Friday, February 14, 2020

An Old-Timers Walleye Story

         Back in the seventies, when I was working as an outdoor columnist for the Arkansas Democrat, I became involved in the Greer’s Ferry Walleye Tournament, which took place in late February and March.  They offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could catch a world record walleye.  I got to know some great people up there, good fishermen and honest enough to do it right.

         Of course, when they found out that the world record walleye reported years earlier was a complete hoax, they found out that the world record actually HAD BEEN caught from Greer’s Ferry during one of those spring events by a man named Nelson.  He never did get his million dollars!

         But one of those years I was up at Clinton, Arkansas in late February having coffee in one of those little restaurants where old men gather and they were talking about Big Ed Claiborne’s 19-pound walleye caught the week before.  I was only 24 years old.  That brought a few smiles from those old-timers who read my outdoor columns and knew that, as yet, this kid from the Big Piney up in Missouri had yet to catch even one walleye.  Most of them had caught hundreds of those glassy-eyed ‘jack salmon’. 

         After most of them had gone that morning one old-timer said he would tell me a story if I would promise not to write about it.  I promised, and listened and now almost 50 years later, I am going to break that promise.  He said that the big walleye out of Greer’s Ferry went up the Little Red River in February, preparing to spawn.  He said there are two baits they love more than anything, big night-crawlers and small bluegills.

         “If’n you go up that river and set yourself a half dozen trotlines for catfish, well that’s all legal.  You just bait up one that has 5 or 6 hooks in a little hole across the deep water below a shoal.  Then you do the same thing up in the next hole below the creek riffles and the same thing up in the next ones ‘til you’ve set all the trotline hooks what’s legal an’ tagged ‘em like the game wardens want it done.”

         He slurped a big cup of coffee and hunched over closer to me and said, as if he were afraid someone else might hear…. “You know when them fisheries biologist was up there shockin’ walleye in the Li’l Red at night last year an’ they caught that big hen walleye that you run a pitcher of in yore newspaper?”

         I nodded… they said they figured the walleye they had shocked, photographed and released might have weighed 24 pounds. “Well sir, that there walleye was caught on one of my trotlines.” he said, “And they found ‘er.”

         As to whether or not he was telling the truth I don’t know, but that old guy ate a lot of walleye.  On many of the reservoirs in Missouri and Kansas, the same thing could be done, and a fisherman who started catching the smaller male walleye could surely figure out what pool the females were coming too soon afterward.  You cannot legally fish for walleye at night in the spawning period, but you can set your lines in the afternoon, run them in the morning and keep the catfish, or the walleye, that you catch.  Not very sporting but some fishermen like to eat walleye, not caring how they are caught.  Up one river I know of, fish traps are already being used.  Conservation agents waiting downriver in their pickups, looking for some kind of technical violations, will never find them.

         Walleye spawning runs are beginning, and I intend to go to my favorite places in various tributaries to catch a few very soon.  My best days are the days with no sunlight, overcast and dreary, because a walleye’s eyes are sensitive to sunlight.  I’ll fish vertically in deep pools below shoals, with light- blue or blue-green half-ounce jigs, having big hooks tipped with night crawlers or chubs.  But the old fellow back then was right, you wouldn’t need the jigs if you found a few small bluegill you could set out there on the bottom with a half ounce of weight about two feet up the line.  

         And while it is indeed against the law to fish for walleye at night, you can motor up the river, or paddle down it, and shine a light into the deep waters looking for a rod and reel you have recently lost, and you’ll see the congregating walleye by shining their eyes.  Then you might know where some are the next day.  Be darn sure if you do that, you have no fishing gear in your boat, because that is a technicality that a pair of wardens, waiting somewhere in their pickup, can use.

         It isn’t that you cannot fish at night for catfish or crappie, but if you catch a walleye in darkness, you darn sure better release it.  And in an Ozark river, you cannot keep a bass in March, April, or May; no matter what time of day you hook it. 

         To contact me, email or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo.  If you would like to reserve a free table at our big outdoor swap meet on Saturday, March 21 at Bolivar, just notify me, or call my office, 417-777-5227.  This year we have nearly 10,000 square feet available free… for vendors.

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