May 14-17, 2020
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Situated between the Ozark National Forest to the north and the Ouachita National Forest to the south, Lake Dardanelle in Northwest Arkansas is a roughly 34,000-acre impoundment on the Arkansas River that offers a multitude of unique and varied opportunities to catch quality bass.
Dardanelle isn’t a traditional Arkansas reservoir in that a good portion of the lake fishes much like a river system. The upper end of the reservoir is extremely riverine in nature with ample backwaters, sloughs, vegetation and current. The lower end does offer some deeper water with offshore fishing opportunities. There’s plenty of manmade cover in the form of docks and riprap banks, plus flooded strip pits that offer unique habitat for bass.
With about 315 miles of shoreline, Dardanelle is definitely large enough to allow a full FLW Pro Circuit field to spread out and provide each angler with a little something they enjoy fishing, from pads, cattails and mats to standing timber and laydowns, riprap and isolated rock. In other words, variety is the spice of life on Dardanelle.
The last two Tour-level events FLW has hosted on Dardanelle were in 2007 and 2009. Those events were won by Matt Herren (62-10 over four days) and Vic Vatalaro (39-4 over four days), respectively.
Dardanelle also pops up regularly on FLW Series and Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine Arkie Division schedules. The FLW Series visited Dardanelle in 2015, 2016 and 2017 with one Pro Circuit angler – Evan Barnes – finishing top 10 twice in those events (fifth in 2016 and sixth in 2017).
For many FLW Pro Circuit pros, Dardanelle will be a new experience for a major tournament setting, if not a new experience altogether.
Having experienced an exceptionally mild winter to this point, it’s hard to say exactly what to expect when the Pro Circuit visits Dardanelle in May, but Spencer Shuffield, who calls Arkansas home and has a ton of experience on the lake, has some ideas.
“We haven’t had a winter here yet this year at all,” the Pro Circuit pro said in mid-January. “It’s been amazing how warm it’s been.
“I won a tournament up there with 23 and some change three years ago, Feb. 25, and I caught every one of them sight-fishing. They could go on beds as early as that.”
At what point the fish begin spawning will come down to how mild (or otherwise) the winter ends up being, which will likely be the determining factor in how well pros catch them in mid-May. If winter holds off altogether and the spawn begins early, Shuffield believes we could see some mega-bags hit the weigh-in stage.
“It’s been taking 18 to 21 pounds to win all the tournaments,” he adds. “Dardanelle is full of big fish. There were two or three tournaments last year it took 26 to 28 to win. It’s plumb full of big ones.”
During the FLW Series event on Dardanelle in 2017 (which took place at the end of March), Quincy Houchin won the three-day event with 45 pounds, 4 ounces, and his 19-12 bag on day one was the largest of the tournament.
Last season in Phoenix Bass Fishing League competition, the March 23 event saw a one-day winning weight of 21-3 from Kelly Keith (the only 20-plus-pound stringer). When the Arkie Division returned for the September Super Tournament, it took a two-day weight of 35-9 to win.
Still, springtime fishing on Dardanelle can be exceptional at certain times, especially a few weeks after the spawn ends whe fish have had time to set up on some offshore structure and recover from spawning activities.
Junk-fishing is probably going to be the name of the game on Dardanelle in May, although specific patterns will develop depending on conditions. Because Dardanelle is such a diverse fishery, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see each of the top 10 pros doing something a little different on Championship Sunday.
“You’re going to see guys catching them frogging, flipping, and with crankbaits and football heads offshore,” Shuffield says of popular techniques in mid-May. “You can catch a 6-pounder in a foot of water there just as quick as you can in 5 to 8 foot of water.”
In the more riverine sections of the lake (like the upper end), myriad baits will be factors, especially tubes, which are a local favorite on the impoundment. Square-bill crankbaits are another favorite for covering shallow water on Dardanelle, especially in the spring.
“I know a lot of guys up there that fish a black neon or green pumpkin tube when the water is pretty clear,” he adds. “I had a guy with me one day who was flipping a tube behind me and was catching two to my one.”
At the lower end, which fishes more like a traditional reservoir, expect pros to be targeting postspawn fish moving out to offshore structure in preparation for hot summer weather. According to Shuffield, there’s a pretty even split from one end of the lake to the other that time of year.
“It’s about 50/50 on Dardanelle,” he says. “Half the tournaments are won down on the Illinois Bayou, Dardanelle Bay, Delaware Bay area, and then the other 50 percent are won up around Spadra, Horsehead or even up above there. It could be a little bit of both. A guy might catch them two days up and two days down.”
During the 2017 FLW Series event that Houchin won wire-to-wire, the top 10 pros did everything from flipping cover (how Houchin caught most of his keepers) to cranking square-bills (second-place finisher Tom Silber’s go-to) to slinging spinnerbaits, working shaky heads, throwing frogs around grass and everything in between. If there’s a technique pros prefer, they’ll likely have abundant opportunities to employ it during this event, just about anywhere on the lake.
Several months away from this event, it’s hard to pinpoint which specific factors are going to be most important come tournament time, but here’s what pros will be keeping an eye on in the weeks and months leading up to the Pro Circuit’s sixth stop:
1. Springtime weather – Spawning patterns are so dependent on water temperature, which is in turn affected by air temperature and the amount of rain a fishery receives. Last spring was wet and cold across most of the country, which pushed back the spawn in a lot of fisheries. Prolonged warm weather conditions this spring could mean an early spawn, making this a summer transition tournament.
2. Water clarity – Dardanelle can be surprisingly clear for a fishery with such river-like conditions, thanks in part to the amount of vegetation in the reservoir. Water clarity can change in a hurry, though, especially if it rains prior to the event.
3. Vegetation growth – While Dardanelle is a diverse fishery, shallow grass is almost always going to be a big player, especially in late spring when it’s had some time to flourish. Again, springtime weather conditions will be a factor here, but provided northwest Arkansas avoids the extremes, there should be plenty of healthy grass to target come tournament time. Shuffield says there isn’t a lot of offshore hydrilla to be found, but reeds, mats, water willows and lily pads up shallow are abundant.
Shuffield is one of the favorites to win on Dardanelle given his history on the fishery. He’s a local hammer with tons of Arkansas fishing experience, and he turned in a top 10 as a co-angler when the FLW Tour visited Dardanelle in 2007.
With Evan Barnes’ history on Dardanelle (like Shuffield, he hails from nearby Hot Springs, Ark.), he’ll certainly be a pro with the experience to make some noise in this event. Dardanelle also sets up especially well for John Cox, who excels at junk-fishing in shallow water. The only disadvantage for Cox – who usually finds shallow backwaters no one else can get to – is that the entire field is going to have plenty of sloughs, backwaters and otherwise shallow water at its disposal.
Arkansas natives Larry Nixon, Greg Bohannan, Joey Cifuentes, Dylan Hays and Billy McCaghren (among others) also have plenty of experience on Dardanelle. With so much water to cover, it may come down to prior experience on the fishery to get the job done.