Big Bass Bonanza

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — After 2,199 bass anglers pounded the Arkansas River last weekend, the fish in Lake Dardanelle may feel like they're being ignored this week, as the field for the Bassmaster Legends tournament is limited to only 51 anglers.

Ultimately, however, there may be as many casts for bass made on Lake Dardanelle this week as last.The Bassmaster Elite Series tour features some of the best pro bass anglers in the world. They know how to slice and dice a lake every way possible, doing it so quickly it's almost unreal.

Just like in the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza (ABBB), which awarded $100,000 to the angler catching the largest bass last weekend, there's big money at stake again this weekend. The winner of the Bassmaster Legends event (presented by Ramada Worldwide), will take home $250,000. Fishing starts Thursday and concludes Sunday with daily launches at 10 a.m. EDT and weigh-ins at 7 p.m. at Lake Dardanelle State Park.

Although the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza and the Bassmaster Legends are unrelated in any way except bass fishing and big money, the two events share other characteristics: The ABBB event was postponed three times because of high water conditions on the Arkansas River, and the Bassmaster Legends was originally scheduled for Little Rock, but was changed in July when high water conditions were still present and officials opted for the more stable environment of Lake Dardanelle.

And like the ABBB event, it will take a big bass to separate the Elites from the rest in the Bassmaster Legends.

"I think it's going to take from 12 to 14 pounds a day to be in top 12," said Stephen Browning, an Elite Series pro who now lives in Hot Springs but grew up on the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff.

"I think 17 or 18 pounds a day will have you right at the top. I would be shocked to see a 20-pound (5 bass) stringer. You're going to have to catch some of those fish like the ones caught in the Big Bass to separate yourself from everybody else."

If catching bigger bass were part of the criteria, the move from the Arkansas River at Little Rock to Lake Dardanelle is probably a good one. In the ABBB last weekend, the Arkansas River was divided into five pools: Dumas, Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Dardanelle and Fort Smith. Dardanelle produced five of the top 10 biggest bass in the three-day event. The Pine Bluff pool was the only other that produced as many as two fish on the list.

A 6.33-pounder from the Dumas pool won the $100,000 ABBB top prize. The next two biggest bass in the event were a 6.16 and a 6.09, both from Dardanelle.

Lake Dardanelle covers 40,000 acres. It is 50 miles long, but only two miles at its widest point. Lake Dardanelle is part of the Arkansas River Navigation System, the 450-mile Corps of Engineers-operated commercial shipping project that extends from the Mississippi River through Arkansas to Oklahoma.

With 60,000 cubic-feet-per-second flows expected all week through Dardanelle Dam, the lake will fish more like a river, especially the first two days, when the entire 50-mile-long lake is open to the 51 anglers, except Illinois Bayou, north of the state park.

After two days the field will be cut to the top 12, and all weights zeroed for Saturday when those 12 pros fish a six-hole course marked off in Illinois Bayou. Two anglers in each hole will rotate through the course with 80 minutes to fish each area, followed by a 70-minute "happy hour."

The weights from Saturday will carry over to Sunday, but only the top six Saturday qualify to fish for the $250,000 Sunday grand prize.

"I think there will be a lot of fish caught in this tournament," said Browning, who is 19th in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year point standings this season. "Probably about two-thirds of the field will have a limit every day.

"There's a lot of current flowing through Dardanelle for this time of year. Current will be a factor, but I think most of the fish will be caught in the backwater areas on ledges and drops, just typical summertime bass fishing."