One light gray eye Northwest Arkansas Democratic Gazette

MOUNT IDA — Our first hunting trip of the year was an early celebration of spring.

It’s walleye season in the state’s natural rivers, and Chris Larson was straining at the reins on Feb. 9 to get a shot.

Historically, that’s early, but my main catch on the upper Ouachita River is catching a lot of walleye at night on live bait. I don’t ask where he fishes or volunteers, but I recognize landmarks from the photos he shares.

We were joined by David Schindler of Little Rock, who was also eager to resume fishing after a long winter. His final trip to Steelhead on the Pere Marquette River in Michigan was a trip for the storybooks. Arkansas has nothing like it, but what we have is pretty impressive, especially when striped bass get into the mix. Historically, it is too early for divers to reach the river, but evidence we collected from the site on Friday suggests they may have arrived.

Since walleye were our target, we used light tackle. Walleyes ignore anything heavier than the six-pound line. Stripers are hitting the same baits, and the striper on 6-pound line is a rodeo.

Larson and I recalled a fight several years ago when I tied up one of the straps late on an action-packed day. I battled through two and three sets of rapids. When it finally reached the boat, it was too big for Larson’s net.

“I hit him too early,” Larson said. “I think you felt terrible when I said I didn’t think it was safe to let him drag us over that last set of rapids.”

“I had to fire him sooner or later,” I said. “You chose sooner.”

“There was a group of people fishing on the bank over there,” I said, turning to Schindler. “They watched the whole thing. They stood with me when I released that fish.”

“There wasn’t much left of his streak after that,” Larson said. “He caught three or four big ones that day. He started with a 6-pound test. And in the end, what do you think? One pound?”

“If so,” I answered. “It felt like a thin strand of strange hair.”

Schindler was practically trembling with excitement.

Larson truly trembled with excitement. It was his first trip of the year, and he was shaking so badly that he had difficulty getting the boat ready.

“You’re uncharacteristically unstable today,” I said. “Are you well?”

“I’m like a kid at Christmas,” Larson said. “I couldn’t sleep last night because I was looking forward to it.”

“Do you want me to bind your magic to you?” I asked. “You seem to be having trouble with those knots.”

“If you don’t mind, that would be nice,” Larson said, turning away to prepare the boat.

The Ouachita River at the head of Lake Ouachita was high enough to pass unobstructed to the High Shoal. The water level was still a bit low for what we consider ideal fishing, but the water quality was perfect. It was a little stained, and there wasn’t any junk in the water to foul up the treble hooks.

Once we cleared the speedway at the Powerline Hole, Larson and I cast our bait to the port side, and Schindler tossed to the starboard side. I trolled my bait aboard Larson, who used a Long A Bomber B14, gold/black back. I used a small Headhunter jig/zigbait. Use Schindler B15 Bomber Silver/Black Top/Orange Bottom.

Schindler asked how Larson and I met.

“We met through a mutual friend, the late Scott Hunter,” I said. “He was the guru of walleye fishing in the Ouachita River.”

“You were fishing with Hunter one day, and I was here with someone else,” Larson said.

“And you had a couple of walleye, which we didn’t have, so I took your picture,” I added.

“We started fishing together shortly after that,” Larson said.

“All these things we connected,” I said. “The angler will be fine. According to him, the only thing the walleye will bite here is the Long A B15 rainbow trout pattern.”

“He used the fire tiger, too,” Larson said.

“Yes, Fire Tiger, that’s right,” I said. “But we’ve learned they’ll bite other things, too. I’ve caught more fish than anything else I’ve ever had with this headhunter.”

“And I’m dealing with this more consistently,” Larson said. “The hunter will not agree.”

During the lull, Larson talked about all the freshwater drum he catches while trolling for walleye. Beat the drum hard and fight hard. They’re a lot of fun, but it’s still a drum. This is not what you want.

“Even worse is when you catch catfish,” I said.

“Do you still hold a grudge against the catfish?” Larson asked.


“Do you like to eat them?” Schindler asked.

“Only if I don’t know what it is,” I said.

“Why?” Larson asked. “It’s delicious!”

“Well, that’s the deal with me and the catfish,” I said after a pregnant pause.

“I knew there had to be a story to this!” exclaimed Schindler, as he and Larson burst into laughter.

“When I was a little kid, my brother caught this big catfish in a golf course pond,” I said. “He didn’t know anything about how to clean a catfish. My mom didn’t know anything about how to clean a catfish, and she wasn’t really happy that he brought the bad thing home. She told him to ‘deal’ with it. She couldn’t be upset.”

“So he put him on the garage floor. Concrete, and started whaling on the head with a hammer. Shing! Shing! He’s squirming and chattering the way a catfish does.”

“Oh, I’m traumatized!” Larson said.

“This is just the beginning,” I said. “As I said, no one knew how to clean a fish, so my mother put the whole fish in the oven.”

“Guts and all?” Schindler asked, almost choking.

“Courage, skin,” I said. “My dad comes home from work, and my mom serves him this big catfish on a plate, with the head and tail hanging over the edge. It was a really tense dinner. So, no, I don’t get anything for the catfish.”

“But you wrote a story about catfish on the Mississippi River,” Schindler said.

“Hey, sometimes you gotta hold your nose and look the other way,” I said.

Broken lines were absent Friday and walleye were rare, but smallmouth bass filled in the gaps. They were very receptive to stick bait. They hit them with catches, but the bigger fish were cruising the banks. Schindler caught one of the largest small animals I’ve ever seen in Ouachita — about 3 pounds — throwing down a gravel bank.

There is a bait failure on the rootstock that was also holding two Cordell Redfins. The Redfin is a 1-ounce, 7-inch stickbait. One was a rainbow trout pattern. The other is bass chartreuse.

“Whoever lost these wasn’t catching walleye,” I said. “These are striped baits.”

“It doesn’t look like they were in the water very long,” Schindler said. “There is no rust on the hooks.”

“Maybe they made it here after all,” Larson said.

We went up to the next pool where I caught my only walleye of the day, an 18-inch male. That fish struck while I was reeling in the bait, indicating they wanted a fast-moving bait. We tried trolling faster, but weren’t getting any other bites except smallmouths.

We finished the day with 15 smallmouth bass and a walleye. My little headhunter lure featured seven smallmouth and one walleye.

I ate a walleye for dinner. It was delicious. Better than catfish.

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