As the sun sinks below the horizon during early spring, shad move into shallow coves on Lake Norfork. Not far behind, striped bass follow the high-protein forage, tuned into a biological imperative older than man.
And completing the predator/prey relationship, a handful of diehard anglers who understand these fish movements idle silently into sheltered coves, in pursuit of silvery, pin-striped pelagics that can push 20-plus pounds.
Lucky for me, I met one of these insomniac anglers. But it wasn't by design. I planned my trip to Arkansas with White River trout on the brain, fantasizing a new personal best brown. And maybe some big bass action as a break to flinging fluff and feathers in moving waters. Stripers, let alone at night, were not in my wheelhouse.
The story starts with a sweet little lady named Marion Olson. I had driven straight to Lake Norfork's Mockingbird Bay Resort from Minnesota and was ready for a good night's sleep. But almost as soon as I stepped out of the truck she started in with fish stories.
"My husband Larry will be back out there tonight. Last night he caught a half-dozen big stripers," announced Marion Olson, friend of Mockingbird Bay Resort staff. She glanced in my direction. "And he's got an empty boat seat tonight.Kind of beat after 12 hours of windshield," I stammered.
She shook her head. "My husband Larry works 12 hours every day and fishes at night!" Nothing like a reminder from a woman who could be your grandma to buck up and grow a set. Before I knew it, I was digging a heavy-power St. Croix flipping rod out of the back of my truck. The rumor of big fish called for a stout stick. Minutes later Larry pulled up on a golf cart. "Ready to go, kid?" Immediately, I knew Larry Olson was one of the good guys. He reminded me of the dad I lost to cancer in 2003, a retired combat pilot who ran a bait shop for 20 years after returning from Vietnam. Like dad, Olson was a good Swede - and originally from Minnesota.
See, Larry's not a professional fishing guide, just a guy who loves to fish. "A lot of people call asking me to guide them and I say, sure, I'll go fishing, but I'm no guide." But I do like to fish with new folks. These night stripers really get me going - they're too fun to keep a secret!" Salt of the Earth. I knew that even if we got skunked, we'd still have a blast. Nothing like the droll (and mildly filthy) jokes of an old Swede.
No dig on guides, but sometimes the best guide isn't one. Could be a bartender, barber, somebody's uncle or grandpa. There are a lot of seasoned anglers out there who know how to catch fish and love sharing it, just don't want a nickel in return. "You turn something into a business and pretty soon all of this is work. And I got enough of that," joked Olson.
It was 10 p.m. as we idled out from Mockingbird Bay. Olson explained that it's not uncommon to fish until just before sunrise, especially if the bite is on. A 15-minute boat trip later, Olson dropped down the bow-mount trolling motor. ìCast up close to shore, but not too close–there's a lot of buck brush, don't get stuck." We started fishing off a main lake point, working back into the cove, throwing large Smithwick Rogues near shore, working the baits over shallow water on a slow, steady retrieve. The challenge was judging how far to cast in the darkness. You wanted to hear a splash, not the lure falling on rock or wood.
The other danger to night fishing with big baits is the possibility of sinking a hook in human hide. Headlamps are only turned on when boating a fish becomes critical. The shallow-feeding stripers are easily spooked by light and noise. "With two or more guys casting big baits, best to pay attention. If somebody gets hooked one time this guy... Then, wham! "There's a fish, boys... finish the story later!" Larry's drag screamed and the fish peeled line, making mad 50-yard runs into deeper, open water. The striper zigged and zagged until finally fatigued. I dipped the net, scooped the fish headfirst, and hoisted the heavy, flopping mass over the gunnel.
Larry pulled out his pliers and removed the Rogue from the fish's mouth. "I change out all my hooks with heavier saltwater-grade trebles. They make mincemeat out of a regular freshwater hook." Larry heaved the 20-something-pound fish into a horizontal grab and grin for a quick photo and the trophy was slipped back into the water. High fives all around. A few minutes later I connected. Retrieving the Rogue at a painfully slow pace, the strike was like a blind spot sack by a 280-pound lineman. The rod doubled over, and the fish sprinted toward some far-off end zone. The fish's athleticism was only intensified under the shroud of darkness. I began to shake as I caught occasional glimpses in the moonlight. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Meanwhile, Larry kept the boat away from stumps and other cover that could have quickly ended the prize fight. "Get wrapped up 'round wood and that fish is a memory."
Hoping for a photo, and fearing a broken heart, I took my time. I could imagine my dad's mantra, "Don't horse him, take your time" echoing in the darkness. The seconds passed like years. And then the moment of truth. Larry slid the big Frabill net underneath the glistening trophy. Still shaking, I struggled to hold up the fish for a quick photo. Then, back into the water she went to fight another day.
Bassin' magazine publisher Brad Uhl was next with another big striper, his first ever at night. Over the next few hours we caught several more fish between jokes and the kind existential talk that only happens late at night. I couldn't get enough. Each cast into the darkness was another occasion for hope and a freight train crash of fish into metal and wood. Before I knew it, birds began to sing, the prelude to sunrise.
As we motored back to Mockingbird Bay, I couldn't help but think about Marion. She had set me on course for one of the best bites I'd ever experienced–and I was grateful. A few hours later at breakfast I thanked Marion. She beamed like the Cheshire Cat. "You, Brad and Larry had a good time, didn't you?" "Sure did, ma'am." "I knew you would. I s'pose you want to go again tonight." I nodded my head and winked, "Just like Br'er Rabbit. Please don't throw me in the briar patch!"
The days that followed are a blur of daytime bass fishing. Unfortunately, the river conditions weren't optimal to chase big browns in waders. Didn't matter. Each night I met Larry at the dock for a sleepless rinse and repeat of big striper action. A couple other Mockingbird Bay guests, Tim Huffman, a crappie magazine editor from Missouri, and North Dakota fishing/hunting TV host Jason Mitchell, joined us. And watching them experience Norfork's nighttime stripers was almost as fun as catching fish myself.
The end to Larry's story interrupted by that first fish? I imagine it ends like this: "One time this guy from Minnesota came down here to catch stripers and he never went home." Larry's hooked. So am I. And Brad, Tim, Jason and Georgia writer Jeff Samsel and his son Nathaniel, too.
I cannot wait to fish Norfork's night-shift stripers again soon. What they offer in sportfish potential rivals anything that swims, anywhere. Those big White River browns will just have to wait. What hath the night to do with sleep, when there are big stripers to be caught in the humid wee-hours of Arkansas's vernal darkness? Not much. Not much at all.
For more information on Lake Norfork striper fishing and accommodations, call Frank & Loretta Zortman at (870) 491-5151 or visit www.mockingbirdbayresort.com.