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Fishing guide Marty Thompson thinks Stockton Lake in southwest Missouri may hold a state-record smallmouth bass. He and fisheries biologists agree that it is the state's top walleye fishing spot and has walleye action as good as many northern lakes. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation photo)

Missouri's Top Walleye Lake About To Heat Up
Stockton Lake has some of the nation's best walleye fishing
1/31/2006


STOCKTON, Mo.-Think of the walleye as a syncopated fish-a little offbeat. It is still active in the midst of winter, after bass have grown sluggish and hard to catch and before crappie surge into shallow water to gorge on minnows.

Like the walleye, Stockton Lake is offbeat. Situated hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, it is one of the top sailing destinations in the central United States. And while the center of the walleye fishing universe lies somewhere around the Canadian border, Stockton Lake offers walleye action on par with many northern lakes. That action is just about to heat up.

When it does, Marty Thompson, owner of Thompson Fishing Guide Service, will be out on Stockton Lake, showing clients where and how to catch the finicky but delicious fish. It is a challenge he relishes.

"I started coming here to fish because I love it," says Thompson. "Guiding adds a whole new level of seriousness, though. There's more of a challenge to it and more dividends. You have to be out there as much as possible, keeping track of where the fish are if you want to be able to put other anglers on them reliably. Last year I fished about 180 days."

At some lakes, fishing that often would not make sense. But the number of walleyes found in Stockton Lake makes the effort worthwhile. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocked walleyes in the lake in the early 1970s, beginning the year after the dam was closed. Those fish were the foundation of a self-sustaining population that lasted more than 20 years.

Because walleye fishing had declined by the 1990s, the Conservation Department developed a statewide program to improve fishing. The initiative, which began in 1998, identified Stockton Lake as a high-priority reservoir for walleye management. Stocking is one strategy that has been used there.

Beginning in 1998, Stockton has received a stocking of approximately 750,000 walleye fingerlings in even-numbered years. That is 25 to 30 fish per acre of water. Fisheries Management Biologist Tim Banek says a survey conducted last spring showed good numbers of walleyes, with a high percentage at or above the minimum legal length limit.

Anglers can keep up to four walleyes daily at Stockton, with a minimum length of 15 inches.

"I may be biased," says Banek, "but I believe that Stockton Lake provides the best overall opportunity for walleye anglers and is the best that we have in the state." He says Stockton Lake ranks in the middle of the 169 North American walleye waters with published harvest data.

Thompson sees evidence of Stockton's walleye abundance every time he fishes. His 21-foot fishing boat is equipped with a sonar graph in the rear, allowing him to see schools of shad and larger fish when he is motoring around, and another sonar sensor in the front of the boat so he can track fish when he is fishing from his seat in the bow.

Gizzard shad, small fish related to herrings, are the most numerous fish in Stockton Lake. They are the staple food for predatory fish. Thompson says walleyes, bass and crappie all follow shad schools to some degree, but walleyes are less attached to particular places and follow shad schools like wolves follow herds of grazing animals.

On a fish graph, schools of shad look like big black balls suspended in the water. Walleyes show up as dark crescents.

"What you want to see on your fish graph is a big ball of bait fish with lots of large fish around it," says Thompson. If the crescents are blurred, that means they are moving fast, actively feeding on shad."

Where he finds this picture depends on water temperature, wind, time of year and time of day. Walleye are creatures of the gloom. Their name refers to their huge eyes, which can detect prey in near-dark. They shy away from bright light, so fishing is best at dusk and dawn and on overcast days. On sunny days, walleye usually retreat to deep water.

Night fishing can produce excellent results. However, anglers should be aware that from Feb. 20 through April 14, walleyes can only be possessed from 6:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. on the unimpounded portions of streams with the exception of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Walleye are active throughout the winter, when Stockton's waters may chill down to 40 degrees. Shad prefer warmer water, and because walleye eat shad, anglers often find walleye around submerged springs or in other areas where the water is slightly warmer than in the rest of the lake.

The wind that has made Stockton one of the top sailing destinations in the Midwest also helps make walleye behavior a little more predictable. The lower end of Stockton Lake and its Sac River arm run north and south. When, as often happens, the wind blows steadily out of the south for several days in a row, it creates a northward current in the lake. Tiny plants and animals that are the gizzard shad's primary foods drift with this current, eventually concentrating at the north end of the lake, near the dam.

"On days like that, fishing Stockton is more like fishing a river than a lake," says Thompson. "You can use the current to your advantage. Walleye will be on submerged rocky points and bluffs grazing on passing schools of shad." He says fishing 20 to 30 feet deep along rock bluffs also can produce good results.

Sometime in late winter, the temperature of Stockton's water creeps up past 45 degrees, and walleyes begin moving toward spawning areas. While experienced anglers can find some walleyes year-round, the short window of time in February and March when water temperatures range from 45 to 50 degrees provides some of the year's hottest action.

Some walleyes travel up the Sac and Little Sac river arms of the lake in response to runoff from warm rain. Others head down the lake to the dam. The rock-lined bank of the dam itself attracts thousands of spawning walleyes, but you also can find good numbers of fish on rocky points south of the dam.

The same baits and lures that work on walleyes in northern lakes are winners at Stockton Lake. Jigs tipped with minnows, night crawlers or plastic grubs are the reliable producers. White and chartreuse are the preferred colors. Thompson sometimes puts a curly-tailed plastic grub on a long-shanked jig and entices walleyes with a wad of worm on the hook.

Thompson trolls these rigs at 1 to 1.5 mph, using the GPS readout on his fish graph to monitor his speed. When possible, he lets his boat drift with the wind. When the wind is strong, he uses his trolling motor or even his main motor to slow his drift to the right pace.

Whatever bait he is using, Thompson often finds it helpful to add a clip-on weight to get his rig down where the fish are. To prevent spoons and other lures from twisting his line, he ties a barrel swivel a few feet above the bait and clips the weight to the line above the swivel. "That can save you several dollars on fishing line," he says.

The biggest challenge for beginning walleye anglers is not getting bites, but recognizing them and learning when to set the hook. The nearly universal walleye angling technique is to let the bait or lure fall to the depth where the fish are, then rhythmically raise and lower the tip of the fishing rod a foot or two.

When this technique is executed properly, the line never goes completely slack, and you can feel the light bump, bump-bump of a walleye testing the bait. At this point, the fish might not have the bait in its mouth, so the experienced angler leans into the fish slightly to avoid pulling the bait away. If all goes just right, the next thing the angler feels is an insistent tug as the fish takes the bait. A sharp jerk on the rod drives home the point of the hook, and the fight is on.

Walleye seldom put up the furious struggle of a hooked bass or sunfish, but walleye have another virtue that more than compensates for the lack of electrifying fight. They are among the best-eating fresh-water fish in the world.

Speaking of good eating, the same areas that hold walleye at Stockton Lake also are frequented by crappie. The number of white crappie in Stockton Lake is not impressive right now, but their average size is. Forty-five percent of fish caught by the Conservation Department in last year's sampling were 10 inches or larger, and Thompson reports that he and his clients have caught a number of crappies measuring 16 inches or better. Those catches often take place while fishing small crankbaits along rock bluffs.

Thompson doesn't usually mention this possibility to clients, preferring to see the delighted surprise on their faces when they net a world-class crappie on a walleye outing.

The daily limit on crappie at Stockton Lake is 15 fish measuring at least 10 inches.

Stockton also is an underrated smallmouth lake. The current and previous state-record smallmouths came from there, and Thompson says he believes another record is waiting to be caught. He and clients have boated several 6-pounders, while the current record is 7 pounds, 2 ounces. The daily limit at Stockton Lake includes six black bass measuring at least 15 inches.

For more information about fishing, camping and lodging at Stockton Lake, contact the Stockton Lake Association, (417) 276-5161, www.stocktonlake.com, or Stockton State Park, (417) 276-4259, mostateparks.com/stockton.htm

-Jim Low-

 

 

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