Northern Bass, Southern Bass

Bass in the upper part of our state are on a different spawning schedule than those in the lower portions. Here's where and how to catch them this month in both regions! (March 2010)

Pete Wenners ran a crankbait along a rocky bank to fool this largemouth at Table Rock
Photo by John Neporadny.

March bass fishing in Missouri is a microcosm of what happens during the spring throughout the rest of the country.

The Show Me State's Mason-Dixon Line is Interstate 70, which cuts across Central Missouri and divides the state into two distinct regions. South of the interstate is the Ozark Hills region that typically has milder temperatures in the winter and warms up quicker in the spring than the northern half of the state. The flat farmland region north of the interstate experiences harsh winters and the lakes usually freeze over until late February or early March.

Bass fishing patterns throughout the U.S. can differ greatly from north to south during spring. Fish could be spawning in Alabama during March, but their northern relatives in Iowa won't be on nests until June. The same scenario plays out in Missouri during March, as some bass on lakes in the southern half of the state could be on beds while lakes in northern Missouri are just thawing out.

"Throughout the state there is probably a pretty good difference between the Bootheel and northern Missouri along the Iowa border," said Greg Stoner, Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist for the Lake of the Ozarks. "There is probably a two- to three-week difference in the fishing."

The peak of the bass spawn usually occurs when the water temperature is in the 58- to 62-degree range, according to Shane Bush, the MDC fisheries biologist for Table Rock Lake. Some of the lakes in the extreme southern section of the state could reach those temperatures by the end of March if the winter has been mild. But the water temperatures north of the I-70 line probably still will be hovering in the low to mid-40s.

MDC fisheries biologist Ross Dames notes the peak of the spawn at Mark Twain is around the first of May. "Some of the big fish at Mark Twain will start spawning about the third week of April," he says.

Since the bass fishing drastically varies from the northern to southern reservoirs during March, here's a look at what bass will be doing on Missouri lakes throughout the state.

WAPPAPELLO
Largemouth bass in this shallow 8,400-acre impoundment in southeast Missouri usually are the first in the state's major lakes to spawn, sometimes showing up on beds as early as the end of March. Jeff Fansler, a tournament competitor and former guide on the lake, has found water temperatures up to 60 degrees by late March on his home waters.

In early March, Fansler searches for pre-spawn bass making the transition from their wintertime haunts in the river and creek channels to staging areas along the flats. His favorite lures for catching pre-spawn bass include jigs and pork frogs, small crankbaits and Rat-L-Traps. The former guide notes the water will be too dirty to throw suspending stick baits or to see fish on beds.

Pre-spawn bass remain on the flats at depths of 3 to 5 feet throughout the middle of the month, and then some start showing up in the spawning pockets by the end of March. "Then you can sometimes catch them on a spinnerbait, but usually you catch them on something you can throw up on a bed like a tube or a worm," says Fansler.

Typical spawning banks for Wappapello bass are pockets covered with chunk rock -- referred to as "black rock" by the local anglers -- where the fish will build nests sometimes less than a foot deep.

TABLE ROCK
This southwestern reservoir in the Ozark Hills is probably the second major lake in the state most likely to have some bass spawning in March. "After a normal winter without extreme cold conditions, we normally find fish on beds the first of April, and right at the end of March we start to see some," claims local guide Pete Wenners. "When we had a warm winter a couple of years ago, it was mid-March when we saw some fish moving up on the beds."

The majority of the fish on this 43,100-acre impoundment will be in the pre-spawn stage, which usually is a prime time for catching a wall-hanger. "March is without a doubt the best time for big fish," says Wenners.

The lake contains all three species of black bass, largemouth, spotted and smallmouth, and all three seem to follow the same general spawning timetable. The fish differ in their choices of spawning locales, though. The guide usually finds spotted bass and smallmouths bedding in open, flat gravel pockets, whereas largemouths will make their nests in pockets filled with standing timber and docks and along rock shelves.

Early March tactics include jerking suspending stick baits or swimming plastic grubs and jigs. Some fish also bite on crankbaits at the beginning of the month. "The fish are coming up out of the deep water and starting to suspend on main-lake and secondary points just outside the spawning pockets," Wenners says.

Smallmouth and spotted bass usually suspend 5 to 12 feet deep over open water, whereas largemouths will suspend in the tops of trees over depths of 15 to 25 feet. The guide jerks suspending stick baits on windy, cloudy days for pre-spawn fish, but switches to swimming grubs on the calm, bluebird days.

During the latter part of the month, Wenners still uses jerkbaits and grubs for pre-spawn bass, but he also starts throwing jigs, finesse worms on split-shot rigs, and shaky-head worms to bass that have moved into the spawning pockets. On windy days, he can catch those same fish on spinnerbaits or Wiggle Wart crankbaits.

LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Situated in central Missouri, 54,000-acre Lake of the Ozarks rarely freezes over completely during the winter, but some sections can still be covered with ice in early March. The lake usually is drawn down to winter pool during the month, and the water temps can range from the high 30s at the beginning of March to around the 50-degree mark by the end.

Accomplished tournament angler Brian Maloney notes that he has never seen any bass spawn on his home lake during March. Most of Lake of the Ozarks largemouth and spotted bass are in the pre-spawn stage by the end of the month, and the fish usually spawn from mid-April to mid-May, according to MDC biologist Greg Stoner.

In early March, Maloney searches for bass making the transition from winter havens to the pre-spawn staging areas. "The water temperature at the beginning of M

arch is around 40 degrees," says Maloney. "And when we start to get 45 to 46 degrees, we start to see the fish pull off the channel swings and rocky banks and get up on the pea gravel where they start biting a Wiggle Wart."

Since the lake is low throughout the month, it is easy to follow the migration route of Lake of the Ozarks bass as they move along the transition areas where the bank changes from slab rock on the main lake to chunk rock in the coves, then to a mixture of chunk rock and gravel and finally to pea gravel pockets.

Lake of the Ozarks has a reputation of being a good place to throw suspending stick baits in cold water, so Maloney recommends jerking Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues or LuckyCraft Pointers for pre-spawn fish in the early part of the month. A jig or Chompers twin-tail plastic grub worked slowly along the dropoffs of channel swings and rounded points will produce strikes.

By the end of March, the water temperature has climbed above 45 degrees and pre-spawn bass have moved up to the pea gravel banks where Maloney catches these fish on small crankbaits. "You still have to be relatively close to deep water, but the fish are starting to feed shallower and sun themselves."

He finds that three or four days of sunshine in late March usually prompts Lake of the Ozarks bass to move up shallow on the spawning banks, which typically are a mix or pea gravel and sand in the back halves of long coves.

SMITHVILLE
This Kansas City-area reservoir has developed a reputation for producing big bass, and March can be a prime time for landing a trophy.

If February has been fairly warm, some big fish will be on the move in March, according to Gary Burton, owner of Burton's Bait & Tackle in Smithville. "They will at least move up to warm up in the shallows," says Burton. He believes any tournament held in late March during a warm spring would have plenty of big bass come across the weigh-in stage.

"We generally don't start tournaments on the lake until the last weekend in March," says Burton. "It can be iffy then or it can be great."

Throughout most of the month, Smithville bass will be in a wintertime mode. Bass usually enter the pre-spawn stage at Smithville by mid- to late April.

"Generally, fishing Smithville Lake in March revolves around rocks," Burton says. "The rocks around bridges hold some heat and the fish pull up out of deep water and hold around those rocks." Some fish can be taken on sunny days along clay banks that receive a lot of sunshine.

Smithville has received plenty of rain the last few years and the lake has been muddy, but if the early spring is dry, the water usually has enough visibility to effectively use suspending stick baits along the rocky banks. Crankbaits will trigger strikes along the rocks and shallow flats later in the month.

"If the fish move up to the shallow timber, guys can catch them slow-rolling a spinnerbait through the wood cover," suggests Burton.

The lake is ideal for any angler who wants to fish shallow in March. "The odd thing about this lake is the fish are never deep," says Burton. Even during the dead of winter, bass rarely hold in water more than 10 feet deep. Burton suggests that even though the bass are shallow throughout March, anglers should look for these thin-water fish in areas close to deep-water access, such as a channel swing or point.

MARK TWAIN
Winter lingers longer on this northeast Missouri reservoir. "Sometimes in March the lake is still frozen over completely," says Greg Cooper, who frequently competes in tournaments on his home waters of Mark Twain. "So it usually is later in March until we see the open water so that we can get out and go fishing."

He considers the third week of March as the usual time of the month when ice-out occurs. Cooper and MDC biologist Ross Dames concur that the pre-spawn stage for Mark Twain bass usually starts in early to mid-April. For most of March, bass will be holding in their wintertime locales, but some will start to move shallower by the end of the month.

"On a good, sunny, warm day in March, they will catch some fish a little shallower," says Dames.

The water remains off-colored at best on Mark Twain during the month. "Its water clarity is nowhere near Table Rock or Lake of the Ozarks," says Cooper. The water temperature throughout the month will range from 38 to 42 degrees.

The cold, dirty water forces Mark Twain anglers to wind a crankbait, slow-roll a spinnerbait or crawl a jig-and-chunk to catch sluggish bass the entire month. The key to catching these inactive fish is presenting all the lures slowly.

Cooper concentrates on Mark Twain bass in the early spring along main-lake bluffs and channel swings where the fish may be holding anywhere from 2 to 20 feet, depending on the weather and baitfish activity.

"The shad dictate a lot what goes on here," Cooper says. "We kind of watch the depth of the shad so we know the bass are usually just right underneath them."

MOZINGO
This northwest Missouri impoundment also freezes over during the winter, but the lake usually is clear of ice in early March. However, the water remains cold throughout the month and the action usually picks up until about the third week of March.

"You are not going to catch a lot of fish, but the bass you do catch are probably quality fish," says Dave Cochran, who frequently fishes tournaments on Mozingo. Quality fish there are 4- and 5-pounders.

The water is clear enough to throw suspending stick baits, but Cochran favors casting to cold-water bass with finesse worms attached to drop-shot rigs or fishing jig-and-pork frogs. The local angler works his lures along points at various depths.

"Sometimes I might catch them staged coming up out of deep water, and they could be anywhere from 3 to 15 feet of water. Sunshine will bring them up, but if it stays cloudy it will keep them deeper."

Cochran estimates the pre-spawn at Mozingo usually starts around the middle of April and bass start spawning by mid-May. However, some big fish start moving to the shallows by late March after three or four days of sunshine when the water temps climb close to 45 degrees.

The local angler considers his home impoundment one of the best tournament lakes in the state, since it frequently takes 20 pounds to win a one-day event there. A tournament on March 29, 2009, at Mozingo produced a winning weight of five bass totaling 19.09 pounds; the big bass of the event was a 6.86-pounder.

Whether you fish north or south of Interstate 70, you will have a good chance of catching a heavyweight bass in March.

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