Whether you’re a big-water boat angler or a puddle wader, Missouri has the bass hotspot for you. From trophy largemouth in impoundments like Lake of the Ozarks or Truman, to big smallmouths pulled from riffles and holes in Black River or the Gasconade, now’s the time to plan your bass fishing outings for 2012. Here are some of our best waters for the coming months, according to the people who spend a lot of time on them and know what to expect there.
For decades the Show Me State has managed a quality population of largemouth bass. All of our large impoundments were created either for power generation or flood control, with recreation a side benefit. In each case a dam was built and hundreds of acres flooded as nearby creeks and rivers emptied into the new basin. The stream channels, submerged ledges and flooded timber created perfect bass habitat almost from the start.
Smallmouths have been flourishing in Ozark streams and rivers since before the first white men stumbled through the rolling hills of virgin timber and discovered the pristine streams. In the early to mid-1900s, when most of southern Missouri’s lakes were being created, the state’s conservation department was coming into its stride with fisheries management techniques. What might have been lost with the damming of streams was saved with more aggressive efforts to keep the smallmouth population strong.
Add in spotted bass and there’s essentially a non-stop supply of fish to fill the livewell or creel. Here are some of the first places you should be looking this year.
Currently the Missouri Department of Conservation, in conjunction with the Missouri Smallmouth Alliance has 12 streams targeted for special management plans. All total, that accounts for 358 miles of northern Ozarks streams. Some of the best habitat for smallmouth lie inside these Stream Black Bass Special Management Areas, or SBBSMA, but not all. Some streams have excellent smallmouth populations with no hands-on management needed.
Some of the streams have been in a management program before, and now a new study is under way. One of the first things the new study group did was mail out 100,000 survey cards to holders of Missouri resident fishing licenses in 2010. Respondents who replied that they often fished for black bass were then forwarded a full survey to complete. As anticipated, the bulk of respondents were located in southern Missouri, but a sampling of anglers from across the state were questioned. In March of 2011 some 7,742 surveys were sent out.
To get an accurate picture of harvest rates, in 2011 workers tagged 1,420 smallmouths 12 inches and larger in five rivers — North Fork of the White, Courtois, Current, Castor and Black. They repeated the process earlier this year. The tags carry cash rewards for anglers reporting their discovery, whether the tagged fish is harvested or released.
Streams with SBBSMA sections include Big Piney, Big, Mineral Fork, Joachim Creek, Eleven Point, Elk, Gasconade, Jacks Fork, James, Meramec, Osage Fork of the Gasconade and Tenmile Creek. Here’s a look at the best bets for taking smallmouths this summer, whether the water is in a SBBSMA or not.
I grew up near the Black River in Iron County, just upstream from Clearwater Lake. The pristine river that spans several counties has long been considered one of state’s finest smallmouth streams. While a small section is prone to float jobbers, the bulk of the river from where the three forks merge, in Reynolds County some 80 miles southwest of St. Louis, to the headwaters of Clearwater Lake in Wayne County is remote and generally untouched exception by a few locals.
The upper stretch, upstream from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Clearwater Lake, holds an excellent population of smallmouths. Fish in the 20-inch range are common, and lunkers 4 pounds or greater range can be found. MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Paul Cieslewicz, who manages the upper Black, said sampling in May of 2011 showed some “dandy” smallmouths with quantities of fish between 18 and 19 inches and enough larger smallmouths to keep it interesting.
The upper Black River includes three forks suitable for wading year ’round or floating when water levels are high. The East Fork flows past Ameren UE’s reservoir-fed power plant and Johnson Shut-Ins State Park. The West Fork flows past the Reynolds County Seat of Centerville. The Middle Fork flows about halfway between the other two. The Middle and West forks merge upstream of the community of Lesterville, while the East fork joins just downstream of the small town. From that point downstream the river is generally floatable year ’round.
A canoe is a great way to cover water and target deeper holes, while much of the stream can be plied by a johnboat with a jet prop. Whether wading the upper reaches, or fishing from a boat downstream to the headwaters of Clearwater, target smallmouths using live minnows or plastic jigs. If relying on plastics, white or yellow crappie jigs tend to work best. Cast upstream of submerged rootwads or trees, or against gravel banks in bends, or to the upstream edge of shallow gravely riffles. Let the current carry the live or plastic bait downstream at a natural pace and be ready to set the hook.
While we’re putting upper Black River in the “smallmouth” category, you might want to test Clearwater and the river just downstream of the spillway for some nice largemouth and spotted bass. There are plenty of shallows, with maps available showing the stream channels and underwater topography. Once you travel downriver to the Markham Springs area you’ll start finding consistent smallmouth angling again.