Bass fishing is, by its very nature, an almost impossibly broad topic. That’s doubly true here in Missouri, because exceptional fishing for largemouths, spots and smallmouths can be found in more bodies of water than any angler could visit in a lifetime.
But if availability won’t work to help focus the topic, what will? For the purposes of this article, I chose to accentuate the maximum size bass an angler can reasonably expect to land. That narrowed the field to largemouths, but, since it’s at least technically possible to find a lunker largemouth virtually anywhere there’s permanent water the length and breadth of our state, that did nothing to help you or me decide where to spend our precious bass fishing time this year.
Then the light began to dawn. Largemouth bass evolved in small, shallow bodies of water, so, while there’s no denying that the species has adapted very well to large reservoirs, it’s logical to assume a higher percentage of the largemouths living in small bodies of water will reach their full genetic potential. Even a casual glance at the Missouri Master Angler records, which shows a disproportionate share of big bass coming from farm ponds, provides proof of that theory.
Unfortunately, very few of us will ever get to cast a lure into a lunker-rich farm pond. However, we can all fish in Missouri Department of Conservation impoundments. Most of them are larger than most farm ponds, to be sure, but they’re small enough to provide good representations of the largemouth bass’ ancestral homes.
A final twist of the focusing ring yielded the idea to ask four MDC fisheries biologists, each of whom represented one of the regions encompassing the four corners of the state, to name the best MDC impoundment in their area specifically for big bass. Here are the sometimes-surprising results.
It’s unlikely that more than a handful of Missouri’s several hundred thousand bass anglers know the state has a Mercer County, and even fewer could locate it on a map. That’s just fine with lunker bass fans lucky enough to live in or near Princeton, because the more unknown “their” local honeyhole remains, the better they like it.
Sorry fellow bassin’ guys and gals, but Lake Paho’s 273 acres of lunker heaven is simply too good a secret to keep. At least that’s the impression I got from MDC fisheries biologist Jerry Wickman when I asked him to name northwestern Missouri’s No. 1 MDC owned or managed impoundment specifically for big (4-pounds or larger) largemouths. He scarcely drew a breath before replying, “Lake Paho.
“There are several other very good big bass impoundments in Missouri’s northwestern quadrant, of course,” he explained, “but you asked me to name the best one.”
I learned many years ago to listen when biologists speak, but that didn’t keep me from wanting to know exactly what it was that made him so quick to flag this out-of-the-way body of water. First, he wowed me with statistics by noting that, in 2009, 75 percent of the bass the agency sampled in Lake Paho were more than 15 inches long. A significant number of those fish ranged from 20 inches to more than 23 inches in length. If the mere thought of a 23-inch, broad-shouldered largemouth doesn’t make your hands shake, you probably shouldn’t be reading this article!
Lake Paho’s distance from the state’s major population centers is, of course, one reason why its bass grow so large, but it’s not the only reason. Private boats are prohibited on the lake in order to prevent the introduction of zebra mussels into the water source of a nearby MDC fish hatchery. Flat-bottomed and V-bottomed boats are available at no cost. Electric motors — which are not available from the MDC — are the only artificial power source permitted; visiting anglers must supply their own. That doesn’t sit well with some anglers. (Author’s note: The ban on private boats may be lifted, perhaps as early as this year.)
The lake is oriented on a southeast-northwest axis, and the boats are kept in its southwest corner. Visitors who plan ahead by bringing two or more high capacity batteries can reach parts of the lake that seldom see an angler. That said, large coves and small pockets with east-west orientations can be found from one end of the lake to the other, including within walking distance of the many parking lots located around the lake. As is the case elsewhere, north banks are often the most productive early in the spring. That’s because they receive the most sunlight.
Fluctuating water levels are the norm here. When the water’s high, which it often is in March, bass move into flooded vegetation along the shoreline. The lake has very little aquatic vegetation, and so when the water’s at normal pool or below, look for lunkers off points, in brushpiles and along submerged channels.
Leave your stringer at home. Lake Paho has an 18-inch minimum length limit on black bass with a two-fish daily creel limit.
HAZEL CREEK LAKE
To be honest, I was surprised when MDC fisheries biologist Mike Anderson named Hazel Creek Lake as northeastern Missouri’s best bet for lunker largemouths. It’s not that this lake isn’t a fine place to get your string stretched, because it most certainly is. It’s just that Hazel Creek Lake is far better known for being the first MDC impoundment to produce world-class muskie fishing.
Anderson was quick to assure me that gator-sized muskies still haunt Hazel Creek Lake’s clear water, but they’re not alone at the top of the food chain. In fact, after a few admittedly lean years, the lake’s bass fishery has more than merely rebounded both in terms of overall numbers and in terms of the percentage of the bass populations that’s more than 18 inches in length.
Hazel Creek Lake is one of two impoundments that supply Kirksville’s water, and both the lake and the land surrounding it are owned by the city. The lake’s fishery is managed by the MDC under the terms of a Community Assistance Program. The terms of the agreement currently in force allow the use of private boats, but only electric motors can be used. No rental boats are available.
At normal pool, Hazel Creak Lake covers 530 surface-acres and is oriented on a northwest-southeast axis. The main body of the lake is approximately two miles long, and, in addition to numerous small coves and pockets, there are two major coves, one of which extends about three-quarters of a mile off of the main lake. This inherent potential for battery-draining runs is increased by the fact that one of its two boat ramps is located off of Hungry Hollow Road near the lake’s headwaters, and the other is off of Buck Creek Road, approximately midway down the lake’s northeast shoreline. Bri
ng plenty of battery power.
If the lake is above its normal pool, which it often is in March, look for flooded vegetation first. Then home in on vegetation associated with points, breaklines or other classic structures. If that tactic doesn’t produce, or if the lake is too low to flood shoreline vegetation, fishing woody cover in the coves, on points and in submerged creek channels are good options.
More often than not, at Hazel Creek Lake, bigger lures attract bigger bass. But big baits also attract big, toothy muskies. Anderson recommends using steel leaders to minimize bite-offs, but 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders should work almost as well.
Stringers are optional but frowned upon by lake regulars. A 15-inch minimum length limit is in force with a daily creel limit of six.