RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — As an experienced Arkansas River angler and the defending champion in the Bassmaster Legends presented by Ramada Worldwide, Scott Rook has to be considered one of the favorites to win the Elite Series major this year.
But Rook feels like anything but a frontrunner going into Thursday's start.
"The hot weather and all the fishing pressure has made for some tough fishing," Rook said Wednesday.
Rook, who lives in Little Rock, still hasn't quite recovered from the fact that the Legends tournament was moved from the Arkansas River at Little Rock to Lake Dardanelle in Russellville. That decision was made last month after high water conditions on the Arkansas River forced a move for safety reasons.
Unfortunately, just about every bass tournament, from the local club level up, that was originally scheduled for another pool of the Arkansas River has been moved to the more stable environment of Lake Dardanelle in the past three months.
The fishing pressure peaked last weekend when the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza, originally scheduled for early summer, finally had safe water levels for the five major pools of the Arkansas River — from Dumas to Fort Smith — and attracted 2,199 anglers for the three-day event. Five of the top 10 big bass in that tournament came from the 40,000 acres of Lake Dardanelle.
"There were probably 300 to 400 boats here last weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, before we got here," Rook said.
"Every year the Big Bass tournament is won either at Dumas or Dardanelle. The majority of the entrants in that tournament fished one or the other. Dardanelle has really been a little better in the last three or four years."
Rook estimates he's fished "30 or 40" bass tournaments at Dardanelle over the years. But he's never won here.
"I've finished every place but first on this lake," Rook said.
And, more importantly, he'd never fished one day on Dardanelle during the month of August until practice began Monday.
"All the tournaments I've fished here before were either in May or June," Rook said. "The fish were still shallow and in the grass real good."
Rook proved he knew how to fish the Arkansas River under any conditions last August when he won the Legends tournament at Little Rock. River flow was almost nonexistent and catching keepers (which have to measure 15 inches on the Arkansas River) was almost impossible. In fact, it was impossible for Shaw Grigsby on the last day of the tournament. His zero allowed Rook to move past him and claim the $250,000 first-place check.
With Davy Hite dropping out for personal reasons, there are now 50 anglers competing for the quarter-million-dollar prize this year. The Legends, which honors BASS founder Ray Scott, marks the last of the Elite Series "Majors." Three Majors have been part of the Bassmaster Elite Series for the past two years, but won't be continued next year.
The format calls for the field to be cut to the top 12 after two days of competition. Saturday the top dozen anglers will move to a "hole course" marked off in the Illinois Bayou section of Lake Dardanelle. Each angler will have 80 minutes to fish each of six holes on the course, followed by a 70-minute "happy hour," when they can fish anywhere in the course.
With all 12 anglers starting with zero weight Saturday, only the top six will advance to Sunday's finale on the hole course.
Although Bassmaster tournaments are never held at night, Rook says that would be the best time to show what kind of fishery Lake Dardanelle is. Daytime fishing and August temperatures, which were in the high 90s Wednesday, aren't conducive to catching big stringers anywhere in the Arkansas River system.
"I pulled up at the boat ramp (Wednesday) morning (for practice) when it was still dark," Rook said. "I was getting out of my truck to take the transom-saver off. I could see shad near the surface underneath the light on the ramp, and bass were busting them.
"I picked up my crankbait rod, right there at the ramp, threw that crankbait and — boom — caught a three-pounder.
"I've spent countless hours in the Little Rock pool (of the Arkansas River). This time of year, those fish feed at night. Right at dark they pull up and get right on the bank. In the mornings, as soon as it starts getting light, they pull back out. Those fish are doing the same thing up here."
But with 10 a.m. ET daily launchings from Lake Dardanelle State Park and 7 p.m. ET weigh-ins at the same site, the Legends field won't even see low-light conditions, much less darkness. So they'll simply have to deal with the heat and the highly-pressured fish.
Rook, however, is still having a hard time getting over that move from Little Rock to Russellville, 90 miles up the Arkansas River.
"Absolutely, I've been thinking about it all week," he said. "I know where to go and what to do. The fishing pressure has been nil at Little Rock. There's been none.
"Fifteen pounds (a day) is pretty easy down there right now. It just hasn't had the pressure."
Meanwhile, the pressure continues at Lake Dardanelle.