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Bassing in the heart of the Arkansas 

LAKE OF DREAMS: Many fishing tournaments are held at Lake Dardanelle.
  • LAKE OF DREAMS: Many fishing tournaments are held at Lake Dardanelle.

Lake Dardanelle claims to be “the heart of the Arkansas River,” or at least the state Parks and Tourism Department makes that claim for it. As the Arkansas River is 1,400 miles long, passing through four states on its way to the Mississippi, there's a possibility that somebody, someplace might dispute the title. On the Arkansas stretch of the river, it's pretty safe.

Lake Dardanelle State Park sprawls along both sides of the Arkansas River, and is the only state park on a river that bisects the state west to east. (A couple of other parks are within eyeshot of the river.) The lake is a 34,000-acre reservoir on the river, formed by Army Engineers locks and dams. The park draws 510,000 visitors a year, and in recent years has become a very popular site for fishing tournaments, many of them national in scope. Four tournaments were held in March, seven in April and four are scheduled this month, the largest of which will bring 165 boats to the lake.

“The Outdoor Channel is coming for the finals of their number one program, called Match Team Fishing,” park superintendent Andy Thomas said. “A few years ago, a professional fisherman was interviewed on the ESPN Bassmaster show and he casually said that he caught more bass at Lake Dardanelle while practicing for a tournament than he'd ever caught in one day. The next two weeks our telephone rang off the hook with inquiries about out-of-state fishing license cost, where to camp or stay in motels, and how do you get there.”

“We have about 40 large tournaments a year, some of them with million-dollar payouts,” Thomas said. “Tournaments have a tremendous effect on the local economy — motels, restaurants, bait shops … ”

The tournaments are all catch-and-release, incidentally. Park personnel are skilled at keeping the fish alive and returning them to the water, Thomas said. “We have about a 99 percent survival rate.”

Much of the park's popularity can be attributed to the 1/8-of-a-cent increase in the state sales tax, designated for conservation, that was approved by voters in 1996. The tax paid for an 1,800-square-foot fish weigh-in pavilion, dedicated in 2002 and believed to be the only one of its kind in any state park in the country.

The tax also built a $2.4 million visitor center, opened in 2003. It's an impressive facility. A person can spend a lot of time in there, studying the aquaria stocked with fish from the lake and river — bass, catfish, crappie, gar, as well as the smaller and lesser known darters, chubsuckers and mad toms, in several varieties. A visitor also learns how to thwart the spread of the deadly zebra mussel — “Never transport water of any type from one body of water to another,” and so on. There's a well-done movie about the history of the river and the lake, although some visitors are disillusioned by its debunking the legend that the name Dardanelle is from an Indian maiden who tragically leapt from a high cliff into the Arkansas River in despair over the death of her lover, or maybe he'd been banished by her father, the chief.

Little else about Lake Dardanelle disappoints.   

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