A day with The Puma: Hot Springs pro decodes difficult fishing conditions

BODCAW — A puma clawed a mess of bass from a stingy Southwest Arkansas lake in the toughest fishing conditions Thursday.

The Puma is Stephen Browning, a professional bass angler from Hot Springs. When a bass savagely struck his lure during a tournament, Browning exclaimed to the camera that the fish pounced on his lure “like a puma.”

“That name stuck,” Browning said. “They’ve called me The Puma ever since.”

Ray Tucker and I joined Browning Thursday for a day of fishing on Newton Lake, a 90-acre reservoir in Nevada County near Bodcaw. It is part of a developing recreational facility that offers deer hunting and bass fishing packages. Shelley Newton, manager for the property, said that she will offer duck hunting packages in the future, as well.

Browning, Tucker and I have discussed fishing together for years, but our schedules didn’t mesh until Thursday. Since turning pro in 1996, Browning has earned more than $1 million competing in 250 tournaments, including 10 Bassmaster Classics. A day on the water with him would be a bass fishing master class.

When we launched at 9 a.m., two guests from Missouri fished from the bank. The fishing hadn’t been great, they said. They had “only” caught a couple of 6-pounders and an 8-pounder.

“You have to decode that,” Browning said privately. “Eight [pounds] probably means what, five?”

“Five is about right,” I replied.

“So six is probably three?” “That’s how I count them, so yeah, probably,” I replied.

“Well, there are eights and nines in here,” Browning said. “Let’s see if we can catch one.”

The sky was robin-egg blue in the wake of a slight cold front, and a slight breeze rippled the water. Cypress trees dot portions of the lake. Weeds like coontail moss carpet the bottom, but sand boils create small clear mounds among the grass. Those are good places to fish.

Vegetation is abundant along the banks. There are also a lot of fallen logs, stumps and branches along the shore and in the water. The banks are not square. Small indentations and finger coves create a dragon’s tail of small points.

I began the day throwing a soft plastic frog. I got a couple of bites, but I whiffed on the hookset. After the third, thinking out loud, I said that I needed to slow down and give the fish time to engulf the lure.

“I’m too excited, and I’m rushing it,” I said.

Tucker, the radio voice of the UALR Trojans men’s basketball team, provided play-by-play and color commentary from the back of the boat. I was 0 for 6, Tucker observed, and I was in danger of be benched. The repartee became increasingly barbed. Tucker even criticized my phone’s ringtone.

“A man’s got to be pretty desperate for something to gripe about when he goes to ripping someone’s ringtone,” I said.

Steadfastly facing the bow, Tucker was stonefaced, but his shoulders heaved with silent laughter.

The frog bite, such as it was, was short-lived. Tucker asked Browning if he had something else to throw.

“Sure!” Browning said. “I’ve got anything you want. Name it.”

“How about a Whopper Plopper?” Tucker asked.

Browning’s Ranger boat has voluminous closet space. Every inch is packed with rods, tackle and bait. But guess what?

“I had a box full of topwaters,” Browning said, “but I guess I must have pulled them out.”

The Puma was harassed mercilessly for the rest of the day. Periodically, from both of us, Browning was cascaded with some form of, “We’d be kicking their butts if we only had a Whopper Plopper!” Thus drawn into the fray, Browning gave as good as he got.

As a consolation prize, Browning gave Tucker a black buzzbait. I tied on a white one. With the water rippling slightly under a soft breeze, a buzzbait should have been murder, but bass ignored it.

“I think most of them spawned about two weeks ago,” Browning said. “The big females are offshore hunkered up somewhere.”

Visual clues confirmed Browning’s hypothesis. Huge schools of bass fry hovered near the bank. What we initially thought were surface strikes were male bass chasing bream that were trying to eat the babies.

Finally, I caught a bass on a spinnerbait. It weighed about 3 pounds.

“What makes one random fish decide it’s going to smash a buzzbait when a hundred other presentations didn’t get a sniff ?” I asked.

“Gerald Swindle says that a good fisherman can make the wrong fish bite,” Browning said.

“I was about to put it down, but now I’m going to throw it for a few more hours,” I said.

Browning finally unlocked the first clue on a sand boil in open water. He threw a Z-Man Senko type worm rigged wacky style, hooked through the middle with the point exposed. When he caught his fourth, I converted.

Instead of a wacky worm, I used a Z-Man worm rigged Texas style. Soon, I caught one, and then another, and then another. Bites came in flurries, and the catch count rose to a respectable number.

At about 4 p.m., we made our last circuit. Our priority destination was a spot where water drained into the lake from a large pound on the other side of a levee. We fished it early, but I ruined it when I hooked a big stick and reeled it out. Late afternoon was a good time to try it again.

At the mouth of the outlet, Browning anchored the boat with his Power Poles. Only a few low limbs blocked the way to the waterfall. I made a lucky cast under the limbs and pulled out a bass that weighed about 3 pounds. I made an even luckier cast and got farther up the inlet and pulled out an identical fish. I tried for a third, but it didn’t bite.

I went back to the buzzbait. My casts were so hard and snappy that I asked Browning how long a knot would sustain such a high amount of stress.

“Your line isn’t nicked or stretched,” Browning said. “It should be fine.”

Shortly after, we fished a group of cypress trees. Browning caught two with his wacky worm. I threw my Texas worm to the edge of a sand boil. I felt the subtle tick of a strike and set the hook. The target initially yielded, but then it dug in and felt immovable. All I felt were head shakes.

“Oh, that looks like a good ’un!” Browning said.

“It is,” I grunted, pulling my rod back into a horseshoe.

The fish made one surge and then a harder surge. My rod decompressed and my line swayed in the breeze.

“That’s the one you should have retied,” Browning said.

“Dang it!” I said. “I was just thinking that, too. The oldest lesson in bass fishing, and boy did it cost me this time!”

“Retie and retie often,” Browning said. “Right idea, wrong rod.”

We caught several more off cypress trees, but nothing near the quality of the fish that broke off.

The last fish of the day, ironically, hit my buzzbait with a notoriously violent strike.

“He really did pounce on it like a puma!” Browning said. “That fish must have jumped two feet out of the water before it jumped on that buzzbait.”

Browning and I ended the day with about 30 bass, roughly equally divided. The biggest was about 4 pounds. As we drove away, we encountered the two Missourians.

“You guys are still fishing?” Tucker asked incredulously.

A recap conversation ensued.

“We’d have done a lot better if we’d had a Whopper Plopper,” Tucker said.

“I’ve got one right here,” one of the Missourians said. “You want it?”

“No, we’re done,” Tucker said.

“Here, take it!” the Missourian insisted. “I hate this stupid lure!”

Before Tucker could say another word, the Missourian bit the lure off his line and put it in Tucker’s hand.

“What do you think, guys?” Browning asked. “Should we get Ray off my butt and let him catch one with a Whopper Plopper?”

Tucker grumbled a response that made everybody laugh, the Missourian’s generosity was sincere. Tucker went home with a new Whopper Plopper.

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