RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — To understand what a mystery Lake Dardanelle can be for bass fishermen, simply look at the Friday's Elite Series tournament standings. Of the five Arkansans – the anglers with the most experience on this Arkansas River impoundment – none made the Top 50 cut.
"It's either feast or famine for me, and I've been fishing it for 30 years," said Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Ark.
Browning was in 22nd place Thursday and fell to 57th Friday. The bottom fell out for Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark. He was 30th one day, 90th the next. Scott Rook of Little Rock (79th) and Kevin Short of Mayflower, Ark., (63rd) never were on them here.
Mark Davis of Mt. Ida, Ark., had the most significant drop. The Toyota Angler of the Year leader, who had finished no lower than fourth in the four previous Elite Series tournaments this season, was in 64th place Thursday and dropped to 81st place Friday.
As Davis said Thursday, "It's no secret that me and this lake don't get along too good. And it's the best lake in the state."
You didn't have to be from Arkansas to develop a love-hate relationship with Lake Dardanelle. All it took was two days for someone like James Niggemeyer, who was 8th Thursday and dropped to 88th Friday.
Or for someone like Zell Rowland, the relationship is more like hate-love. Rowland went from 87th place (11-12) Thursday to third place Friday with the biggest five-bass limit of the tournament – 25-5. He's less than three pounds behind leader Greg Hackney's first-place total of 39-14.
Nobody is complaining about the quality of the bass in Lake Dardanelle or their numbers. It's just extremely difficult to figure out a pattern on this 40,000-acre lake that's basically a wide spot in the Arkansas River. Dardanelle's water level changes every day, sometimes every hour, and, for the most part, previous experience doesn't predict future success here.
Rowland, who will be 57 years old later this month, said he did rely on experience during his big day Friday. He said he'd fished two other B.A.S.S. tournaments at Dardanelle.
"This is one of my favorite lakes," the Montgomery, Texas, resident said. (That was something you didn't hear from any of the Arkansans.) "I just picked an area I know they live in. Actually I made only one pass around it.
"It's a pretty good size area. It probably took me about two hours. All these fish have been spawning. They've got to go through this area to make it back out [to the river channel]."
One of Rowland's first fish in this spot was a 6-10, the biggest bass of the tournament so far.
"One thing about this lake, it's got a ton of quality fish in it. If you know where they are, you're better off just putting your head down and fishing."
No one, not even the anglers who fared poorly here, will argue with the fact that Lake Dardanelle is a quality bass fishery. As Davis mentioned, it's probably the best lake in Arkansas. And no fishery capable of producing a 25-pound bag, like Rowland caught Friday, should be considered anything less than a top-flight bass lake.
It's just that constant change is the rule here, and consistency is so difficult. It will break your heart one day, and fulfill your wildest dreams the next, or vice versa.
The few anglers who have found some consistency are, naturally, at the top of the leaderboard, like Greg Hackney (21-13 on Day 1, 18-1 on Day 2) and John Crews (22-9 one day, 16-12 the next).
(Hackney, coincidentally, hails from Star City, Ark., and fished Lake D quite often in his youth before moving to Louisiana. Perhaps that qualifies him as an Arkansan...)
One of the all-time greats in B.A.S.S. history, Rick Clunn, has proven to be the most consistent over the past two days with 18-5 and 17-14. He's in fifth place with 36-3.
But Saturday will be another test. Of the top 15 after Day 1, four anglers dropped so far they didn't even make the Top 50 cut Friday.
You can expect more shuffling of the deck Saturday. Less than 14 pounds separates first place from 50th place. As Rowland proved Friday, anything is possible on fickle Lake Dardanelle.