Missouri’s reservoirs, rivers and ponds offer some of the most diverse bass fishing in the country. Farm ponds and Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife management lakes are loaded with largemouth bass. Smallmouth bass abound in the state’s clear Ozarks streams, while largemouth and spotted bass can be found in many of the state’s largest reservoirs.
Spring provides some of the hottest bass fishing action of the year and probably the best chance for catching that once-in-a-lifetime lunker. The action heats up first in the big reservoirs in the southern half of the state and then spreads northward as the spring weather continues to warm and the hours of daylight increase. Therefore, bass in the reservoirs and farm ponds of northern Missouri will take longer to emerge from their winter hibernation than their southern relatives.
Here’s a look at some of the surefire spots to try for bass this spring in the Show Me State.
Lake of the Ozarks
My home lake always has a good population of largemouth bass because it consistently has stable water levels in the spring, which ensures good reproduction every year.
Electroshocking sampling by Greg Stoner, MDC fisheries biologist, indicated that his catch-rate per hour of legal-sized bass (15 inches or longer) has remained about the same for the last five years. The MDC relies on a metric known as RSD15, which is the percentage of legal-sized largemouth bass sampled during electroshocking. During the spring 2013 electroshocking on the Grand Glaize arm, the RSD15 for largemouth bass was 20 percent.
“One out of 5 fish is good,” Stoner said. “There were fair numbers of 4- and 5-pounders (in the sampling) and fewer 6-pounders and a 7-pounder every once in a while, but nothing over that. We are never going to produce loads of 7- and 8-pound fish.”
March is a prime time for catching heavyweight pre-spawn bass moving out of their winter sanctuaries to the spawning banks. Alabama rigs, suspending stickbaits, and slow-rolling spinnerbaits are the best choices for catching these fish along chunk rock transition banks.
Running a Storm Lures Wiggle Wart in a crawfish hue along pea gravel banks in the coves is one of the most effective ways to catch Lake of the Ozarks bass in early April. Twitching soft-plastic jerkbaits in the shallow pockets and dragging Carolina-rigged plastic lizards along the sides and in front of boat docks also tricks bass during the late stages of the pre-spawn.
The spawn traditionally starts in mid-April and lasts until the first week of May. Sure signs of the bass spawn at Lake of the Ozarks are a full moon and dogwood trees blooming. During the spawn, try a variety of soft plastics including lizards, tubes, finesse worms, craws, stickworms and jerkbaits in green pumpkin or watermelon hues in the clear water or black, blue and dark red colors in murky water.
Table Rock Lake
Local guide Pete Wenners predicts bass fishing will be “real good” this spring on his home waters. He notes the Ozark highland reservoir has strong populations of all three species of bass due to a successful spawn in 2011.
“That was an excellent spawn year because the water was up so high and it stayed up so the fry had a great chance to survive,” he said. As a result of the 2011 spawn, Wenners is now seeing lots of 13- to 15-inch spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Wenners rates March and April as the two best months to catch a wallhanger bass at Table Rock. “We saw several 8- and 9-pounders last spring and I think we will see even better ones this year,” the local guide said.
Water clarity determines which arms of Table Rock turn on first. “Thing always seem to happen a little sooner up (the clear water) on the White River,” Wenners said.
Some Table Rock bass (especially big smallmouths and largemouths) will start spawning by the end of March if the moon is full. Wenners believes smallmouths nest first followed by spotted bass and then the largemouths.
“Sometimes you will see all three spawning in the same area,” he said. He believes a lot of the big smallmouths and largemouths spawn the earliest.
During early March, fishing the Alabama rig is a key tactic for catching suspended, pre-spawn bass along structure.
“I’ll fish the A-rig out on bluff-end points, main-lake points, secondary points and in treetops anywhere from 10 to 30 feet deep,” Wenners said. “As the water gets warmer and the fish start moving, they will get higher up in the cedars that might only be 15 to 20 feet deep and the fish are 5 to 10 feet down.”
Spawning beds usually start appearing the first week of April and the full spawn is normally on by April 14, according to Wenners. The gravel banks on the White River around Campbell Point and Shell Knob attract the earliest spawning bass and then the spawn works its way down to Kimberling City and the dam area.
Wenners’ favorite trick for catching pre-spawn and spawning bass along the gravel banks involves a Ned Rig (invented by outdoor writer Ned Kehde). The rig consists of a Strike King Zero or Yamamoto Senko that Wenners cuts in half and attaches to a 1/8-ounce mushroom jighead.
“It is unbelievable the way they bite it,” Wenners said. “You don’t even have to sight-fish with it. If you can see a bed 30 to 40 feet away you just cast past it and reel it slow and your line will just take off. A lot of people had 80- to 100-fish days (on that rig) with the highest percentage of those fish being smallmouths.”
Table Rock bass relate to the gravel bottom in April, and so Wenners has his clients throwing lures that stay down in the rocks such as Zoom Fish Doctors and Centipedes on split-shot rigs or tube baits on 1/4-ounce ball jighead. The tube becomes a really big player then, Wenners said.
“You won’t get a ton of bites but you can really catch some big fish on a topwater if the water is in the low to mid-50s,” said Wenners.
Mark Twain Lake
Some dry springs the last couple of years have bolstered the bass population at this northeastern Missouri reservoir. “When that happens we get a good hatch,” said local guide Ken Erb, who predicts the bass fishing will be good on Mark Twain this spring. “We have a bunch of 4- and 5-pound fish right now so it should be looking good.”
Ice-out on Mark Twain usually occurs by the end of February, and so anglers have their first chance to catch spring bass in early March. “The fish usually are back in Dry Fork down the by dam then and they will be all the way in the back in 4 to 6 feet of water gorging on the shad that were up in the ice,” Erb said.
Twitching Zoom Flukes in a ghost minnow hue produces strikes from the pre-spawn bass in Dry Fork.
Once the dying shad disappear, Erb switches to a spinnerbait that he throws in the back ends of coves on the lower lake. He notes the west end of the lake produces some action until the spring rains hit.
“Most of the time in the spring you have to get those fish before that first spring rain hits because once the farmers open up those fields and that rainwater comes into the lake it doesn’t come in brown, it comes in black,” said Erb. “So most of the time you have to stay east of the (Highway) 107 bridge.”
Erb suggests getting “loud and proud” with spinnerbait sizes and colors for Mark Twain bass in the spring. “Mark Twain is always muddy so you can’t have too much flash on it,” he said.
The local guide likes to wake bright-colored 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits in the warmer surface water during the late afternoons.
The spinnerbait continues to produce until the largemouth start going on the spawning beds in late April and the first couple of weeks in May. Then Erb opts for plastic lizards and Zoom Brush Hogs in black-and-chartreuse, black or green pumpkin hues. He uses 4-inch lizards in the clearer water down by the dam but changes to 6-inch or larger baits in the muddiest water.
Sight-fishing for bedding bass is not an option at Mark Twain. “If we get 4 to 6 inches of clarity, that is a lot of visibility,” Erb said.
So Mark Twain anglers have to guess where bass will be nesting. Erb considers 45-degree banks in niches about half to three-quarters of the way back in coves as the ideal starting places to look for spawning bass.
“If there is gravel and mud mixed in there even, more the better,” he said.
Spawning bass will be as shallow as 6 to 8 inches deep on the 45-degree banks. “The best presentation you can make during the spawn is to throw your bait on the bank and drag it back in,” Erb advised.
Avoiding the wind is also a key to catching Mark Twain bass during the spawn. “Stay on the side of the lake opposite of where the wind is blowing in,” said Erb. “There is so much silt and mud bottom on the lake and just the slightest bit of wind will stir up a bank and take the eyesight away from the fish. So you always want to be fishing that glassy water if you can.”
A thriving bass population on this reservoir close to Kansas City will provide bass anglers with plenty of spring action.
“The numbers of fish are going to be good, but the size structure is the limiting factor,” said Eric Dennis, MDC fisheries biologist. “The last three years we are really looking at a large increase in the amount of fish that are over 8 inches, and so we have had high reproduction in the last two or three years.”
Electrofishing surveys in 2013 revealed the highest catch per unit of fish that the lake has experienced in 30 years, according to Dennis. The percentage of keeper fish measuring 15 inches or longer the last couple of years ranged from 35 to 40 percent. “That number is staying pretty consistent in the last 20 years,” he said.
The fisheries biologist reported about 5 percent of the fish he sampled were longer than 20 inches. During local tournaments he attended last spring Dennis saw several 7-pounders weighed in along with a few bass in the 8- to 8 1/2-pound class. He also heard occasional reports of 9-pound catches.
Smithville bass are in the pre-spawn stage throughout March and most of April, which is the best period to catch a lunker there. Dennis says the peak of the spawn runs from late April to early May.
Finding shallow brushpiles and the scant vegetation in the lake is the key to catching pre-spawn and spawning bass at Smithville, according to Dennis. “The vegetation has started to come back since we have had stable water in the last three or four years,” said Dennis. Eurasian milfoil, American lotus and American pondweed can be found in the backs of the spawning coves. Dennis recommends throwing plastic lizards or jig-and-pig combos into the shallow cover for the best results in the spring.
Small Lakes and Ponds
Many of the same lures that work in the spring on the big reservoirs also produce in the smaller MDC-managed lakes and farm ponds throughout the state.
Fishing pressure is usually lighter on these smaller waters so you can expect to find more cooperative bass most of the time. Several of the small lakes and ponds contain either matted vegetation or shoreline weeds so add a topwater plastic frog to your lures.
Some of the best bets for small-lake bass fishing throughout the state include Lake 33 at August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area, Austin, Belcher Branch, Bilby Ranch, Binder, Blue Springs, Cameron, Che-Ru, Cypress, DiSalvo, Duck Creek, Edwin A. Pape, Fellows, Forest, Grindstone, Hamilton City, Harrison County, Hartell, Hazel Creek, Hazel Hill, Henry Sever, Higginsville, Indian Creek, James A. Reed, Kellog, LaBelle, Jacomo, Paho, Remembrance, Showme, Springfield, Lawson City, Limpp, Little Compton, Little Dixie, Longview, Mozingo, Perry County, Pony Express, Ray County, Robert DeLaney, Rotary, Route J, Sims Valley, Towell, Unionville, Valley Water Mill, Wakonda and Watkin Mills State Park lakes.
Anglers fishing for black bass on Ozark streams from March 1 to May 23. must release all bass.
My favorite streams for bass fishing are the Meramec, Niangua and Gasconade rivers and Huzzah Creek. The MDC lists the following rivers and creeks as the best bets for catching Show Me smallmouth: Big Piney, Big, Black, Courtois, Current, Eleven Point, Elk, Jacks Fork, Middle and North Forks of the Salt, North Fork, Osage Fork of the Gasconade, South Fabius, Salt (below Mark Twain Lake), St. Francis and Tenmile.