Buster Loving, a guide in the Ozarks, knows that winter is a time to catch giant walleyes at Bull Shoals Lake.
By Brent Frazee
Before the ice even starts to melt on prime walleye waters in Minnesota and Canada, Buster Loving and his guide clients are enjoying prime-time fishing, southern style.
At Bull Shoals Lake, which straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border in the Ozarks, trophy walleyes start stirring in the dead of winter.
And if you want to catch a true giant, you’d better get out before most fishermen even get their tackle out of storage.
“December, January, February, the first part of March – that’s when you have your best chances of catching a giant,” said Loving, who runs Buster’s Guide Service. “The walleyes are pre-spawn, and they’re feeding.”
They spawn in late February and early March, much earlier than some people think. You have to get out there on some cold days. But it’s worth it.
“You have a shot at the fish of a lifetime.”
Check out what Loving’s clients have already done this year.
A 12-pound walleye has been brought into the boat and three others exceeding 10 pounds have been caught.
That’s in addition to the many 5- to 8-pound fish that have been landed.
For as impressive as those fish are, they can’t even compare to the Loving’s personal best – a 17-pounder caught at Bull Shoals several years ago.
“I’ve had clients tell me that they have fished for 25 years in Canada and have never caught anything close to the walleyes they catch at Bull Shoals,” said Loving, who lives in Rockaway Beach, Mo. “We can’t compare to the North in terms of numbers (of walleyes), but we have some monsters.”
When Loving is fishing for pre-spawn walleyes, he keys on the upper end of Bull Shoals – the stretch from K Dock Marina to Beaver Creek.
He looks for spots where a flat quickly drops off into the channel. He often positions his boat in 25 to 35 feet of water, but casts into water 5 to 10 feet deep.
He and his guide clients catch many of their big fish on a MegaBass Plus 1 suspending stickbait.
They also find success on a Keitech swimbait.
Most of the walleyes are suspended over the drop-off, Loving said. A slow, deliberate retrieve is key in the cold water.
“I’ll jerk that stickbait, then let it sit,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time, they’ll hit on the pause.”
“It must look like a struggling baitfish to them, and they’ll hit when they don’t have to chase it too far.”
The water temperature at Bull Shoals this week has been 44 degrees – cold enough for the big walleyes to still be sluggish, but warm enough for them to think about spawning.
Even at its best, this winter fishing isn’t a numbers game. It can take patience.
“A lot of guys hear about it, then go out for two or three days without catching anything, and give up,” Loving said.
Ideal conditions are when the water level is low, and the walleyes are more concentrated in the key spots.
Loving likes overcast days when water temperatures are in the 40s and there is just a light chop on the water.
Contrary to what some fishermen believe, Loving doesn’t think the walleyes migrate long distances to the upper reaches of Bull Shoals to spawn.
He thinks they live there and are triggered to spawn by rising water temperatures and current created by Powersite Dam.
Once the walleyes drop their eggs and recover from the spawn, the fishing on Bull Shoals can be excellent, albeit on different methods.
But to catch a giant, winter is the time to get out.
The key to Loving’s success? Plenty of experience. He has fished for Bull Shoals walleyes since 1989.
“When I first moved to this area, I had a little rental cabin on the upper end of Bull Shoals,” he said. “I had a small boat and a small moto, and I couldn’t go very far. But I didn’t need to.”
“I remember one year when the water was so low that it was almost like the White River was before the lake was built. I could see the sharp drop-offs and how the walleyes related to some of those areas. I still fish some of those places to this day.”