GENTRY -- Russ Tonkinson uttered the magic word while a bass pulled his line at Swepco Lake.
"Net. I'm going to need a net."
The unseen denizen of the deep walked Tonkinson from one side of the boat to the other. This was one brute the angler from Rogers didn't want to lose.
When Tonkinson coaxed the largemouth bass to the surface, the big fish put on a leaping show on the port side of the aluminum boat. His fishing buddy slid a net underneath and Tonkinson lifted a 4-pounder from the mesh.
Words of wisdom: Always take a good-sized net on wintertime trips to Swepco Lake.
The 500-acre lake west of Gentry is a bass fishing haven through the winter and a unique waterway for Northwest Arkansas. The water temperature is 70 to 80 degrees on the coldest days of January and February.
That's because Swepco Lake is a water supply for the Flint Creek Power Plant operated by Southwestern Electric Power Company. Water is drawn from the lake to produce electricity. It's discharged back into the lake at 90 to 100 degrees.
The coal-fueled electric plant looms large on the east shoreline of the lake. Hot water flows like a raging whitewater river from the plant and into the lake. Anglers cast lures into the swirls, whirlpools and current near the plant.
It's the hot fishing spot at this warm-water oasis, but Tonkinson caught bass everywhere he fished, all on plastic worms. Anglers are allowed to keep 10 bass per day, but only one may be 18 inches or longer. Tonkinson released all his fish during this visit.
Bald eagles galore soared over the choppy lake this sunny December day. The hum of the Flint Creek Power Plant was ever present.
"I guess you'd get used to it," Tonkinson said, "like living next to an airport."
Plastic worms and similar lures rule the fishing roost at Swepco. Kenny Stroud, a Swepco Lake regular from Siloam Springs, casts other offerings to the lake's bass.
Top-water lures get a nod, in low light and on sunny days. Rat-L-Traps that resemble shad are another of Stroud's favorite lures.
"The size I'll use depends on the size of the baitfish I'm seeing," Stroud said. Sometimes he sees shad beneath the surface. Other times a fish he catches will spit up a few shad.
Stroud and Tonkinson will both testify that the fishing is good. It hasn't always been that way, said Jon Stein, Northwest Arkansas' fisheries biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
"Fifteen years ago, the bass population at Swepco crashed," Stein said. Back then, the lake was totally catch and release. With nobody keeping fish, bass overpopulated the lake and ate everything there was to eat.
"There were too many mouths to feed," Stein recalled.
Anglers caught lots of bass, but they were skinny and all about 12 inches long -- all head with thin bodies.
The first step was to change the regulation to a 10-bass per day daily limit, with one over 18 inches allowed.
That helped the forage rebound. Bass had more crawdads, bluegill and gizzard shad to eat. Fishermen started catching fewer bass, but they were healthy looking and varied in size from small to trophy size.
Last year, Game and Fish stocked 145,000 threadfin shad to boost the forage base. The shad were raised at the Charlie Craig State Fish Hatchery in Centerton, Stein said.
Quality bass fishing is back at Swepco Lake.
"We did an electrofishing study in January 2017, and it really looked good," Stein said. "For bass, we caught 120 per hour. That's a pretty good catch rate."
"Of those, 42 percent were over 15 inches long, which is really good. Four percent were over 20 inches," he added.
Compare that to Beaver Lake, which has a typical electrofishing catch rate of 85 to 100 bass per hour, with 20 to 25 percent over 15 inches.
Another unique aspect of Swepco is that the Florida strain of largemouth bass inhabits the reservoir. They grow fast and big and can only survive in warm water. They're found mostly down south.
The northern strain of largemouth bass lives in Beaver and the region's other lakes.
Spring is spawning time at most lakes. Bass at Swepco spawn in January and February, Stein said, because the water is warm all year. Natural reproduction is good. Game and Fish hasn't stocked bass at Swepco for a long time, he said.
The biologist would like to see more anglers keep the bass they catch at Swepco, but hardly anyone does. Catch and release is the mindset of most bass fishermen, Stein said, even though keeping fish may be the best action for certain lakes.
Anglers can also fish for redear sunfish at Swepco. The redear population has been good for about five years, Stein said.
Crappie numbers are poor. Stein has requested 25,000 crappie that average five inches for stocking at Swepco. It's hoped those fish will spawn and bring the crappie back.
Anglers may fish at Swepco Lake any time of year, but warm water and good fishing fend off the winter's chill.
Visit Swepco Lake
A Game and Fish sign on Arkansas 12 two miles west of Gentry points to the lake. The boat ramp and parking area is three miles south on Cripps Road.
The ramp at the water's edge can be extremely slick. Watch your step to avoid a nasty fall. A public fishing dock is located near the ramp.
The lake is home to many bald eagles wintering at the lake. The Eagle Watch Nature Trail, on the south side of Arkansas 12 one mile west of Gentry, leads to a lakeside wildlife viewing pavilion. It's a half-mile walk from the parking area to the pavilion.
Source: Staff report
Sports on 02/07/2018
Print Headline: Wintertime warm-up Anglers find fish in shadow of power plant