Caught In The Cold Current

When all else is frozen over, Show-Me State streams can yield some great January bass fishing.

(January 2008).

Photo by Tom Evans.

The air was relatively cold, the temperature hovering in the low 40s, and the sky cloudy as I loaded my canoe onto the truck, grabbed my bass rods and lures and headed south. I badly needed a fishing fix: I'd just finished a long project with a short deadline, matters complicated by the presence of my supervisor hanging over my shoulder.

Two hours later, as I drove down to an access point under a bridge on the Big Piney River, the air had cooled further, and large snowflakes began to fall gently to the river. It was beautiful -- but I questioned my sanity. Why was I fishing by myself in the middle of winter amid the beginnings of a snowstorm?

The reason was simple: because I could, and because I knew that downstream of the place at which I'd offloaded my canoe waited a winter honeyhole full of both smallmouth and largemouth bass.

I spent the better part of the last 30 years researching Missouri stream fish populations as a fisheries research biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. My research took me to northeast Missouri, tributaries of the Missouri River and to many south Missouri Ozark streams, some flowing east to join with the Missouri River, others south, joining ultimately with the Mississippi River. It was, I must confess, a great occupation, and I loved every minute of it. It allowed me to learn the ins and outs of my favorite streams, which streams supported the best bass populations and, most important, how bass reacted during the different seasons of the year.

All streams are not created equal, however, and bass react differently during the different times of the year.

Once early in my career, I remember, I sat in a local watering hole and listened as bass anglers bragged about their winter hotspots -- areas in which bigmouths would congregate when air and water temperatures cooled. At the time, I questioned some of their thoughts and conclusions, but I changed my mind after several years of research.

My personal investigations showed that once water temperatures cooled, bass moved out of areas where I'd found them residing during summer months. The final piece of evidence came from a University of Missouri research project on Jacks Fork. Researchers studying bass populations and behavior found that when water temperatures cooled, Jacks Fork bass moved to spring areas such as Alley Spring Branch. Stream bass reacted to the cooling water by moving to nearby pools with warm spring inflows. Missouri springs flow at a constant 59 degrees, considerably warmer than the 30- to 40-degree water temperatures found in winter.

Whenever we needed bass for my research during the winter months, I'd send the collection crew to the Big Piney River to collect fish from a couple of pools where major springs entered the river. On one particular day, I was visiting one of those areas.

The snowfall increased as I offloaded my canoe, pulled on waders, loaded a coffee thermos and packed a plastic sack with a change of clothes in case I fell in during my short float. I planned to float down a half-mile or so to a spring hole on the river, spend the afternoon fishing -- by myself --and then paddle back upstream to my truck, pulling my canoe through the riffles.

The snowfall's rate increased, giving the world almost a surreal feeling. I slipped quietly downstream.

SKINNY-WATERBASSIN' TACTICS

Winter bass react to environmental stimuli in the same way that they deal with them during other periods of the year -- only more slowly. As water cools, a fish's metabolism also slows, so the bass requires less food and reacts extremely sluggishly to environmental stimuli such as crayfish or minnows swimming through its attack zone.

In the winter, bass' physical processes slow, yet the fish still feed, and will take a lure readily, as long as you present it more slowly and closely to the bass's holding water.

The key to success in the winter is fishing the lure slowly along the bottom near large boulders or sunken timber without getting hung up with each cast.

In Ozark streams, this means anglers need to fish near the bottom, near boulders or downed timber, using lures that imitate small crayfish, minnows or worms. My experience suggests that live bait, minnows, crayfish or large worms will pay dividends.

I keep my fishing equipment simple. I recommend using an open-face spinning reel on a 6-foot light-action spinning rod spooled with 6- or 8-pound monofilament or the newer fluorocarbon line. This setup allows me to make precision casts and feel the lure as it walks along the bottom.

In wintertime, I use 1/8-, 1/16-, or sometimes 1/32-ounce jigs tipped with Chompers, crayfish, Tubes or 3- or 4-inch worms with twisty tails. Rig the lures to be weedless, thread the lure on the jig hook, and then pass the hook tip back through the body of the lure just enough to allow it to penetrate when you set the hook.

The key to success in the winter is fishing the lure slowly along the bottom near large boulders or sunken timber without getting hung up with each cast. Executed correctly, this technique will allow an angler to feel a bass pick up the lure. When this happens, set the hook -- and hang on!

WHERE TO FISH

During the winter, pick ice-free streams and areas of streams having a warmwater source. The most common warmwater sources in the Ozarks are the many springs that keep Missouri's Ozark streams flowing clear and warm all winter. But don't discount some northeastern Missouri streams, especially if they have a regularly discharging dam or a great enough flow to stay ice-free even during the coldest periods.

Provided herein are a few suggestions on where to find winter bass in Missouri's skinny water. But don't let these pointers limit your fishing horizon. Do your own exploring using the wealth of information available on Missouri springs, their locations and the locations of nearby access points.

Northeast Missouri

The best stream in northeast Missouri for winter bass fishing, hands down, is the Lower Salt River downstream from the Clarence Cannon Re-Regulation dam. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Clarence Cannon Dam and Mark Twain Lake, they also constructed a reregulation dam approximately nine miles downstream to allow engineers to pump water back when Mark Twain Lake needed additional water. This structure has been responsible for the creation of a great winter fishery downstream in t

he Salt River. Before its completion, the river froze over periodically, but it now remains ice-free for several miles downstream. Access the reregulation dam area and tailwater from state Route A, just northwest of Center. This area provides anglers with a boat ramp just downstream from the dam.

Ozarks

Nearly all of Missouri's Ozark streams are influenced by spring flows. Some, such as Alley Spring, are large; others are small, influencing fish in only a pool or two. Some streams drain hundreds of acres; others are small, intimate streams only available to wading anglers. All can provide great winter fishing.

Missouri's longest -- and, in my opinion, richest -- stream is the Gasconade River, flowing more than 300 Missouri miles and draining some of western Missouri's richest, most productive lands. This combination of size and productivity offers Missouri bass anglers a wealth of winter fishing opportunities.

I've fished, floated and researched this great river for most of my MDC career. My favorite stretch is the 20 miles from MDC's Riddle Bridge Access north of St. Roberts on state Route Y, downstream to the MDC access at Jerome.

This section also hosts one of MDC's special smallmouth management areas, where anglers must release all smallmouth bass smaller than 18 inches. This bass management approach has spawned one of the state's -- and the region's -- best smallmouth fisheries. It also supports some great largemouth and spotted bass angling on the river.

Some pools freeze briefly during very cold winters, but most years you can put in at Riddle Bridge and float the entire section. I recommend a johnboat that is equipped with both a small outboard motor and a trolling motor.

During winter months, check out Mossy Spring, which flows into a large deep pool about 3 miles upstream from state Route 28. This spring attracts both largemouth and smallmouth. I've found most largemouth across the river from the spring and most smallmouth just downstream.

The next two winter fishing areas -- the mouth of the Big Piney River and Boiling Spring -- are located downstream from the Route 28 Bridge.

The Big Piney River enters the Gasconade River at mile 142, creating one of the best smallmouth pools in this section. The river increases in size and flow here, and I've caught numerous large smallmouth in the Little Piney River mouth and just downstream in the Gasconade River. In fact, my largest Missouri smallmouth, which measured more than 20 inches, came from this section.

Boiling Spring, a large spring at mile 144, about six miles upstream from Jerome, influences two long, deep pools, creating great winter bass fishing. This section is also very popular with local tournament bass anglers.

The Big Piney River is my all-time favorite smallmouth stream during all seasons. I usually fish it at least once each winter because of the ease of access and the great bass population.

Unlike the Gasconade, the Big Piney River has a large number of springs entering the river throughout its length and public accesses about every 8 miles. It's one of the MDC's special bass management areas with a 15-inch length limit. Pick your section and float it either with a canoe, which I usually do, or a johnboat with a small outboard motor. Some anglers use a trolling motor to move through the pools.

Although you can experience great wade-fishing near the U.S. Route 63 access north of Cabool, this section becomes quite low in winter, making float-fishing difficult. Concentrate on the middle section between the U.S. Forest Service's Paddy Creek access and campground to the MDC's Ross Bridge Access, 14 miles downstream and west of Duke.

This section has good access, allowing anglers to tailor a fishing trip to a particular time frame. It has great bass habitat, an excellent population, and four major springs that create concentration points for winter bass.

The lower section of the Big Piney River from the Spring Creek Access, south of Newburg on state Route J to Interstate 44 north of Devils Elbow, provides some great year-round bass fishing. It receives less use than the middle section but has fewer springs than the middle or upper sections.

A bunch of other rivers that I recommend for winter fishing would be the Meramec, the Lower Current River, the Upper North Fork of the White, the Osage Fork of the Gasconade and the Upper Eleven Point River. But I'll finish by recommending Jacks Fork River from the National Park Service's Blue Springs Access east of Mountain View to the Rymers Access, and from the Rymers Access to the Bay Creek Access.

This section supports several major springs and is managed by an 18-inch special smallmouth bass regulation. During the winter, it receives little fishing pressure. On either float, you will catch numerous smallmouth and an occasional 18- to 20-inch fish. It also supports a great largemouth population.

If you're looking to net some smallmouth bass, fish around the springs and in the deep pools near large boulders. For largemouth, fish the slow, deep areas. Most of the year, pools have areas with Lilly pads. Come winter, the pads disappear, leaving only remnants. Fish those areas for largemouth.

I rigged my spinning rod with a 4-inch red worm with a white curly tail on a 1/16-ounce jig and cast it gently upstream from where the spring entered the pool. I let it sink to the bottom and retrieved it slowly, bumping along the bottom. I felt it slide over a rock, then startle as a fish picked it up. I allowed a little slack in my line and set the hook. The small bass hung tight to the bottom momentarily, then tail-walked to the surface. It wasn't large, but still a good start on the afternoon. I quickly released it and cast to a large boulder just downstream from the spring. The current carried the lure under the boulder. The second smallmouth was larger, nearing 13 inches. It provided a fun scrap before being netted and released.

As the afternoon lengthened and the snow increased, I caught and released 10 or 12 smallmouth bass, several large rock bass and a largemouth of about 2 pounds. The snow continued to fall as I returned upstream, pleasantly relaxed and ready to face the world again.

For more information about where to fish, accesses and maps, and for information on the fish populations in the different rivers, check out the MDC Web site at www.mdc.mo.gov/fish./" The MDC also publishes a wonderful book by Oz Hawksley -- Missouri Ozark Waterways -- that includes information (complete with maps and access information) about most float streams.

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