Ozark River Walleye

Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
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I’m always on the lookout for old books and magazines having to do with Ozark outdoor pursuits, and the other day I obtained a copy of the 1934 book, “Ozark Outdoors, Hunting and Fishing Stories of the Ozarks” by Vance Randolph and Guy W. Von Schriltz. I immediately started reading the fishing stories, and came across one entitled “An Ozark Mystery”. It starts out:

“As long as I can remember, the jack-salmon of the Ozarks has been a prize fish. It was rarely taken, it was a ferocious fighter, and it was, when landed, preserved, and photographed, a subject for conversation for months afterward.”

“Jack-salmon” is, of course, the traditional Ozark term for walleye. And you have to question the “ferocious fighter” part. The story goes on:

“…Throughout the many years I have fished the Ozark streams, I had, up to February, 1932, seen just two jack-salmon. One of these, that weighed some three and one-half pounds, was caught by our boatman, Bill Brennon, of Galena, one noon on the Niangua in June, 1921, near where the Tunnel Dam is now located ont that stream. The other, a nice one that I estimate must have been 26 inches long, struck my lure near Hitch Rock on the Jackson’s Holler float of the James River below Cape Fair, Missouri. That was back about 1926, and I was sick with disappointment when after a battle royal down through one-eighth mile of rough water, that eight-pounder contorted my single hook out of its big bony mouth not four feet from the boat and got away.”

Again, the “battle royal”…I’ve caught a lot of walleye, and while the bigger ones are pretty strong fish, you can’t compare their fight to that of the smallmouth the angler was used to catching.

However, this passage has such bittersweet connotations to me, because it mentioned a stretch of the James River that is lost to those of us who love rivers, buried under Table Rock Lake. The story continues:

“I am not alone in my experience with jack-salmon. Many able fishermen whom I know, who float our Ozark rivers often, and who bring back many bass, both large-mouth and small-mouth, frankly admit that they have never seen a jack. Others have seen one or two, or perhaps have caught a single one or a pair (they seem to be taken in pairs, at times), but few–very few–of them, have taken more than two. About four old-time fishermen in these parts, as far as I know, have landed as many as five, and they were mostly taken back in the dim and misty past when kodaks were not a common part of a fishing pack and, therefore, few photographs survive…

“Imagine our surprise to read in our paper one morning in the fall of 1931, there there was a run of jack-salmon in an Ozark river and that they were piling up below the dam at Osceola, Missouri, by the hundreds of thousands. That thousands and tens of thousands of them were being taken each day!”

The author goes on to say that he visited the Osage at Osceola in February of 1932 to check out the story…

“Imagine a placid little town of one thousand population, suddenly overrun by another thousand people, each and every one of whom clamored for baits and boats, for bed and board, for fishing lines and fishing licenses! That was Osceola, Missouri, when we got there on February 13, 1932.

“Imagine the furor in the grocery stores, in the cafes, at the filling stations. Imagine the minnow markets that materialized from nowhere, the boat building that bustled, and tourist cabins that sprang up over night!

“Imagine everybody for miles around coming down to the river to fish. Imagine anglers from New York, from New England and from California, attracted by the astonishing news, as well as steady streams of Kansas Cityans and sportsmen from the far South coming and going every day.

“And they all caught fish. I saw six people with thirty fish, the limit, in one boat many a time. Five-year-old boys fishing with sticks four feet long. Old gray-bearded granddads with cane poles as long as from Charleston to Chicago, nearly; immense placid women in the bloom of their “middle-aged spread”; girls, young, pretty, vivacious; young sports in balloon pants and spats; comely young married couples in olive drab outdoors attire…

“…One had to be dreadfully dumb, I decided that first evening, fishing in that bitter, biting blast, with my hands red, raw, and half-frozen, if he couldn’t catch his limit of five longer than eleven inches before his boat hire cost him more than six and one-fourth cents–four in one boat at twenty five cents per hour being the usual load I noticed…

“The actual fishing, save for the psychology of the screeching, hysterical mob that surrounded me, was anything but exciting. I fished with a twelve-pound line on a bait-casting reel, and a five-foot bamboo bait-casting rod. A heavy sinker is attached to the end of the line. A snelled hook, about a No. 20 Cincinnati bass hook, is attached in such a manner that when the sinker rests on the bottom the minnow dangles a foot or so above it. The tug of the fish tells you when to pull. Tells you soon and often.

“Live minnows were used, but they were invariably threaded on the hooks and dead ones would probably have done just as well.

“I caught my limit of five in exactly forty minutes, and threw back six others. They varied from eleven to fifteen inches in length. They were there by the millions. The fishing was done below the dam where the ascending fish piled up…

“One preacher caught one hundred and twenty-nine in one day from eight o’clock A. M. to three o’clock P. M. Of course, he kept only his legal limit of five. Others caught fifty, seventy-five or one hundred each day, returning the surplus to the water, but every boatload of four people took home twenty jack-salmon every night, the twenty largest taken, which in time counts up into an incredible number of fish.

“I have heard several theories as to where the Osage River jack-salmon have come from. None of them seemed plausible to me. Of course, the fish have spawned somewhere below and are so plentiful at Osceola because they cannot get over the dam.

“It is all a mystery. When should hundreds of thousands of a rarely-seen, seldom-caught species of fish suddenly appear in a stream where heretofore it has been a rarity? Nobody knows. That is the fascination of the thing. Perhaps the new Lake of the Ozarks, a short distance downstream from Osceola, is the long-needed perfect spawning spot for the jack-salmon. Maybe the tributary streams will have them in quantities now. Let us hope so, but, I regret to add, this seems hopeless unless more stringent measures are made for protecting them…What sport fishermen might enjoy in two, three, or more seasons from now, were even an appreciable portion of these vast numbers of jack-salmon saved!”

The author went on to recommend the season be closed at Osceola for a year, the length limit raised to fifteen inches, and anglers required to quit fishing after taking their limits. And he also recommended that no fishing should be permitted within two hundred feet of any dam. He mentions:

“Captain J. W. Farrell, of Weir, Kansas, tells me that the year after the dam was built across Spring River at Baxter Springs, Kansas, some forty years ago, there was just such a run of jack-salmon below the dam. That the people flocked in, caught them all, and there have been very few jacks in Spring River since.”

He finishes by saying:

“Let’s hope the Missouri Legislature will pass such emergency measures that the Fish and Game Deparment will be able to do what is needed in this instance, and do it promptly, and that down through the years we may tie into one of those long cherished famous fighting “jacks” on our Ozark floats now and then.”

When I finished reading this, I wished I could find a follow-up to see what happened to the fishing at Osceola in the next few years. I have a collection of the “Official Publication of the Conservation Federation of Missouri” that begins in August, 1938, and in the first issue there is a story about a proposed survey of fish in Lake of the Ozarks that doesn’t even mention walleye, but there is also a picture of an angler with “a big 10-pound jack salmon he caught recently in the Niangua Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. Ten-pound jack are none too common in Missouri waters.”

In December of that year, there was photo of three channel catfish, four largemouth bass, and a big walleye that had been gigged, that went along with an article that mentioned the problems with whether to regulate gigging or not. I looked through the next couple of years of those magazines, finding no other mention of walleye.

The mystery of where those fish came from is at least partially answered by the fact that Lake of the Ozarks was newly built. While the fish were for certain native, river-spawning walleye, the new lake apparently furnished perfect habitat for that year class to survive and thrive. Probably most of those fish were juvenile males making their first spawning run. If I’m not mistaken, the females from the same year class would have still been too small and young to spawn, but by the next year they would have been making the same run and showing up at the dam a little later, late February to early March. I wonder if, in the next few years, there was any kind of run of the bigger females up to that dam. I suspect that the fish were pretty well wiped out in that first year, and maybe the next year, and after that the fishing at Osceola would have been so mediocre that it was not notable.

I often wonder what the Osage River was like before Lake of the Ozarks. Was it, as the author said, “an Ozark stream”, given that it was a pretty big river that came out of flat country in Kansas before coursing through the hills of that edge of the Ozarks? Did it have smallmouths? Apparently it had a decent population of walleye, nevertheless.

My own experiences with Ozark walleye started when I was a kid in the 1960s. My mom, dad, and I fished Wappapello Lake just about every Sunday of the year, and driving down to the lake, we often stopped at a little restaurant and resort that was along Highway 67 just north of Greenville. The St. Francis River, at that point just a few miles above the lake, flowed behind the restaurant, and the old guy who owned the place had been one of the best “jack” fishermen on the St. Francis. Hanging on the wall of the restaurant were two walleye heads that each came from 18 pound fish, the two biggest he’d ever caught. At that time, the state record walleye, a fish of 20 pounds, had come from the St. Francis. The official record said that it came from below Wappapello Dam, but I later learned, from the guy who had actually caught it, that it came from a hole on the river far above the lake…he just didn’t want anybody else to be fishing his hole so he told a fib about where he caught it. The St. Francis, in the years right after Wappapello was built in the early 1950s, was a tremendous walleye fishery with obviously a lot of big walleye. There were big walleye in the river before the dam was built, in fact. My dad told me he once saw a guy catch one near Jewett that was so long it hung from his belt to his ankles. And there is a story in one of my old Conservationist magazines about a world record class walleye that was hooked several times and also netted and released by the Department employees, at Blue Spring on Wappapello. They estimated the fish’s weight at well over 25 pounds, possibly as much as 30 pounds.

At any rate, those walleye heads hanging in that restaurant fascinated me. But by that time, the walleye fishery had declined to almost nothing on the St. Francis. The restaurant owner told us he hadn’t caught a walleye out of the big hole below his place for several years. Nobody knows for sure what happened to the walleye in the St. Francis. There was known to be a lot of gigging of them on their spawning riffles in the river above the lake. But a lot of the walleye anglers believed that most of the walleye migrated downstream after spawning, and once the lake was built, they migrated right through the lake and through the dam, and were unable to return. Since it was known that a lot of walleye were caught below the dam the first few years after the lake was built, and since the St. Francis below the dam has little or no spawning habitat, there may be some validity to this theory.

A few years later, my dad and I got to know some guys who were actually targeting big winter walleye in Black River below Clearwater Dam, and we started seriously walleye fishing in the winter months. At that time, there were two big gravel pits at Keener Spring, each about a mile long and up to 40 feet deep. They were perfect winter walleye habitat, apparently, and that’s where we fished. It wasn’t easy fishing. First you had to get your bait, which consisted of big live minnows, at least 4 inches long and preferably 5-7 inches. In the winter, that’s not easy, and it was made more difficult by the fact that there were so many guys walleye fishing in our area that the creeks had a scarcity of those big minnows. Everybody preferred “slicks”, which were stonerollers, and only a few creeks in the area even produced big ones, and those were pretty well seined and trapped out by mid-winter.

But we found some “secret” little creeks that still had big minnows of various species, including creek chubs and hornyhead chubs, and we usually had enough minnows to go fishing. We’d drive down to Keener (at that time you could drive into the old gravel workings on the east bank, or pay to go in at the resort on the west bank at the spring) and fish from the bank most of the time. What we learned to look for were the points left from the gravel dredging. The dredging was done with big drag-lines, anchored to a few spots along the east bank. They would move the lines from one spot to another on the west bank and drag all the way across the pool. Those pools had originally been dredged out to be as much as 5-8 times as wide as the normal river channel. When the west bank anchoring spots were moved, the space along that bank in between the anchoring points didn’t get dredged, and the points were formed. The walleye would move onto those points to feed. But usually it only happened once or twice a day, usually early in the morning and late in the afternoon when light was low. But you never knew, sometimes they fooled you and moved in during the day. So we’d fish from daylight until after dark. Half the time, you’d only get one chance during all that time as a school moved onto the point, and even then, it was usually for only a few minutes, and it was often after the sun went down and the temperature had dropped to where ice was freezing up your line guides. Since the accepted method was to let the fish run with those big minnows, iced up line guides usually meant the fish felt the resistance and dropped the minnow. Catching a limit of four walleye in one day was an event. But we kept at it because once in a while you’d catch a really BIG fish. The biggest I ever caught was 12.5 pounds, but I saw fish caught in that hole up to 17.5 pounds, and I once hooked one and got it up to the bank before it got off that was eye-popping, it was so huge. I’m not even going to guess at how big it really was, but I dreamed about it for many years afterward.

That 12.5 pounder I caught came on the first cast on a bright, sunshiny morning. I and my buddy had driven into the resort, which was on the lower end of the upper big pool, right where Keener Spring (a pretty big spring) comes out. We didn’t have a boat so we hiked along the bank, carrying rods and gear and minnows, all the way up to the head of the big hole, a distance of nearly a mile. I went all the way to the riffle at the head of the hole. There was a huge hole dug out on the west bank side where the riffle came in, making a huge, swirling eddy alongside the riffle with a point at the edge of the riffle. The riffle came in and immediately dropped down into 20 feet of water, with the eddy alongside it being up to 40 feet deep. I set up on the point, rigged up my first rod (I was fishing with three rods) with 3.5 inch bleeding shiner, and tossed it out. Then I started rigging my next rod, and before I had it ready I noticed I was getting a bite on my first rod. I grabbed it and set the hook and reeled in that big walleye. It would be the only fish I caught that day. My buddy, fishing a point a couple hundred yards downstream, caught four mediocre fish (mediocre was anywhere from two to five pounds…you didn’t catch many fish smaller than two pounds, and it wasn’t even worth mentioning if it wasn’t over five pounds. It wasn’t worth bragging about in the circle of walleye fishermen in our area until it was over ten pounds). We stayed the night at the resort and fished again the next day, which turned out rainy and cold. I got too cold after a couple of hours and had to go back down to the car and warm up, so I fished at the spring that day and caught two small fish. My buddy stuck it out on his point and ended up catching 16 fish, the best day he ever had, although the biggest was only 6 pounds.

Those Black River walleye remained mysterious to us, even as we were learning to catch them. Where did they go when they weren’t up on those points and feeding? My buddy got the idea one time to tie a line to one after he caught it, tie a balloon to the other end of the line, release the fish, and watch where the balloon went. It went right out into the deep, dredged channel off the point and sat there the rest of the day. He retrieved his fish at the end of the day by casting a big weight and dulled hook at the balloon and snagging the line. We never THOUGHT about releasing a walleye back then. They were to hard to come by and too good to eat.

About the mid-1970s, when I had moved to Jackson, MO and started teaching school, I got Bob Todd, the owner and editor of the “River Hills Traveler” magazine, interested in winter walleye fishing. Bob, who at the time also lived in Jackson, and I found some good minnow creeks around Jackson (nobody around there fished for walleye so the creeks had good minnow populations) and started fishing Black River, but Bob was always interested in trying to catch them on lures, and also we started looking for other places to fish for them. Keener was too crowded. There was a newer gravel pit at the Highway 67 bridge north of Poplar Bluff, but it wasn’t as good and it was getting pounded, too. Besides, it was well over a 1.5 hour drive to Black River. So we started exploring Castor River. We found that there was a decent walleye population on the lower Castor around Gypsy and Zalma, but there were no real concentrations of walleye like there were on those big gravel pit holes on Black River. We were never able to catch them consistently on Castor. We also tried Saline Creek, a little Mississippi River tributary in Ste. Genevieve County, and caught a few on the lower part of it, but not enough to make fishing it worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Bob continued trying to catch them on lures, and finally caught a big one, a bit over 10 pounds, on a Rapala after dark in the riffle between the two Keener holes.

One other place I found to fish for them while in Jackson was a big pool below a rip-rap rapid on the Diversion Channel, called the Block Hole. The Diversion Channel was built to divert the waters of Castor and Whitewater rivers away from the bootheel of Missouri, and so I figured it should have walleye in it. The Block Hole was up to 40 feet deep, and the rapid at its head should stop walleye migrations in normal water levels, so it theoretically should be a great place. I was living in Jackson, teaching in Advance, so I would often load my tackle and a cooler full of minnows in the car in the morning, and stop by the Block Hole after school. Once in a while I’d catch a little 14-16 inch walleye, but it wasn’t often. Then one day I found a little spit of sand about 5 feet deep right below the rapid, surrounded by the big rocks of the rapid, and took 4 nice walleye from it in less than an hour. I was never able to duplicate that feat, and the Block Hole remained mostly a disappointment.

I remember another trip on Black River during that time period of the 1970s. Bob Todd and I drove in at the resort, which at that time was closed, but Bob had gotten to know the people who owned it, and got permission for us to go in there and stay in the rec hall overnight. We fished all day in the hole above, catching a few fish, and after dark we moved back down to fish right at the spring, which came out into the river just above the riffle. The water there was till deep–it rose abruptly from 20-25 feet deep into the riffle, and there was a nice street light right there, so fishing after dark was conveneient, if nothing else. We caught several nice fish in the 4-6 pound class early that night. It was a warm January night, and about midnight lightning started to flash in the distance. By 1 AM, we didn’t want to stop fishing because it was so warm and the fishing was still going strong by winter walleye standards, but it started to rain. And it rained. We gave up and went to bed, and listened to heavy rain all night long. We awoke the next morning to find that the river had come up 6 feet, nearly into the parking lot, and if we hadn’t thought to tie our boat up it would have floated away. This was on a river controlled by a flood control dam only about30 miles upstream, so all that rise had to have come just from the small tributaries below the dam!

Keener finally closed completely, and we moved our fishing to the gravel pits around the Highway 67 bridge. Getting in there was difficult, to say the least. You had to park alongside the highway, and there was no way to get a boat in. We started carrying a canoe down the 50 foot steep hill of loose rock and brush to the river…getting it back up at dark was never any fun. But we learned the big pool below and caught fish. However, one day in the mid-1980s I learned that our methods weren’t necessarily the best. By then, you COULD drive into the hole IF you had a good 4WD vehicle, but actually putting a boat in was still problematical. Two of my brothers-in-law and I had put in a canoe, paddled across to our favorite series of points, and were fishing off the bank. It was a clear, cold, windy day and the wind was blowing straight into that bank, so fishing was tough. We couldn’t easily get a bait out to where we needed it to be, casting against the wind. About mid-morning, we heard a commotion over on the other side, where you could drive in if you had a Jeep or something, and saw these guys attempting to put in a bass boat. They finally, somehow, got into the water, and started fishing. There was a long underwater ridge that went from the riffle all the way across and down to where we were fishing, which was where the drag line anchorage had been. The ridge was there because they could not anchor the other end of the drag line in the riffle, so that left a gap in their drag-line coverage. The ridge ran from about 8 to 15 feet deep, with depths on both sides ranging from 30 to 50 feet deep, so we knew it should be a good place all along it, but fishing it from a canoe was always tough. We watched the two guys in that boat fish along that ridge all day with, as near as we could tell, marabou jigs, and catch at least 20 walleye. We caught nothing all day long.

The biggest walleye I actually saw caught was in that hole in those days. I had gone by myself, put the canoe in, and was paddling across to fish my favorite point when a jetboat came up the river and pulled into the point. I paddled up to the guy just to be sure he was planning on fishing my point, and talked to him a bit before paddling back across and fishing another point. A little while later I heard him yell. The pool there is nearly a quarter mile across, but I could see him waving at me and holding up what was obviously a very big fish even from that distance. So I paddled back across. He had caught a walleye that weighed well over 18 pounds on his De-Liar scales.

I gradually got less interested in winter walleye as I got more interested in trout fishing in the winter, and later winter smallmouth fishing. But I still frequented that gravel pit hole and also spent some time fishing right below Clearwater Dam, sometimes with Bob Todd, sometimes by myself. I was never able to catch another walleye over 10 pounds, although I caught some 7-8 pounders. Bob caught one on a jig and curlytail grub on evening that was over 11 pounds. One guy I knew, who was suffering from terminal cancer and didn’t have long to live, caught a 16 pounder–it was the last walleye trip he’d ever take.

There is a nice fancy boat ramp at the 67 Bridge Hole now, and it gets pounded to death. Keener is mostly a memory. Those huge, deep gravel pits are an impermanent feature on a river like the lower Black, and the gravel gradually filled in the upper Keener Hole until the last time I was there, probably 15 years ago, most of the hole was a big willow-covered gravel flat with a normal river channel running through it.

MDC tried restocking the St. Francis in order to renew the walleye fishery on it. They did it right, taking fish from Black River, the next river over. In the past, several Ozark walleye fisheries have been damaged and altered by the stocking of northern, lake-strain walleye. That apparently happened to Greers Ferry in Arkansas. Greers produced several state record walleye back in the 1970s and 1980s, fish that were the remnants of native Little Red walleye and migrated up into the three forks of the Little Red above the lake to spawn. But there just wasn’t a whole lot of good spawning habitat above the lake, so Arkansas stocked the lake with northern walleye. The northern fish are lake spawners, and worse, they simply didn’t have the same genetics. Ozark river walleye have the genetic potential to grow bigger. They have (or had) the potential of growing larger than any other strain except the walleye originally native to the Tennessee River system, from where the long-time world record came from. And the walleye of the White River system, including the Black, Current, Spring, and Little Red, along with the original St. Francis strain, were the biggest of the Ozark walleye. The lake strain fish outcompeted the native river walleye, which gradually thinned to almost nothing in Greers Ferry, and with them went any real chance of ever breaking the world record, a possibility that many thought to be almost a sure thing back in the heyday of Greers Ferry walleye fishing.

Walleye in the White River lakes and their tributaries got some of the same stocking. But there are still more or less pure river strain walleye, as witnessed by the fact that you can catch some pretty big fish below Powersite Dam. But there just isn’t enough good spawning habitat left to really maintain a big population of the big river fish. They spawn below Powersite. Perhaps a few spawn in Beaver Creek. Swan Creek and the Little North Fork are probably too small for much spawning to occur. Above Table Rock Dam, Kings River and James River would be big enough for some spawning, but I never hear of many fish being caught from either.

The jury is still out on the St. Francis River experiment, but it doesn’t look good. You can catch the occasional walleye from the Meramec and Gasconade, but they don’t seem to get very big in those two rivers. Apparently lake strain fish were stocked in Lake of the Ozarks at some point, because there aren’t really appreciable runs of fish into the tributaries. Osceola Dam is long gone beneath the waters of Truman, as are the spawning grounds on the lower Pomme de Terre and Sac. Stockton produced some huge river run walleyes in the river above in the first decade or so after it was built, but it’s mostly smaller lake strain walleye these days.

The last stronghold of native Ozark river jack salmon is the undammed streams of the Black River system–Spring, Eleven Point, Current, and Black. These are still the original fish, and they still occasionally grow pretty big. But the huge ones seem to be almost a thing of the past, even on these rivers. Habitat changes, too much fishing pressure, illegal gigging…who knows the exact reasons why. It seems the Ozark walleye is still a mystery fish.

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