Stingy stream

Limits have been few and far between on the Arkansas River

James Overstreet
Stephen Browning knows rivers systems and that helped him make the cut.

MUSKOGEE, Okla. – Bass Pro Shops Central Open anglers have had two beautiful days for fishing. Not so much for catching.

The Arkansas River has showed its stingy side during the first two competition days. Of 136 anglers competing in the professional division, just 28 brought five-fish limits to the scales on Day One. Day Two was just slightly better, with 30 anglers crossing the weigh-in stage with limits.

“It’s just typical August-September fishing – hot water, shallow water, river fishing,” said four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn, who filled his limit both days for 22 pounds, 3 ounces, surviving the top-12 cut in eighth place. “The fish just aren’t real aggressive. They’re sluggish.”

After scorching temperatures throughout the summer, eastern Oklahoma has experienced much more temperate weather over the past week. Daytime highs the first two days of the tournament were about 80 degrees, and nighttime lows have dipped into the upper 50s.

But the cooler weather apparently hasn’t triggered much activity in the river’s bass.

“It’s summertime river fishing,” said Elite Series pro Stephen Browning, an Arkansas River authority, albeit on lower stretches in his home state of Arkansas. “You just have to grind it out to catch a limit.”

That was easier said than done during the first two days of the tournament. Only 11 anglers caught limits on both Thursday and Friday. Nine of them will fish during Saturday’s final.

Browning, who qualified for Saturday’s final in fourth place with 23-5, attributed the scarcity of limits to many anglers’ unfamiliarity with river systems.

“A lot of these guys just don’t fish river systems very often,” he said. “It’s a different deal.”

Several anglers pointed to intense fishing pressure as another reason for the river’s miserly conditions. With no off-limits period prior to the tournament, many anglers have spent as much as two weeks practicing, putting pressure on fish that weren’t exactly keen on feeding in the first place.

Fishing pressure is the reason tournament leader Tommy Biffle opted to fish out of an aluminum boat with a jet-drive motor, a move that’s allowing him to escape the pressure by fishing the Fort Gibson Lake tailwater, where anglers in heavier fiberglass bass boats can’t navigate.

“It’s just so beat up everywhere else,” Biffle said. “These guys have been pounding them for two weeks.”

Elite Series pro Jami Fralick noted the lack of current in the river as another obstacle to overcome.

“The biggest thing is there’s no current,” Fralick said. “You don’t have current to put the fish on the structure to make it easier to catch them.”

So what’s an angler to do, besides finding an aluminum boat with a jet-drive motor?

“The thing I’ve learned over the years is you have to be so precise,” Clunn said. “Sometimes you make the right cast but you have to make it 10 times. Most of the time the fish hit it on the fifth, sixth or seventh cast, and sometimes they may not hit it until the 10th cast. You just have to be incredibly precise and persistent. You have to believe the fish is there, even if it doesn’t hit your bait on the first cast.”

Browning also recommended precision and persistence.

“You can’t pull up on a piece of cover and make two or three casts and go,” Browning said. “Boat position is crucial. You have to move that boat around for the best angles and really work over a piece of cover. It’s not just going down the bank and fishing.”

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