The Glass-Eyed Battler of Early Spring

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 2/16/22

I never caught a walleye when I was young because the Big Piney, where I grew up, didn’t have any. That seems strange to me now because so many Ozark streams have plenty of those glass-eyed …

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The Glass-Eyed Battler of Early Spring

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I never caught a walleye when I was young because the Big Piney, where I grew up, didn’t have any. That seems strange to me now because so many Ozark streams have plenty of those glass-eyed fish also known in parts of the Ozarks as Jack Salmon. Just out of college I went to Arkansas to become an outdoor writer for the Arkansas Democrat newspaper, and in there was a lot of talk about the big walleye tournament that began each February and went on through much of April at Greer’s Ferry Lake. Except it wasn’t so much the lake they were fishing, it was tributaries to it, like the Little Red River.

How could it be that any fish in Ozarks waters began to make a spawning run in February? I began to study the walleye closer with the help of two guides at Greer’s Ferry, Dickie Bailey and Big Ed Claiborne. Those two guys seemed to know everything about the fish. Both had caught a dozen or more over the years between 18 and 21 pounds. I found out that just a few degrees increase in water temperature of the Little Red brought walleye from the depths. They might not be there until the middle of the month but when they came the walleye specialists would fish the deep holes of the Little Red and other tributaries at night, and the favored bait was bluegills.

Those who fish for walleye in Norfork and Bull Shoals and Stockton Lakes don’t seem to do things like they did in Greer’s Ferry. Over the years we have had great success in all 3 of those lakes during the post spawn periods of April and May, under submerged lights, when you catch several species including big walleyes fishing deep beneath the lights with big minnows or threadfin shad.

A guide by the name of Frank Saksa who is one of North Arkansas’ best, introduced me to February fishing years ago on Norfork lake, on a reasonably warm moonlit night when he caught a limit of walleye on suspending rogues, all between four and five pounds, just casting gently sloping rock or gravel banks which went from shallow to six or eight feet within 20 yards or so. I didn’t catch a one that night because I was in my boat fishing a big topwater lure in the middle of that same cove for stripers or hybrids. I landed an 18-pound striper and a couple of big hybrids, but when it was all over I kinda wished I had been with Frank.

Of course, I started catching lots of walleye when I started going to Canada, but they seldom get bigger than 5 pounds there, at least for me. Most all of that fishing is done jigging a minnow off the bottom, most of it in Northwest Ontario. But I did get lucky once in Manitoba in October when I caught a genuine ten-pounder in the Red River, which most people think of as river for big catfish. We were there hunting geese and ducks, and got invited on an afternoon fishing trip.

One of the best walleye trips I ever took was in early March with two friends of mine who lived in Wisconsin. We went to a spot on the Mississippi river below a lock and dam. Between southern Iowa and southern Wisconsin, and drifted down the gently flowing river dragging half ounce blue and green jigs just off the bottom. We’d drift a mile or so, then go back up and start over. There were several people fishing off a big dock just below the dam, and quite a few boats drifting with us, but the river was packed with walleye. We caught a three-man limit between three and seven pounds. They were pale, strange-looking walleyes compared to others from Canadian or Ozark waters where you expect a fish much more of a bronze color.

And of course I have caught some walleye through the ice up north in February too, using mealworms and little short rods. Doubt I will ever do that again, because at that same time, I know that in the Ozarks, bigger ones are heading from the depths of our reservoirs into the tributaries. I wonder what is like nowadays down at Greer’s Ferry and the Little Red River where, by the way, a fellow by the name of Nelson, who often fished with Bailey and Claiborne, caught a walleye in the 80’s that is the world record. Little better than 21 pounds I think it was. But bigger ones than that will swim into that small stream between now and March. Wish I could be there for a night or two. Maybe if gas drops a dollar or so…

More about February fishing next week. If you like to read, visit my website, www.larrydablemont.com.

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