The rivers of the Ozarks are terribly low. It is tough to float many of them now, that usually are at their best in May. Slowly, slowly, year after year, our rivers drop lower and lower, and springs which were never known to run dry, stop flowing. When we get big rains we have floods, water higher than ever… and then it is gone in a hurry, and our creeks dry up, rivers drop lower than anyone remembers seeing them. The bass season opens in late May on those streams in the Missouri Ozarks, but some of the headwaters of our best streams may not be high enough to float.
Still, there are lakes to fish. I am about to make another trip to Bull Shoals for some serious walleye fishing. We have fished all night with submerged lights for years and years, going back to the 1970’s when I lived at Harrison. North Arkansas lakes have threadfin shad, which are lured to submerged lights by the thousands in the middle of the night, and you catch them in special bait nets hung beneath your boat.
Threadfin shad do not exist in northern Ozark lakes like Stockton, Truman, Pomme de Terre and Lake of the Ozarks. Threadfins seldom exceed four inches in length, and at their normal three inches they are the best bait you can find, at least in May on Bull Shoals.
We take my pontoon boat, which I had custom made with a camper cover and no furniture on board. I take along fishing chairs, a little cook stove, a folding table and sleeping bags with air mattresses.
I cover the back two-thirds of the boat, with the cover, which has screen doors and windows to keep out the bugs, and set up the chairs on the open front deck of the boat. We get there about three in the afternoon, and bring a couple dozen big shiner minnows. The shad won’t come in until eleven or twelve o’clock usually, so we use the minnows until they do. In the late afternoon, we nap a little, trying to stockpile some sleep, since the fishing will be better the later the night goes, and you don’t want to sleep until first light the next morning, at which time you crash for a few hours.
You need food and water, and a big cooler or two with ice to put your fish on. Before the night is over, we often fill two of those coolers with walleye, white bass, crappie, catfish, black bass, and even a trout or two.
One night many years ago we caught twelve species of fish in one night.
Unfortunately, you often have to deal with a few gar and carp you would rather not catch.
Page 2 of 3 - Strong marine batteries are necessary to keep your lights bright all night long. Thermos bottles with hot coffee help keep you awake, but nothing keeps you more awake than landing a walleye or two in the early hours of the morning, weighing six or eight pounds. Fishing below those lights with threadfin shad, I once caught an eleven-pound walleye from Bull Shoals. I was wide awake that night. On another occasion, a friend of mine caught a sixteen-pound walleye.
Thirty years ago, a fisherman I was guiding caught a five and a half pound white bass one night in May. Twenty-five years ago, my daughters landed two seven-pound trout, and on a half dozen occasions I have caught eighteen-inch crappie there.
The water is clear and beautiful with those lights beneath you in the darkness, and you can see big fish below, waiting for crippled shad to fall below those circling masses of baitfish. You need dark nights, with no moonlight. You need strong tackle, spinning reels with at least eight-pound line and medium action rods, or casting gear with ten to twelve pound line.
And don’t try setting out two or three rods, you need to concentrate on
holding one rod, feeling the strike and setting the hook hard.
We have been catching big strings of fish on Stockton Lake beneath
those submerged lights since mid-April. Usually between eight p.m. and midnight, we have limits of big crappie, from eleven to fifteen inches in length. One night in early May, three of us caught 45 crappie and not one was less than twelve inches long. Our last good trip was May 16th, and those crappie, 25 feet deep over 40 feet of water, were full of eggs.
That seems unusual to me, makes me wonder if there will be a good spawn this year. But there’s still time.
On Stockton there are no threadfin shad to draw, so we take a good supply of minnows, and always catch a couple of walleye and twenty or thirty white bass. But we use lighter gear on Stockton, with six-pound line on light spinning rods. The crappie hit light.
One night on Stockton when we were there in mid-week and there were no other boats around, I saw something really strange.
I kept hearing a splashing about 50 yards away just before it got dark. A great blue heron was sitting on a stump sticking up out of the water about a foot or so, out 60 or 70 yards from the bank, where it was really deep. That heron was diving into the water headfirst, apparently grabbing fish, then climbing back up on the stump and repeating the whole process. The big wading bird was a diver that night, and I’ll bet he dived off that stump headfirst at least twenty times.
Page 3 of 3 - When darkness set in, he stopped and flew away, surely going to roost with a full stomach. Or maybe he wasn’t so successful, who knows. It seemed way out of character for a heron, which generally wades the shallows of rivers or lakes, hunting as slow as cold molasses until he quickly strikes an unsuspecting fish or frog with that long sharp beak. The one on Stockton Lake that night must have been watching a pelican or two.