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Phil Lilley

White River Walleye

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The White River’s first recorded catch of a walleye was in 1929. The fish, weighing six pounds, was caught near Bull Shoals, Arkansas. At that time the river was used mostly for transportation and any fishing was usually for catfish. That first walleye started quite a stir as it was, indeed, a strange, out-of-place fish that no one had previously seen and very few could even identify.

From 1913 and the creation of Powersite Dam until the early 1950's, I discovered no information on walleye, other than the 1929 catch. Even though both sides of the river system, above and below Powersite, by then were used not only for transportation but had become a thriving sport fishery, almost every species was mentioned except walleye. I unearthed old articles and stories on more than 10 full-time outfitters and loads of guides, with all listing the fish you could expect to catch on their guided float trips. None mentioned walleye.

From accounts of Jim Owens through the other river guides, I could find no photos or any mention of walleye in the documents and photos I poured through. For the most part they angled after green trout, i.e., smallmouth, largemouth, perch, crappie, flatheads, carp, drum. There were also some pictures and talk of gar.

I have also found information about the building and flooding of Bull Shoals with the construction in the late 1940's and filling in 1951. The records talk about the presence and quality fishing of the above mentioned species, but no mention again of walleye. I have looked at many old resort flyers, outdoor magazines, and there’s no mention of walleye until 1955 when the Arkansas Department of Conservation experimented with an initial stocking.

I am sure, though, that if walleye were in the river in 1929, they were still there after the damming of both Powersite and Bull Shoals. They were just not mentioned as a viable, targeted fish.

One of the contributors to this forum has told me about photographs he might be able to obtain of his grandfather holding some gigged walleye in 1946. He also suggested checking the archives of Jerry McGinnis, Harold Ensley, and Virgil Ward. I researched all of these film makers, and the earliest information comes from Ensley in the late ‘50s. Both Ward and Mcginnis don’t come onto the scene until early ‘60s. All three were guided numerous times by Charlie Campbell and Rex Grady, as photos prove. For the most part, they were after trout, bass and crappie with no mention of walleye fishing.

If anyone has any old pictures, or recorded data of walleye prior to 1955 please let us know, because I just can’t find any. I have checked 30 to 40 articles from the period of the ‘30s through 1955 and have not seen one photo, or read one sentence about walleye. That doesn’t mean they are not out there; it simply means I did not find them.

With the first official introduction in 1955, the lake was now to have a breeding walleye population. With the creation of Table Rock in 1959, the walleye explosion started in both Taneycomo and Bull Shoals. The Missouri Department of Conservation had stocked both the White River above the dam and area ponds in anticipation of Table Rock Lake. Millions of 12-to 14-inch walleye were stocked plus millions of fingerlings. When Table Rock prematurely filled and had to be drained in 1957, all of these walleye were flooded through Taneycomo into Bull Shoals, creating a huge population of walleye and other game fish that were originally planned for Table Rock. In conjunction with the fish that Arkansas had already stocked in 1955, this was the walleye bonanza.

In a five-year period through the mid to late ‘50s, Bull Shoals was teaming with walleye. At the time the state biologist wondered what threat if any they would have on the largemouth fishing that was making Bull Shoals world famous.

One of our state’s top fishery experts lived at Forsyth, from 1959 through 1964, and relates stories of the fabulous fishing. The introduction of rainbow trout in Lake Taneycomo and the constant spillover into upper Bull Shoals spurred extremely fast growth rates in the walleye, creating huge fish in a short period of time with the excellent forage in the lake since both lakes were relatively new and extremely fertile.

Wilma Levitte, my neighbor, a resident since 1926, has pictures of water nine feet over the boards at Powersite in 1937, and then again in 1957 -- incredible photos. Newspaper headlines in 1957 show how Table Rock looked after being drained. She said it looked and smelled like a sewer, as the water depth had reached 90 feet in front of their property before being drained to nothing more than a trickle. Her photos look like a deforested jungle. She also has photos taken in front of Table Rock Dam that show the high-water mark before the lake was drained. Great stuff.

The fisheries biologists tell me that the walleye, depending on location, can have up to a 24-year life span. They say in Bull Shoals a life span of 15 to 20 years would not be uncommon. Northern walleye live longer due to slower growth rates.

With the factor of those typical life spans, some of the original stockers of 1955 could have still been in the lake in 1975, and some of the 1957 fish could have been in the lake in 1980. Any White River fish could have thrived there in the same time frame.

Since the middle 1990’s, both Arkansas and Missouri have annually stocked Bull Shoals with walleye. Arkansas’ stocking rates fluctuate between 500,000 to 1,000,000 fingerlings per year, and Missouri usually stocks about 250,000. This year Missouri’s contribution to the program will be about 360,000.

Both Arkansas and Missouri chemically mark their fingerlings to record data on growth rates, forage consumption, spawning location, and fish numbers. Missouri’s stocking philosophy is to supplement the breeding population to help the lake maintain a viable natural spawning population of walleye with two-to three-inch fingerlings. Arkansas, on the other hand, usually stocks to supplement or enhance numbers for consumption, using two- to three-inch fingerlings, as well.

The fisheries biologists don’t just let nature to take her course because when the walleye spawn, they completely leave the area and have free flowing spawn with no protection by the adults to protect the eggs -- and later fry -- from hungry predators. After the spawn, the eggs and any fry, if there are eggs left unconsumed by predators, are at the complete mercy of the environment. It is estimated that only about 1 percent of this spawning population survive.

Although MDC’s purpose is to supplement this spawning population and perhaps entice these newly introduced fish to spawn in other locations, an official told me there is no complete data to verify that the stocked fish actually enhance the population with more actively spawning fish. As he said, it’s not as if the egg or fry predators get full when they are eating the walleye spawn -- they only stop eating when they run out of eggs or fry. There is no limit to their consumption.

It’s not that the walleye don’t spawn, it’s because they have the worst success of recruitment rate of any fish in the lake.

Even with all the supplemental stocking, conservation officials have not seen an increase in the number of fish spawning in their checking locations.

Now as far as natural reproduction of the walleye, I mentioned the chemically-tagged fish that are stocked. Both states are trying to determine how many walleye are spawning that are not chemically tagged. These would be spawn of spawn, or natural occurring populations from the lake.

That is extremely hard to determine since the walleye are spawning in a multitude of different locations from the dam to several of the creeks throughout the lake.

The consensus, however, is that very little natural recruitment is supplementing the stocking, just about that 1 percent of the breeding population. There will be highs and lows, but the lake could not sustain its current population without the enhancement. If they would stop stocking you would see the effect in very few years.

Charlie Campbell has fished and guided the lake since the 1940s. He started teaching in the mid- 1950s at Forsyth, and had fished the river prior to the impounding of Bull Shoals.

According to Charlie the absolute heydays were in the mid-to-late 1960s. Yes, they caught good fish in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s but nothing like 1962-1970. He cannot remember fishing for the jacks so much before the impounding of the lake, or even hearing about catching them.

Whether these were, as he called them, the "Old River Jacks" or some of the new implants, they were the absolute best. "You had to catch a ten-pound fish, to really have anyone pay much attention,” Charlie reported.

When asked about people catching 18- to 20-pounders, he said he never did see any of those. Charlie believes that the damming of Table Rock to create the cold water fishery eliminated the river walleye strain. He also concludes that the gene pool was disturbed with the addition of the stocked fish to the extent that the new cross breed of walleye, under any situation, cannot reach the size of the Old River Walleye.

His personal best was 14 pounds, and he caught two of that size on the same day. He said a lot of folks showed him walleye they claimed to be 16- to 20-pounders, but they were all smaller than the two he had caught, which he knew to be 14-pounders. The biggest walleye he has ever seen was caught by Rex Grady on Lake Taneycomo, and, he said, "I have seen thousands.”

He also thinks spawning was disturbed as evidenced that the new walleye strain will spawn on chunk rock and gravel points, while the “river eyes” were creek spawners and not very good ones. They were in there, he said, but there weren’t lots of them. Walleye didn’t start spawning on the dam until the new breed from stocking appeared. This was after 1959. The Pothole was not famous until the ‘60s.

Footnote: Rex agrees that the walleye would approach the dam on the power plant side, but he never caught any in the pothole area until around 1960. He spent hundreds of days fishing the dam while his father worked there, but some of his earlier best fishing was after the spawn in the K-dock area. After the spawn in March to late April and early May, the best fishing was trolling long-billed cranks in front of the old river ramp, just up from K-dock. He said he was guiding for Rex Grady, and Rex had shown him this location. He would troll the mud flats from the old river ramp to Snap.

Asked about the future, Charlie thinks there are more fish now, but the size will never be the same since times have changed and so have the genetics of the walleye. He believes the ‘88 record fish were from the old strain.

Just because the old river jacks once were spawning in Swan Creek and the other upper lake tributaries, that certainly doesn’t mean they are doing it now and raising babies with any success. Quite the contrary.

As for pressure on the system. The ‘60s saw a trout park environment with people lining the banks bait fishing 24 hours a day. We just don’t see that now.

Without a doubt the most information relayed for this piece was from Rex Grady of Branson. Rex at the age of 16 was a full time summer guide for Jim Owens in the waning years of Owen’s float business. This would have been in the late 1940s.

Rex has guided more days and caught more fish than any other person in the entire area. Prior to 1951, Rex cannot remember the mention or even a sighting of a “Jack Salmon,” as he still calls walleye. He remembers the first walleye in the late ‘50s after Bull Shoals had been flooded. He also thinks the original stocking came from trading with Wisconsin by the Arkansas Department of Wildlife in 1955. I conclude that with two resources speaking of the stocking starting in the same year that’s without a doubt when walleye were first introduced.

Rex’s dad worked at Powersite Dam for more than 40 years, and in that time Rex fished the area very thoroughly. During the ‘50s there was a fish ladder on the powerhouse side of the dam for the stocked walleye to climb so they could run into the White River to spawn. Very few fish ran the ladder, and it was removed prior to the construction of Table Rock Dam in 1959. The fear was that the dam would falter, along with the expectation that the cold water of Taneycomo would prohibit any spawning.

Rex also remembers the heyday of the walleye was from 1964 through about 1970. His biggest stringer of walleye was caught in Taneycomo, and the four fish weighed 42 pounds. He also lost a fish in the 20-pound class that he worked for more than 30 minutes on five-pound test line the very same day. Rex caught his biggest walleye in Taneycomo, a 17.5-pound monster that’s mount was stolen at a sports show.

At one point Rex had 12 full-time guides working on Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals. They would follow the fish, as he explained, starting on Bull Shoals and staying with the spawn. The largest true weight of a walleye that Rex can verify was the 17.5-pounder he caught on Taneycomo. The largest any of his guides or clients caught that was verified on certified scales was 15 pounds.

This is based on thousands and thousands of walleye from 1955 through today. He said he knew lots of people that caught 18-to 20-pounders, but he never saw one of them on a certified scale, and he has never seen a mount bigger than his 17.5-pounder. Charlie Campbell agrees.

When they see mounted fish or have people tell them of these huge walleye, they just smile and nod. Why make a fuss?

The early ‘60s were the time to walleye on Taneycomo. These were no doubt some of the fish that had come through on the initial draining of Table Rock added to a resident population in that section of river that lived there. Rex believes these were from the stocking in 1955, those that had climbed the Powersite fish ladder and not returned to Bull Shoals. At that time he also knew a creel checker on Taneycomo who told him that Taneycomo had also been stocked. Rex said the creel checker could catch a limit of walleye on any day from Bull Creek to the Powersite Dam.

Although he had both guided and fished thousands of trips on what is now Taneycomo, Rex never caught a walleye there until the late 1950s. “There were none there or we would have caught ‘em,” he said. “Our techniques didn’t change; we just starting catching walleye where we had always caught bass and crappie”. His big stringer came in the mid-‘60s

Rex sold a trip in the ‘60s from his resort called the White River Grand Prix which entailed three lakes in three days with nine species to catch. He sold hundreds of these trips. The agenda was a limit of whites and walleye from Bull Shoals, a limit of rainbow and brown trout from Taneycomo, and a limit of crappie and bass from Table Rock. He accomplished this feat in one day four different times. That would be not only impossible today, but totally unthinkable.

They would start at 4 a.m. at the end of the old road that runs up to Powersite Dam on the River Run Park side. They would wade fish that piece of gravel at the end of the road next to the current in the slack water. He would fish it until 7:30 a.m. and then move to Taneycomo for the trout limit. If the client didn’t have his limit by 7:30 on Bull Shoals, then they would move on since it was too late for the walleye or whites.

Rex would fish from the dam to basically Fall Creek using a two-jig setup with a ginger on the bottom and a black about a foot up the line using four-pound line. The jigs were 1/32-ounce, and he would straight line them with no indicator. On his best big trout day, Rex caught five rainbows that collectively weighed 52 pounds. That has got to be a record! He would then trailer to Long Creek for his crappie beds, although in the ‘60s, he said, you really didn’t need them since the banks and pockets were full of crappie. Rex can remember catching 60 off one cedar tree before one of his guides showed up and caught 60 more off the same tree. Catching the last limit of the day – of bass -- was as easy as throwing a jig and pig or plastic worm on the chunk rock banks. You were guaranteed to take your limit by sundown or a little after. The only drawback to the Grand Prix extravaganza was cleaning fish for clients until 1 a.m. before arising again at 4 am to start all over again.

Rex also testifies of trout stocked in Table Rock that most people don’t know about to this day. He said he still caught trout on Table Rock – just in 2005 on a challenge. He netted rainbows weighting six, eight and 12 pounds in the dam area of the rock. After he disclosed to me how and where he did this, I absolutely believed him.

Both men I spoke with don’t believe the pressure on Bull Shoals is as great today as it was in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Both described the upper Bull Shoals looking like a trout park in March and April when the Whites and walleye were there. Both stated that they really don’t see those kinds of numbers now.

On a personal note, one Saturday in late March or early April of 1972, I fished the pothole area on the wall opposite the powerhouse. I’m embarrassed to say that 35 years ago I remember getting there at 4 p.m. and having to wait for a person to catch his limit of whites before I could crowd in. I had driven down to the park at Swan, and there were boats clogging the entrance to the creek and fisherman shoulder to shoulder up the bank as far as I could see. There was no way I could find a place to fish there.

I’ll never forget the day as I caught a great bunch of whites and had one nice walleye on a stringer. I had to pull the stringer clear up the wall every time I caught a fish to add it to the creel. Right at the end of the day, a fished flopped or something and I dropped the entire stringer. You could see them six to eight feet down on the bottom, but all our collective angling efforts failed to snag the stringer, and we never retrieved it. Man was that a bummer!

Rex can remember one March night in the early ‘60s when he was boating from Barker Hole up to the dam and witnessed the entire length from Barker to Swan lit up with one bonfire after another almost touching the next. He said it was not unusual to see 50 to 100 men night fishing slicks in that area. As far as he is concerned, there is no pressure like that today.

Rex believes that a record may still come from Bull Shoals, and if it does, it will be from the original strain of 1955 Wisconsin walleye.

During the conversation, Rex asked if I knew where the locals and guides had learned to head hook nightcrawlers for the Kentuckys. Of course, I didn’t.

He related that in about 1964 during the walleye boom, some Michigan fishermen had contacted him about fishing and guide service. They wanted to be shown the lake but said they would fish on their own since they knew walleyes inside and out.

Rex helped the gentlemen complete their plans, showed them the lake and then pretty much left them alone. They came in with better stringers of walleye than he or his guides were producing, so he determined to know their techniques. Rex was at that time catching all is walleye on yellow ¼-ounce jigs, crankbaits, slicks and horny head minnows with also quite a few on Texas-rigged plastic worms, while fishing for bass. That’s how he caught the big string on Taneycomo.

The Michigan fishermen were fishing the same water as Rex, but they were wind drifting head-hooked nightcrawlers with just a pinch of split shot on four-pound test line. They were also catching Kentuckys like crazy and some really nice Blacks.

Rex thought about this a little and started trying this technique for the Ks both on Bull Shoals and on Table Rock. The new method worked like crazy and still does today. Rex said he was not the father of the method but copied it from the out of state walleye experts. He said, “Man, those northern boys could really catch fish.” They came to his resorts for years in March and April before their home waters turned from ice to liquid in the spring. He said in all his years on the White he had never seen head hooked nightcrawler until the walleye masters came from Michigan.

On a couple of other notes, I also spoke to a gentleman at Flippin, Arkansas, who was born in 1928. ( I apologize that in my haste I forget to write down his name.) We had a bad phone connection, and I don’t really know whether he was sure what I wanted to know, but he told me his father had helped in the building of Powsersite Dam in the early 1900s and had worked on the river his entire life, in one capacity or another. They were giggers, and gigged, carp, suckers, drum, and any bass if they were up the creeks or in the eddies. He never saw or gigged a walleye until the 1950s, and then they gigged those, too.

Another contact was area resident Harold Raney of Nixa, born in 1930. His grand father, Felix Raney, owned a grist mill on the Elk Branch out of Ozark and sold "steelback minnows" and crawfish to not only Jim Owens, but also to several other outfitters. Harold remembers helping transport the minnows in cream cans to either Branson or Galena. They delivered the crawfish in burlap sacks with wet grass.

His father was a personal friend of Jim’s, and he remembers his dad fishing with Owens many, many times. They were also giggers, as was almost everyone in Ozark and Nixa, at the time Harold relates. Their favorite place was Bear Creek since it was close and always had fish.

He said the first walleye he can ever remember was well after the long boats were gone and the dam was finished in 1951. He said the walleye started showing up in the creeks, and they were gigged along with any other fish they could get a fork in. Not many were seen at first, but more followed in later years. He said he had not gigged since the early ‘60s -- almost 50 years ago.

I could be totally off base, and if anyone has anything from the ‘30s or ‘40s, please let me know. Even to see one or two walleye in a photo, or to have some written report prior to 1955 would be great.


Missouri Department of Conservation Fisheries

Arkansas Division of Fish and Game Archives

United States Corps of Army Engineers Archives

Ozarks Magazine Archives

Outdoor Life Magazine Archives

Field and Stream Magazine Archives

Sports Afield Magazine Archives

Bull Shoals Boat Dock

Tim Sainato

Harold Raney

Charlie Campbell

Rex Grady

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Question for Bill.

you wrote:

<the first walleye he can ever remember was well after the long boats were gone>

Can you tell me what you mean by 'long boats'? I've been researching a pic of a long, very narrow, pointed at each end boat taken on Jacks Fork @ the turn of the 19th/20th century that I have came to think of as an 'Ozark plank-built' version of a dugout canoe. Could they be one and the same? CC

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A great read on on a great tasting fish. I have been curious about the Sauger populations in the Ozarks since I watched a large one get caught in the Eleven Point last year. I figure that they have always been here, just not in the numbers that we see now due to stocking.

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I don't have my Missouri Fishes book at hand, but I believe it lists Saugers in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and possibly others.

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