Greers Ferry Lake: Home of another record walleye?

By Keith Sutton Originally Published February 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 22, 2013 at 11:10 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

Jim Spencer of Calico Rock wade-fishes for walleyes in the Devil’s Fork. The forks of the Little Red River above Greers Ferry Lake are hot spots for walleyes during spring spawning runs.

For more than 14 years, the big female walleye survived the dangers of Greers Ferry Lake. Now, the warming March waters brought her again to the South Fork of the Little Red River to spawn. The water temperature was only 44 degrees, but a warm spring rain was falling. The spawn would soon begin.

She was always a special fish, exceptionally large and intelligent. None of the females around her was as big or as old. With her belly full of roe, she weighed more than 25 pounds. Her many years of life had honed a fine edge on her survival instincts.

Her cautious nature saved her on her twilight sojourn up the stream. Several males were rubbing and bumping her while she swam over the spawning beds, but none was so preoccupied it wouldn’t snap up a careless baitfish that swam too near. As she moved upstream, the female heard the whining sound of an outboard motor, but it had stopped several minutes earlier. That familiar noise was replaced by the low hum of a trolling motor drawing closer. The sound held no fear for the big female or the other walleyes.

Suddenly, the female heard a light splash near the upper end of the deep pool. She turned quickly, hoping the disturbance would send dinner scurrying her way. An unusual vibrating noise was coming toward her. When the long silver creature emitting the sound drew near, the female darted toward it with her mouth open wide. But she stopped short of striking and watched as the morsel bounced by. Her instincts told her something wasn’t quite right.

The big walleye soon heard another splash. This time the excitement was too much. When the silver creature danced into sight, the female extended her jaws to suck it in. But before she could, a wave of water pushed her aside as a large male walleye raced in to claim the female’s dinner.

From the surface, the female could see a light hanging over the edge of a huge dark object. A distant memory from her past flashed through her mind, and panic sent her instinctively back to the safety of darkness, deep below the intruders.

By week’s end, she had dropped her eggs at random over the bottom of the Little Red River’s South Fork. The males flanking her fertilized the eggs, and soon after, the big female and her companions returned under cover of darkness to the black depths of Greers Ferry Lake.

Quite possibly, somewhere in Greers Ferry Lake swims a walleye the size of the one in this story. That news might surprise any walleye angler who has never heard of this 31,500-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment in the Ozark Mountains near Heber Springs — if there is a walleye angler who hasn’t heard of Greers Ferry.

During past decades, Greers Ferry Lake earned a national reputation as one of the world’s top hot spots for giant walleyes. In November 1978, Neva Walters of Heber Springs set a new state record with a 20-pound, 6-ounce walleye. In March 1979, “Big Ed” Claiborne, a guide at Fairfield Bay Marina, landed a 21-pound, 9-ounce fish to set another new benchmark. Then on March 14, 1982, Al Nelson of Higden caught a 22-pound, 11-ounce walleye to earn the current National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame world record.

That same year, at least a

half dozen fish weighing more than 17 pounds were recorded during the late winter/early spring spawning run. Also, in March 1983, Mike Wallace of Huntsville, Texas, set a new line-class record at Greers Ferry by catching an 18-pound, 4-ounce walleye on 4-pound-test line. Fish exceeding 20 or 25 pounds could still swim in the reservoir, and it’s possible an Arkansas angler could break the record in coming years.

Most walleye anglers fish Greers Ferry and its tributaries from mid-February through early April during the spawning season. When the water temperature approaches 50 degrees, walleyes ascend the four upper forks of the Little Red River: the South Fork, Devil’s Fork, Middle Fork and Archey’s Fork. Males arrive at spawning sites first, and later are joined by females. At this time, both sexes occupy long, deep pools below swift riffles. Ripe adults move into shallow gravel-bottomed shoals to spawn at night.

The upper forks of the Little Red receive intense fishing pressure during this time. Action for 1- to 4-pound walleyes, the small males, is fast-paced. They strike out of aggressiveness brought on by the spawning urge. And there are hundreds of them, so you catch more. Action on big females is always slower because they’re fewer in number.

There are innumerable fishing tactics, lures and baits used to catch walleyes, and some are naturally more popular on Greers Ferry than others. Jesse Finch of Heber Springs caught a 16.4-pound walleye in late February 1991 while trolling a deep-diving Rebel Spoonbill Minnow crankbait, a very popular fishing technique here. Bottom-fishing with small live bluegills or creek chub minnows is a common and productive strategy, and a lot of good walleye anglers troll or vertical-fish with jigs or jig/minnow combos. Some anglers fish from boats, but at spawning time, just as many settle onto their favorite section of river bank, fire up a lantern and watch their baits work lazily below the spawning shoals. Some wade-fish in the shoals.

Several years ago, in April, I floated the Middle Fork of the Little Red with Dick Bailey, a man whose name is synonymous with Greers Ferry walleyes. He’s taken many walleyes topping 15 pounds, including one huge 18-pound-plus fish. As we started fishing, he tutored me on the finer points of the sport, and one comment stuck in my mind: “If you think you’re fishing slow, you oughta be

fishing slower,” he said. “I tell people you have to be patient, and you gotta keep things slow. Troll slow. Retrieve slow. Think slow.” That’s good advice for anyone planning to fish here.

Is there a world-record walleye swimming in Greers Ferry? If so, will it ever be caught? The answer to both questions is “maybe.” The odds are certainly good that a new record will surface someday on this beautiful Ozarks lake, but it’s anybody’s guess when.

Perhaps it will happen this year. Perhaps you’ll be the one who does it. Visit Greers Ferry, and sample the best fishing for giant walleyes America can offer. You won’t regret it.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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