My kayak bobs up and down as I navigate the deep waters of Lake Ouachita, located just West of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. It’s a familiar place where I’ve spent countless hours – swimming, fishing, boating and camping. The lake is nestled in the Ouachita National Forest and I feel like the surrounding mountains are giving me a great big hug. As a resident of Hot Springs, I feel incredibly lucky to have this lake right in my backyard. Perhaps even more incredible is that it is one of three lakes in close proximity – each the result of dams built along the Ouachita River for the purpose of hydroelectric power. Lazily casting a line into the clear water, it’s easy to forget that these lakes were created for anything other than pure enjoyment.
Hot Springs offers an abundance of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, and with three lakes in the immediate vicinity, fishing is one of the most popular activities. Among anglers, this area is known for its trophy largemouth bass and stripers but the lakes are also swimming with bream, catfish, crappie and cool water walleye.
“The Hot Springs area has a lot to offer,” said Evan Barnes, a Hot Springs resident and professional fisherman with Fishing League Worldwide (FLW), the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization. “There are a lot of different bodies of water. They’re all different so I really like that. For me personally, I think it helps me become a better angler because I get to fish a variety of different ways on the different lakes.”
Of the three manmade lakes along the Ouachita River, Lake Ouachita is the first on the river’s 600 mile journey from west-central Arkansas to north-central Louisiana. There is a restriction on commercial and residential building so the scenery comprises the all-natural wooded hills of the Ouachita National Forest. The largest lake located entirely within the state of Arkansas, Lake Ouachita has between 600-900 miles of shoreline (depending on the water level) and about 40,000 acres of water. The lake ranks nationally as one of the top 10 spots for largemouth bass fishing and is home to a variety of other species as well. It is stocked annually with largemouth bass, bream, catfish and crappie; and cool water walleye on an as-needed basis.
“I come to Lake Ouachita as often as I can,” said Professional Angler Larry Nixon, who boasts 22 years with the FLW. “I like to go because it’s kind of off the beaten path.”
A resident of Quitman, Ark., he is one of FLW’s top earners with four career tournament wins and 28 top 10 finishes. For fishing in clear water lakes, he recommends using a good spinning reel, a Gary Dobyns spinning rod, and “light line.”
“I usually use braided line on a spinning reel and then I’ll tie a leader on there. That way [the fish] can’t see the line in the water,” Nixon said. “If you’ll learn how to use spinning equipment and get you some eight-ounce jig heads and some little six-inch worms, you’re gonna catch bass.”
In addition to bass, Nixon enjoys fishing for walleye, which he said are “excellent table fare” and fun to catch.
Moving down stream, the waters from Lake Ouachita flow through Blakely Dam and into Lake Hamilton. There is good trout fishing in the cold water at the base of Blakely Dam. Stocked annually with trout, walleye, catfish and bass, the lake is most famous for its large mouth bass and striper fishing.
At 7,460 acres, it is about a fifth the size of Lake Ouachita and its shoreline is commercially developed with houses and docks practically everywhere. Consequently, it is a much busier lake with pleasure boaters out all summer long. Barnes recommends fishing early in the mornings or in the evenings when there is little recreational traffic. Night fishing is especially popular, said Barnes who ranks Lake Hamilton as his favorite lake.
“I get to spend the most time on it and it’s starting to get really good,” Barnes said. “The fish are really healthy.”
Barnes co-owns Geared, a tackle store in Hot Springs that offers fishing gear and accessories for rent or to purchase. He recommends using black spinner bait in low light conditions.
“The one we sell the most of is a Real Deal custom tackle spinner bait,” he said. “That’s by far our best seller.”
From Lake Hamilton, the water flows through Carpenter Dam and into Lake Catherine. The smallest of the three lakes, it stretches for 11 miles but only covers 1,940 acres. Still, fishing opportunities abound. It contains the same species of gamefish as Lake Ouachita and Lake Hamilton and is stocked annually with catfish, trout and walleye.
Rainbow trout and striper are in abundance right at the base of Carpenter Dam, where the cold water rushes out below the water line. There are some nice wadeable shoals near the dam, where fly fishers regularly cast for rainbow trout.
Every summer Lakes Catherine and Hamilton offer an extra incentive to get out on the water with the Hot Springs Fishing Challenge, a competition that awards prize money to any angler who snags one of the many fish tagged for the event. Species include largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, white bass, and crappie and walleye with prizes ranging from $500 all the way up to one, big-money fish dubbed “Big Al” that’s worth $15,000.
When Pete Clark of Magnet Cove reeled in “Big Al” in 2017 becoming the first and only person to do so, he knew it was a good catch but he didn’t know it was going to win him $15,000.
Clark was aware of the competition but participating in another event – a weekly fishing tournament hosted by Brooks Marine on Lake Hamilton. A largemouth bass weighing 3.89 pounds, Big Al bore a tag with some numbers but it did not include the name or value of the fish. Clark, who was fishing with his brother, was in the midst of fishing frenzy, so he tossed it into the live well with the others. About an hour later, his brother was going through their catches to find their best five for the tournament and recognized Big Al from a promotional video he’d seen online. Clark caught Big Al using a spinner bait and the fish also helped him and his brother win that night’s tournament. An amateur tournament fisherman, Clark fishes an average of three times a week including weekly tournaments on Lakes Hamilton and Catherine.
“One thing that makes Arkansas such a wonderful place to fish is whatever you want to fish for is available,” Clark said.
The 8th annual Hot Springs Fishing Challenge kicked of on May 1 and continues through 5 p.m on July 31. This year’s competition is the richest yet with 71 fish worth a total $101,000. There are 20 fish worth $500 (double during Free Fishing Weekend, June 7-9), 46 fishing worth $1,000, four fish worth $5,000 and one grand prize fish worth $15,000. The contest is open to anyone with a valid Arkansas fishing license.
Arkansas fishing licenses are required for anglers 16 and over and can be purchased at Trader Bill’s Outdoor Sports in Hot Springs or at any Wal-Mart location. There are several nonresident options including an annual fishing license ($50), a 3-day trip fishing license ($16) and a 7-day trip license ($25). A nonresident trout permit is $12. For more information or to purchase licenses online, visit the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission website.
Be sure to also check out their weekly Fishing Report.
Forrest Wood Cup
In addition to various amateur tournaments and competitions, the Hot Springs area lakes have hosted some of the most prestigious professional fishing tournaments. Hot Springs has hosted the FLW’s Forrest Wood Cup a record number of times. The world championship of professional bass fishing, the Cup has been held on Lake Ouachita more times than any other lake – in 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2018. The 2019 Cup on Lake Hamilton, Aug. 9-11, will become the sixth time Hot Springs has hosted the event (Lake Hamilton also hosted it in 2005), and it will be the first time any city has hosted back-to-back Cups.
A family-friendly event, it will include a three-day FLW Expo at the Hot Springs Convention Center featuring hundreds of exhibitors showcasing the latest gear and products. There will also be games and giveaways. Following the Expo, the top anglers from around the world will show their catches at Bank OZK Arena.
The diversity of the lakes and the species of fish within them is part of what makes Hot Springs such a fishing hot spot. But more than that, Hot Springs is a fishing community, full of folks eager to pass on their knowledge and their passion for the sport.
Teenage angler Allie Strother of Oden, Ark., grew up fishing for fun and started fishing competitively after Bassmaster legend Mark Davis approached her dad about starting a youth fishing team in their area. Strother has received the Top Lady Angler award three times in the Arkansas Junior State Championship and currently fishes in the Arkansas Bassmaster High School Series. She has also fished (and won) some adult tournaments with her dad, an amateur tournament fisherman.
“He knows a lot,” Strother said of her dad. “He always goes out and fishes. That’s his thing.”
As a kid, her dad and grandfather would take her night fishing on Lake Ouachita.
“Granted I would fall asleep, but that’s what got me to loving fishing,” she said.
After high school, Strother hopes to fish for a college team.
“I enjoy the rush because you never know when you’re going to get a bite,” she said. “Sometimes it’s such a good feeling and it just rushes up inside of you and you just want to keep going.”
Like Strother, most folks who grew up in this area grew up fishing and, while it’s enjoyed all over the world, it’s as Southern as sweet tea. It’s a time-honored tradition, a practice in patients that can also be quite thrilling.
For me, an Army brat with Southern roots, summers in Arkansas during my youth meant time spent with family, eating watermelon and going fishing. I still remember my great uncle, a shovel in his great big hands, turning over a soft patch of dirt that wriggled with earthworms. I would eagerly grab them up and drop them into an old coffee can before walking down to his pond, a bamboo cane pole slung over my shoulder.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.
Photo credits: Evan Barnes by Jody White, Larry Nixon by Kyle Wood