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story.lead_photo.caption Largemouth bass begin their pre-spawn patterns in late winter, allowing anglers such as Tyrone Phillips of Little Rock to enjoy success at reservoirs such as Lake Hamilton. - Photo by Bryan Hendricks

For Natural State anglers, the magic time begins right about now, when all our favorite game fish are biting almost everywhere.

Many fish species begin preparing for the spawn in mid-February. They are moving into spawning areas, and they are eating voraciously to get in condition for the reproductive rigors.

They will bite live bait and artificial bait more readily over the next two months than they will any other time until fall. Whether your passion is catching largemouth or smallmouth bass, white bass, striped bass or hybrids, walleyes, saugers or saugeyes, you should be on the water today.

George Cochran, a two-time Bassmaster Classic champion and winner of the 2005 Forrest Wood Cup, made his living fishing for largemouth bass. Having retired from competitive fishing, he spends a lot of time fishing for striped bass on Lake Ouachita with his son David Cochran, a well-known striper guide. He also enjoys catching walleyes at Lake Ouachita, and he said now is an ideal time to catch largemouths and walleyes in the same places.

Cochran said he targets steep, rocky banks off main-lake points with a Megabass jerkbait. He said that lure excels in late winter water conditions at Lake Ouachita because of its unique action. The lure suspends at a consistent depth, Cochran said, but more importantly, it is easy to control.

"It goes to one side when you jerk it, but when you jerk it again, it goes right back to where it was before," Cochran said.

Other jerkbaits go every which way unpredictably, and it can be hard to keep them in a strike zone.

Patience is a big key, as well.

"You need to let it sit for at least eight seconds before jerking it again," Cochran said. "A lot of people can't stand to wait that long, but it's important."

Largemouth bass and walleyes often inhabit the same places this time of year, Cochran said. Even if you are targeting bass, a walleye or two is a tasty bonus.

Mercurial weather can affect fishing for the good and bad in late winter, Cochran said. Consistently successful anglers watch weather forecasts.

"I'm always hoping for at least three days of a south wind," Cochran said. "You need to be out there on that third day because fish are going to bite."

Mid-February is also when walleyes and stripers, where present, migrate into the headwaters of major reservoirs to reproduce. Starting now, you can catch walleyes in the tributaries of lakes Ouachita, Hamilton, DeGray, Greers Ferry, Beaver, Bull Shoals and Norfork.

Stripers are stocked in Bull Shoals, Norfork, Beaver and Ouachita. You'll find them running with walleyes in the same tributaries in those lakes, as well. Walleyes successfully spawn in those waters. Stripers try, but they are not as prolific.

By April, most of the stripers will have returned to the main lake where you can catch them in the mornings on topwater lures near Crystal Springs and Mountain Harbor on Lake Ouachita, and near Rocky Branch and Lost Bridge at Beaver Lake.

Smallmouth bass are native to the headwaters of the tributaries, and they are in the best condition of the year. They also are feeding voraciously, and some anglers have reported, with photos for evidence, catching smallmouths 3 pounds and heavier in some of these waters.

White bass arrive in the tributaries a few weeks later. At the peak of their spawning run, you can catch big females on nearly every cast with all manner of jerkbaits, inline spinnerbaits, small crankbaits and small swimbaits. A tandem rig with a white curly-tail grub on one line and a chartreuse curly-tail on the other line is one of the most effective presentations.

Standard ball-head jigs work well with this rig in 1/8- and 1/16-ounce configurations, but I have come to prefer weighted hooks like those used with swimbaits and soft plastic frogs.

Fishing is also excellent on small lakes, two of which have produced state-record class fish in recent years. Lake Frierson, the jewel of Lake Frierson State Park, served up the state-record saugeye (9 pounds) on Jan. 30, 2012, to Chris Owen of Alicia.

On Feb. 28, 2012, Paul Crowder of Forrest City caught a 16-pound, 5-ounce largemouth bass at Lake Dunn. It would have been recognized as the state record, but Crowder did not have a valid fishing license.

Crowder reported catching the bass on a plastic worm on the bottom. As is common this time of year, the fish bit lightly.

Lake Dunn, in the northeastern part of the state, is subject to typical late winter pattern bass fishing, but patterns advance a couple of weeks in south Arkansas. In early to mid-March, some bass will already be on spawning beds in lakes Monticello, Columbia and White Oak, for example. Most will be staging offshore to move shallow when conditions are right. These fish are more active and will respond to more aggressive fishing tactics.

One of the great things about bass fishing in Arkansas is that you can begin to fish spawning patterns in south Arkansas in mid-March and follow the spawn north. You can hit Lake Dardanelle in the peak of its spawn, advance to Greers Ferry for the peak of its spawn, and finish the season during the peak of the spawn in late April at lakes Beaver and Bull Shoals.

Beaver, especially, is interesting because you can follow its spawn from west to east. Its bass begin spawning in early April in the White and War Eagle rivers and in Hickory Creek. They'll spawn a little later in the mid-lake area around Prairie Creek, and they'll spawn in late April in the lower part of the lake near Beaver Dam.

Crappie are hunkered in deep cover right now, but they will begin moving to the banks to spawn in March, as well. They are easy to find and easy to catch with live minnows, small tube jigs and tiny swimbaits around any kind of shallow cover.

This time will pass quickly, so don't sit around thinking about fishing. As a famous advertising campaign urges, just do it.

Photo by Bryan Hendricks
When walleyes make their spawning runs up the major tributaries of our big reservoirs this month, anglers such as Chris Larson catch them in surprisingly narrow waters.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
If you know how to fish deep structure, late winter is a great time for anglers such as Bill Eldridge of Benton to catch slab crappie at our large reservoirs.

Sports on 02/17/2019

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