More than 2,000 fishermen competed for three days recently in the annual Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza on the Arkansas River.

It is an event of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, and it is open to amateur anglers only. No bass tournament professionals are allowed. It is a one-fish competition. Competitors can weigh in one bass per hour, and the biggest fish of the three days takes the top prize money, which has been $50,000 in recent years.

There have been 25 Big Bass Bonanzas now, dating back to 1989. So, is the bass action increasing or decreasing on the river, which carries the reputation of one of our state’s better waters for bass?

Studying the list of winners and their fish weights, the answer to this question is inconclusive. The largest winning bass came the first year, an 8.95-pound fish landed by Steve Hardin of Dexter, Mo.

The 25 winning fish to date include five of 8-pounds plus, six of 7-pounds plus, 13 of 6-pounds plus and one of 5-pounds plus.

Fisherman and onlookers talk and dream about a really huge bass coming in during the Bonanza — something in the 10-pound and up range. Yes, they are in the river, more likely in the backwaters like the renowned Coal Pile and Merrisach of the lower Arkansas. Some 10-pound fish were caught earlier this year on Lake Dardanelle, part of the river system, we hear.

But huge bass, really huge bass, have eluded the Big Bass Bonanza hopefuls.

This year, Coal Pile, the near-legendary Arkansas River backwater near Dumas, again yielded the top fish of the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza held on the 308-mile length of the Arkansas River in the state.

Jonathon Swink of DeValls Bluff brought in a 6.63-pound fish shortly after the tournament weigh-ins began Friday morning to take the $50,000 overall prize. This was in the Pendleton Pool, one of five divisions for the Bonanza. It is on the lower Arkansas River near Dumas.

In 2012, fisherman David Shopher of McGehee was the overall winner with a fish from Coal Pile. Swink and Shopher caught their fish in different areas of Coal Pile, a site that got its name from a refueling station there during steamboat days.

Swink had fished the Big Bass Bonanza once before but in a different pool. He had worked Coal Pile previously in some club bass competitions. He is 28 and a marine technician for a boat dealer.

Francis Lee of Little Rock didn’t win the bigger prizes in the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza, but he picked up some nice change in hourly prizes with good largemouth bass.

Lee weighed in a 6.40-pound bass at Pendleton on River Saturday. It was the second largest bass overall of the tournament. On Friday, Lee brought in a 5.86-pound bass, second of that day at Pendleton behind leader Swink, who weighed in a 6.63 lunker.

Lee said both of the big bass came from the same area in Merrisach Lake, a backwater of the river downstream from Pendleton, which is northeast of Dumas. Lee said he caught the Saturday bass on a plastic frog.

The river is divided into five pools for Big Bass Bonanza. One bass can be weighed in each hour by an angler, and some interesting jockeying occurs when an angler with a fish has to decide whether to weigh it this hour or hold it for the next hour. The largest single fish of the three days of competition wins $50,000. The top bass in each of the other four pools earns $10,000. Hourly first, second and third prizes are paid along with several overall prizes behind the big winner.


Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.