11 great things about the Arkansas River in Arkansas

By Jay Townsend

The Arkansas River provides Americans with a plethora of benefits. In no particular order, here are eleven great things about the mighty Arkansas River in Arkansas.

1. Fishing – Beneath the Arkansas River’s slow moving murky water is an extremely diverse amount of aquatic life. The fish-tales of 7-pound bass, 100-pound catfish and 7-foot-long alligator gar seem to pull anglers out of bed in the early hours of hot Arkansas summer days in the hopes of reeling in the “big one.” Cat fishermen line the banks below the locks and dams hoping to snag a monster that’s feeding in the swirling waters below the monolithic structures. Bass anglers are constantly running up and down the river to their favorite fishing holes to land a lunker. There are also several places where the river widens out and fishes like a lake, this is where the crappie crazies like to hangout. On a good day it doesn’t take long to fill a stringer of slabs.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission the Arkansas River holds eight state rod and reel records and two unrestricted tackle records. The largest fish on the commission’s list to come from the Arkansas River is an alligator gar that weighed 215 pounds.

After competing in the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza, Robinette Fox took home the big prize this year. (Photo Credit Vince Miller, Pool #2 weigh master for the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza)
After competing in the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza, Robinette Fox took home the big prize this year. (Photo Credit Vince Miller, Pool #2 weigh master for the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza)

 

2. Navigation – Before the locks and dams were built, it was not uncommon to see a nearly dry riverbed you could wade across. The locks and dams created stable navigation pools that stretch 445 miles from the Mississippi River to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now industry shippers use the navigation channel year round to transport about 12 million tons of cargo annually generating $4 billion in economic benefit to the region.

Before the locks and dams were built.
Before the locks and dams were built.

After the locks and dams were built.

After the locks and dams were built.

A single barge carries the equivalent of 58 tractor-trailers. A standard 15-barge tow carries equal to 870 truckloads. That’s a lot of 18-wheelers taken off the already congested interstates.

 

3. Flood reduction – This year alone the dams and levee system on the Arkansas River prevented up to $350 million in flood damages. May 2015 was the wettest month on record in the lower 48 states. Fort Smith, Arkansas recorded 19.85 inches of rain in May alone. Flows below Dardanelle Dam were over 300,000 cubic feet per second for three weeks. Without the flood reduction dams in Oklahoma flows could have topped 600,000 c.f.s. The amount of human suffering reduced because of the dam and levee systems along the Arkansas River cannot be measured.

Dardanelle Dam

300,00 cubic feet per second

300,00 cubic feet per second below Dardanelle Dam

4. Camping – The Arkansas River shoreline varies from steep bluffs and tree-lined banks to open farm lands and level fields that create some of the best camping in the nation. More than 25 different campgrounds with all kinds of amenities from electricity to fish cleaning stations and picnic shelters line the river from Fort Smith to the Trusten Holder State Wildlife Management Area in the southeast corner of the state.

Toad Suck Park
Toad Suck Park

If you’re looking for a place to camp and can’t find the right spot along the Arkansas then you must not really want to go camping. From primitive camping to developed sites capable of supporting your hotel on wheels the Arkansas River offers a slice of the pie for every kind of outdoor enthusiast.

5. Lake Dardanelle – With nearly 40,000 acres of boating and fishing waters lined by choice picnic and camping areas, it is the ideal leisure destination. Lake Dardanelle spreads westward behind Dardanelle Dam into Pope, Yell, Logan, Johnson, and Franklin counties. Two miles wide in places, it reaches 50 miles upstream to the Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam and has 315 miles of shoreline.

Lake Dardanelle
Lake Dardanelle

With no closed season and mild winters, fishing is good year round and man-alive there’s a lot of crappie in this lake. The 2015 Big Bass Bonanza 7-pound winner was also pulled from the lake earlier this year. Located near the Ozark and Ouachita National forests, the area has an abundance of wildlife. There is in-season hunting for deer, turkey, waterfowl and other small game. The wildlife and picturesque shoreline provide ideal conditions for nature enthusiasts and camera bugs.


6. Merrisach Lake
– Merrisach Lake Campground faces Merrisach Lake and the Arkansas Post Canal in the lush forest of southeastern Arkansas. The campground is described as off the beaten path, providing visitors with the peace and quiet to enjoy a nice campfire or picnic. The quiet lake offers visitors the perfect amount of seclusion to enjoy excellent fishing and boating. World-class bass and crappie fishing is found in Pool 2 of the river, and the tailwaters of the dam provide excellent opportunities to catch catfish.

Merrisach LakeMerrisach Lake

Merrisach Lake sits on the famed Mississippi Flyway, where millions of songbirds, ducks, geese and butterflies pass during migration.
7. Ozark Lake – As the Arkansas River flows through the state, it reaches its northernmost point in a sweeping bend. Now a part of Ozark Lake, this big bend was called “Aux Arc” by the French and it is from the French that the lake and the nearby city of Ozark received their names. Formed by the completion of the Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam and Powerhouse in 1969, Ozark Lake reaches 36 miles westward to the James W. Trimble Lock and Dam near Fort Smith, Arkansas. At normal navigation pool, Ozark Lake contains about 10,600 surface acres of water with 173 miles of shoreline. The shoreline of the lake varies from steep bluffs with great views and tree lined banks to open farm lands and level fields.

Ozark Lake
Ozark Lake

The public land surrounding Ozark Lake is full of deer, quail, squirrels, rabbits, dove, wild turkey, ducks and geese for open state hunting seasons. From late fall until early spring, anglers fishing the tailwater immediately below Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam enjoy some of the best sauger fishing in the nation. Anglers find great success whether fishing from boats or the riverbank.

8. Arkansas Post – It was here in 1686, that Henri de Tonti established the first village west of the Mississippi River. Then in 1819 Arkansas Post became the capital of the Arkansas Territory until the Civil War. Visitors can spend their time around the Arkansas Post Field Office like the pioneers did, or they are welcome to partake of more modern conveniences. Parks along the river provide boat launch ramps, drinking water, camping areas (that accommodate most travel trailers and motor homes), picnic sites for families and groups and other facilities for the convenience of all.

Arkansas Post
Arkansas Post

The area also provides two wildlife management areas, the Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area and the White River National Wildlife Refuge, for in-season hunting and fishing.

9. John Paul Hammerschmidt Lake – Named after the long time Arkansas Congressman, and formed by the completion of James W. Trimble Lock and Dam in 1969, John Paul Hammerschmidt Lake has about 120 miles of shoreline and 7,700 acres of surface water. The lake extends 26 miles west, about half in Arkansas and half in Oklahoma. The shoreline offers a variety of terrain that includes bottomland hardwood timber banks, steep bluffs, open agricultural fields, and historic towns like Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Now a National Park, Old Fort Smith is the location of the Old Fort Museum and the courtroom of “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker, who presided over the Federal District Court of Western Arkansas from 1875 to 1896. In 21 years, Judge Parker’s court hanged 88 criminals and convicted about 9,500. The courtroom has been restored, together with the famous “Hell on the Border” jail and the old gallows.

 

10. The Bridges – Counting the catwalks across the locks and dams, 33 bridges span across the mighty Arkansas River in Arkansas. Many of the bridges are more than just a way to connect one point to another; they offer a unique view, an electric light show or are a wonderful piece of architecture in and of themselves.

Main Street Bridge between Little Rock and N. Little Rock
Main Street Bridge between Little Rock and N. Little Rock

The longest bridge in Arkansas (1.6 miles) crosses the river connecting Logan and Johnson counties is, depending on where you’re from, called the Morrison Bluff, Scranton or Ada Mills bridge. The longest pedestrian bridge in the U.S., the Big Dam Bridge (4,225 feet), is in Pulaski County and crosses the Arkansas River on top of Murray Lock and Dam. Several old railroad bridges have been converted to walking trails and offer unforgettable images of the river’s untamed power and beauty.

The longest bridge in Arkansas (1.6 miles)
The longest bridge in Arkansas (1.6 miles)

11. The views – Flowing between the Ozark and Ouachita mountains through the states capitol into the rich farmlands in the southeast corner of the state the Arkansas River offers some of the most breathtaking views in the country. Watching the sun set on Pinnacle Mountain from the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock on a calm cool night is a vision from heaven. Watching the river run from the bluffs at Spadra Park in the fall offers a full-on foliage explosion. And when the moon rises over the river in the southeast corner of the state after fishing during a 100 degree summer day, the sweet release of the heat coupled with the moons blue glow seem surreal.

Robert Carr captured this gorgeous sunset from the Big Dam Bridge between Little Rock and North Little Rock. The image is looking up the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System towards Pinnacle Mountain.
Robert Carr captured this gorgeous sunset from the Big Dam Bridge between Little Rock and North Little Rock. The image is looking up the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System towards Pinnacle Mountain.