Bull Shoals and Table Rock lakes are among the most popular fishing destinations in the Midwest. Both enjoy national reputations for excellent black bass fishing, but also provide good opportunities for a variety of other fish species, including walleye, crappie, white bass, bluegill and, at Table Rock, paddlefish.
Like most large reservoirs, fishing at Table Rock and Bull Shoals can be difficult at times. Seasonal patterns, weather systems, high water and natural population fluctuations can all influence fishing success day-to-day and year-to-year. However, anglers who take the time to learn these waters and the habits of their finned residents and then master some basic techniques will, more often than not, find success.
Bull Shoals and Table Rock contain lots of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and spotted bass. Population surveys indicate these two lakes will provide anglers with good fishing for the next several years.
Largemouth bass, the most sought-after of the three black bass species, can be found throughout both lakes.
Smallmouth bass generally inhabit the larger, clearer portions of the lakes, such as the area below Tucker Hollow on Bull Shoals and the main stem portions of Table Rock above the dam. Anglers should begin their search for smallmouth bass by targeting pea-gravel banks where the smallmouth spawn. Smallmouth bass typically spawn in deeper water than either largemouth or spotted bass, so don’t expect to find them too shallow.
Spotted bass, commonly called “Kentuckies” or “Spots,” are found throughout both lakes as well—often near bluffs and other deep-water areas.
In the relatively clear waters of Bull Shoals and Table Rock, fish can be found in either shallow or deep areas. Therefore, anglers need to fish a variety of water depths and types to find bass. Don’t concentrate all your efforts along the banks. Outside of the spring spawning period, bass are often found in deeper water.
Points on the main lake or in the creek arms are always good places to start. The mouths of small coves and cuts or depressions along the bank are good areas because fish have quick access to both shallow and deep water in these locations.
Bluffs with or without standing timber are also productive areas. Be on the lookout for bass surfacing as they feed on shad and concentrate on these areas.
The same techniques work for all three species of bass.
Plastic grubs hooked on 1/8- or 1/4-ounce round jig heads are popular lures at the lakes. They allow anglers to fish slowly, even during moderately windy conditions.
Smoke and natural-colored grubs seem to work best. Use a medium-action spinning rod with 6- to 8-pound-test line. Many anglers choose green or “invisible” lines because the water at Table Rock and Bull Shoals is generally clear.
Jig and grub combos can be very productive in the spring and summer months. They work well on pea-gravel banks and transition banks, where bluffs change into shallower banks. Position your boat so you can cast to both shallow and deep water.
Cast the grub and let it fall to the bottom. While maintaining the rod tip at the 12 o’clock position, slowly retrieve the jig all the way back to the boat. Strikes may be fierce, or they may feel like additional weight has been added to the line.
During winter months, grubs work best when “swum” over submerged trees or when fished vertically near schools of shad.
Carolina rigs with plastic baits allow anglers to cover both shallow and deep water quickly and efficiently.
Use only enough weight to stay in contact with the bottom. Lighter sinkers have a tendency to hang up less and improve an angler’s sensitivity to a strike. Windy conditions and deeper water usually require heavier weights.
The leader should be lighter than the main line. Begin with a 2-foot leader, but you might run shorter or longer leaders depending on the water clarity, type of cover and structure being fished, and what the fish seem to prefer.
Hooks with wide gaps or worm hooks work best. Choose smaller hook sizes to keep the lure buoyant and to maintain its action.
Standard lures used in Carolina rigging include 4- to 8-inch plastic lizards, finesse worms and creature baits. Lizards work best in the spring. Smaller baits are more effective in clear water or when there is a lot of angling pressure.
Fish the rig by dragging it along the bottom with a slow, steady retrieve or vary the retrieve by pausing occasionally. Experiment until the fish indicate which retrieve they prefer.
Carolina rigging is great for catching bass in shallow water, especially in April, but the method also catches bass in deeper water—down to 35 feet—off secondary and primary points.
Casting top-water lures is one of the most exciting ways to catch bass at Bull Shoals and Table Rock. When conditions for top-water fishing are right, the action can be explosive.
When water levels are high, work floating worms, fished weightless on spinning tackle, in and around flooded shoreline brush and vegetation. Bright colors, such as bubble gum pink, chartreuse, yellow and methiolate are normally the best producers. You usually see fish take the worm. Experiment with the speed of your retrieve.
Zara spooks, red-fins and chugger-type baits are effective in clearer water. Baitfish colors are recommended. Generally, darker lures are more effective during low-light and overcast conditions. Choose light color or even clear lures when the skies are bright.
Table Rock and Bull Shoals reservoirs have great bluegill fishing. Eight- to 10- inch fish are common and offer an excellent opportunity for youngsters and adults to reap a harvest. Bluegill are aggressive and easy to catch during their spawning period, which usually peaks near the end of May, but may continue until late July, or even August.
The fish typically spawn in small side pockets off larger coves. They prefer to spawn in areas with a pea-gravel bottom. Most spawning takes place at a depth of 8 to 10 feet. Bluegill nests are usually located close together, so if you catch one bluegill, it’s likely the same area will yield others.
Once bluegill have spawned, they typically move to more elongated main lake, pea-gravel points and can be found in water depths ranging from 15 to 30 feet. Most of the year, the secret to catching quality-size bluegill at these reservoirs is to get away from the shoreline and fish deeper water.
Bluegill are terrific fighters and are fun to catch on light action spinning rods or ultra-light rods with 2- or 4-pound-test line. Natural baits, like crickets, river worms, nightcrawlers, meal worms and wax worms, work well. When using worms or nightcrawlers, it’s best to pinch off a piece of bait approximately an inch in length rather than using the entire worm.
The best technique for deeper bluegill is to fish straight down with the bait just off the bottom, while moving the boat slowly to locate fish. A long-shank hook and crimp-on, split-shot weights are all you need for this type of fishing.
Crappie fishing on Bull Shoals and Table Rock lakes is up and down depending on the success of previous crappie spawns. When crappies have a good spawning year, anglers usually have great crappie fishing two to three years later.
Crappie fishing is best from mid April through early May, when water temperatures in the mid-50s trigger the fish to spawn. They seek out sand or gravel bottoms in coves and along shorelines. Small notches or depressions along an otherwise straight shoreline often hold spawning crappie. Spawning usually occurs in deeper water in the clear, main lake areas and in shallower water in turbid river arms.
The rest of the year, crappie often suspend around woody structure, such as standing timber and brush piles, or they might school near points and along steep banks.
Crappie can be caught with jigs, minnows or small crankbaits. Most crappie anglers at these reservoirs fish 1/32- to 1/8-ounce light-color jigs. White and chartreuse work well. Fish the jigs at various depths until you find at what depth the crappie are holding.
Crappie hit aggressively in the spring, but when the bite is light, which often is the case in winter, a slight twitch in your line may be the only indication you have that a crappie has taken your lure.
Table Rock Lake paddlefishing is famous. Fish in excess of 80 pounds are not uncommon, and some reach up to 140 pounds. Because natural reproduction is limited, the Conservation Department annually stocks paddlefish fingerlings.
Table Rock paddlefish grow rapidly and reach legal size—34 inches in length, measured from the eye to the fork of the tail—in just six years. The paddlefish season opens on March 15 and runs through April 30. The daily limit of paddlefish is two with a possession limit of four.
The majority of the paddlefish harvest occurs above Cape Fair, in the upper James River Arm. The paddlefish gather there while waiting for sufficient flows to make a spawning run up the river. Paddlefish can migrate as far as 60 miles up the James River.
Because paddlefish are filter feeders and do not bite artificial or natural baits, snagging is the only way to harvest them.
The fish run large, so stout rods and heavy line are necessary.
Anglers usually attach two large treble hooks approximately 2 and 4 feet above an 8- to 20-ounce terminal sinker and troll or drag the hooks and sinker behind a slow-moving boat while making long sweeps with the rod. You know you have the proper amount of weight if your sinker hits bottom between each rod sweep. You can also cast the rig and retrieve it with long rod sweeps.
Finding concentrations of paddlefish with depthfinders will greatly increase your chances of catching paddlefish.
Bull Shoals has some of the best walleye fishing in the Midwest. The fishing is so good that the Professional Walleye Trail has held multiple walleye tournaments on the reservoir. Walleye populations also are on the rise in Table Rock.
From January to March, look for walleye congregating near spawning areas in major tributaries. Cast stick baits parallel to the bank in shallow water or troll minnow-tipped, bottom bouncers along flats.
After the spawn, try trolling crankbaits across flats or main lake points. As the year progresses, the walleye seem to move to deeper water. You’ll usually find them near bottom in between 25 and 30 feet of water, but they sometimes move as deep as 40 feet.
Crankbaits and bottom bouncers tipped with nightcrawlers are the most popular lures at Table Rock and Bull Shoals. Jigging spoons also seem to work well. When the fishing is slow, try slowly dragging a minnow-tipped jig along the bottom.
In summer, use your depthfinder to locate the thermocline, above which water temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels are more attractive to walleye and prey fish.
During March and April, white bass congregating to spawn in the lakes’ upper ends and in the major creek arms of the White River lakes are vulnerable to boat, bank and wading anglers. Use light tackle and long rods to help you cast farther.
Purple, white and baitfish-colored single-tail plastic grubs and marabou jigs are good choices. These baits can be fished slow or fast and in shallow or deep water. Choose 1/8- to 1/16-ounce jigs. At night, try fishing a black grub or jig in shallow water.
Baitfish-colored crankbaits also are effective. Both floating and shallow-diving lures catch fish from both shallow and deep water. Small topwater lures also have produced limits of white bass.
During early summer months, anglers use lanterns or other artificial lights to attract baitfish, which draw white bass in to feed. The night fishermen use minnows and freshly caught shad for bait. Anchor your boat along submerged river channels and fish minnows or freshly caught shad at various depths near the edge of the circle of light.
Summer is also a good time to catch large white bass on Table Rock by trolling crankbaits over deep, open water.
For additional tips on fishing these lakes, watch “Missouri Outdoors” the weekend of April 29 & 30
The White River Border Lakes Permit entitles Missouri and Arkansas resident fishing permit holders and Missouri residents 65 years old or older to fish anywhere on Bull Shoals, Norfork and Table Rock lakes. This annual permit opens up about 50,000 acres of water to Missouri resident anglers and eliminates the need to purchase a nonresident fishing permit from Arkansas. The permit is available at all Missouri and Arkansas permit vendor locations.
For fish population data based on fish sampling studies and creel surveys, read the annual fishing prospects report at www.MissouriConservation.org/fish/prospects/ or request a copy from your nearest Conservation Department office. See page 1 for regional office phone numbers.
For current fishing information about fishing Bull Shoals and Table Rock reservoirs, read the statewide weekly fishing report at www.MissouriConservation.org/fish/fishrt/.
For general information about fishing the lakes, visit the Conservation Department’s Web site at www.MissouriConservation.org and type the lake’s name and “fishing” in the search box.
Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Designer - Susan Fine
Circulation - Laura Scheuler