Early in the Great Recession of 2008, the Missouri Division of Tourism promoted what they called “staycations” — Show Me State vacations that offered great value on small budgets.
The economy has eased up a little since then, but in the meantime lots of anglers have discovered that they don’t have to travel thousands or even hundreds of miles to find world-class fishing.
With that in mind, here are 12 months worth of great fishing, all within a day’s drive of home.
JANUARY – North Fork Trout
Rainbow trout and the so-called “German” brown trout aren’t native to Missouri. If you want to pursue them in their native waters, you have to travel to the Western United States or cross the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, why not take advantage of the renowned wild-trout fishery in the North Fork of the White River? The 8.6 miles between the upper outlet of Rainbow Spring and Patrick Bridge are designated blue-ribbon trout area, where the limit is one trout of either species daily, and trout less than 18 inches must be released immediately. Rainbow trout have been spawning in the North Fork for decades, and so any you catch there are wild-bred and perfectly adapted to local conditions. Unlike the hatchery-bred brown trout stockers, North Fork rainbows have learned to be suspicious of artificial offerings. Only flies and other artificial lures are permitted in this blue-ribbon trout area, so catching a trophy rainbow there is a real achievement.
FEBRUARY – Bull Shoals Stripers
You could travel to the East Coast to catch sea-run striped bass, but why bother when Bull Shoals Lake has such good striper fishing? Missouri’s state-record striped bass, a 65-pound, 2-ounce tackle tester, came from Bull Shoals in 2015. A few of its more fortunate siblings still prowl the 45,000-acre lake’s depths, and they have had two more years to fatten up on shad. Plastic swimbaits and 6- to 8-inch, deep-diving crankbaits are good choices for Bull Shoals stripers. Nothing beats the excitement of throwing these offerings into “breaks,” where mixed schools of stripers, white bass and hybrid striped bass are herding shad at the surface. Use heavy bait-casting tackle with 30-pound-test line and wire or fluorocarbon shock leaders to prevent break-offs while fighting these strong, tenacious fighters. The daily limit is three stripers, with a minimum length of 20 inches. There are no creel or length limits on white bass or hybrid stripers at Bull Shoals.
MARCH – Truman Tailwaters Paddlefish
The paddlefish is native to big tributaries of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers. These are Missouri’s biggest game fish. They can be snagged anywhere in Lake of the Ozarks from March 15 through April 30. However, the big action is just below Truman Dam, which shortstops paddlefish swimming upstream in search of now-flooded spawning areas. Monster paddlefish stack up there when warm spring rains raise water temperature, triggering their urge to merge. Males move upstream first, when water temperatures reach around 50 degrees. The larger females wait until the temperature is closer to 55 degrees. Fishing is prohibited in a well-marked zone just below the dam. In addition, boating is banned within a zone marked with buoys and signs. That gives boatless anglers an area where they can cast from the bank without interference. Paddlefish must be at least 34 inches from the front of the eye to the notch in the tail to be legal at Lake of the Ozarks. The daily limit is two.
APRIL – Pomme De Terre Muskies
You might catch bigger muskies in Ontario than in Missouri, but the North Woods have nothing on the Show Me State when it comes to the number of fish caught per hour. The limit on the “Fish of One Thousand Casts” is one fish daily, with a 36-inch minimum. Muskies topping 48 inches patrol Pomme de Terre. You want heavy tackle — braided, 50-pound-test line on a high-capacity, high-speed bait-casting reel with a 6-foot, heavy-action rod. You’ll also want wire leaders to prevent muskies’ teeth from sawing through the line. Cast 8-inch minnow imitations around flooded timber bordering deep water, or troll diving crankbaits over submerged humps. When casting, never end a retrieve without performing a figure-eight with the lure in the water next to the boat. Muskies are notorious for following lures right up to the gunwale.
MAY – Community Lakes Bluegills
Lakes in the Deep South are famous for producing monster “bream,” but the hundreds of community lakes scattered around Missouri give them a run for their money. In addition to the ever-ready bluegills, you will find redear sunfish in some of these lakes. Locating these Show Me State honeyholes is easy with the “Detailed Search” function at mdc.mo.gov/atlas. You can refine your search by species, region or even county. An example of what you can find that way includes 7-acre Morningside Lake in Fulton, which has good numbers of bluegills. Another is 280-acre Harrison County Lake near Bethany, which also boasts good bluegill numbers. Jamesport Community Lake in Daviess County has good numbers of both bluegills and redears. Once you know where you want to go, it’s important to take current fishing conditions into account. The Missouri Department of Conservation makes that easy, too, by providing a weekly fishing report at fishing.mdc.mo.gov/.
JUNE – Lake Of The Ozarks Bass
Want to catch big bucketmouths? You could drive to Lake Fork in Texas, but Lake of the Ozarks produces 10-pound largemouths every year. If it’s nonstop action you’re after, “The Lake” also has astonishing numbers of fat, scrappy spotted bass. This 58,000-acre lake has basic fertility. High fertility means abundant plankton and other small critters that fuel an amazing shad population. Bass grow rapidly on this forage base, a fact that is borne out by the lake’s ability to host more than 500 pro and amateur bass tournaments annually without losing its reputation as a great bass lake. Spotted bass like rocky structure, so they are more likely to hang out around bluffs in the middle to lower portions of the lake’s major arms. They also are prone to lie under the lake’s abundant private docks, waiting to ambush passing baitfish. Plastic worms and jigs with pork frogs produce lots of spots weighing up to 4 1/2 pounds. For lunker largemouths this month, try buzzbaits and spinnerbaits in flooded timber, along weedy edges and in shallow water adjacent to creek channels and secondary points. Plan your fishing trips for the middle of the week, when pleasure boating is minimal.
JULY – Missouri River Flathead Catfish
Santee Cooper and other Southern reservoirs used to be the hot destinations for big cats, but these days Missouri is near the top of the list of places to go for monster whiskerfish. Every summer, newspapers up and down the length of the Missouri River print pictures of flatheads in the 60- to 80-pound range. Fish weighing less than 50 pounds hardly even get noticed. Flatheads like their food still kicking so offer them lively sunfish, skipjacks or shad. When fishing with pole and line during the day, drift these offerings past root wads or piles of flotsam. At night, when flatheads are on the prowl, set trotlines and bank lines along wing dikes, riprapped banks and in the flowing, shallow water between sandbars and the main channel. Check your lines often, and replace dead or sluggish bait with lively specimens. Dozens of excellent boat ramps maintained by the MDC make river access easy. There’s nothing more pleasant than sitting on a sandbar with a cool beverage and waiting for a big flathead to grab your line.
AUGUST – Missouri River Blue Catfish
Missouri holds its own in the contest for big blue catfish, too. Greg Bernal’s 2010 catch of a 130-pounder is the current state record and even held the world record for a while. Fisheries experts say plenty more big ones like it lurk beneath the murky waters of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The upper portion of the Mississippi on Missouri’s eastern border is a great place to catch not only blue cats, but flatheads and channel cats as well. The variety of fishing methods mirrors the species variety. Juglines are preferred for channel catfish. Bank poles are a great way to catch flatheads at night, and tightlining is the most exciting way to catch blues. When running juglines, bait them with chicken liver or stink bait, and rig them at depths from 3 to 20 feet to cover all the bases. Set bank poles on wing dikes and riprapped banks adjacent to root wads and other shady cover where flatheads emerge in the evenings to hunt. Position live bait so that it splashes on the surface to attract a flathead’s attention. Shad or other cut bait is your best choice when tightlining for blues. Be sure to use at least 50-pound-test line and fluorocarbon shock leaders to avoid break-offs, and use egg sinkers to get your bait down to the bottom without causing drag that will make cagey blues spit the hook.
SEPTEMBER – Gasconade River Smallmouths
The Gasconade River is arguably Missouri’s finest smallmouth stream. Its 250-plus miles range from big water with little current all the way to headwater stream where wade-fishing is the only practical approach. In between is the domain of kayaks, canoes and jet boats. In the upper reaches, it’s hard to go wrong with a soft-shell-colored Rebel Craw or a 3-inch Berkley double-tail grub in pumpkinseed color. Farther downstream, add brown pig-and-jig rigs and medium-sized Rapalas to your repertoire. Fish these at the edges of eddy water below riffles and along deep, cobble-lined holes beneath bluffs. Be advised that the farther downstream you go from I-44, the more you will run into joy-riding motorboats and jet skis. This isn’t much of a problem Tuesday through Thursday, but they ruin fishing on weekends, and it takes a day or two for fish to return to normal behavior patterns after the crowds depart on Sunday evening.
OCTOBER – Stockton Lake Walleyes
Stockton Lake offers walleye fishing on par with many northern lakes, and the action really heats up this month. The MDC has been stocking this 25,000-acre lake with 750,000 walleye fingerlings every other year since 1998. The result is world-class fishing for “Old Marble-eyes.” The daily limit is four walleyes, with a 15-inch minimum length limit. That last regulation helps guarantee a quality fishery. Finding schools of shad is the key to catching walleyes at Stockton. A fish graph is a huge help. Watch for large balls of shad with larger fish around them. If the traces of the larger fish are blurred, it indicates actively feeding walleyes that will respond to your offerings. Jigging white and chartreuse jigs or spoons — both tipped with minnows or nightcrawlers — is a proven tactic. So is trolling those offerings slowly past baitfish concentrations or along the edges of sharp drops along creek channels. When trolling, use a barrel swivel to prevent twisted line. Fishing is best at night, early and late in the day or on overcast, windy days when light doesn’t penetrate as deeply into Stockton’s clear water. On sunny days, look for walleyes in deep water along creek channels. Don’t be surprised if you reel in a nice crappie or smallmouth — Stockton is also known for those species.
NOVEMBER – Trout Park Rainbows
Winter catch-and-release fishing at Missouri’s four trout parks starts the second Friday in November and runs through the second Monday in February. MDC puts big brood fish from its hatcheries into the water to add to the fun. You don’t need a daily trout tag to fish during the winter — just a general fishing permit if you are age 16 through 64 and a trout permit, regardless of your age. Only flies are legal during the winter season. Bennett Spring, Montauk and Roaring River state parks are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Monday during the winter season. Meramec Spring Park, which is operated by the private James Foundation, is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily during the winter.
DECEMBER – Lake Of The Ozarks Crappie
Want to go ice-fishing but don’t like the cold? Once again, Missouri has the solution to your quandary. Several resorts at Lake of the Ozarks cater to anglers with a yen to catch a mess of crappie without freezing their fingers — and other parts. Robin’s Resort (573-348-2275), Lakeview Resort (573-374-5555), and Wilson’s Resort (573-873-5178) all have enclosed fishing docks that are heated in the winter and air-conditioned during the summer. For information about other options, you can contact the Camdenton Area Chamber of Commerce, 800-769-1004, info@CamdentonChamber.Com, or stop by their office at 739 W. Highway 54, Camdenton.
All the foregoing makes a pretty convincing argument for fishing in Missouri, regardless of whether you can afford to travel elsewhere. So hitch up the boat or grab your bait bucket/fishing seat and go get ’em!