RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Finding a confident angler prior to the Bassmaster Elite Series Tournament at Lake Dardanelle was like searching for clear water in the Arkansas River right now: Extremely difficult.
You don't expect anyone to strut around bragging about catching big bass in the three days of practice prior to an Elite Series event, but Wednesday evening's anglers meeting had a more negative tone than usual.
It's not because Lake Dardanelle doesn't have plenty of bass in it.
"This lake has got a lot of 4- and 5-pounders in it right now," said Scott Rook of nearby Little Rock, Ark., who has been fishing this lake for over 20 years.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 9 for sure right now," said Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Ark. "I've been fishing here for 30 years, and it's as good as it has ever been."
And that's just it. Even the guys like Rook and Browning, who have grown up fishing Lake Dardanelle, don't feel particularly comfortable here. If there were a slogan for bass fishing at Lake Dardanelle it would be: "It's a different lake every day."
"It changes. It's down. It's up. It's real easy to get tripped up here," said Mark Davis, another Arkansan who has years of experience on Lake Dardanelle, but has referred to it as "my nemesis."
Davis, the leader in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year standings, has more confidence in all the other stops on the Elite Series tour this year than he does in this lake that is only a 90-minute drive from his home in Mt. Ida.
And Dardanelle may be changing more than usual this week. A surge of muddy water has come through the Arkansas River due to heavy rains in the past week. It has rained every day of the practice period that began Monday. A cold front is supposed to drop temperatures into the low 40s tonight, followed by four days of partly cloudy skies and high temperatures in the low 70s.
Consistency is going to be hard to come by for every angler in this event, on a lake that was already known for its inconsistency.
"It will be a mental grind," said Gary Klein. "You're going to have to do something different all four days to win this. I don't think anybody has a spot where they can count on for four days in a row."
So here are five things to watch this week at Lake Dardanelle:
1. The Water Level
Lake Dardanelle is part of a series of locks and dams on the Arkansas River that allows barge traffic from the Mississippi River into Oklahoma. So there is a constant ebb and flow. When the lake level is on the rise, or holding steady, the bass fishing can be phenomenal.
"There will be several stringers over 20 pounds this week," said Davis. "But it's going to be hard to do that consistently."
That's primarily because there's no consistency to the water level. The first three days of this week serve as a good example: On Monday, the 24-hour change was minus 5.48 feet. On Tuesday, it was plus .75 feet. On Wednesday, it was minus 1.27 feet.
And just a 6-inch drop during the day can make a spot go from hot to not – just like that.
2. The Muddy Water Level
Lake Dardanelle is essentially a wide place in the Arkansas River. Depending on the water level, it covers 36,000 to 40,000 acres along 50 miles of the river. Normally at this time of year, there would be a lot of bass that had moved to ledges in deeper water along the river channel. But the water is cool and all the fish are shallow.
This tournament will be won in a depth range of four feet to the surface.
"Absolutely," agreed Davis, Klein and Rook, about that shallow bite.
But right now it's difficult to find an abundance of fishable water in the shallows. Klein fished all four B.A.S.S. events at Dardanelle that were held from 2004 to 2009. He checked out one of his favorite areas during practice this week. It looked to be too muddy to fish, but Klein found some clear water at the very back end. He said he was catching a fish on every cast, while watching the mud-line go deeper and deeper into the pocket.
"The next day it was unfishable," Klein said.
3. How small will Dardanelle fish?
Lake Dardanelle always "fishes small," but with no fish having moved to the ledges and the slug of muddy water moving through the river system, it's going to fish extremely small this week.
"Everybody is going around and around and around," said Scott Rook about practice. "You leave one spot and another boat pulls in. You go to another spot after another boat pulls out."
The tournament is likely to be more of the same. An early boat number might help someone post one of those 20-pound bags on Day One, and that might be enough to carry him through the week.
When asked what it will take over four days to win, Rook said, "Mid 60s, maybe, just guessing. A 20-pound bag and then three 15-pound bags."
It will be important to get to your spot early, because there just aren't that many spots that aren't colored with "red mud," as Klein described it. And the clear water is going to attract a crowd quickly.
4. Will the lake clear as the tournament continues?
Depending on what's coming down the Arkansas River from Oklahoma, Lake Dardanelle might begin to clear as the tournament moves into the weekend.
That would be the perfect formula for someone to capitalize on what is considered by many to be the best bass fishery in Arkansas: Less boats, after the field is cut to the top 50 Saturday, and more fishable water.
5. Kevin Short
It's been well-documented how much adversity Kevin Short and his family have endured after the tornado crashed through Mayflower, Ark., recently. Short was practicing for the Toledo Bend tournament when he and his wife, Kerry, had to go home and deal with the destruction of both their home and Kevin's father's home.
But Short is fired up and ready to go this week. When asked Wednesday where his mind was, Short smiled and said, "Right here. Right here."
Short has been fishing Lake Dardanelle "since it was dammed, in the '70s."
"It's not the best it's ever been," he said. "In the late '80s and early '90s, when there were seven-fish limits, there were a lot of tournaments where it took upper 30s and lower 40s (pounds) to win.
"But it's really good right now. There have been a couple of good (bass) spawns lately, plus the shad population is excellent."
Among his five B.A.S.S. tournament victories, Short has two Elite Series trophies. But they're kind of dirty right now, after the tornado.
"I'd like to have a clean one to go with those other two," he said.
What a story that would be.