By Todd Ceisner
Despite a strong wave of storms earlier this week that dumped several inches of rain on parts of central Arkansas, the expectation is that the additional water and its resulting impact on Lake Dardanelle's water level and clarity will do little to influence how the bass will bite during the fifth Bassmaster Elite Series event of the season.
The challenge will be figuring out how to provoke the bigger post-spawn fish into biting in the stained and muddy water.
The lake, which last hosted an Elite Series event in March 2009, is in the midst of a renaissance, as 20-pound bags have become a pretty common occurrence this spring along the 55-mile stretch of the Arkansas River.
"Back in the 80s, it was super," said Charles Morrison, who operates the Classic Catch Guide Service on the lake. "The last couple of years it's been really, really good. Last year was probably the best I've seen the mid-river area. It was as good as you could get. Upriver this year has been really, really good."
There's no telling at this point where the winning stringers will come from this week. There are plenty of factors in motion, though, that will require an open-minded approach and the ability and willingness to adjust on the fly.
Despite all the rain that's fallen, the Army Corps of Engineers managed to drop the water more than 3 feet since Tuesday, presumably in anticipation of additional water coming down the river from the west. The water is expected to come back up at least 2 feet before Thursday morning. That has some competitors scratching their heads and hoping conditions stabilize by tournament time.
It doesn't appear that any parts of the lake are unfishable at this point, but word is the upper river, which is typically the last section of Dardanelle to harbor spawning fish, will attract the most attention, at least early on in the event. Despite all the changing conditions, which these Arkansas River bass are plenty used to, the fishing was strong throughout the 3-day practice period.
"So far, I haven't seen any water that's absolutely unfishable," said Matt Herren, who won a 4-day Eastern FLW Series tournament at Dardanelle in May 2007. "It may be coming, but I've seen some slightly stained water all the way up to borderline unfishable. There's a wide variety out there and I'm starting to think the full effects of Monday's rain hasn't hit yet."
Several patterns are proving effective and some are predicting it'll be a bank-beater's tournament, while others believe the winning stringers will be caught well off the shore.
A massive cold front started to move in today and overnight temperatures leading into Thursday's competition will approach the record low of 40 degrees for Russellville, Ark. Water temperatures have fluctuated as well throughout practice, as much as 10 to 12 degrees from one area to another, and a couple cool nights could bring it down a few additional degrees.
If the water does come back up, it could allow pros to access some fertile backwater bays, much like Mark Menendez did in 2009 when he won by sliding a 17-foot aluminum G3 boat over a couple wingdams and through a culvert to reach a spawning area in Spadra Creek. Pros aren't permitted to compete out of a different boat than the one they started the season in, so BassFans won't see a repeat of Menendez's tin-tub heroics.
This week's event figures to be an emotional one on some levels as just 2 weeks ago, tornadoes ravaged nearby parts of Arkansas, including the town of Mayflower, home to Elite Series pros Kevin Short and Billy McCaghren. Short's home, situated on Lake Conway, was leveled and he was forced to miss the Toledo Bend event. Some Elite Series anglers have vowed to make donations to storm-relief efforts based on their total catch this week.
Last Saturday, it took more than 22 pounds to win the annual Michelle Short Scholarship Fund Benefit Tournament at Dardanelle. Two other 20-pound bags also came to the scale.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Dardanelle
> Type of water: Pool on the Arkansas River
> Surface acres (full pool): 34,000
> Primary structure/cover: Shoreline grass, ledges and wood (stumps, laydowns, submerged timber)
> Primary forage: Shad, crawfish
> Average depth: Less than 10 feet
> Species: Largemouths, some spotted bass
> Minimum length: 14 inches for largmouths, 12 inches for spots
> Reputation: Went through a down period in the early 2000s, but has rebounded in recent years to become one of the better lakes in Arkansas
> Weather: After a rain-soaked practice, tournament days are expected to be partly cloudy with temperatures in the 70s and light winds
> Water temp: High 60s to high 70s depending on location
> Water visibility/color: Creeks are muddy, river is stained
> Water level: 2 feet above normal pool at Ozark Dam, but dropping
> Fish in: Various depths
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Jigs, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, crankbaits, worms, topwaters, frogs, bladed jigs, soft plastics
> Winning weight: 74 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 27 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3.5 for Dardanelle
> Biggest factors: Water clarity. Water level needs to stabilize for the fish to figure out what cover/structure they want to hang out by
> Biggest decision: Backwaters or main river
> Wildcard: Someone wiggling into an area they can have to themselves
It's assumed the upper section of Dardanelle – the thinner, river portion – will be running high and severely stained, if not brown mud at least for the early portion of the event based on the amount of rain that's fallen this week. That may or may not hinder some the game plan of some pros who'd planned to fish that portion of the lake.
It could leave some conflicted, though, since Morrison says the upper river bite has been strong this spring. Morrison said there's a litany of ways to catch fish all through the lake right now.
"They're not grouped up in the mid-river, but there are lots of ways to catch them," he said. "Back in the spawning flats the fry are hatching, so throwing Senkos, spinnerbaits and Super Flukes around those fry-guarders is one way to get bit.
"Upriver, you can catch them on frogs, buzzbaits and jigs. With the moon phase coming, that'll bring the last of the spawners out of the river and it might bring a few in from the flats. If it does, though, 3-pounders are usually the biggest ones at this point."
Should the river rise rapidly, Morrison said the stability of the lower end should attract more pressure, but there are some spots in the mid-river stretch that can harbor clean water under these conditions.
"Over the last few years, if the Oklahoma mud comes down and it gets muddy real quick, there are a few places mid-river that stay clear and the bass ball up in those places," he said. "Guys who know about those areas and who've put in their time will know what I'm talking about."
While he doesn't anticipate sight-fishing coming into play, Morrison believes shallow fish will be a major player, as they always are on the Arkansas River.
"The river is typically the last section to spawn and with this moon phase, that'll be where it's at," he continued. "That's why I think jigs will play a big role in this tournament. Any day now, we should have a shad spawn and if that happens, that'll play a big role. When those shad start moving into the river grass, the white jig bite will be on. There are just so many ways to do it, it's unbelievable."
The Grass Is Back
FLW Tour pro Ray Scheide lives in Russellville and fishes Dardanelle on a frequent basis. He says when the milfoil started growing in the lake again a few years ago, that seemed to trigger the up-tick in bass fishing quality as well.
"When the milfoil came back, we were seeing 60- to 70-fish days out here," he said. "It's pretty awesome again."
Aside from milfoil, there's plenty of water willow along the shoreline to go with plenty of typical river structure where fish will congregate.
Kevin Short returns to action this week on a lake he knows very well.
"When there's milfoil, it seems like the lake is on steroids," he added. "There's more habitat and bait. We love having it here. We had a couple of years with floods during the shad spawn and it stripped the grass out of the lake for a couple years. It's been stable now and it's just gotten better."
Having a game plan that encompasses areas with shallow water that have deep-water access could be crucial, according to FLW Tour pro Scott Suggs, who lives in Alexander, Ark., and does a fair share of fun-fishing on Dardanelle.
There are numerous bays, pockets and backwater cuts all up and down the lake, but Suggs feels those who can get on a flipping pattern around the bank and also have some offshore spots to pick over with, say, a square-bill crankbait will be better suited for success this week.
"A lot of those fish have started pulling out toward the first drop," Suggs said. "It's not like on Kentucky Lake, though, where a drop will be from 5 to 16 feet. I'm talking more like 2 to 5 feet. Some guys who find those ledges or the correct stumps on the right turns and ditches will do well."
Dardanelle's not a lake you want to leave them biting on, though, Suggs added.
"You need to be smart enough to sit on them and stroke 'em," he said, noting the river fish tend to slide up and down depending on the current. "We're going on a full moon this week, too, and I'm thinking the bluegill-bedding deal should start to kick pretty well this week, especially up in the grass."
Knowing the conditions are likely to change on almost an hourly basis, Suggs says what guys may have found in practice might not pan out come tournament time.
"It's going to come down to making the right adjustments," he said. "Most of these guys have been up here enough. Probably about half of the field will know what adjustments to make."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's rolling mud in just about every creek. That's going to change it a lot. Monday, the fishing was a lot easier and Tuesday it got gradually tougher for me. The Arkansas River in Oklahoma where I live takes a little while to clean up, so I think we're going to be faced with fishing some mud. The fish are there and they're still biting. You just have to change up a little bit. I think the weights will drop off a little from what they could've been, but there are a lot of 4s and 5s that live here. Unfortunately for me, I haven't found them yet.
"I've been catching fish doing just about everything. I haven't settled on a technique, though, that's catching the bigger fish. There's a great crankbait, jig, spinnerbait and topwater bite going on and I think a guy who fishes his strength will do pretty well. It's pretty wide open.
"Personally, I don't like fishing in the mud, but I still got some bites in the mud so that has me spun out a little bit. It's going to be a fun tournament, though. I think you'll see a lot of 10- to 12-pound bags and 13 1/2 a day will put you in the money. There are plenty of 2-pounders out there. You're just going to need a couple of those 3s to set you apart each day. I think the guy who figures out the offshore bite will win it. I've looked at the places where they usually stop on the way out and only caught skinny ones, so I think they've moved out."
"There's a bunch of mud and there's a bunch still coming. For here, I don't really know what's good or bad, but you can catch a lot of fish here. We're supposed to get record cold temperatures Wednesday night and they're pulling water. It's coming in as fast as they can pull it out so the water looks like it's up one hour and then down the next. It's crazy.
"For such a big place, I think it's going to fish small. There is some clean water, but it's not real clean since it's in some dead-end places. A lot of the well-known locations are washed out, but I still think you can catch fish there. I don't really have an area. It's just going to be a lot of jig fishing and I'm kind of happy about that. I'm not sure what it'll take to do well, but I think 15 to 17 pounds a day will be good and somewhere around 13 will make the cut.
Fred Roumbanis lives near the Arkansas River in Oklahoma and has done well at Lake Dardanelle in the past.
"I think whoever wins is going to catch them from 5 feet to the bank somewhere current-related like jetties or laydowns off the mouth of a pocket – things that can hold groups of fish rather than just one. I think probably over half the field will run way upriver. That's where the cleanest water was when we got here. There probably won't be any clean water anywhere, which is perfect for me. I wish it would come up 5 feet and make it tough on everybody."
"I've fished here three times and never gotten a check, but the way it is right now I like this stuff. I like high, muddy and rising water. It's one of my favorite ways to fish. It puts the fish tighter to the bank and heavy cover. For me, as a bank-beater, that's good because the fish are coming to me. I'm going to stay around 4 or 5 feet of water.
"I know basically where the good areas are, but the conditions are changing so much every hour. I have to be open-minded and be able to make good adjustments. Upriver, when it seems like when the water comes up quick, the fish go to the extreme back ends where you can't get to them. It seems more consistent on the lower end. The only thing is I don't know how much more rain we're going to get and what impact it'll have.
"On this lake you have to roll with it every day. I've fished it several times in the past and the fish change daily. Tuesday there was a lot of current. Overall, the fishing is good, but I think it'll wind up fishing a lot smaller and that limits some of the baits you can throw and things you can do.
"They are biting pretty good, but it's pretty muddy everywhere. There are a few places where you can find cleaner water. I've been catching a lot of keepers and I have a couple of deals I'm doing, but I haven't found the quality I'm looking for yet.
"They probably won't move a whole lot. I'm imagining a lot of fish are done spawning and they're starting to move back out to their deep stuff and current areas on the main river. There are still some fish moving in, too, because I caught some that still had eggs in them.
"I haven't had a lot of trouble getting bites. The biggest problem I'm having is the size of the fish seems to be a little small. I know they had some good weights caught in a tournament here last week, but the Corps has dropped the water 18 inches in the last 2 days after we had a lot of rain Monday night. We were supposed to get more (today).
"Right now, it's like a guessing game. The fish for the most part seem to be post-spawn. It's just a matter of figuring out the puzzle of where they're going. It's been really weird. We're fishing changing conditions every day and it's going to be a matter of whomever figures it out during tournament will do well.
"That's a double-edged sword, though. I'd like to have it figured out, but if I did have it figured out now, it probably won't be there when the tournament starts. I've fished tournaments here before and done well both times fishing two separate patterns in two separate areas. River fishing is all about the here and now. You can't dwell on the past. It's always different, especially when you're fishing shallow. When you're fishing shallow and in current, the current and water clarity are never exactly the same. One thing I've learned over the years is you can use all of your past experience as a base to draw from, but you need to have an open mind to start every day because if you live in the past, you'll get trampled out here."
"It's the most confusing thing I've ever seen done with a river system. All of the creeks are running in and the level is actually going down. It's about a foot low. I guess they're taking it out to prepare for what's coming. The river's running clear and the creeks are dirty so it's really weird. It's not doing what you think it should be doing. I'd at least think it would be coming up and you'd think there'd be a tremendous amount of current, but there's not.
"It's still a river and I'm right at home on a river and it's fishing like a river. It's easy to catch 'em, but it's just hard to catch the right ones. I don't know if the water being down is making the big ones harder to come by. It's just hard to catch those 3-plus pounders. The fish are set up where they should be, but it's going to change every day and I'm going to have to change with it."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Kevin Short – It's hard to pick against him considering his local knowledge and history of success at Dardanelle. He'll be the sentimental favorite as well after his home was destroyed by a tornado last month.
2. Mark Davis – He doesn't fish Dardanelle a whole lot as Lake Ouachita is closer to his home, but this Arkansan is on an absolute tear this season with four Top-4s and five straight Top-12 cuts dating to last season. If he makes it to Sunday this week, he'll tie Aaron Martens and Skeet Reese for the most final-day cuts in a row.
3. Kevin VanDam – He's demonstrated an ability to catch fish at Dardanelle no matter the season or conditions, but he hasn't won there. The changing conditions would seem to favor his power-fishing mindset.
4. Scott Rook – Had a great first half of the season (10th in points) and is right at home on the Arkansas River to open the second half of the schedule.
5. Stephen Browning – Among the top river anglers on tour today, he's fishing in his home state and has fared well in the past on the Arkansas River. With a '15 Classic berth already secured, he's safe to play some hunches and roll the dice this week.
6. Matt Herren – Has an FLW Series win and an Elite Series Top-10 to his credit at Dardandelle and loves to flip the shallow stuff.
7. Bill Lowen – One of the tour's true river rats, he's well-versed in dingy-water fishing and how rising and dropping water moves fish around. If he can find some big ones, he'll be a factor all week.
8. Billy McCaghren – He's had this event circled on the calendar since the schedule was announced and he could use a favorable finish to start climbing up the points ladder after a sluggish first half.
9. Tommy Biffle – He won't have to go far to find dirty water this week. He's an Arkansas River expert who shouldn't have much trouble getting on a flipping pattern.
10. Alton Jones – Has collected a few good finishes at Dardanelle over the years and enjoyed a solid first half, save for an 85th at Table Rock. With the fish shallow, this event could play right into his hands.
> Anglers will launch at 7:15 a.m. ET all four days from Lake Dardanelle State Park (100 State Park Drive, Russellville, AR). Weigh-ins will get under way at 4:15 p.m. at Lake Dardanelle State Park (same address).
> Thurs., May 15 – Sun and Clouds - 71°/44°
- Wind: From the WNW at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., May 16 – Mostly Cloudy - 67°/46°
- Wind: From the NNW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., May 17 – Partly Cloudy - 70°/52°
- Wind: From the ENE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., May 18 – Partly Cloudy - 66°/57°
- Wind: From the E at 5 to 10 mph
> Brent Chapman figures he'll have just a handful of rods on the deck when the tournament starts Thursday morning. That's because he'll be focused on a shallow-water pattern. To read his practice recap, click here to read BassFan's ProView Report.