One perennial favorite among Arkansas’s anglers is a hotbed for water willow – Lake Dardanelle. During late spring, this shoreline grass covers many of the bays and backwaters of the Arkansas River impoundment, and is always high on the list of targets for people looking for largemouth bass.
Frank Leone, District Fisheries Supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in Russellville, says water willow is one of his favorite targets when it begins to surface.
“Plants like water willow normally get their start for the year in late April,” Leone said. This spring was very cool, and we were a week or two behind from where it normally should have been, but it probably had a big week this last week with warm weather finally breaking through and staying.”
Leone, a transplant from Michigan who has been chasing bass since he was 11 years old and still spends at least one day a week with a rod in his hand.
“I fished for bullheads and drum on a canal that flowed into the Detroit River when I was 5 or 6 years old, but followed bass fishing on television shows until I finally talked my dad into getting a boat,” Leone said. “I probably didn’t fish my first tournament until about 22 or 23 years old, but have had a lot of time in the front seat since then.”
Coontail is another native species of aquatic grass Leone searches for in spring, but he says water willow is probably the most angler-friendly type of vegetation to fish. Its vertical structure offers plenty of ambush spots and cover for bass, but is still open enough get a lure through without constantly clearing a wad of spinach off your line between casts.
“My go-to baits for fishing water willow are a white swim jig and a black or white buzzbait to get reaction strikes,” Leone said. “If I need to slow down, I’m going to pitch Texas-rigged soft-plastics in along likely targets.”
Leone says a critical component of fishing vegetation of any type is the type of line the angler spools up on their reel. Regular monofilament line stretches, which can cause fish and lures to bind up in aquatic vegetation. Braid and fluorocarbon lines, while more expensive, are invaluable in getting a fish out of the salad.
“Braid has zero stretch,” Leone said. “You’re going to be able to rip it through the grass to get a better hookset and turn the fish toward you to get it out. If it’s very dense vegetation, I’m going to use straight braid. If it’s a little more open, I may opt for 17-lb. test fluorocarbon, which has a little stretch, but is less visible to the fish.”
Leone will tell you he’s not the only angler who gets fired up about fishing emerging vegetation in spring. During his personal time, he also owns and manages www.Get5Bass.com, a website dedicated to promoting bass tournaments throughout the state since 2006. In addition to fishing in tournaments, covering tournaments and organizing tournaments during his spare time, Leone keeps a close eye on trends and techniques. He says the grass bite usually begins to fade by July with the heat of summer bearing down, but a quick change in the weather can fire things right back up.
“In summer, if you’ve got a sunny day with no wind, you’re better off finding some current or rocks in the river at Dardanelle,” Leone said. “But there are always a few fish around the grass, and if you’ve got some rain or storms coming in and it gets windy, those fish will get really aggressive. On days like that, if you’re not around the water willow, you’re going to get whipped.”
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