PENDLETON - Bass fishing on the lower portion of the Arkansas River has rebounded, as evidenced by the 2008 Big Bass Bonanza.
From an area of disappointment for anglers in the last 20 years or so, the river and its renowned tributaries and backwaters is producing much better black bass - largemouth and spotted - according to fishermen who competed in this years bonanza and according to fisheries biologists with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
There appears to be larger bass and more bass, the two ingredients that go a long way to bringing smiles to fishermen.
Biggest smile may be on the face of Duke Gunnell of Benton, who won last year's Big Bass Bonanza with an 8.14-pound largemouth. One observer called it "a really good-looking bass."
Gunnell's catch beat out John Higman of Evansville, who caught a bass weighing 7.81 pounds at the other end of the Big Bass Bonanza waters, the Fort Smith pool.
The Pendleton pool yielded the Bonanza's third largest fish, 7.32 pounds by Steve Blasengame of Star City, Twelve bass weighing between 6 and 7 pounds were also checked in at Pendleton.
Kevin Hopkins, AGFC's assistant black bass program biologist, was on hand at the Pendleton weigh-in site for the Bonanza when Gunnell brought his fish to the scale. Hopkins said, "We have had a good spawn down in this part of the river this year. The bass seem to be improving from all reports."
Alan Melder of Monticello, the Bonanza weighmaster at the site, nodded agreement and said, "It's not only this tournament; other tournaments are telling us that the (bass) fishing is better in this part of the river. In the one-day tournaments, 7 to 10 pounds (for a 5-bass tournament limit) were winning, and now it takes 12 to 15 pounds to win one of these tournaments."
Gunnell is a veteran bass chaser. He has often been among the prize winners in the Big Bass Bonanza and led it for two days in 2005 before being bumped to runner-up. Last year, he fished the first two days on the Dardanelle pool of the river then moved to the Pendleton pool the last day.
He went to Post Lake, an oxbow water next to Arkansas Post National Memorial. But Gunnell and his partner, Hugh Burnett of Little Rock, moved away from a crowd of other competitors who were fishing in open water near the edge of lily pads. Gunnell and Burnett went deep into the thick lily pads. One bass exploded at Gunnell's white plastic frog but missed. Not long after that, another bass softly sucked in the lure then put up a stiff fight when Gunnell set the hook.
The widespread of the lower Arkansas River and its backwaters has long been magnets for bass fishermen. Some of the areas are well-known to anglers in the state and from other areas. Coal Pile, Merrisach, Moore's Bayou, Post Lake, Morgan Point and Notrebe's Bend are familiar in fishing conversations.
A largemouth bass from Coal Pile, which got its name in 19th century steamboat days, was the state record at 13 pounds, 4 ounces, until the current record of 16-4 was caught in 1976 at Mallard Lake in northeast Arkansas.