B15 in rainbow trout pattern."

"He used firetiger, too," Larson said.

"Yeah, firetiger, that's right," I said. "But we've learned that they'll bite other things, too. I catch more fish with this Headhunter than anything else I have."

"And I catch more consistently with this," Larson said. "Hunter would not approve."

During a lull, Larson talked about all the freshwater drum he catches while trolling for walleyes. Drum hit hard and fight hard. They're a lot of fun, but it's still a drum. It's not what you want.

"Even worse is when you catch a catfish," I said.

"You still holding a grudge against catfish?" Larson asked.


"Do you like to eat them?" Schindler asked.

"Only if I don't know what it is," I said.

"Why?" Larson asked. "They're delicious!"

"OK, here's the deal with me and catfish," I said after a pregnant pause.

"I knew there had to be a story to this!" Schindler shouted, as he and Larson exploded in laughter.

"When I was a little kid, my brother caught this big catfish in a golf course pond," I said. "He didn't know anything about how to clean a catfish. My mom didn't know anything about how to clean a catfish, and she wasn't real happy that he had brought that nasty thing home. She told him to 'deal with it.' She couldn't be bothered.

"So he puts it on the garage floor. Concrete, and starts whaling away on its head with a hammer. SHING! SHING! It's squirming around and chattering the way catfish do."

"Oh, so you were traumatized!" Larson said.

"That's just the beginning," I said. "Like I said, nobody knew how to clean a fish, so my mom puts the thing in the oven. Whole."

"Guts and all?" Schindler asked, practically choking.

"Guts, skin," I said. "My dad gets home from work, and my mom serves him this big catfish on a plate, with the head and tail hanging over the rim. It was a really tense dinner. So, no. I got nothing for catfish."

"But you did a story about those trophy catfish guys on the Mississippi River," Schindler said.

"Hey, sometimes you gotta hold your nose and look the other way," I said.

Stripers were absent on Friday and walleyes were scarce, but smallmouth bass filled in the gaps. They were very receptive to stickbaits. They hit them trolling, but bigger fish prowled the banks. Schindler caught one of the biggest smallmouths I've seen on the Ouachita -- about 3 pounds -- casting to a gravel bank.

It was there that my lure snagged on a root, which also held two Cordell Redfins. The Redfin is a 1-ounce, 7-inch long stickbait. One was rainbow trout pattern. The other is chartreuse bass.

"Whoever lost these wasn't fishing for walleyes," I said. "These are striper baits."

"They don't look like they've been long in the water," Schindler said. "There's no rust on the hooks."

"Maybe they have made it up here after all," Larson said.

We ascended the next pool where I caught the day's only walleye, an 18-inch male. That fish struck while I was reeling in the lure, which suggested they wanted a fast-moving bait. We tried trolling faster, but we got no other bites except for smallmouths.

We ended the day with 15 smallmouths and a walleye. My little Headhunter lure accounted for seven smallmouths and the walleye.

I ate the walleye for supper. It was delicious. Better than catfish.

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