Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas:
An Ozarks Oasis for Divers
Story and photos by David Prichard and Lily Mak
Nestled along the historic White River Valley in one of the oldest mountain
ranges in the world is one of the most pristine lakes in the country where
divers descend to explore its sheer bluffs, submerged
forests and rocky peninsulas. Often promoted as the "Caribbean of the Midwest,"
Bull Shoals Lake along the Ozark central border region of Arkansas and Missouri
attracts divers for its abundant marine life and laid-back country way of life.
It's a very popular area for scuba instructors who conduct entry-level and
advanced training at the lake.
With more than a dozen mapped dive sites and an unlimited area for underwater
exploration of its 1,050 miles (1,680 km) of shoreline, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers lake, with its average visibility of 20-40 feet (6-12 m), entices
divers to take their time discovering the wide variety of fish that inhabit the
natural environment of the varied ecosystem.
An Island in the Sea
During the time of the Paleozoic (542-251 million years ago) era, this region
was often an island that rose and fell into the sea until a continental shift
collision during the Pennsylvanian Period (320-260 million years ago) propelled
the area up to continuously remain dry. This combination of marine sedimentary
rocks and fossileferous (limestone, chert, shale and sandstone) material make up
the basic bedrock of the region.
The White River Valley area falls primarily in the Salem Plateau region of the
Ozark Mountains. Along this region were rich veins of zinc and lead ores that
were mined in this area during the turn of the 20th century.
Native Americans of the Paleo period first settled the White River Valley region
between 20,000 and 9,000 BC. Later came "Rock Shelter," or "Cliff Dweller"
tribes before the Osage and Quapaw people dominated the area. This was followed
by the Kickapoo, Sack, Fox, Choctaw and as many as 14 tribes who migrated
through the region. Among these were the Cherokee who crossed in 1838 as part of
the "Trail of Tears" relocation campaign.
Early European settlers came into the area primarily from the Appalachian
region, and the territory later became part of the United States in the
Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The name "Ozark" is thought to have come from an English translation of the
French map abbreviation of "Aux Arks" in reference to a stone arch landmark in
The 722-mile- (1,155-km-) long White River begins in the Boston Mountains near
Fayetteville, Arkansas, and extends into Missouri before dropping back into
Arkansas and eventually depositing into the Mississippi River. Steamboats often
brought trade goods as far as Oakland (near the Missouri border) on the White
River before railroad service in 1903 spelled the doom of river commerce to the
The White River, originally called "La Riviere Blanche" by French explorers,
became unstable after the turn of the century, with major floods in 1915 and
1927. After the Flood Control Act of 1938 was enacted, the U.S. Corps of
Engineers began planning a series of dams on the White River. Eventually
constructed on the river were eight dams, creating four man-made reservoirs -
Beaver Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo.
After a delay, due to the outbreak of World War II, work on the Bull Shoals Dam
began in 1947 with the aid of a 7.8-mile- (12.5-km-) long, 30-inch- (77-cm-)
wide conveyor belt that transported rock material from Flippin, Arkansas, to the
dam site. President Harry Truman dedicated the dam's completion in the summer of
1952, which at the time was the fifth-largest dam in the country.
The origin of the name "Bull Shoals" has several interpretations. One has the
name referring to the French word "boill," meaning "springs" in reference to the
ones near the shoals of the White River. The English pronunciation of the word
was "bull" which was reportedly adopted to refer to the area. Another legend has
the name coming from a shallow area of the river where bulls where used to pull
boats up the river.
As the reservoir waters rose, farms and towns were flooded. One such town was
Kingdon Springs that was the first city in northern Arkansas to have
electricity. Bull Shoals Lake eventually filled to cover 71,240 acres (28,496
hectares) of water, making it one of the largest reservoirs in the central
United States. The dam's eight generators produce electrical power to a
Diving the Lake
With depths to more than 200 feet (61 m), Bull Shoals Lake offers technical
divers an opportunity to explore old settlements along the old riverbed. Most
recreational divers enjoy the clear shallow areas, especially along the many
bluffs surrounding the lake that create rock walls with numerous caverns and
Since the entire lake is open to scuba diving, many divers prefer to explore the
waterways primarily by boat, often renting houseboats from the many marinas on
the lake to leisurely discover the varied underwater habitats. For this reason,
divers must keep an eye out for boat traffic and be sure to employ a float/dive
flag when conducting scuba activities.
Fish varieties abound in the lake. A large number of the bass species can be
found in its waters, including several large- and small-mouth varieties.
Kentucky and white bass are common marine life as well as walleye, crappie,
sunfish, trout and a variety of catfish. For spearfishermen, there is a
nine-month season for walleye, crappie and catfish, along with a year-round
season for gar, carp and drum species.
A variety of sunken boats, farm equipment and natural formations make up the
features of more than a dozen dive sites around the lake. Scuba classes often
use the rocky flat shallows of clear-water coves for their confined-water
training. One dive boat from Bull Shoals Boat Dock is equipped with a winch to
assist handicapped divers from the water.
Visibility is generally best in the spring before algae have a chance to
proliferate. Water temperatures reach the 80s Fahrenheit (upper 20s Celsius)
during the summer and 50-60 F (10-15 C) degrees during the winter, early spring
and late fall seasons. Thermoclines generally begin at the 30-foot (9-m) depth
range and continue at the same interval.
There are three scuba air fill stations on the lake at Bull Shoals Lake Boat
Dock, Wagon Wheel Resort in Peel, Arkansas, and Pontiac Cove Marina in Pontiac,
Missouri. There are various dive centers near the lake in both states, including
Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock.
Kick Back and Relax
Besides diving, visitors to the area can explore a variety of natural
environments and related area attractions. Besides the lake's state park
campgrounds and numerous nature trails, several Ozark-themed attractions are
within a day's drive of the lake.
The country music halls of Branson, Missouri, and its Silver Dollar City
amusement park are a few-hours drive north from the lake. The Ozark Folk Center
and Blanchard Springs Caverns are equal distance to the south, while nearby
topside attractions include the Top O' the Ozarks Tower, Mountain Village 1890,
and Bull Shoals Caverns. Nearby Norfolk Lake offers another venue for divers, as
well as the Buffalo River and the crystal-clear White River.
In addition to numerous private resorts and campgrounds, the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers operates 11 campgrounds around the lake and the State of Arkansas
operates one just south of the dam on the White River.
While the Ozark area might be more synonymous with the hillbilly characters of
Li'l Abner's Dogpatch conception, the rustic beauty of Bull Shoals Lake's
topside scenery is matched only by its varied underwater panorama and marine