Bull Shoals has long been a lake known for its great fishing, including a species that you don’t find in many lakes in Missouri — the walleye pike.
It’s commonly considered a northern sport fish, sought for its feisty fight and sweet tasting meat. When most of us think of walleye, we think of Canada or Minnesota. I’ve never been to Canada, but I have ventured to Minnesota and Leach Lake where I caught -- and ate -- my first walleye.
Many midwestern states have incorporated walleye into their fishery plans. In Kansas, Lake Perry leads the way in popular walleye lakes. Missouri’s bragging rights go to lakes like Stockton. In Arkansas, the Norfork and Greers Ferry are hard to beat. And then there’s Bull Shoals, stuck right in the middle, with a walleye population second to none.
What makes Bull Shoals prime waters for our red-eyed fish? Maybe it’s the long, winding shape and its mix of cliffs, mud banks and gravel bottom. Whatever it is, our walleye do very well in the border lake of Missouri and Arkansas.
Very few walleye do not naturally reproduce in Bull Shoals. State hatcheries in Missouri and Arkansas keep walleye populations managed by taking mature males and females from the headwaters during spawning times, milking eggs and sperm and returning the brood stock back to the headwaters unharmed. The eggs are hatched and young are reared in the respective hatcheries and then released back into Bull Shoals and other lakes in their programs.
Two Mondays ago, I had the privilege and pleasure to work with hatchery workers from West Plains, Missouri, in taking walleye just for this purpose. Anthony A. J. Pratt, fisheries biologist and manager for the fishery on Bull Shoals, Missouri, invited me to take part. A.J. has been very helpful in my fishing reports as well as in providing other great information for OzarkAnglers.
We arrived at the meeting place at 6 p.m., the boat ramp at River Run Corps Park, just upstream of the Missouri Highway 76 bridge outside Forsyth, Missouri. Two tank trucks and two pickups, each tailoring 20-foot jon boats full of gear pulled up. The fun was to begin.
They unloaded the equipment first, homemade racks to hold walleye for tagging, netted holding tanks, lights, tools and waders. The mission was not only to transport walleye back to the hatcheries but was also to tag walleyes for study. This was something new, added so that fishery biologists can better manage their stockings.
I had been on one other electroshock boat — 15 years ago with Gordon Proctor, then Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery manager from MDC. We electroshocked trout on upper Lake Taneycomo. That proved to be an interesting experience being able to see what’s really down there, so to speak. I was excited about this trip.
An electroshock boat is just what the name states -- a boat that shocks fish. Electrodes are hung out over and into the water by a long pole that extends some 12 feet in front of the boat.
At the back of the boat is the other side of this trap, creating a field of electricity that stuns everything that swims close to it. The electroshock is not meant to harm any fish, but only to cause it to be knocked out for a few minutes, enough time to scoop them up into long-handled nets and place them in a live well inside the boat.
As we pulled away from the ramp, I introduced myself to Shannon, my fellow net man, and Chuck, the skipper of this voyage. I could tell that Chuck was a veteran and even knew the channel from the ramp to Powersite Dam, our destination. The lake was low and gravel bars were lurking. Generation from Powersite and additional water spilling over the dam helped water levels a bit, but it still was tricky finding our way in the dark. Shannon was from Doniphan, Missouri. This was his first trip in an electroshock boat, but he seemed confident.
We had almost arrived at the spot Chuck had in mind when I felt a jolt from the motor as if we had hit something. Although this was my first time on the lake this winter, I had heard from Buster Loving that it was tough boating to the dam because of the lake’s level. I motioned to Chuck, but he didn’t slow a bit. He later explained that the clutch dog (a gear in the lower unit of the motor) was giving out and had caused the sound.
We stopped on the right bank ascending about ¼ mile from the dam. This is where we were to start. The other boat traveled all the way to the rock pile below the spillway. Shannon and I grabbed our nets and stepped up to the front deck. The decks were surrounded by tape-covered rails about waist high — perfect to lean against while dipping fish. The tape kept my belly from sliding from side to side. Shannon stood on a rubber mat which was a trip switch. If he stepped off the mat, the generators would automatically shut off. Chuck also had an emergency switch in case of an accident. I was at their mercy.
The water was greenish color but was a little murky. There was steady current but not really fast. I would have considered it perfect current for throwing a jig, but that was furthest idea from my mind … yeah, right. As the spotlights came on and Chuck fired up the generator, my adrenalin started to kick in. Is it sadistic to get excited about seeing some of God’s creatures get zapped? No conviction here. I wasn’t there to see them get zapped but was there to spot them, net them and admire them.
The first few fish we saw were white and yellow suckers. Both Shannon and I dove our nets deep for the light-colored figures just out of range for visual verification, bringing them up for inspection. Then I remembered what I was told before leaving the ramp — walleye are easy to identify because their gills flare wide open and stay open as long as they are stunned. That’s when we both saw our first walleyes. Their bellies were whiter than other fish.
We saw gizzard shad, buffalo, rainbow and brown trout and carp as well as suckers and walleye. Surprisingly, we saw very few black bass, crappie or white bass until later in the night.
In our first run, we covered most of the right bank down to where the gravel bar starts on the same side. I’d estimated our take was 35 walleye with four weighing more than 10 pounds. We had few less than 15 inches. Most were over 18 inches. We headed back down to the ramp. The other jon boat had come and gone and had reported a good haul, also — in my book anyhow. But the sentiment was not shared. A.J. said they had hoped for more numbers but reasoned that it might still be too early.
We headed out again back up to the same area and ran the same bank again, but this time we switched sides halfway down and then back to the west bank. We boated further downstream also, moving into the mouth of Swan Creek. The water there was gin clear, but all we saw were more “trash fish” and no walleye. We had picked up about the same number of walleye on this trip, but it took us longer and we had to cover more water to get them.
On the third trip we headed across the lake to just opposite the ramp. Immediately we saw a difference in fish. Above Swan Creek we had seen very few small fish — minnows, bass, blue gill — only walleye or the fish mentioned previously. The water was now lit up with small fish, what seemed to be small shad, bass, crappie, blue gill and other fish. Then we saw a school of crappie as we passed a brush pile. Bigger black bass bellied up, one more than four pounds. Shannon netted it and slung it into the tank, following it with a white bass. Why did it suddenly change? I don’t have the answer. Someone has suggested the water issuing from Swan Creek and moving downstream along that bank might have been slightly warmer and, therefore, drew all these fish.
We picked up a few more walleye and called it quits. It was close to 10 p.m., and we weren’t collecting enough walleye to make it worth our while.
Back at the ramp, A.J. and others, including Bill Anderson, fisheries biologist out of Springfield, were culling walleye for either transport or for tagging and return to the lake. Their projected target was to collect 50 males and 30 females. Making six night trips, they made their quota for brood stock and tagged more than 1000 walleye.
Nuts and Bolts
It is uncertain how well walleye successfully spawn in Bull Shoals. An ongoing study by the MDC hopes to determine the success of natural spawning. Walleye fry from this spawn will be soaked in a bath of dye, oxitectracyclein, that will turn the inner ear, called the otolith, of the fry pink. These fingerlings will be stocked in late May or the first of June along with other fingerlings from this year’s spawn. During the bass sample, which is taken in April, 100 yearling walleye will be kept and checked for this dye. This will determine whether or not these are natural or hatchery fish.
The MDC raises about 660,000 walleye annually. More than 2.6 million eggs will be milked out of the 30 sow walleye taken out of Bull Shoals, taken to Chesapeake Hatchery in south central Missouri for hatching and grown to fry status (up to 2 inches). Then they will be taken to Mammoth Springs Federal Hatchery to be raised to fingerling size (2-4 inches).
Bull Shoals receives 440,000 walleye fingerlings, and the North Fork gets 220,000, stocked in late May or early June.
Arkansas stocks walleye in both North Fork and Bull Shoals, but it’s uncertain how many are actually stocked because they reportedly aren’t counted. They are reared in earthen ponds near the lakes and released when the ponds are drained into the lakes.
After a year in the lake, walleye will measure six to eight inches long. Slow growth, you say? However, it only takes another two years to reach “keeping size” – 18 inches.
The state record walleye was caught on Bull Shoals, just below Powersite Dam, on March 26, 1988, by Gerry Partlow. It weighed 21 pounds, 1 ounce.