According to a recent survey conducted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, largemouth bass fishing is the most popular sport in Arkansas (sorry Razorback fans).
Native Arkansan Troy Gibson agrees. The 35-year-old Mizmo Bait Company founder and professional bass angler took time out from his hectic tournament schedule to spend a couple days fishing with me on Ouachita, proving that if you know what you're doing, the lake will provide a steady yield of fish.
Ouachita's rugged shoreline and abundance of islands provide bass plenty of shade, security and cover to ambush prey — and plenty of targets to which anglers might cast. While largemouth are at home throughout the reservoir, spotted bass tend to gather in the upper portion of the lake where the banks are steeper and rockier, and there's not as much aquatic growth.
For those anglers not familiar with Lake Ouachita, the best tactic for locating bass is to cover as much water as possible. Gibson advises against sitting in one spot too long.
On our two-day outing, we opted for black swimming frogs for surface-striking bass, white/chartreuse nickel- and gold-plated spinnerbaits for shallow depths, and shad-colored crankbaits for working the bottom. All provided superior results.
If, however, the bass aren't biting, there is a long list of available gamefish in this Arkansas fishery including huge striped bass, white bass, black and white crappie, walleye, and a variety of sunfish and catfish. Today, the wilderness lake, located about 80 miles from Little Rock, consistently ranks as one of the country's top ten bass lakes.
To rest your weary arms after an exhausting day or two on the lake, Mountain Harbor Resort is the place to visit, if not stay. Family owned by Bill and Debi Barnes, Mountain Harbor Resort offers superb accommodations, a full-service marina, conference facilities, swimming pools, tennis courts, a lake-view restaurant and Turtle Cove Spa.
Trip check report
Lake Ouachita is located northwest of Hot Springs, Ark. From Hot Springs, travel three miles west on U.S. 270, then 12 miles north on Ark. 227.
Hugh Albright Guide Service (501-767-2171 or 501-767-0676)
13 — Minimum length limit (inches) to harvest bass
40,000 — Surface acres of Lake Ouachita, Arkansas' largest reservoir
975 — Miles of shoreline on Ouachita
38 — The weight in pounds of the Arkansas state record channel catfish, caught in Lake Ouachita
It is dawn on Lake Ouachita (pronounced "wash-eat-ah" or "watch-it-ah" depending on who you ask), and resident guide Hugh Albright is taking me to the northeast section of the lake, where he had observed some big stripers feasting on shad the previous morning.
They sound like boat paddles smashing the water," he shouts as we skim across the lake in his sleek bass boat. "When you hear that noise, you know they're feeding."
"I'll listen for it," I holler into the wind, a broad smile etched on my face, the anticipation of experiencing one of the great thrills of Arkansas fishing percolating in my veins.
The key to striped bass fishing on Ouachita is locating stripers that are breaking, their beefy tails slapping the water — an animated display caused by slashing through schools of baitfish near the surface. "Those are the active fish," Hugh proclaims, "those are the ones you want!"
Ouachita's striped bass are flourishing in Arkansas' largest man-made lake, also one of the cleanest in the United States. With almost 1,000 miles of shoreline without a house in sight, Ouachita covers 49,000 acres in the Ouachita National Forest and serves as an all-year fishery.
Once the ravenous stripers are spotted, Hugh says, the fun really begins! He approaches quietly, positioning the boat just outside the school in order to cast directly into the feeding frenzy. He recommends a seven-inch top-water minnow imitation such as a Red Fin or Rapala. Use a straight, steady retrieve, advises, to make your lure resembles a fleeing baitfish. When one of the voracious eaters spots your lure — and it will — be ready for a battle. Be aware that many of the stripers will congregate in moderate to heavy structure along the wooded shoreline, so your drag should be properly set to steer the fish toward the boat before it peels off line and wraps itself around a submerged limb, in which case you can expect a break-off.
Prime striper fishing is in the spring, fall, and winter, when the lake cools to a comfortable 70° — 73°F. Fish average eight to 15 pounds, but there are plenty of bragging-size stripers in the 30 to 40-pound class.
If the possibility of landing trophy-size striped bass doesn't wind your clock, catching Ouachita's largemouth and spotted bass (aka Kentucky bass) will.
"If you know the workings of the basic lures of plastic worm, spinner bait and crank bait," says Troy, "you'll pull a dozen or so fish from this lake."