NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The fifth annual Under Armour College Bass National Championship kicks off Friday on the Arkansas River in North Little Rock, Ark., with teams representing nearly 70 colleges and universities from across the country ready to claim the title of best college bass team in the nation.After a rainy spring season, the river was nearing flood stage, but a month of strong flow has the river is finally returning to normal summer conditions featuring clearing, warm water and little current.After a few days of practice, most of the teams found fishing difficult, but with three pools of water available, there is plenty of main river and backwaters for the teams to explore looking for enough fish to carry them to Sunday's final day. All teams fish the first two days of competition, with the top five in cumulative weight moving on to Day Three. The weights are then zeroed and the team that brings in the heaviest five-fish stringer will walk away with the championship trophy.Before they can start thinking about taking home the title, anglers will have to face two days of grueling fishing on the river. Vince Miller, owner of Fish 'N Stuff in Sherwood, Ark., attributed much of the conditions to the past two years of heavy rains that have washed away cover and hurt the overall bass population.We've had high water conditions for the last three years and we've lost some fish," Miller said. "The fish that are left are not in good shape because of the habitat and food loss. This year, we went from high water with a small-craft warning to no flow at all. When the water drops that fast, those backwaters that you can't see trap the fish and you lose some mature fish that way too."The sudden change in conditions over the past two weeks has the fish trapped between the backwaters and main river areas that they normally frequent during the summer.
"Fish tend to go where the food is and they seem to be biting on crawdads," Miller said. "I've also had reports of guys catching them on big topwater baits with that clearer water. Right now, the better fish seem to be in backwaters, but this is the time of year when the main river should shine — I'm just not sure if the numbers are there."
The field launches from the North Little Rock ramp on Pool 6 and then can choose whether they want to stay in that pool or lock to Pools 5 or 7. Locking cuts down on fishing time, but both Pools 5 and 7 offer different fishing options and more room for the field to spread out, making the risk worth taking for many of the teams.Fluctuating water levels and temperatures from the mid 80s on the main river to the low 90s in some backwaters add to the challenge of fishing a river system. The current has slowed down greatly and finding areas with current is often more a matter of timing. Water clarity is clear for a river, with main river areas featuring water with nearly 12 inches of visibility, while backwaters seem to be slightly more stained.Reports from the water centered on the tough bite and the anglers quickly realized that each competition day would be an all-day grind to catch five keepers. A keeper largemouth bass must be 15 inches in length, while spotted bass can measure 12 inches and with the difficult fishing this week, both species will likely play a big role in the final outcome.Brandon Dickenson from the University of North Texas divided his practice so he could spend time in each of the pools and found Pool 5 to be most to his liking — but so did many of the other teams.
"I don't think it is any secret that Pool 5 is the best of the available pools," Dickenson said. "Pool 7 has a bunch of reeds, docks and pads in them. It looks like a great pond, but a pond that hasn't been stocked."The biggest problem anglers seem to be facing is the low number of keepers. Many times, good-looking areas seem devoid of fish, making the championship as much a mental battle as anything else."I have no doubt the fishing could be good, but right now I'm lost," Dickenson said. "Everything looks good — there are laydowns where you think there should be a fish and there's nothing. Bait is everywhere, but there's no fish around them."Southeast Missouri State University's Taylor Gorton has been catching more fish than the last time he fished the Arkansas River, for the 2007 Under Armour College Bass National Championship, but with the heat and humidity, conditions promise to be equally difficult.Comparing this week with 2007 is like night and day, but he has still been able to draw on some of his history on the river to have a successful practice.In 2007, the fish had moved into more of a fall pattern and we were catching fish on a crankbait," Gorton said. "Now, in the summer, we are doing more flipping. We've been catching more fish, but with the heat, it's tougher."For Gorton, some of his fishing will revolve around the periods when the current is moving through his areas. The current positions the bait and bass in predictable locations and often makes the fish more active.
"We haven't seen a whole lot of current out there," Gorton said. "But when the current was moving through there, the fish were biting. Everything slowed down after the current stopped."Each competition day will likely feature small windows when the current is on and longer windows without, so taking advantage of each moment will be important. Weather forecasts for the weekend calls for stable weather and plenty of sun with highs in the mid-to-low 90s.
Anglers launch from the North Little Rock ramp at 7 a.m. ET and weigh-in at the Academy Sports + Outdoors in North Little Rock, Ark., at 4 p.m. ET. Full coverage from the event can be found at ESPNOutdoors.com with live streaming from the weigh-in on CollegeBass.com.