Bull Shoals Lake
The Crown Jewel of Ozarks' Lakes
With over 1000 miles of winding shoreline, Bull Shoals Lake offers some of the finest freshwater fishing in the world. Created by the impounding of the fabled White River, the lake stretches from the dam at Bull Shoals, Arkansas to its two major arms whose headwaters reach well into the southwestern Missouri Ozarks. Most of the lake’s broadest impoundment runs roughly west to east, lying just south of the Missouri-Arkansas border, with numerous arms extending north across the state line and further south into Arkansas. It is roughly 85 miles in length.
Bull Shoals boasts a larger variety of plentiful species than any other lake in the Ozarks, offering abundant catches of largemouth, smallmouth, Kentucky, white, and striped bass, as well as crappie, walleye, bluegill, catfish, trout, and carp. According to fishing guide Rick Culver, two of the most plentiful species these days, and also two of the most exciting to catch, are smallmouth (aka black) bass and walleye.
“Our populations of smallmouth and walleye died out a bit back in the early ‘80s,” Culver said, “but they’ve come back strong and are both thriving now. Lots of fishermen prefer them, and they’ve been catching a lot of them the last couple of years.”
Culver and his wife, Sue, are proprietors of Wilderness Trail, a tackle shop in Bull Shoals, Arkansas, which also offers guide service, reel repair, detailed fishing information, and gifts. Their business gives them a bird’s eye view of activities on the lake.
“Bull Shoals is really a fisherman’s lake because its designated by the Corps of Engineers as a wilderness lake,” Culver explained, “and that makes a big difference. Being a wilderness lake means no private property dockage is allowed along the shoreline. People aren’t allowed to build homes right on the lake because the wilderness regulations provide for a 300 yard buffer zone surrounding the shoreline. There are only six commercial marinas licensed to have installations on the lake, and that’s not many for a lake this big.”
As a result of the Corps of Engineers’ controlled usage, with the exception of scuba diving, Bull Shoals doesn’t attract the numbers of non-fishing water sports enthusiasts which other Ozarks’ lakes routinely see. Its popularity with fresh water divers isn’t hard to fathom. The multitude and variety of fish, and the outstanding clarity of the water, make it a natural choice for those who prefer going under the water to boating over it.
Being designated a wilderness lake has done more than keep the waters of Bull Shoals Lake relatively clean. The lack of real estate development along its shoreline has helped maintain the animal population finding habitat around the lake. It’s not uncommon for fisherman to see deer, turkey, even the occasional black bear coming to the water’s edge, and the bald eagle population is thriving as well.
And you can find something else at Bull Shoals that often seems to be in short supply in today’s cyber-quick world: peace. “Even on major holidays, when things are really busy here, once you get away from the dock and head up the lake, you can always find a quiet cove and have it to yourself,” Culver said. “You can find serenity here.”
Mountain Home, Arkansas angler Frank Talbert, Jr. (above) )found something else in the lake’s deep waters: a new Arkansas and world line class record for hybrid bass. Talbert, who fishes at the professional level for sponsors Champion Boats and McCoy Tackle, was practice fishing for a tournament back in February of 1997 when he landed a 22-pound, 1-ounce hybrid bass.
“As soon as I hooked it, I knew it was going to be a big one,” Talbert recalls, “but I didn’t expect it to be that big. I was fishing with 8-pound line, so getting it into the boat was a challenge.”
After landing the lunker, Talbert and fellow Champion Boat pro team member Kurt Evans contacted authorities and had the fish weighed on certified scales. The monster hybrid shattered the previous state record by 2-pounds, 1-ounce, and has now been verified as a world record in the 8-pound line class. (Editor’s note: Talbert’s Arkansas hybrid bass record was beaten in recent years, with the mark now at 27-pounds, 5-ounces.)
Bull Shoals isn’t known for hybrid bass (a mix of white and striped bass) since the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has never intentionally stocked them in the lake. Efforts to explain the presence of Talbert’s catch point to a 1984 net-pen experiment involving hybrids. Some of those fish did escape into the lake, and the presumption is that Talbert caught one of them some 13 years later. If this is true, then there may be a few other giant hybrids still lurking, and growing, in the deeps of Bull Shoals Lake.
Located on the White River 10 miles west of Mountain Home, Arkansas, Bull Shoals Dam was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1941 for the purposes of flood control, generation of electricity, and other beneficial uses. Due to America’s involvement in World War II, construction didn’t begin until June, 1947. Once work began, it brought hundreds of jobs to the area, infusing new life into the struggling local economy. The dam was completed in July, 1951, with commercial power generation commencing in 1952.
At the time it was built, Bull Shoals Dam was the fifth largest concrete dam in the nation, extending 2,256 feet across the White River Valley, and requiring over 2,100,000 yards of concrete in its construction. With the lack of good roads and other resources in the region at the time, the magnitude of the project required unique and imaginative procedures to get the required amount of aggregate to the work site.
Superintendent of the dam’s construction, Harvey Slocum, resolved the aggregate-transport issue by installing one of the longest conveyor belt systems ever used in that type of construction. The belt system consisted of 21 separate sections, or flights, varying in length from 600 to 2,800 feet. It was capable of moving 650 tons of aggregate per day over a distance of seven miles. There were logistical problems to be solved in building this massive conveyor belt system, and making it functional. Each section was powered by its own 75-125 horsepower motor. The entire system was interdependent, so that a malfunction anywhere along the seven miles of uneven terrain, or with the 14 miles of belt, would bring the entire mechanism to a halt. Once the problems were ironed out and the conveyor system was running smoothly, the belt made possible a daily pour of 6,651 cubic yards of concrete at the dam site.
During the four years Harvey Slocum was in charge of the massive dam building project, he gained a reputation for being an unrelenting hard-driving boss and perfectionist. He had a house built on the edge of the bluff overlooking the construction site, where he would sit at night to watch the ongoing work from his glassed-in front porch.
I have a personal memory involving the Bull Shoals conveyor belt. When I was about eight years old, my parents loaded the family up in our old Ford and we drove from West Plains down into Arkansas to marvel at the newly finished dam. The lake had not yet filled, and the dam’s height, shining in the summer sun, was awesome and somehow frightening. On the way home, we came across a place where the conveyor belt, still intact but inactive, ran under the two-lane blacktop road. My dad stopped the car and we all got out to take a look. I scrambled down into the red clay causeway that had been dug out for the conveyor’s right of way and was trying to climb up on it. “Stop that,” my mother ordered, “that thing might start up again and carry you down to the dam!” That’s all it took to get me back in the car.
Since several other lakes are located much closer to the Springfield area, it’s no surprise that Bull Shoals is not often mentioned in local discussions of lake excursions. But with its clear, clean water, lack of commercialization, and abundant variety of fish, for those who seek good fishing and quality time with nature, it may well be the crown jewel of our Ozarks great lakes.
The fresh waters of Bull Shoals Lake are a popular attraction for scuba divers from across the country because of the variety of fish, clarity of water and uncrowded conditions.