Tim Sainato was fishing in slow motion.
Moments after he had positioned his boat on a gravel flat on the upper end of Bull Shoals Lake, he launched a long cast, then began retrieving his bait at a snail’s pace.
Bumping every little pebble on the bottom, Sainato finally felt his 1/4-ounce marabou jig grow heavier. He set the hook and was greeted by the dogged pull of the gamefish he was trying to catch.
“Walleye,” said Sainato, a guide on the lake.
Moments later, he had the golden fish to the surface and slid a landing net under his catch. Then he paused to expound on the benefits of early-season fishing in the Ozarks.
“These walleyes are the first fish to spawn,” he said. “They’ll spend the winter out along the channels. But as the water starts to warm, they’ll move up and start feeding to prepare for the spawn.
“That’s when you can really catch your big fish — in February and March.”
Sainato offered a tale about a late-January fishing trip in 2004 as proof. He and a client had experienced a mediocre day of walleye fishing and were getting ready to call it a day. But when Sainato noticed that there was suddenly current — the result of electricity being generated at Powersite Dam — he told his customer they would try one last spot.
They both ended up catching a limit of impressive walleyes. Included was a 15-pound, 2-ounce fish that Sainato landed, his biggest ever.
“These fish are migrating up lake,” said Sainato, who runs the Gone Fishin’ guide service. “Some go up the tributaries to spawn. Others might go as far as the water below Powersite Dam.
“The time to catch them is in the prespawn stage. That’s when they’re feeding.
“They’re not real active. They won’t really chase anything too far. But if you’re patient and you can barely crawl that lure across the bottom, they’ll hit.”
Sainato proved it last week. The high skies after a sharp cold front slowed the bite. But Sainato was still able to persuade several walleyes and an assortment of bass to hit.
That was nothing unusual, though. One of Sainato’s clients already caught an 8-pound walleye this year. And just a week earlier, he and his fishing partners caught and released 13 walleyes and 35 bass on a trip.
The pattern has remained consistent. Fishing in the K-Dock area, Sainato has fished far offshore, targeting midlake structure. He uses the electronics on his boat to find the gravel flats that drop off into deeper water.
“Some guys will say, ‘What are you doing fishing way out in the middle of the lake?’ ” said Sainato, 53, who has guided customers to everything from bass to crappies on the Ozarks lakes since he was 14. “But they don’t realize that the water I’m casting to is only 10 feet deep.
“There’s only one reason for those fish to be up there — to feed.”
Sainato often uses a chartreuse and white Dominator hair jig bounced along the bottom or an X-Rap suspending jerkbait to persuade the sluggish fish to hit. But there’s one constant. He fishes painstakingly slow.
He knows he still has time to catch a big one. He figures many of the walleyes will spawn on a full moon sometime this week.
Later, there is the promise of even better fishing. The best action often takes place in May and early June, when the walleyes have recovered from the spawn and are actively feeding.
And in Bull Shoals, that can translate to some impressive fishing. The Ozarks reservoir has been stocked since the early 1990s and has developed a large population of the gamefish often associated with northern waters such as Canada and Minnesota.
“I just love fishing here,” Sainato said. “My father moved our family down here in 1969, and part of the reason was that he loved to fish. Living here, you have so many lakes and so many different species close by.”
Sainato paused and joked, “When I was in high school, I was sick a lot. I would tell my coach that I couldn’t make practice because I was sick, and he would say, ‘What color? And how deep are they?’ He knew I was fishing.”