RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Maybe it explains just how small Lake Dardanelle has been fishing lately, how few fish the Bassmaster Elite Series anglers are finding, or just Gerald Swindle's fishing style. In any case, when Swindle and fellow pro Casey Ashley contemplated the packs they expected to be fishing in on the eve of the Toyota Trucks Diamond Drive, which launches Thursday, Swindle told Ashley, "I bet I see you tomorrow."
He paused a beat, did a silent calculation, and rephrased himself. "I bet I see everybody before the day's over," Swindle said.
It was tough to find an angler who felt at all confident heading into this year's second Elite Series tour stop. The fishing on Dardanelle, an impound on the Arkansas River northwest of Little Rock, Ark., is by all accounts at a low ebb.
Grass is scarce; high water last year laid waste to the milfoil, said rookie pro Billy McCaghren, of nearby Magnolia, Ark. Shad, too are AWOL; Ashley said the first baitfish he saw in practice was on the third day.
What fish do populate the lake and river are good-sized — pro Clark Reehm, who hails from the area, said he heard of anglers catching 5- and 7-pound fish in practice — but they're wadded up in only a few areas.
That means the anglers will be, as well.
"It's a big lake, but you can't fish just anywhere," said pro Kevin Short. He was considered an early favorite 40 minutes from his home in Mayflower, but he has been racked with a painful case of shingles since Monday. "Everyone's stacked on top of each other in the places where there are fish," he said. "I don't think there's anything this crowd hasn't poked the nose of their boat into."
Matters won't get any simpler as the week progresses. First, the boat pressure will mount, as it always does. Second, the weather is going to go from pleasant to un-, with clouds and a high in the mid-70s Thursday, thunderstorms Friday and a chance of freakin' snow on Saturday. "You darn sure better catch 'em tomorrow," Short said.
Anglers were estimating that just 9 to 11 pounds a day would make the 50-cut and a check. But to win the whole thing? Reehm estimated it'll take 72 pounds.
"The keeper fish are quality," he said. The cruddy weather might in fact be a blessing. "It might slow the bite down," he said, "but it couldn't be any worse than it is now."
Reehm said he and perhaps a half-dozen other anglers brought aluminum boats to better reach the backwaters that are a feat to reach while the Army Corps of Engineers pulls water through the dam at the bottom of the pool. More water is winding its way down from the Midwest, he said, but will take a couple of days to arrive. In the meantime, plenty of fish are being caught in less than 2 feet of water.
This tournament will be a good litmus test for the true health of the lake, he said. Local tournaments have seen few limits caught — he said a recent 30-boat tourney managed only two limits. If the best bass anglers on the planet can't find fish here, then the lake truly is hurting.
"I wish the lake could be better for them," McCaghren said. "It's a lot better than it's been fishing."
While the consensus was that the tournament would primarily be a powerfishing, shallow-water, bumper-boats sort of affair, anglers agreed that it would be won by he among them who devised a slightly better method, who picked up on a subtle something along the way. Especially with the weather expected to go haywire
"I think it's gonna be typical Dardanelle," Swindle said. "Somebody will have 20 pounds, make it look easy, and everyone else will struggle."
Added Ashley: "It's got to be your day."