By Bernie Schultz
Located near the town of Russellville, Arkansas is Lake Dardanelle — a large pool on the Arkansas River. It covers roughly 40,000 surface acres, and it’s full of prime bass-breeding habitat.
I love this lake because the fish stay shallow most of the year … and they usually bite!
Just about anything can work — including topwaters, shallow-running crankbaits, swim jigs, spinnerbaits and an array of soft-plastics. It’s just a matter of figuring out what’s best for the situation.
This year was a little different. Due to heavy rainfall, the lake was high and muddy, rendering much of it unfishable. As a result, we all knew the more protected areas would receive considerable pressure.
On day one of practice, I decided to launch at Dardanelle State Park — the official site of take-off and weigh-in.
Located just above the dam on the lower end of the lake, the park offers quick access to a number of large creeks — including Dardanelle Bay, Illinois Bayou and Delaware Bay. I started in Illinois Bayou in an area that had proven productive in the past.
Knowing the water was higher than normal; my first stop was a shallow flat in the back of a small feeder creek. I wanted to see if the bait and bass were taking advantage of any incoming flow … and they were.
I caught a number of fish — most short of the 14-inch size limit — using a variety of baits. The best producers were a Hildebrandt SqueakEasy buzzbait and Chatterbait with Zako trailer — both in darker colors.
Some of the fish were in lily pads, others were holding in sparse water willow — an emergent grass that looks somewhat like peanut weed. By day’s end, I had put together a nice limit of keepers weighing approximately 16 pounds.
On day two, I decided to ramp at Piney Creek. This area was productive for me the last time our tour visited the lake, and I wanted to retrace my steps from that event.
I started by cranking a Rapala DT-4 on some riprap adjacent to several bridges. That produced a few fish, so, from there, I moved to the back of the creek, into a large bay. There, I swam a jig through fields of water willow, then flipped thicker clumps of gator grass with a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog.
Again, I was catching fish, but most were short of the 14-inch length requirement. As I moved throughout the creek, I noticed an excessive amount of boat traffic. Every shoreline was covered.
Seeing that, I decided to head upriver. There, I had found several potential areas to fish, but none as promising as Illinois Bayou.
I decided, on day three, to stay at the lower end of the lake and expand on what I had learned earlier. It was a good move. In one particular pocket, I found what I was looking for. It had everything — a bridge with riprap, docks, brush and plenty of vegetation. There were even several stretches of matted gator grass fringed with pennywort — something I look for back in Florida.
Using a large tungsten flipping weight, I managed to punch the Flappin’ Hog through the canopy and shake off what felt like several good-sized fish. I knew then that I had found my starting spot.
On day one, I raced straight to the small riprap causeway separating the small cove from Illinois Bayou. My first casts were to the corners of the bridge entering the pocket. After catching a couple of non-keepers, I noticed other competitors heading in my direction, I opted to pull the trolling motor and quickly move to the bank where I got my bigger bites in practice.
Fishing was slow but, after a few hours, I managed to put several nice fish in the box. All the while, a steady stream of competitors entered the pocket, fishing what was available to them.
Believing I had no better option, I decided to stay and defend what I could.
Sometime in the afternoon, I punched the Flappin’ Hog through a thick mat adjacent to the riprap and the line immediately tightened. Instinctively, I pulled back, and on the other end was a sizeable fish stripping drag.
After several strong runs, I managed to raise the fish to the canopy and pen its head. It was just out of reach, however, and too big to pull from the vines. So, with one hand, I threw on my lifejacket and cranked the big engine, plowing the boat toward her — all the while, trying to keep a tight line with the flipping stick held high in my other hand.
My Marshal watched with amazement as I dug a fat and healthy 6-pounder from the matted vines. Sharing a high-five and a few photos, we both knew that fish would vault me up the leader board.
Striving Toward The Weekend
Back at the scales, I posted a weight of more than 16-pounds and held big bass until David Mullins brought in a 6-08 … beating my fish by a mere 3 ounces.
It was a great start and I looked forward to the next day.
On day two, I raced again to the small bridge off Illinois Bayou. Upon arrival, I found Kevin Van Dam cranking the inside corners of the riprap. I motored quietly past him to my favored stretch of bank and picked up the SqueakEasy buzzbait.
Time flew by and, before I knew it, it was nearly noon. At that point, I had only two keepers in the box. One was 3-pounds, the other under two. I struggled with what to do next. I knew I needed more weight to survive the cut.
Finally, pitching to a dock with some brush, I caught my third keeper. I was closer, but I still needed one more bite to secure a spot in the top-50.
A half hour later, I made a bait change and nailed three fish in a row. All came on a ½-ounce Hildebrandt Tin Roller spinnerbait with tandem willow-leaf blades. The pressure was off. I knew, at that point, I had made the cut.
Saturday, Day 3
The next morning brought overcast skies with thick humidity.
As I waited patiently for my number to be called, a million thoughts raced through my head: Would there still be some fish left in my little cove? Would someone beat me to them? Did I have everything prepped? What time was I due in?
Eventually my boat number was called and I raced, once more, to the small bridge in Illinois Bayou. And like the day before, KVD was there to greet me. We exchanged nods as I motored by.
Once in position, I picked up the buzzbait, fan casting it to scattered patches of water willow. Quickly, I realized the fishing was tougher. Even the small bass had quit biting.
To adjust, I slowed my presentation and picked each target apart with various soft-plastics.
The day passed quickly, and all I could produce were four keeper fish weighing approximately 9 pounds. Still, it was a good tournament — one I desperately needed.
It’s been a difficult season. One of too many lost fish and missed opportunities. It felt good to have finally put some weight on the scales.