Best Of The East: 3 Great Smallmouth Waters

Whether you like fishing major reservoirs, big rivers or small streams for smallies, one of these suburban waterways should suit your fancy.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Eastern Missouri smallmouth anglers are a fortunate lot.

No matter the season, no matter the type of water preferrred and no matter the angling style, there's something for everyone. And May is one of the best months to sample it all: The fish are off the beds, the reservoirs are warming, the rivers are stable, and the streams are at their prime.

Let's take a look at three of the best venues in the area.

When it comes to big water, there's no better place to fish for smallmouths than Table Rock Lake, north of the Arkansas state line and south of Springfield. The lake's reputation is growing every year as the place to catch huge smallies in Missouri; indeed, it's beginning to develop a national reputation, rivaling that of the Tennessee impoundments and of the Great Lakes for high numbers of big fish.

Table Rock is best described as a classic highland reservoir -- meaning that the waters in this 45,000-acre lake are deep and clear. There's a lot of structure and cover under the water along with a high number of in-flowing tributaries. Bluffs, points, cuts and bays also characterize it. Table Rock is full of chunk rock, pea gravel and sand. All in all, it's a textbook example of a top-quality smallmouth fishery.

Of course, that won't grow big smallies by itself. You still need lots of forage and spawning opportunities. That's no problem for Table Rock. According to Bill Anderson, Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist for the lake, the forage base is excellent, as are the spawning conditions.

Anderson reports that the lake has a high population of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and crawfish. They all have plenty to eat and regularly achieve strong spawns. This provides the smallmouths all they could possibly want on a year-round basis.

Good spawning conditions have helped the smallies. With water levels relatively stable, the fish reproduce quite successfully each year. That's important, indeed essential, for good fishing over the long haul.

Add to these ideal conditions a rather mild climate, and it's easy to see why the smallmouths in Table Rock grow fast. According to Anderson, the fish reach 15 inches in 5 or 6 years. This rapid growth allows them to reach larger sizes well before their natural mortality.

Numbers are good as well at Table Rock. It's not uncommon, especially in the spring and fall, for anglers to catch several smallmouths over 3 pounds in one day.

After the spawn, usually between late April and the beginning of May, smallmouth fishing starts picking up on the lake. Professional guide Phillip Stone

(www.ozarksfishin.com) says that's when it's time to head towards the dam. As the thermocline forms, the fish begin moving into their summer pattern. During this period, they're hungry, and typically feed early and often.

This is when Stone hits any of the five islands scattered around the dam. The better spots have brushpiles resting on gravel or chunk rock in 15 to 25 feet of clear water. "Seems like they all produce good fish even though they're fished constantly year after year," he said.

If the islands don't produce, he'll usually head towards one of the countless main lake points on Table Rock. The points are not created equal, however. The best ones are those that drop off into deep water, have substrates of pea gravel and offer some form of artificial structure, such as a brushpile. And if there's a river channel nearby, the point will often produce some of the larger fish.

According to Stone, the larger fish stage on or near the brush to feed and then make their way to the deeper water, where they spend the summer months. Fish these areas thoroughly with a 5/16-ounce brown and black jig.

"The bite is hot this time of year '¦ you won't have any trouble catching 'em once you find 'em," he said.

Stone's third choice for larger smallies is the area along the mouth of Long's Creek. Again, he recommends fishing brush situated near gravel, with the best spots typically being in 15 to 25 feet of water. Fish these areas thoroughly with the same jig.

Brushpiles in any one of these areas aren't hard to find. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these swatches of cover, most of which result from the work of guides and local anglers desiring to create their own cover.

A well-kept local secret at Table Rock is the fact that over the last several years many of the guides on the lake have been building rockpiles rather than brushpiles. These spots are typically hard to find, but once located, they can yield numbers of nice fish, especially if the cover is located along the fish's migration routes.

In addition to the jig, Stone also recommends that anglers keep one rod rigged with a jigging spoon and another rod rigged with a topwater popper. Big smallies are prone to school on the surface, corralling shad, this month.

As May turns to June, Stone begins fishing the thermocline. It's usually found in 25 to 35 feet of water. He typically drags a brown and purple football jig along any structure or cover that intersects with the thermocline.

It's realistic to expect to catch fish in the 3-pound range at Table Rock, though there's a good chance of catching a smallmouth of 5 pounds or better. And don't be surprised if the creature tugging on the end of the line is a spotted bass or a meanmouth instead of a smallmouth. The lake is full of both species and, like the smallies, they grow fast and big. In November 2004, the lake gave up a spot just shy of 7 pounds and a meanmouth over 5 pounds.

JAMES RIVER

Anglers who prefer to fish moving water, however, should give the James River a try. The stretch from the Highway 13 bridge upstream to Hootentown is the place to fish. In fact, it has to be one of the most picturesque places on the planet. With a mixture of deep running pools, gravel bars and lots of bluffs, it's hard not to get distracted by the beauty of it all -- at least until the fish start biting!

Anderson, himself an avid angler, reports that you can expect good catches on a wide variety of lures and baits. During May the water is typically clear, so smaller baits are preferred. Try 1/4-ounce buzzbaits, spider grubs fished on a jighead, small jigs and crankbaits to tempt these

fish.

In the early morning or late evening or when the clouds are thick, a buzzbait can be lethal. Throw them along seams in the current, around sharp rocky points and over any gently running water you can find. These baits are especially effective in the deep, black shade found under the towering bluff walls.

Buzzbaits in colors such as white, chartreuse or black are typically fine here. But don't be afraid to toss colorful lures in shades such as pink, yellow, green, red or blue; they'll all catch fish at times. If the bite slows, try modifying the blades to offer the fish something they haven't seen.

Work the spider grubs and jigs along any rocky areas with strong current. Most anglers find that swimming the lures in the current works best. If that technique fails to draw strikes, try bouncing the jigs along the bottom, taking long pauses between each movement of the lure.

When the bite gets really tough here, fish one of the numerous bluff banks.

Crayfish are the primary food source of the James River smallies, so grubs and jigs should resemble crayfish in size, color and action. Small crankbaits are also good choices here. Work these lures in the larger pools, specifically the first and second pools upstream from the Highway 13 bridge. Also, work the crankbaits near underwater ledges, dropoffs or any other discernable piece of cover or structure. These lures are best fished by bouncing them right off any object in the water. For example, allow the crankbaits to deflect off rock, wood or even the bottom in shallow areas.

Crankbaits have been known to trick a number of the larger fish in the river. The best place to find big smallmouths in the pools is at the headwaters, where the water empties into the pool. Toss your lure into the running water and bring it back across the current. Anglers typically won't catch many fish using this technique, but the fish that are caught will usually be large fish.

Crankbait color is largely a matter of angler choice. But anglers should use either shad or crayfish-imitating colors. It's hard to go wrong with either.

Nowhere is tackle more important than on this stretch of the James. The water, at least in places, is relatively clear and shallow, but the smallmouths are big -- sometimes real big. On top of that, there's a lot of rock and wood to complicate matters. You'll need tackle suitable for fishing small clear water yet is strong and tough enough to handle large fish.

Most anglers fishing along the James use spinning tackle. Medium or medium-light rods are the norm. Rods that are 7 feet in length are ideal, and fast tips are a must, since many of the lures will be rather light. Besides aiding with the casting of small lures, fast tips are great for quick hooksets while still offering the strength and backbone to land a 17- or 18-inch smallmouth.

Lines used here should be abrasion-resistant and yet of light weight and small diameter. Either 4- or 6-pound-test will generally get the job done. Many anglers are tying short fluorocarbon leaders to their main lines. Fluorocarbon is nearly invisible and offers very little stretch. Don't use too much of it, however, since it nicks easily and won't hold up very well on the rocks.

Do a little scouting before fishing the James. There are plenty of different types of water to select, and anglers need proper equipment to be successful. In the pools and larger runways, a small boat or canoe will be most useful. On the other hand, a set of waders will be more appropriate in some places.

There's access to the James at the Highway 13 bridge, at Kerr, about eight miles above Galina, and at Hootentown. There are fine maps available from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Call the Springfield office at (417) 895-6880 to order your copy.

This section of the James River is subject to special fishing regulations. Currently, anglers can keep one smallmouth over 15 inches. There's also a special regulation for largemouths (15 inches) and spotted bass (12 inches). The creel limit is six black bass per day, only one of which may be a smallmouth.

BEAVER CREEK

If it's stream-fishing an angler wants, Beaver Creek is just the spot. Located in Taney County, the creek flows to Bull Shoals Reservoir. It should be easily floatable in May, assuming ordinary weather patterns and rainfall levels. The smallmouths aren't nearly as big as those in Table Rock or even in the James River. Still, it is a great place to fish.

As is the case with most small streams, the smallmouths can be finicky here. At times anglers will catch one on nearly every cast. Other times, however, it seems as if no fish are in in the area. That problem can usually be solved with an understanding of the prevalent forage species, crayfish. Try using live crayfish to dupe these wily fish. Anglers can catch their own bait, or they can use a great imitation, such as a crankbait or spider jig.

When fishing live bait at Beaver, place a split shot above a 1/0 light wire hook. Most anglers hook their crayfish through the tail, and then work the bait with the current around the deepest water in the area. Keep in mind that "deep" is a relative term. In some stretches of Beaver, it may be less than 2 feet.

Small grubs or tiny hair jigs are also productive. Make sure lures "match the hatch" in terms of both size and color. Allow the offering to tumble along with the current and drop into any holes or cuts along the way. Carefully work around any wood cover in the area, especially those areas forming a current break. Such spots almost always hold a fish or two.

Wading is a viable option in the upper stretches of Beaver Creek. Anglers can catch a lot of fish by wading here. Be wary, however, as this stretch is full of holes and treacherous rocks. Wear a personal flotation device, and never wade alone.

Tackle preferences will depend on the angler. Spinning rods and reels spooled with 4-pound-test line will add to the excitement. The setup will also aid in handling the tiny lightweight lures most anglers use.

Smallmouths in this stream will run between 12 and 15 inches. A few bigger than that are caught every year, but not very many.

Access is somewhat limited. The MDC at Springfield has maps, booklets and copies of the regulations. Contact them at (417) 895-6880.

On the surface, the three areas detailed above couldn't be more different. While one is a reservoir and the two others feature moving water, neither fishes the same. What each of the locations does offer, though, is great fishing for smallmouths in May.

Without regard to the specific location that an angler ultimately opts to fish, he or she would do well to bring jigs, buzzbaits and spinnerbaits -- and to look forward to a great day on the water!

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