In the 3-plus-year history of the Bassmaster Elite Series, there haven't been many events that've been as tough as this week's derby at Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle is shaping up to be. Locals say the overall fishery has been on the decline recently, and this tournament has fallen during a period of unstable conditions that apparently have a lot of the bass confused as to what they should do next.
Some strong bags in the 20-pound class will be caught. But unless there's a big movement of fish toward the banks in the next few days, there won't be many such stringers. And what's more, a good weight will be extremely hard to back up the following day.
This one should play out like a lot like many of the old-school Bassmaster Tour events prior to the advent of the Elite Series a 10-pound limit will constitute a solid day, and a 15-pound average will put an angler in contention to win. It'll be vitally important to catch a strong foundation sack on day 1 because things will probably get tougher from there.
Before getting more in-depth on the bite, here's some info about that 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: 15 inches for largmouths, 12 inches for spots
> Reputation: One of the better lakes in Arkansas, but a fishery that's been a bit "off" recently
> Weather: You name it the 4-day forecast calls for a little bit of everything, including possible snow showers on Saturday.
> Water temp: Low 60s
> Water visibility/color: Stained just about everywhere, but a little bit clearer in the creeks
> Water level: A couple of feet low (significant because a lot of shoreline vegetation is dry)
> Fish in: Various depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn, spawn
> Primary patterns: Jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, worms, some sight-fishing
> Winning weight: 60 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 24 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 1.5 for Dardanelle
> Biggest factors: The spawn a bunch of females moving to the banks could change things up radically
> Biggest decision: Backwaters or main river
> Wildcard: A deeper-water hotspot where fish are grouped
Not the Same Place
There are four anglers in this week's field who've notched victories at Dardanelle this decade. Boyd Duckett topped the Legends Major in August 2007, Matt Herren won an Eastern FLW Series event in May of that same year and Randy Howell and Davy Hite won springtime Elite 50s in 2004 and '05, respectively.
Those past successes are of little help to them right now if any at all.
"I have not had a good practice and I'm really disappointed," Herren said. "I was looking forward to coming here in the spring because I thought I'd do well. And I probably would do well if the fish were doing what they should be doing, but so far they haven't done it.
Ex-Dardanelle winner Randy Howell is at a loss to explain why the current bite is so tough.
"I don't know what's going on. It's like maybe they're hung up between (the pre-spawn and spawn modes) and a lot of them haven't come in yet. They seem to be scattered and I think there's a big wave of them in transition."
Added Howell: "I'm very surprised by how tough it is for this time of year. The tournament I won 5 years ago was only like a couple weeks later (on the calendar) and they were biting real well everywhere.
"I don't know if anybody can guarantee they're going to go out and catch a limit. I'm just going to put my nose down and work hard and try to catch one here and one there. This could be one of the lowest cut-weights we've had out here in a long time."
Joe Murphy, who runs a local tackle shop, said Dardanelle is indeed a different lake since the last time the Elites were here more than a year and a half ago. The Arkansas River ran high, muddy and cold all of last year as the result of heavy rains upstream, and that eliminated a lot of the shallow vegetation.
"There was a lot of milfoil and coontail, and that's all gone," he said. "The shoreline grass is all gone and there hasn't been a good shad spawn in 2 years.
"This fishery's in a little bit of peril right now and I'm not sure what's going to happen. It'll be interesting to see, but I think (the Elite anglers) are going to find this thing somewhat difficult. They surprise me every time they come, though."
Where's the Spawn?
Practice was so difficult for most of the field that there's wide disagreement about the state of the spawn. Some think a big wave did its business and moved back out on the previous moon cycle, while others believe only the early-birds have visited the beds thus far.
"There'll be fish on the beds, but I'm not sure how many you're going to be able to see because the water's so stained," said Derek Remitz, who logged a Top-10 finish in the '07 FLW Series event. "I think it's about half and half between pre-spawners and fish on the beds, and there might even be some in the post-spawn."
Some think the winning fish will come almost exclusively from the backs of creeks, and others say the main-river channel will play a major role.
"I think it'll be a backwater event," said Duckett, who added that he has three visible bed-fish he'll attempt to catch on day 1. "Sometimes lakes just get weird and the bite gets really tough everywhere. And when a lake's in a funk like that, it's easier to catch them shallow."
Hite is of a differing opinion.
"I think it'll be won deeper not 15 or 20 feet, but more than 5 or 6," he said. "I don't think it'll be from 1 to 3 feet.
"The water's low where it'd been flooded and there's not a whole lot of vegetation. I don't think the quality's going to be up there."
Added Todd Auten: "I've been trying to catch one on the main channel, but I haven't done it yet. Somebody's going to catch them out there somehow.
"There aren't a whole lot of creeks and everybody's piled up in them. If the main channel clears up, it should spread some people out and hopefully things will improve."
Murphy said the peak of the spawn is still a ways off.
"We're a long way from that on Dardanelle. The main spawn happens in late April and early May and even goes into June. This is a mainstream reservoir on the Arkansas River, and those rains bring cold water all the way from Colorado."
Will Weather Help or Hurt?
The field should encounter mild weather conditions for day 1, but then the forecast gets crazy for a couple of days. Thunderstorms are predicted for Friday, followed by a huge drop in temperature (down to a high of 49 degrees) with showers (possibly even a bit of snow) on Saturday after the 100-angler field has been cut to the Top 50.
What will the wacky weather do to the bite? Nobody knows, but most think it can't get much worse.
"If it got stable, that would probably push some of the females up," said native Arkansan Stephen Browning. "I don't think that's happened yet."
Second-year pro Clark Reehm lives in Russellville, Ark. and has vast experience on Dardanelle.
Many would also consider it a favor if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would stop pulling water and allow some of the shoreline grass that's still around to be re-inundated. Some think it was drawn down in anticipation of heavy rain earlier this week, but that didn't occur.
"It's affected the shallow-water bite," Howell said. "I think some of the fish that had been on the beds have realized they can't be up there right now.
"But even with that, it still shouldn't be this tough."
Top 10 to Watch
Here's BassFan's recommendations on the Top 10 to watch at this event. In no particular order, they are:
1. Kevin VanDam Nobody's better at moving around and catching scattered fish than VanDam. His 8th-place finish at Amistad 2 weeks ago was his best in five events, and you know that one higher than that is coming real soon.
2. Skeet Reese His versatility and decision-making abilities were borne out in his Bassmaster Classic victory last month, and they could play big here, too.
3. Davy Hite Struggled along in practice like just about everybody else, but seems to have an idea about what he wants to do and where he wants to do it. That alone gives him a bit of an edge.
4. Mark Davis The home-stater struggled badly (44th and 45th) in the two E50s held here several years back, so he might be due for a high finish. Won't get flustered by the tough conditions.
5. Clark Reehm He's a true local and likely has as much recent experience here as anybody in the field. The 2nd-year pro has fared no better than 75th in the last three Elite events, and this would be a good point for a turnaround.
6. Kevin Short Another guy who knows this place well and should have some good ideas about adjustments. Got his season off to a good start at Amistad and will look to build on that momentum.
7. Scott Rook Has to be considered a favorite for any event that takes place anywhere near the Arkansas River. He was 9th at the Major in 2007 and could use a high finish to offset his 72nd at Amistad.
Dean Rojas seems to always fare well at Dardanelle, no matter what the conditions.
8. Dean Rojas These might not seem to be ideal conditions for him, but his record here is superb (9th and 12th in the E50s and 4th in the Major). He's fished extremely well since the start of '08 and has been able to figure something out just about everywhere he's been.
9. Gary Klein Has a Dardanelle ledger that stacks up nicely against Rojas' and has placed 7th or better in two of the last four Elite tournaments. His veteran's savvy will help in dealing with the tough bite.
10. Mike Iaconelli He's simply been too hot to keep him off the favorites' list, no matter the tournament or the conditions. And he's done well here before he was the runner-up in the '05 E50.
Anglers will launch at 7:15 a.m. CT each day from Lake Dardanelle State Park (100 State Park Dr. in Russellville). Weigh-ins will begin at 4 p.m. in the same location.
Here's the weather forecast for the tournament days. For more weather information, including satellite and radar imagery, visit OutdoorsFanWeather.com.
> Thur., March 26 - Partly Cloudy - 74°/55°
- Wind: From the E/SE at 11 mph
> Fri., March 27 - T-Storms - 69°/47°
- Wind: From the E/NE at 12 mph
> Sat., March 28 - Rain/Snow Showers - 49°/33°
- Wind: From the NW at 13 mph
> Sun., March 29 - Sunny - 65°/45°
- Wind: From the W at 4 mph