Spawning season at Lake Dardanelle begins in late March and early April, but weather is always a loose wire for fishing this time of year in Arkansas.
It can shock you, and so it did for the 203 anglers and co-anglers in the Costa FLW Series Central Division opener presented by T-H Marine. Anglers saw springtime's entire suite of weather conditions in three days, and if the tournament had continued one more day, they would have seen yet another set of conditions.
The first day was cool and cloudy, with a strong northwest wind. Day two was cool, calm and clear. Day three was warm and clear, with a sharp east wind. Fishing conditions changed daily, taking previous day's hot spots out of play and putting others into play.
Nine of the top 10 anglers in this tournament rode that bull for a full 8-count and caught fish consistently. Some milked the same spots for three days, and others moved around. Brandon Lee was the only rider to be thrown on the last day by failing to catch a keeper.
Although it's a river impoundment on a navigation system, Lake Dardanelle is full of sloughs, pockets, bays and backwaters. These places offer the best fishing on the river.
Quincy Houchin's place was more important than a pattern. With 203 boats carrying 406 anglers, Houchin knew he needed to find a place that other anglers wouldn't attempt to reach in order to minimize competition. He found it on the north side of the main stem of the river in a backwater tucked behind an island and a rocky jetty. It has a variety of wood cover in 2- to 3-foot depths and 8- to 9-foot depths. It also has rocks.
Its most important feature is the big sandbar that stretches across the opening, virtually cutting it off from the river. Houchin was the only angler that attempted to jump the bar.
He says he caught 12 of his 15 keepers flipping shallow and deep wood with a green pumpkin/red flake Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver and a Real Deal Tungsten weight.
He caught two keepers on a black moss-colored Lucky Craft 2.5 square-bill crankbait and one keeper on a natural green-colored SPRO Bronzeye Frog. His rods were a 7-foot, 3-inch Denali flipping stick and a 7-3 Denali cranking rod. He used 25-pound-test Seaguar line with the flipping stick and 17-pound-test Seaguar on the crankbait rig.
Houchin prevailed despite steadily losing weight over three days. A stiff east wind cut his pattern in half by taking his deep cover out of play. He says the steady downward weight-loss trend forced him to consider moving, but he stayed put and won the $50,000 prize with 45 pounds, 4 ounces in three days.
Though he lives in Hampshire, Tenn., Tom Silber is a former resident of the Russellville area and an experienced Lake Dardanelle angler. He knows that the lake is a prototypical junk-fishing lake that suits a lot of styles, but it is tailor-made for a square-bill crankbait. It has a variety of cover and structure in close proximity, and a square-bill can put them all in play with one cast.
Silber says he used a chartreuse/black SPRO Little John square-bill on assorted wood cover, such as stumps, laydowns and blowdowns, and also around rock. He also used a chartreuse/white Mann's 3/4-ounce Classic Spinnerbait with No. 7 and No. 3 Indiana blades and a 6-inch white Mister Twister trailer, and a black/blue 1/2-ounce Lunker Lure Rattleback Jig.
It was an effective approach that enabled him to leap from 26th place on day one to third on day two to second on day three with a 44-9 total weight.
Bridge abutments and riprap roadbeds and railbeds are always popular fishing spots on Lake Dardanelle, and Joey Cifuentes rode them to third place with a combination of subtle and aggressive tactics that produced 43-13.
Cifuentes spent the first two days targeting prespawn fish with a 1/8-ounce War Eagle shaky head and a green pumpkin Zoom Trick Worm. He concentrated on rocks at pinch points around bridge areas and ambushed fish coming into sheltered waters.
Cifuentes says he caught fish with a square-bill early in the first two days, but they were small keepers. He culled them with bigger fish on the shaky head.
The script flipped on the third day, when big fish were more receptive to the fast-moving square-bill. He found an area near a bridge where shad were spawning and bass were feeding aggressively.
Wind – not current – was the big factor in that spot, Cifuentes says. The east wind blew directly on the spot, concentrating shad and roiling the surface.
“Within an hour I culled nearly everything I had,” Cifuentes says. “My co-angler and I stayed there in one spot and threw crankbaits over and over. We made 100 casts or more. We showed up at the right place at the right time, and I caught my entire limit with the square-bill."
“With that lighter shaky head I could go behind people that were power fishing and flipping and catch fish they didn't catch. There's not a lot of action in that worm. It falls slow. That kind of sealed the deal for me.”
Though best known for its rock and wood cover, Lake Dardanelle has large amounts of aquatic vegetation in its backwaters that are famous for producing big limits with swim jigs and surface plastics.
Josh Ray used this strategy to great effect over backwater lily pads with a natural green SPRO frog with a G. Loomis GLX rod and Vicious No-Fade Braid. It produced almost every fish that he weighed, totaling 43-8.
Fish responded to the frog, Ray says, but the bite was inconsistent.
“I lost a lot of fish, too,” he says. “One day they seemed to choke on it. Other times they seemed to nip at it.”
Ray says he also caught some small fish on a black/blue homemade swim jig with an electric blue Zoom Z-Craw.
Like Quincy Houchin, Zach King's pattern was more a place than a technique. He found several backwater areas that were largely cut off from the main river. Reaching them required jumping obstacles such as beaver dams. Once there, he caught all of his fish – 42-1 total – by dead-sticking a 5-inch watermelon/red YUM Dinger on a 5/0 Gamakatsu hook.
“That's typical for spring,” King says. “I was pitching holes.”
The weather change undercut him on the last day, though.
“It was hard to feel bites Saturday because of the east wind,” King says.
Hot Springs, Ark., native Evan Barnes lives an hour away from Lake Dardanelle, so he's up to speed on the lake's junk-fishing reputation.
Not surprisingly, he cashed in with a versatile fishing approach pinned to a River2Sea spinnerbait in lemonade twist color with tandem Colorado blades, including a red “kicker” blade, which was the vital component.
“Dardanelle is notorious for the red kicker blade. Everybody knows that,” Barnes says. “I caught 30 to 40 fish in a row on day three. I was feathering it through rocks. I'd pop it a little bit, and one would get it.”
Barnes also caught a few fish on a River2Sea Biggie square-bill crankbait in the “I Know It” color and a 3/8-ounce Jig-Sooie finesse jig in Arkansas craw. His total weight was 40-8.
An aggressive presentation with a subtle twist allowed Garrett Paquette to capitalize in highly pressured areas to catch 39-1.
“It's a good finesse profile on pressured fish,” Paquette says. “I kept rotating baits on bridge corners over and over all day to give them a different look.”
Getting away from competition was Shannon Pierce's goal, but he took it to extremes by locking down and running almost all the way to Morrilton, Ark. That's about a 25-mile run one way, and it entails many perils, like getting locked out of Lake Dardanelle by barges. It worked for two days as Pierce caught enough in a combined five hours of fishing to make the top 10.
In the sidewaters near Morrilton he found an abundance of fish in varied wood and rock structure. He caught all of his keepers with a blue heron-colored 1/2-ounce War Eagle Screamin' Eagle Spinnerbait with tandem willow-leaf blades, and a silver/black No. 5 Rapala Shad Rap.
The strategy failed him on day three. His pattern depended on stable or falling water, which he encountered the first two days. On day three, the water came up and scattered fish away from structure where they had concentrated the first two days. Pierce’s total weight was 38-15.
Cole Floyd tried to escape fishing pressure by running upstream almost to Ozark Lock & Dam. That area has a surprising amount of fishable cover in the form of wing dams and revetments. There are also some interesting hydraulics that occur in the sidewaters that have been cut off from the main river by rock dams. These form almost separate streams with shoals that create major eddies that drop into deep water.
The backwaters have a lot of wood cover, though not nearly as much as exists between Spadra and Piney creeks. The area can't support as much fishing pressure, so fewer anglers go there, and that's where Floyd hoped to catch lightning in a bottle.
“I got a lot of bites, but I couldn’t get a big bite,” Floyd says. “I covered a lot of water and flipped shallow. I keyed in on gator grass, flipped up on the banks, flipped wood.”
Floyd fished shallow, but deep water nearby was key, he says.
“I was sitting in about 5 to 6 feet flipping up about 10 feet off the bank. It was real close quarters.”
Floyd fished quickly and covered a lot of water. He did not fish anything twice the first day, but on days two and three he picked an area apart when he got a bite.
He employed two baits in this strategy. His main bait was an Okeechobee craw-colored Berkley Havoc Pit Boss with a 1/2-ounce weight. His backup was a 1/2-ounce sexy shad Mann's spinnerbait with tandem Indiana blades. He also used Hammer Rods. Floyd totaled 38-15.
Brandon Lee covered a lot of water searching for spawning fish. The strategy put him within 3 ounces of the lead on day one, but his weight fell drastically on day two and zeroed out in the finale.
He found a sweet spot on day one in the lower lake where females moved onto beds late in the day, and he anchored a 19-9 bag with a 5-14 kicker.
On day two he fished way upstream near Spadra, but blue skies and lack of wind knocked big fish out of the equation. His weight fell to 11-11.
He tried the same area on day three, but the east wind muddied the water. He did not catch a keeper in the Ranger Hole, in Mud Creek or Black Point. He finished with 31-4.
Lee's primary pattern was to work submerged grass and the edges of mats off the shoreline with a 5-inch watermelon/red Yamamoto Senko with a 5/16-ounce tungsten weight or a 6-inch junebug Zoom Lizard with a 1/4-ounce tungsten weight. He also threw a green pumpkin Missile Baits D Bomb. He used 4/0 worm hooks.