In a Ranger Z520L with a 250-hp Evinrude G2, it takes about 15 minutes to run from Carpenter Dam, which impounds Lake Hamilton, to the Blakely Mountain Dam that separates Hamilton from Lake Ouachita. If you stop and chat with 11 pros along the way, however, you’ll need most of the morning, but you’ll also wind up with a pretty sound idea of what’s going on at Hamilton for this week’s FLW Cup.
FLW Digital Editor Jody White and I made that very trip this morning. Here’s what we saw and heard.
We launch at a ramp next to Carpenter Dam at about 7:15 and don’t have to run far to find Kurt Mitchell idling some offshore structure along a main-lake shoreline. We follow him into the mouth of a creek, where he goes to work with a spinning rod.
“It looks like the weights are going to be better this week, compared to Ouachita [last year],” Mitchell says. “I talked to a bunch of guys who caught some good ones yesterday.”
Mitchell says none of the pros he talked to caught more than one good one, but his report echoes the general buzz from practice yesterday, which was that there are some big bass being caught.
He spent the first official practice day up the lake and shook off some decent fish. Today, he’s trying the opposite approach in the lower end.
Texas pro Jason Reyes pulls in a few hundred yards away while we’re chatting with Mitchell, so we jet across the creek to get some air moving and watch him work. Reyes is humming through a pocket of docks with a buzzbait.
He says yesterday was tough for him. He got some bites fishing the upper end, but not from the kind of fish he’s after.
“I like it,” he says of that end of the lake, “but I don’t know about the quality.
“There’s so much grass there. It’s one of those deals that, I like to fish it, and it keeps drawing me in.”
The grass pattern isn’t the only thing that’s eluded him so far.
“I haven’t seen anything schooling to make me think that’s gonna be the deal,” he adds.
When we leave Reyes, we roll farther back into the creek and come across Minnesota pro Josh Douglas, who left behind a rockin’ smallmouth bite at Mille Lacs to come to Arkansas and chase the $300,000 top prize. Perhaps if he wins he’ll be able to afford another pair of his snazzy sonar shorts.
“My shorts are straight gangster, dude,” he says, possibly being serious.
Douglas is currently running the same program as Reyes, winding a buzzbait around docks. He spent the previous day idling and covered a pretty big swath of the lake.
“I didn’t fish any of it,” he adds. “I’ve got about a hundred spots to fish tomorrow.”
Our next stop is on Jeremy Lawyer, who’s fishing the same pocket that Reyes just left. Lawyer put in some pre-practice time on Hamilton and is running a mix of offshore and shallow spots while checking on what he found before the off-limits period.
“Yesterday I stayed up the other direction,” Lawyer says. “I had an OK day yesterday. I’d take it. And I’ve had an OK morning.”
Lawyer figures the fishing will get a lot tougher by Friday. Even though there are only 52 pros in this tournament, Hamilton is only 7,200 acres, and Lawyer believes a lot of the easier fish will have been picked on by the time the tournament starts.
“It’s dang sure easier to get bites now than it was in pre-practice,” he adds.
We hang with the Missouri pro a bit and watch him pick apart some docks with a buzzbait (see the trend?) before sliding out to test a brush pile. Lawyer says the traffic on Hamilton reminds him of Lake of the Ozarks, but the docks are different. Most of them are on fixed pilings here, and he was hoping to see more floaters.
He’s also surprised to not see more surface activity.
“I haven’t seen any schooling fish,” Lawyer says. “I didn’t see any yesterday, and I didn’t see any this morning.”
YETI FLW College Fishing champ Blake Albertson is our next stop. He’s slipping a finesse worm under some docks in a nearby pocket.
Albertson is cool and confident based on his pre-practice and what he saw on day one.
“It’s been slow, but I haven’t had much of a morning bite,” he says. “Everything I’ve caught has been later in the day. Once the sun gets up it gets a little better. I had a decent day yesterday. I already know where I’m going to spend my time.”
Albertson adds that there seems to be a lot of fishing pressure on the upper end, where the lake narrows down. This particular stretch by the dam has a lot of boats, but there’s also quite a bit of space to spread out in some of the adjacent creeks and cuts.
Needing a little cooldown, we power the Ranger toward the west and put a few miles between us and the dam. Soon, we roll into a large pocket right off the main river and spot Jared McMillan, Andrew Upshaw and Matt Reed. McMillan and Upshaw both scoot before we can chat, but our target is Reed anyway. He’s an offshore specialist, and we figure he’s probably got a finger on the pulse of Hamilton’s deep bass.
“I can get a bite, but I just need them to grow up a little bit,” Reed says once he finishes idling.
He’s now up and casting toward some tiny schooling bass – “4-inchers,” he calls them.
“You’re gonna have to have some shallow fish here, but it’s my nature to fish out,” Reed says. “You have to find some stuff you’re comfortable with. I love this kind of tournament. These ones that are low weight. These are the kind where, if you can figure something out, you can win. It’s a lot harder to win a slugfest.”
Reed fished a tournament here back in the early 2000s, and that was a tough event, too. He’s hoping to figure out a combo pattern, starting with catching a good one early, which he thinks is key.
“In a championship event you don’t care about points,” Reed adds. “But here I still think you need to catch a limit so when you do catch a good one it’ll push you a little further ahead. I think I figured out how to catch a limit yesterday. I just can’t figure out how to catch a big one.”
Reed gets a tiny largemouth to blow up on his topwater bait and miss. That’s been a problem for him thus far. They don’t seem to want to eat anything he throws at them.
“He’s gonna starve to death if he doesn’t aim any better than that,” Reed jokes. “Is that why they’re so skinny? They can’t catch anything they hit.”
Texan Tom Redington pulls in while we’re chatting with Reed and spends a little time fishing out around a main-lake point. We flag him down just as he’s about to take off and bug him for some info.
Redington reports a pretty robust shallow bite on Hamilton back in pre-practice. Cloudy skies helped, and he thinks the water was just a tad higher. It’s tougher now.
He’s also worried about the fishing pressure over a four-day practice. He figures most of the better offshore stuff will get found by a lot of pros.
“It’s fishing a little bigger than I thought, but the good stuff is fishing smaller,” Redington says.
He did give a pretty positive report on the lake’s walleye population. So, that’s a bonus if anyone’s looking for some eaters.
It’s officially hot now, so we throttle down and make a decent run up the lake. There are a few boats fishing the main lake. We see Larry Nixon on the move and John Voyles tossing some finesse tackle, but we keep rolling because we want to get the scoop on the hydrilla in the upper end that everyone’s been talking about.
Jordan Osborne is the first pro we find fishing green stuff. He’s digging out some tackle when we pull in.
Osborne only lives a couple hours away, and he was able to come up and ride the lake for a day before it went off limits.
“I never made a cast,” he says. “I just drove around and looked for brush.”
Most of his pre-fish time was spent in the lower end, so he’s just now getting a look at the grass.
“This is the first time I’ve messed with it. I didn’t know there was any in here.”
So far, Osborne likes the lower end better. He has a way he thinks he can catch a limit, too.
“I think I’m about done up here,” says Osborne.
We keep moving and don’t have to go too far to find Buddy Gross tossing a buzzbait around some docks on the main-lake shoreline. We idle in to greet him, playing it safe over some shallow bars covered in grass. None of the grass is at the surface. It’s all submerged, growing up from shallower main-lake areas.
“I think I’m not a very good fisherman,” Buddy says as soon as we pull up. “I’ve seen 20 pounds under one dock and couldn’t catch one of them.”
We know better than to agree with him. Buddy is a hammer. Case in point: He reports that he’s found some fish out, and now he’s looking for something to go with them.
“I think it’s gonna be catch a limit and get a big one every day,” he says of what it’ll take to do well. “Problem is I haven’t had a good one. I hope I’m saving them.”
Buddy’s not alone in this area. Bradford Beavers is working the grassy drops we just idled across, so we backtrack out to see how he’s doing.
“I’ve caught jackfish [pickerel] and bream, but I can’t catch any bass,” Beavers says. “I figured I’d do this today, and if I can’t make it work, I’ll go do something else for the next two days. I just feel like anything else you do you’re fishing behind people.”
Beavers doesn’t want to fish brush and docks because he knows he’ll just have to get in line and fish used water. Yet he thinks that’s how it will get won – unless he can uncover something hidden offshore or in the grass.
We look around in the area for a bit longer before moving on. The grass looks healthy in this stretch, and there’s quite a bit of it that pros could fish.
On up the lake, we spy Brian Latimer and J. Todd Tucker, but we just wave on the way by. Our next stop is the Blakely Mountain Dam.
Pros keep talking about how cold the water is in the tailrace below Lake Ouachita, and how much the air temp drops once you get into the flows coming out of the bottom of the big reservoir next door.
They weren’t exaggerating. It’s actually pretty remarkable when we feel the first pocket of cold air. It’s like someone left the refrigerator door open; natural air conditioning.
This upper stretch of Hamilton is very narrow, with wood-strewn shorelines and clear, flowing water. It’s a neat spot.
We swing by the dam to grab a few photos before reversing course and stopping to photograph the shallow grass. The Lowrance unit says the surface temp is in the low 60s, so I dump my feet over the side to feel for myself. It takes my breath away. This feels like trout water.
On our way back out, we spot Ron Nelson trolling out of a creek mouth.
“I just came up here to look around and expand my water,” says Nelson, who’s hoping to find a backup plan. “I think the biggest thing is not fishing used water.”
We watch Nelson toss a topwater bait for a minute or two as Sheldon Collings races by on his way toward the dam. We also spot what looks like a pontoon full of elderly tourists either out for a sightseeing tour, or looking for a place to cool off.
Good for them. They’re heading the right way, and now it’s time for us to head back to the ramp.
For the most part, our pre-tournament predictions have been accurate. There are fish on docks and shallow wood, some schoolers, and plenty of brush piles to check. The hydrilla somehow caught us by surprise, though the pros certainly haven’t missed it. It’s a bit of a wild card still.
The Cup field is two days in on practice, but it’s too early to tell what pattern will win it. We can speculate later. Right now, it’s time to find some air conditioning and leave the pros to do their job. We’ll all learn plenty when the tournament kicks off on Friday.