Lake Of The Ozarks' Payoff Papermouths

Nothing wipes a long, hard winter off the books like April crappie on Lake of the Ozarks. Here's your guide to hitting papermouth pay dirt this month. (April 2009)

Money goes a long way in Missouri, but some things are too priceless even for cash.

Pooling across four Missouri counties, Lake of the Ozarks has five major arms and virtually limitless crappie hideouts.
Photo by Tracy Breen.

For example, no amount of money can soften the punch of a mid-Missouri winter. From early November through March, it's nothing but bitter wind, below-freezing temperatures and an ocean of ice and snow.

The only payoff worthy of that suffering is an April morning on Lake of the Ozarks, when the dogwoods are blooming, the turkeys are gobbling and the crappie are biting. The mornings are crisp, but the afternoons are warm and breezy, perfect for watching the tableau of pastels spread across the hills that ring the big impoundment of the Osage River about an hour south of Jefferson City. Find a cove out of the wind with a gravel bank and a log or two in the water, and you'll be in business. Before you know it, the warm afternoon will yield to a chilly evening, and you'll have a cooler full of tasty black and white crappie.

Rich Wehnes, fisheries program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said April is an easy time to fish for crappie at Lake of the Ozarks because that's usually the peak of the spawning season. The best time to go is a windy day in an area with stained water.

"Light penetration is what drives it," Wehnes said. "You can find fish in the shallows, but of course the more turbid it is, the more shallow those fish are going to be. When you get wind-whipped shores and the water clouds up, those fish could be in 1 to 2 feet of water. When it's clearer, you'll find them deeper."

Sprawling across four counties, Lake of the Ozarks has five major arms that provide seemingly limitless places to catch crappie. My favorite places are in the less-developed stretches of the Niangua River arm, and the even wilder stretches of the Little Niangua River arm, but Wehnes said you can find good fishing almost anywhere.

"A lot of anglers fish the lower half of the lake," Wehnes explained. "People put in their own brushpiles, and the (MDC) has been putting in brushpiles as well."

Greg Stoner, an MDC fisheries biologist based in Camdenton, arguably knows more about Lake of the Ozarks than anybody. He said the MDC has installed scores of brushpiles in the Osage, Grand Glaize and Niangua River arms but said that has little bearing on the amount or quality of crappie in the lake.

"Brushpiles are more for the fishermen than the fish," Stoner said. "The fish do quite well without them, but the brushpiles do concentrate them and make them easier for fishermen to find and catch."

Stoner said his most memorable trip on Lake of the Ozarks occurred about three years ago, when he took his former supervisor on an April crappie trip. Stoner said they resolved not to keep any fish under 10 inches. They caught 300 keepers, he said, but they kept limits of 12-inch and better crappie.

"We got so tired of taking fish off the hook, it was ridiculous," Stoner said. "We hit it perfectly, and I know I'll never forget it."

One thing that helps Lake of the Ozarks grow so many crappie is its nutrient-rich water, which helps feed an enormous population of threadfin shad. A plentiful food supply keeps the lake's crappie fat and healthy. In addition, a couple of years of high water during the springtime fueled a couple of huge crappie year-classes. We should start seeing some of the fish from the 2006 year-class moving into the 9-inch range this year, and it will get better for years to come.

"I would expect a big spawn this year because of all the rain and water levels, but a lot of that is keyed on shad as well," Wehnes said. "In the years when we get lots of little rains that keep water levels stair-stepping upward, every two weeks the shad will pull off a spawn and create a lot of little spawns, which crappie love."

Crappie fishing is good enough at Lake of the Ozarks to keep John Blankenbeker of Macks Creek (573-280-1445) busy guiding customers full-time in the spring. He said April is the best time, but the fishing remains good until early May. He catches a lot of fish, but he said the quality is also excellent.

"We have a 9-inch length limit for crappie on this lake, but we average 9 1/2 to 13 inches," Blankenbeker said. "Some go up to 2 1/2 (or) 3 pounds. This is a pressured lake, so it's hard for them to get into that 2-pound class before they get picked off."

To find crappie this month, Blankenbeker recommended looking for gently sloping sand and gravel banks. When they spawn, crappie move right to the bank, but in the pre-spawn phase, they'll suspend in depths of 4-12 feet. Of course, the lake has miles and miles of those kinds of banks, so nothing is ever crowded.

"The Gravois and Niangua arms are very popular," Blankenbeker said. "The Osage River around the dam, from (the 19-mile mark) to the 5-mile mark is a very good crappie area, and the (Grand) Glaize arm is very good, from the 5- to 7-mile mark. Those areas have a lot of sandy gravel banks."

Brushpiles are very helpful for concentrating crappie, Blankenbeker said. In addition to the MDC brushpiles, many homeowners around the lake also sink brushpiles off the ends of their boat docks. If you see a dock with lights overhanging close to the water, that's a dead giveaway. Although it's perfectly legal to fish any brushpile from a boat, some dock owners are territorial and may object.

"I was out fishing with a customer one time, and one guy came down and talked to us. He was just as nice as he could be," Blankenbeker said. "My partner and I caught six or seven big, old crappie, and this guy started throwing rocks all around our lines. He just kept on talking, just as pleasant."

Most of the time, Blankenbeker uses a 1/32-ounce jighead with a small silver spinner and tube jigs in black/chartreuse, white/yellow or plain white. Some days, pink/white is better, he said.

Stoner said the actual colors don't matter. What's important is a jig that gives a strong light and dark contrast.

"Water filters out the actual colors from the spectrum the deeper you go," Stoner explained. "Red is one of the first to go, so fish don't actually key on the color, but they need (a contrast) that they can see."

Blankenbeker's most memorable crappie outing occurred last April. He found a section of bank about 150 feet long, and he made three complete passes.

"We limited out with 12-inch crappie, with a couple over 13 inches," Blankenbeker said. "I've seen days when I could throw a gold bare hook in the water and catch fish."

My most memorable day was also in April. I fished with Pat Kipp of Jefferson City. We launched at the Larry Gale Access on the Niangua arm and went upstream trying to find a place out of the wind.

We finally found a small cove in a wide bend of the river that had a gently sloping sand and gravel bank. Two downed trees stretched into the water and met at the tops, which went all the way to the bottom in about 6-8 feet of water. Kipp and I used ultra-light spinning rigs with 1/32-ounce and 1/64-ounce White River marabou jigs from Bass Pro Shops. We pegged our lines so that the jigs would come to rest about 4 feet under our balsa wood slip-bobbers.

It was a magic combination. Those little jigs sank very slowly, and the bobbers simply plunged without warning. Both of us caught near-limits of both white and black crappie in that one spot, but we left when the fish we caught started getting noticeably smaller.

By then, the wind died down, and we stopped at another big tree in the water that was parallel to the bank. Using the same combination, we found those fish in deeper water, probably because the water was a bit clearer there. When we finally got the depth right, we finished our limit in about 30 minutes. When the sun dipped below the hills, the fish quit biting.

If you know the lake well, finding fish is simply a matter of finding a spot you like and experimenting. If you're new to the lake, the MDC has an interactive map on its Web site that shows all the MDC brushpiles. Go to www.missouriconservation.org. Click on the "Central" portion of the Missouri map. Under "Special Topics," click "Find fish habitat structures with GPS coordinates."

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