If you’re not from here, you may not have spent a whole lot of time thinking about fishing in Arkansas. This modest Southern state rarely makes it onto road trip itineraries or national newsreels. But that’s part of what makes the “Natural State” so appealing.
As it happens, ecological and man-made conditions make Arkansas a world-class fishing destination. Six major river systems give anglers 90,000 miles of water to explore. Add on 600,000 acres of lakes and impoundments, and you’re spoiled for choice.
And these aren’t just any waters. There’s a mixture of gushing tailwaters and untouched mountain streams that are home to implanted Trout and Black Bass respectively. Not to mention the state’s mighty rivers that lumber for miles, hiding massive Catfish in their muddy depths…
Take some time to explore the state, and you’ll see why locals are so proud of their fishing. So read on and get ready to go angling – Arkansas style.
Fish Species in Arkansas
With miles upon miles of freshwater habitats, Arkansas has a diversity of species to match. Add in some human interventions, and the entire state is as much a melting pot for fish as the US is for people.
A huge dam-building program swept across the state in the 20th century, swapping out traditional habitats and making way for new species. This created over thirty lakes, and these lakes needed fish. Arkansas provided.
Arkansas now operates several large fish hatcheries, producing millions of Largemouth Bass, Trout, Catfish, Striped Bass, and Panfish every year. These new additions complement native species to create a microcosm of American fishing. We’ll walk you through the top targets.
Trout Fishing in Arkansas
Even though they aren’t native to the state, four different Trout species thrive in Arkansas.
Brown Trout are on top of every angler’s wishlist here. These European immigrants have put down roots and are maintaining their population independently – and reaching record sizes. It was a world-record Brown Trout from the Little Red River that first put Arkansas on the fishing map. Although that record has now been broken, you can still find enormous Browns here – leaving space for more headlines in the future.
Most of the Trout Arkansas stocks are Rainbow Trout, however. They usually grow to about 8 pounds, but the state record is a whopping 19 pounds. The White River and North Fork are good places to find them.
But that’s not all. Brook and Cutthroat Trout also swim the cold Ozark tailwaters. Guides on the White River boast that they have access to the best Trout fishing in Arkansas and that they can catch all four of these Trout species from one spot!
Crappie Fishing in Arkansas
It may be Trout that draw the crowds, but “Paper mouths” are many locals’ favorite target. Both Black and White Crappie have a delicate flavor and soft texture – and they’re fun to catch. Look for them around structure like bridge pilings and submerged timber, and cast your lure. Generous bag limits across the state mean you’ll stay busy for a while.
Lake Nimrod is one of the best places to fish for Crappie in terms of sheer numbers of fish. Meanwhile, the oxbow lakes formed from the Mississippi River offer slabs among the cypresses. Wherever you are, expect the Crappie action to pick up in spring and fall.
Walleye Fishing in Arkansas
Walleye are at least as good to eat as Crappie – and they’re much bigger. Ever since Arkansas produced a world-record Walleye in the 1980s, it’s been a hotspot for the species.
The Walleye fishing heats up from the second half of February. Intercept Walleye as they travel upstream into creeks and tributaries to spawn in shallow, graveled waters. Several lakes hold good populations of Walleye, but Greers Ferry Lake is the most famous.
For some reason, Walleye aren’t as popular in Arkansas as they are in the north of the country. This means there’s relatively low fishing pressure. Seeing as populations are boosted by fish hatcheries, that means the potential rewards are high.
Bass Fishing in Arkansas
Before dams and reservoirs introduced gushing cold waters to Arkansas’s mountains, Black Bass reigned supreme here. Smallmouth Bass were king, boosted by their Largemouth and Spotted cousins. Now, Smallmouths have been replaced by Trout across some of their range. But explore untouched waterways like Crooked Creek and the Buffalo River, and you’ll still find them going strong.
Largemouth Bass are possibly the US’s all-round favorite fish. And thanks to Arkansas’s stocking program, you can find hundreds and thousands of them across the state. Lake Dardanelle is one of the best places to look.
Linked to the Black Basses by name but not by nature, Striped Bass are another hatchery success story. Native to America’s Atlantic coast, they usually move between salt and freshwater throughout their lifecycle. They can’t do this in landlocked Arkansas, but they still thrive here and can reach mega sizes. You can find Stripers weighing over 40 pounds in Lake Ouachita, Beaver Lake, and the Arkansas River.
Whichever species of Bass you’re targeting, come in the summer. This is the best time for Bass fishing and a great time to cool down by the water.
Arkansas has dozens more species to target. Bream (a catch-all term for tasty Panfish like Bluegill and Redear Sunfish) are native fish that are also stocked in multiple lakes across the state.
And don’t forget Catfish. Commercial fishing for the species was born here and you can hardly eat out in the state without sampling its tasty meat. Recreational fishing for the species is huge, too – almost as much as the Blue Catfish in the Mississippi River! And don’t write off Arkansas’s “rough” fish – Buffalo, in particular, are an Ozark specialty. Phew!
How to Go Fishing in Arkansas
Fishing can be as simple as picking up a rod and finding the nearest waterway, but every destination has its quirks. None more so than Arkansas, whose dams and tailwaters add an element of surprise to fishing.
That’s partly what makes guided fishing trips in Arkansas so popular. Famous rivers like the White, Little Red, and North Fork all play host to their share of fishing guides. These professional anglers will explain the peculiarities of the local waters while giving you essential gear and know-how.
But, with or without a guide, your fishing experience will probably look something like this:
Fly Fishing in Arkansas
Arkansas’s stunning mountain views and abundant Trout and Smallmouth Bass make it the unsung hero of the fly fishing world. After all, fly fishing is all about observing the natural world and imitating it as closely as possible. There’s hardly anywhere better to do this than the Ozarks and the Ouachita National Forest.
Depending on what you’re targeting, you’ll usually need a 3–6 wt fly rod with a weight-forward floating line. Nymphs and scuds are popular choices for Trout, which also respond well to streamers.
Some of the best fly fishing in Arkansas takes place in quiet creeks in the north and west of the state. Crooked Creek in the Ozarks is a haven for Smallmouth Bass, while the Ouachita National Forest’s Dry Run Creek is home to native Brook Trout.
Fishing with Bait or Lures
You don’t need to fly fish to enjoy Arkansas’s stunning scenery. Casting bait or lures with a light spinning outfit can be just as exciting. This is the most popular way to fish for Trout, which respond well to baits like nightcrawlers and crayfish tails, or crankbaits, spinners, and spoons.
We already hinted at the changing water levels in Arkansas’s tailwaters. When Arkansas’s dams generate power, the amount of water in the river below increases suddenly and dramatically. This is no time to be wading or sitting in an anchored boat!
Drift fishing lets you fish the tailwaters safely when this happens. You’ll move quickly with the water, casting into the surging streams as you go. This is a technique that works best with a fishing guide who knows the local waters and release timetables intimately.
The Best Places to Fish in Arkansas
It’s impossible to cover all the places to fish in the Natural State in one short article. In fact, wherever you are in the state, you’re probably close to a well-stocked, scenic fishing hole. But here are some of our top picks…
Over a million acres of protected forest meet well-connected towns and entertainment in Arkansas’s natural playground. Vacation in the Ozarks and combine some of the best Trout fishing in the world with charming towns, folk music, and antiques. Take a look at:
- Cotter. It may be small, but Cotter calls itself the “Trout Capital of the USA” for a reason. Located just south of Bull Shoals Lake on the meanders of the White River, it’s in prime position to intercept trophy Brown and Rainbow Trout. Fish directly from Cotter’s shores, or use it as a base to explore the region. Norfolk Lake and Bull Shoals Lake are a short drive away and hold trophy size Crappie and Walleye, as well as Trout.
- Buffalo River. The country’s first National River cuts right through the Ozarks. These unpolluted waters are home to over 50 species of fish, including a healthy population of Smallmouth Bass in the river’s upper reaches.
- Little Red River: Few places are more iconic for Trout fishing than the Little Red River. This tailwater of the Greers Ferry Dam held the world record for Brown Trout for over 7 years, and is also home to Rainbow, Brook, and Cutthroat Trout. All its 35 miles of crystal clear water are prime Trout territory.
Central Arkansas and the Ouachita Mountains
South of the Ozarks, the mighty Arkansas River cuts a valley through the state. Keep going, and you’ll be in the Ouachita Mountain range. It isn’t far from here to the state capital, Little Rock. Make sure to explore:
- Lake Ouachita. The state’s largest lake is famous for its clear waters. Huge Striped Bass and trophy Largemouth Bass swim here, as well as Crappie, Bream, Walleye, and Catfish. Fish the tailwaters below Blakely Mountain Dam, and you can also find Rainbow and Brown Trout.
- Arkansas River. Striped Bass and Largemouth Bass thrive across the whole stretch of the Arkansas River in Arkansas. A hotspot for both species is Lake Dardanelle, a 50-mile reservoir that hosts major Bass fishing tournaments.
- Lake Conway. The largest lake ever created by a state wildlife agency has grown a name for itself because of its slab Crappies. This is just one of the species that thrive here.
Around Little Rock, the mountains give way to miles of flat, fertile floodplain. The Arkansas Delta expands across the east of the state, linking mountain streams and rushing rivers with the mighty Mississippi. This is a whole different fishing experience, but it’s no less enticing than the tourist magnets to the west. Check out:
- White River National Wildlife Refuge. The 156,000 acres of the White River National Wildlife Refuge protect the entire lower section of the White River as it spills out into the Mississippi. Originally created to preserve waterfowl, this is one of the best places in the state to catch Crappie. Take your pick of over 300 lakes, bayous, and the river itself. We’d be surprised if you see another soul fishing alongside you!
- The Mississippi River and its oxbows. Given all the lakes and mountain streams in Arkansas, you could forget that the nation’s most iconic river runs along the state’s entire eastern border. Fishing here can yield enormous Blue Catfish, especially where the St. Francis, Arkansas, and White Rivers meet the Mississippi. Or, explore the oxbows. These u-shaped lakes got left behind as the river changed its course and they hold serious quantities of Crappie. Chicot Lake is the largest.
Fishing Regulations in Arkansas
Everyone who’s 16 and older needs a fishing license in Arkansas unless they’re fishing in a registered “put and take” fishing lake. If you want to target Trout in most waters – or keep Trout anywhere in the state – you will also need a Trout Permit. You also need a free permit to target Alligator Gar.
You can purchase your license online, at a bait and tackle store, or at Arkansas’s very own national phenomenon: Walmart.
Some waters are catch-and-release only, and some are only open for fishing at certain times of the year. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission publishes an annual guide that details these regulations, as well as bag limits and seasonal openings for specific species.
Find Your Habitat in the Natural State
Arkansas battles with its rural stereotype. But explore its mountain communities and sweeping delta plains, and you’ll find something special. Pockets of untouched landscape protect ecosystems that matter on a global scale. Human intervention brought a whole new range of life here, which is thriving. So as you cast your line among the eastern cypresses or in a gushing mountain stream, listen out. Is that a banjo playing or is it the call of the wild?
What’s your favorite Arkansas fishing spot? Are you more of a Trout person or a Crappie addict? Let us know in the comments below!