It's been a long hard Missouri winter. The boat has been sitting high and dry in the driveway too long, and the trays in the tackle bag haven't seen the light of day except for the dim fluorescent glow of the shop lights during winter daydreaming sessions.
All those off-season months away from the lakes and rivers have let those big bass grow even larger and more aggressive. It's time to get back in the game, and 2012 promises to be a trophy year for bass fishing.
KANSAS CITY REGION
One of the best bass lakes on the west side of the state is one of the smallest impoundments managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation for public use. Williams Creek Lake near Excelsior Springs sits in Watkins Mill State Park, adjacent to Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site.
The 100-acre impoundment has proved itself for developing excellent populations of catfish, crappie, redears and, most important, largemouth bass. During the past few years, bass anglers have consistently taken fish in excess of 6 pounds. Consider starting this spring by throwing spinnerbaits, and then switching to plastics and crankbaits as the water warms by midsummer.
Because the lake is on the small side, boat motors are restricted to 10 horsepower maximum. There is a launching pad and boat dock, and a separate fishing dock near the west end of the dam.
For an even more confined bass fishing experience, consider plying the 12 lakes that make up the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area outside Lee's Summit, south of Route 50 in Jackson County. The ponds and lakes range from 1 acre to 42 acres, and are managed in a cooperative agreement between the MDC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The relatively shallow lakes have plenty of weedbeds and fish attracting brushpiles. Both are prime cover for spawning largemouths starting as early as April. All the lakes at James A. Reed have good numbers of bass, but locals suggest Catclaw, Nell, Bluestream or Jackrabbit. The methods are the same regardless of which lake you try; use the same tactics you'd use for any shallow water with lots of underwater foliage.
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Starting in late spring, try working plastic worms or French fry style baits or topwater lures across the top of the weedbeds or submerged brush. As summer progresses, stick with topwater lures and plastics, but expect to see more activity early and late in the day. Fishing is permitted in the park from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer.
Across the state and to the south sits Clearwater Lake, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1900s as a way of controlling flooding in Southeast Missouri by the Black River. The lake is fed by two sources: Webb Creek to the west and the much larger and clearer Black River to the east. Sampling in 2010 revealed nearly a third of the bass collected measured more than 15 inches. The MDC predicted great bass angling in 2011, and despite the abnormal weather — near drought in early summer, and record high temperatures by late summer — those expectations proved to be right on the mark. Another good forecast has been given for 2012.
Clearwater is managed jointly by the state's conservation department and the Corps of Engineers. Each year those agencies add additional brushpiles for fish cover. A map showing the location of the brushpiles can be obtained by calling the MDC's Southeast Regional Office at (573) 290-5730.
Constant raising and lowering of the water level in the lake to manage flow downstream from the dam has resulted in a primarily gravely or sandy shoreline. In a few areas, especially on the Black River arm of the lake near the Bluff View Marina, the shoreline is pocked with some sizable rocky outcroppings. The best bet is to target the rocky edges or submerged brushpiles using deep-diving lures or your favorite weighted plastics.
I learned to fish for bass from my dad, Dewel Smith, out of his 14-foot johnboat in Clearwater Lake. We'd put the boat in at Bluff View Marina, just a few miles from our home. Then we'd fish the area from about a half-mile upstream, at the lower edge of a stretch known as Riverside, down to where the Black River met Webb Creek at the head of the lake proper. I've since fished with my own children in those same honeyholes.
While you're in the region you might as well go after some smallmouth farther up in the Black River. It's not out of the question to find a bronzeback 20 inches or larger. During times of good flow in the river you can take a boat as far north as K Bridge (State Route K) in Iron County. Areas farther upstream into Reynolds County, where the three forks of Black River merge at Lesterville, are ideal for wade- or float-fishing.
Target submerged logs and root wads in bends, and don't let the crystal clear water fool you. There are nice-sized smallmouths hanging out in those shallow gravel-bottomed riffles. Toss minnows or plastic crappie jigs to the head of the riffle and let the current carry them down and across. You'll be surprised at what you'll find in the spring-fed water.
Other bass-fishing lakes to consider in the Southeast Region include Wappapello in Wayne and Butler counties, Tenmile Creek outside Poplar Bluff in Butler, and DiSalvo Lake, formerly known as Bismarck Lake, in St. Francois County.
Check out the the bass outlook for the Ozark and Northeast regions on page two
For true Ozark smallmouth action, consider the upper end of Norfork Lake as well as its two main sources of fresh water — the North Fork of the White River and Bryant Creek. I first fished the North Fork of the White and upper Norfork Lake a dozen years ago while working on a trout story for Missouri Game & Fish magazine. My family stayed in a cabin along the river and I fished with a guide the first day. The second day I tried my own hand at sampling the upper reaches for species including bass. I wasn't disappointed, netting enough fish to keep me busy all day.
In the past couple of years the bass taken from the lake have been improving. There's been an increase of largemouths greater than 15 inches being caught by both recreational and competition anglers. The lake takes in roughly 1,000 acres, so it's deep and has the same edge cover as is found in other impoundments of equal size. There's plenty of shoreline with submerged brush, foliage and other cover. Diving jigs and plastics such as worms, tube jigs and French fry shapes should work great along most of the shoreline.
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Missouri residents required to have a state fishing license who also want to fish the Arkansas portion of Norfork can purchase a White River Border Lakes Permit for $10 and not have to bother with buying a non-resident Arkansas fishing permit.
For great smallmouth fishing in the south-central part of our state, try floating or wading the Big Piney River. One of the best ways to access the upper reaches is the MDC's Baptist Camp Access six miles south of Houston on SR 63 in Texas County.
For a long one-day float, or even better as two days with plenty of time to really work all the long holes and bends, consider targeting the area from Baptist Camp access down to Mineral Springs access. The 14-mile stretch is fishable from a riverboat with the exception of dry years or summer months.
There's also a fair population of largemouths in the slower stretches of water, which tend to be warmer and hold more vegetation. As you'd suspect, work topwater jigs and weightless-rigged worms, casting to the water's edge and working them back toward the boat as you float past.
Sampling in 2010 showed largemouths scattered all along the stream section. The same sampling revealed the most smallmouths between the Baptist Camp access and Tony Hogan bridge. A local who has fished the stream regularly confirmed the MDC's suggestions that smallmouth numbers drop off slightly between Dogs Bluff and the confluence with Brushy Creek. The smallmouths found near where the two streams meet were the largest seen on that section of Big Piney.
From river fishing for smallmouths in the south-central area to largemouths in a big lake in the northeast, the warm waters of 4,950-acre Thomas Hill Reservoir in Randolph and Macon counties offer a much different bass angling experience.
Thomas Hill holds the cooling water for the Associated Electric Cooperative's coal-fired generators. That results in the average water temperature in the huge reservoir being slightly higher than other lakes in the region. The good news is that it also provides a great year-round bass fishing opportunity.
One of the main draws to fishing the huge reservoir is the managed, submerged brushpiles. When on the lake look for bright yellow "Fish Attractor" signs on shore adjacent to the submerged cover. Thomas Hill Reservoir is managed for fishing by the MDC through a long-term agreement.
Two smaller lakes in the area to look at are Rt. J Reservoir in Ralls County and Hunnewell Lake in Shelby County. Rt. J Reservoir is owned and maintained by nearby Monroe City, with a fish management agreement with the MDC. To get to the 94-acre impoundment, head three miles east of Monroe on State Route 36, and then turn right and go five miles south on Route J to Reservoir Place. The small lake serves as a freshwater supply for a public drinking system.
It's been a couple of years since biologists sampled the lake, but the last look revealed lots of largemouths up to 20 inches. Some 20 percent of the bass seen measured in excess of 18 inches. The lake is not fished heavily, so there should be plenty of large fish still waiting to be taken. MDC fisheries management biologist Chris Williamson listed Rt. J Reservoir as one of the top two largemouth lakes in the region.
In nearby Shelby County the summer of 2011 proved to be another great bass-fishing year at Hunnewell Lake. It was estimated prior to the start of summer that 1 in every 20 bass caught would be 15 inches or longer, with some pushing 24 inches. Williamson said sampling in early 2011 turned up a higher than expected number of smaller bass. As a result, the MDC is encouraging bass anglers to make it a point to catch and keep their limit of fish each time they visit the lake for the next few years.
Discover bass honey holes for the Northwest, Southwest, and St. Louis regions on page three
According to Eric Dennis, MDC fisheries management biologist working in the Northwest Region, the No. 1 hotspot for large bass in that part of the state for 2012 should be the little 29-acre Limpp Lake outside King City. To get there, head west out of King City on State Route 48 and go one mile, then turn north on Route CC and go a half-mile.
In 2011, anglers consistently took trophy-sized largemouths from the small community lake. There's not a lot of natural aquatic cover, but in 2010 the MDC added brushpiles and repeated the act again in late 2011. A map showing the locations of the piles is available by contacting the MDC's St. Joseph office or website.
No. 2 in the ranking for the region is Bilby Ranch Lake outside Maryville. The state-owned conservation area includes the 110-acre lake and 14 stocked ponds. Focus your attention primarily on the main lake. The most recent sampling showed 70 percent of the largemouths seen were more than 15 inches, with many greater than 20 inches in length.
It's suggested bass anglers work over rockpiles as located on the lake map, along riprap at the dam, and flooded timber in the upper reaches. Additionally, Dennis and others added additional cover in 2010 and 2011. Plastics imitating crawfish and shad should do the trick, and don't overlook spinnerbaits and topwater lures in the upper arms of the lake.
Ranking No. 3 for the Northwest Region is Lake Paho, a former MDC catfish hatchery near Trenton in Mercer County. The 273-acre lake saw a weather event in 2010 that greatly enhanced bass numbers. High water levels that year flooded additional vegetation and created excellent conditions and habitat for spawning. The result has been a noticeable bump in already good bass numbers.
Electrofishing recently showed sizable mature bass, which was backed up by the reported harvest by anglers in 2011. Paho also stands to benefit from new brushpiles placed in 2010 and 2011.
Rounding out the top prospects for the Northwest Region is Mozingo Lake near Maryville. The lake has an issue with Asian water milfoil, which forms a 20- to 30-foot-wide ring around the entire perimeter of the 1,006-acre impoundment. It makes fishing from the bank virtually impossible, but provides ideal cover for fishing along the edge from a boat.
Everyone is familiar with Table Rock and Bull Shoals lakes south of Springfield and Branson. A lesser-known bass hotspot hardly 50 miles to the north is Pomme de Terre reservoir in Hickory and Polk counties. Excellent shad production in the latter part of the last decade has spurred on the bass population's growth in both size and numbers.
The summer of 2011 saw great bass fishing on Pommie, as the locals refer to it. A creel survey conducted in late summer revealed nice numbers and sizes. The lake has a 13-inch minimum limit restriction, but the word among surveyed anglers was that there were plenty of bigger fish to making most days on the water worth the effort.
Craig Fuller serves as MDC's fisheries management biologist for Pomme de Terre Lake and several rivers on the region. He said that while sampling data looks promising, because of recent events at the lake the available data doesn't tell the real story, which seems to be even better than the sampling would indicate.
In 2010 when the MDC would do its routine sampling, high water due to abnormally heavy spring flooding had pushed the water level up into fields and timber, which doesn't provide for accurate sampling results. Then in the fall of 2010, the Corps of Engineers started significant remediation work on the area just below the dam, drawing the lake down 5 feet.
In early 2011, the southwest Missouri area was hit hard by a major snowstorm. When all that snow melted and ran into the lake the level started rising fast. With work still in progress downstream, the Corps was unable to let out additional water. Within a couple of weeks the lake had risen to 17 feet above flood stage.
Fuller says the one thing that has been steady in recent years at Pomme de Terre has been the good shad population. That's prompted good growth in all fish species found in the 7,820-acre lake. The biologist said the local MDC office received several calls in 2009 complaining of smaller fish being caught. He said sampling and the creel surveys have shown the larger bass were still there, but the volume of smaller, younger fish was just overwhelming.
The sampling that was done in 2010 showed lots of fish in the 11- to 13-inch slot. Subsequent sampling in 2011 showed many of those fish had already reached or exceeded that 13-inch length.
The size and age of the lake dictates that many of the larger coves and shoreline are a sand or gravel mix. Smaller coves still have plenty of natural cover, as is the case when the water rises even slightly. The 7,000-acre lake can more than double its footprint to encompass more than 16,000 acres during heavy flooding. Besides the natural fish cover, the lake also benefits from more than 40 brushpiles placed by fisheries management personnel in recent years. The fish attractors are marked by green signs and are primarily found in 15 to 30 feet of water.
Two smaller municipal lakes to consider in the region include Lake Springfield and Kellogg Lake. The largemouth population has continued to run sizable and plentiful since 2003 in Lake Springfield. The 318-acre lake is a cooling water supply for the James River Power Plant located on the edge of Springfield. Sampling in recent months showed that a good portion of the bass population would be 15 inches or larger in 2012.
The 25-acre Kellogg Lake sits near the eastern city limits of Carthage. Like Lake Springfield, Kellogg is an MDC cooperatively managed impoundment. Surveys over the past three years have shown the little lake's largemouth population to be good, with several fish reaching 15 inches or greater.
ST. LOUIS REGION
We started this statewide fishing tour in Kansas City, and so we'll end across the way in the St. Louis area. Two outlying streams offer exceptional smallmouth angling.
The upper reaches of the Meramec River include a Black Bass Special Management Area between Scott's Ford and Bird's Nest just downstream a short distance from where the river and Meramec Spring merge. While there are largemouths present, smallmouths are the predominant bass species. A float or wade trip on the management section can net consistent fish in the 12- to 15-inch range. The aggressive management efforts of the MDC have resulted in ample chances at hook a fish 15 inches or better. Within the management area there is a minimum length restriction of 15 inches with a daily limit of one. But the area provides great catch-and-release fishing and a fair number of smallmouths that still fall within the statewide six daily creel limit.
One last stream to consider for smallmouth fishing in picturesque Ozark scenery is the Courtois Creek. The stream sits in the 6,144-acre Huzzah Conservation Area in Crawford County southwest of St. Louis. The three rivers associated with the area include the Meramec River and Huzzah and Courtois creeks.
This summer promises great smallmouth fishing on all three streams. Smallmouths are abundant in the Courtois and accounted for 97 percent of the black bass found in sampling done in 2009. The best bet is to use minnows if possible, but a good second choice, if live bait is not an option, would be crappie jigs in white or yellow. We're talking a relatively shallow stream here with lots of deeper holes in bends and where the current has opened areas around the root wads of streamside trees.