People who grow up fishing in Missouri often follow a pattern of behavior similar to those who grow up hunting in the Midwest. If you hunt you often start learning to stalk and shoot squirrels and maybe rabbits. Then you progress to turkeys and finally deer. While you might occasionally go elsewhere to hunt elk or bear, most hunters tend to stick with deer and rarely resort back to hunting squirrels.
Anglers follow a similar path. Often they will grow up catching panfish in a small creek, farm pond or municipal lake in a park. Then they might move on to learning how to catch catfish, crappie or bass. A few will develop an affinity for trout angling or travel elsewhere to enjoy deep-sea fishing on occasion. But the mainstay will be bass.
Here’s what to expect for bass fishing in Missouri.
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Fortunately for most Missouri anglers, the Show Me State boasts a bass population more healthy and widespread than at any time in the past. You can find largemouth bass within our state from Kansas to Illinois, Iowa to Arkansas and almost everywhere in between. Smallmouth bass fill creeks and streams throughout the southern half of our state. Trophies of both species can be found in nearly equal numbers in moving waterways and in impoundments.
We all have our favorite fishing spots. More specifically, we have our preference of moving water or impoundments. I know anglers who fish only lakes for bass, while others, like Brian Jones who lives in southeast Missouri, target a group of streams almost exclusively. Jones has spent so much time fishing south-central and southeastern streams, in fact, that he’s become a consistent top finisher in smallmouth tournaments in that region of the state.
One of the best smallmouth rivers in the state for catching real lunkers is the upper Meramec, southwest of St. Louis. You can consistently find fish up to 20 inches or better. The upper stretch is home to one of the state’s Stream Black Bass Special Management Areas, which stretches from a crossing called Scott’s Ford to an area known as Bird’s Nest. The daily limit in the management area is one fish in excess of 15 inches. Additional smallmouths can be taken outside the special area, and largemouths are plentiful as well.
Anyone unfamiliar with where the upper Meramec is located might note that the special smallmouth management area is just downstream from Meramec Spring Trout Park, one of the state’s four well-known trout parks.
Head farther south and west and you’ll find two smallmouth hotspots – Bryant Creek and the North Fork of the White River. Both eventually dump into the Norfork Lake south of Interstate 60. The North Fork in a small meandering stream suitable for wade- or float-fishing. It winds through a stretch designated as a trophy trout area, the same spring-fed water that grows large and hearty smallmouths.
The North Fork is also known for holding one of the state’s trout management stretches of water. I’ve fished sections of the stream for both trout and smallmouths over the years, often staying at Myron McKee’s River of Life Farm. Norfork Lake also holds a population of white bass, but it’s the largemouth and spotted bass that should be targeted come late spring and summer.
For yet another year, the experts at the Missouri Department of Conservation have said the numbers of both spotted and largemouth bass are on the rise in the lake. What works best for bass in the spring-fed river and lake? That would be live baits, worms and other plastics including jigs.
Norfork Lake is unique in that it sits partly in Missouri and partly in Arkansas. Missouri anglers age 16 or older can buy a White River Border Lakes Permit for $10, allowing them to fish the Arkansas portion of the lake without having to buy an Arkansas non-resident fishing permit.
Head west and you’ll pass through Branson and Springfield, the Vatican cities of Ozarks music and Bass Pro Shops respectively. Soon you’ll arrive at Table Rock Lake, another haven for big bass.
A combination of angler reports and MDC samplings have shown a larger-than-normal number of largemouths produced in 2008. Those fish should have reached 15 inches or better on average in 2013. Largemouths make up the largest group of Table Rock black bass.
If you prefer smallmouths and intend to fish Table Rock, look at the area between the Route 86 bridge and Campbell Point.
When fishing a lake you have to trust your skills and instincts. Don’t panic if you can’t get on fish the first couple of tries. Move to the next good-looking spot and try the same baits that have proved to work in similar water before. “Run and gun” until you find where the bass are holding at the time. In the summer start looking at deep water adjacent to main points, bluffs and underwater mounds. Try jigs but don’t overlook drop-shot rigs. Try what you’ve used with success in similar water in the past. In mornings and evenings on overcast or cloudy days, try casting spinnerbaits along shallow edges.
Returning to the center of the state, albeit slightly south-central, we pass the city of Rolla and head due east on I-44. Exit onto the north outer road and find Route RA and drive until you reach the Little Prarie Conservation Area. It’s there in the CA that you’ll find Towell Lake.
You can catch one of the thousands of bass in the lake by using plugs or plastics. Your best bet is something resembling the look and action of the plentiful shad, which serve as the main food source for the plentiful, if not huge, largemouth population.
Just like at little Towell Lake, a sizable shad population keeps the bass population in Truman Reservoir growing and expanding. While the lake has always had plenty of shad, high water in 2009 and 2011 caused an explosion of the gizzard shad numbers, which resulted in a gluttonous feeding frenzy by the bass population.
Local fishermen say to look for largemouths in the warm water in coves in the spring. Throw jigs and spinnerbaits, and then when the spring rains come, change your focus to the flooded cover. Once May and June arrive, switch to casting buzzbaits or throwing other topwater lures. In the middle of the day and late in summer when the sun is higher in the sky, switch to pitching a jig or large worm rigged in your favorite style.
Just up the road sits another great lake with a growing population of bass. Abundant shad continue to keep Stockton Lake — sitting in Cedar, Polk and Dade counties — an ideal place for big bass. The Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have worked to improve fish habitat in the 24,900 acres of water. Some of the fish attractors are marked with signs on the nearby shore. The structures are directly out from the shore markers in about 20 feet of water, or you can find an online guide to the attractors at http://mdc.mo.gov/node/9334.
Stockton holds some smallmouth and spotted bass, but not nearly as many as the largemouth population. Starting in 2008 there were two good years for bass production. In 2011 many of those fish were nearing 15 inches. While 2012 and 2013 saw some thinning of that 2008 and 2009 class, the larger fish remain.
Keep heading northwest and in a couple of hours you’ll reach Kansas City. Outside of town you can find 7,190-acre Smithville Lake, complete with rocky points and outcroppings, submerged standing timber, and brushpiles.
About two years ago the lake began benefitting from a donation courtesy of the Reservoir Fisheries Habitat Partnership. Those dollars have been put to good use increasing the amount of fish cover anglers can target. Along with brushpiles there have also been a number of rockpiles added and mapped. How to fish that new cover is not secret, just tie on a crankbait, spinnerbait or plastic.
With the exception of the North Fork of the White River, this story has focused so far on impoundments. So now it’s time to start talking moving water.
The northern edge of the Ozarks and the quarter known as southeast Missouri hold what could arguably be considered the best smallmouth water the Midwest has to offer. Streams like Current River, Black River and Jacks Fork are pristine, spring-fed flowing marvels of sparkling-clear water flowing through some of the most beautiful country east of the Rockies and west of Appalachia. But there’s a trio of streams, which hold even more bass — smallmouth monsters suitable for the wall or record books. Let’s talk about the Gasconade, Huzzah Creek and Big River.
All three of these streams are a little less “clean and clear” than those other showplace float streams. But what they lack in clarity they make up for in smallmouth numbers. And all are ideal for accessing by canoe or riverboat.
The Huzzah sits southwest of St. Louis and just south of the small city of Cuba on Interstate 44 and the hamlet of Steelville. Here you don’t worry about depthfinders or manmade fish habitat. Instead, you’ll want to cast crawdads, nightcrawlers or similar-looking lures or plastics to or past root wads and downed trees. I’ve fished these streams for most of my 40 years, and I can “read” a root wad and almost always tell you where the fish will be lying in the tangle of roots and driftwood.
Cast into every shallow riffle you come to. Float on through and then make your way to the bank and stop the canoe or boat. Ease up on the riffle and cast upstream, letting the current carry your band down through the gravely chute and into the adjacent deeper water. Some huge bronzebacks have been pulled from what appeared to be riffles that were shallow and void of any life.
The Huzzah is made up of deep holes pocked with downed timber and root wads connected by shallow, gravely riffles. Access the river at any of several points off State Route 8, which runs from Steelville south to the community of Potosi in Washington County. If you don’t want to bring your own canoe or john boat, and you want to cover more water than you can by wadeing, there are several canoe jobbers that operate on the river and nearby streams. They can rent you a craft and ferry you and your gear to a put-in or take-out point.
Flowing through the neighboring counties is Big River. Starting out about the size of the Huzzah, the Big River grows as it flows northeast until it eventually dumps into the Meramec River and ultimately the Mississippi. Upper stretches in Iron, St. Francois and Washington counties are great for wading or floating for smallmouths and largemouths. The river is crisscrossed by county and state roads, large culverts and bridges. Finding access to the water with good fishing nearby is never a problem.
As you head on downstream, or north as the case may be, you pass through Washington, Jefferson and St. Louis counties where the river widens and deepens to the point that wade-fishing is not really an option. But there are several accesses for launching a boat. I live in this area of the state and have spent many a day wading the upper stretches of Big River and Black River.
As for spotted bass in Big River, look at stretches upstream from Washington County where fish are plentiful. You’re encouraged by state conservation authorities to keep all the spotted bass you can catch up to a daily limit of 12.
And now one of the best for last! The Gasconade River also holds a smallmouth special management area in Phelps and Pulaski counties. You can easily find smallmouths up to 18 inches there. And while smallmouth angling is exceptional, largemouths outnumber smallmouths in the more open, slow-moving stretches. Ply the wider pools for big largemouths and concentrate on riffles and around obstructions in fast water for catching the smallmouths.
Conservation officials and fisheries biologists have worked diligently in the past couple of decades to enhance the state’s population of bass, especially smallmouths. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in research of stream quality throughout the Ozarks and dollars literally “sunk” in impoundments in the form of brushpiles, rockpiles and manmade fish attractors. The state conservation department has spent untold thousands on developing an interactive Web site and mobile device apps specifically for helping anglers connect with fish.
You owe it to yourself to visit the lakes and rivers mentioned here, as well as others around our state, and reconnect with the lunkers hanging out in root wads, riffles and the shadows of rocky ledges and points. Just like a hunter eventually desires to reconnect with his past and return to the areas known as consistent producers, Missouri anglers should explore the rivers and impoundments I’ve mentioned. Why wait another month to hit the water?
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