Missourians have always been blessed with good bass fishing, but 2017 is shaping up to be a banner year for Show Me State bass anglers.
Wet springs causing high lake levels in recent years have led to good spawns on many of Missouri's large reservoirs, and in smaller lakes managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. So bass populations are booming now at many of the state's prime waters as the result of consecutive years of good bass reproduction.
The Ozarks region of the state south of Interstate 70 features all of Missouri's largest reservoirs noted for bass fishing, including Table Rock, Lake of the Ozarks, Stockton, Truman and Pomme de Terre. The southern half of the state also contains Ozark rivers well-known for smallmouth fishing, such as the Gasconade, Current, Eleven Point, Big Piney and Meramec. North of Interstate 70, the top bass fisheries include Smithville and Mark Twain reservoirs and many MDC-managed lakes.
The following state waters are expected to produce the best bass action in 2017.
TABLE ROCK LAKE
Touring bass pro Stacey King has high hopes for the fishing on his home lake in 2017. "It will be an excellent year," he said. "I know in the last two or three years we have had good spawns and we have a million smallmouths in that 10- to 14-inch range. There are just a gazillion of them out there that are going to become keepers. So I look for a tremendous smallmouth bite in the spring."
The veteran tournament angler said Table Rock also has numerous quality smallmouth bass and plenty of largemouth and spotted bass. Last year he experienced good fishing for largemouth and spotted bass from mid-May all the way through mid-July, and King predicts the same action to continue this year.
Pre-spawn patterns for bass usually start at Table Rock before other lakes across the state. Bass move from their deep-water winter haunts to transition banks (ledge rock to chunk and gravel banks) during March. King suggests you can find bass at this time along both steep and flat banks as the fish move toward the spawning areas. The fish will be feeding heavily on shad and crawfish so any lures that imitate the forage will trigger strikes from hungry bass.
"March is a great month for jerkbaits, Wiggle Warts (crankbaits) and jigs," King said. "That is really the best pre-spawn month for catching really quality fish because the big fish start moving up in numbers and are feeding up before the spawn. I always tell people March is the month to catch the biggest fish you have ever caught here."
The spawn usually begins in April when the fish nest in the gravel pockets or along gravel flats. King suggests using slow-moving lures such as plastic tubes and lizards and shaky head worms for bedding bass. Topwater lures will start triggering strikes by the middle of April and continue to get better in May. King notes you catch less quality but more numbers of bass in April and May.
The entire lake will produce good action throughout the spring, according to King. For targeting smallmouths he advises fishing the lower end of the lake from Kimberling City down to the dam and the lower section of Long Creek. The tournament pro suggests the James arm holds the highest population of largemouth bass, while spotted bass are evenly distributed throughout the lake.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Guide James Dill predicts 2017 will be an average to above-average year for bass fishing at Lake of the Ozarks. "It seems like the weights are going up (at tournaments) and we are seeing bigger fish turned in on (guide) trips," he said. "I am catching a lot more quality fish."
The biggest largemouth bass one of his clients caught last year weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces. Two 10-pound largemouths were caught last spring on the Grand Glaize arm of the lake. Dill believes the bass are growing bigger because the fish have a lot of forage created by the large shad population in the lake.
When the water temperature starts to warm, bass begin their pre-spawn migration to the shallows. Bass start feeding heavily during the first warming trend of the month when it causes the water temperature to climb into the 40-degree range. Dill picks 42 degrees as the "magic" number for drawing big bass to the shallows.
"Once we hit 42, there are just as many fish shallow as there is anywhere else," he said. "The majority of the fish are going to start pushing toward the back ends of creeks looking for warmer water."
Bottom-bumping baits such as small finesse jigs or a Crock-O-Gator Swamp Bug on a 1/2-ounce jighead tricks pre-spawn bass into biting. Suspending jerkbaits in a variety of colors and an Alabama rig also produce plenty of quality bass in March.
During early April, Dill throws larger jigs, Wiggle Warts and suspending jerkbaits for bass along the rock transition banks (scattered chunk rock and pea gravel). The spawn usually occurs from middle to late April when the fish nest 6 feet deep or less in the protected pea gravel pockets. A variety of soft plastics will work then and nesting bass will attack topwater lures such as a Crock-O-Gator HeadKnocker, buzzbait or Zara Spook.
The local guide suggests fishing the lake's major creeks for the earliest action since spring rains tend to warm the backs of those creeks first. Dill lists Jennings Branch, Gravois, Bogue, Cedar and Mill creeks as some of the spots on the lower end of the lake where the bass action turns on quicker in the spring.
After several lean years, bass fishing at Truman Lake rebounded last spring.
"One thing that helped last spring was the dirtier water made those fish go shallow earlier, which put them right on the bank and made it easier for guys to catch them," said Doug Vahrenberg. The tournament competitor noted several 4- to 6-pound bass were caught last spring at Truman.
Vahrenberg notices on his electronics the breaking down of Truman's standing timber. "I think the fish are transitioning there and aren't using the old methods like they used to," he said. "Using your sonar you don't see the horizontal cover as much. Everybody was fishing the trees and now those bass are a lot more in between the trees because of all the broken limbs and laydowns. Now they have a lot of hiding places that people don't realize until they start looking (at their electronics)."
Suspending jerkbaits produce pre-spawn bass during March if the water is clear, especially in the lower sections of the Pomme arm and Tebo Creek. Slow-rolling a magnum-sized spinnerbait with a single Colorado blade and jigs will produce action in the dirty-water sections of the lake then.
Vahrenberg keys on steeper chunk rock banks to find pre-spawn bass in March. "If it has warmed up enough and we have had a mild winter, bass will move back into the creeks but will be outside those little spawning pockets," he said.
April is prime time to throw a spinnerbait and Wiggle Wart crankbait in the pockets and along the flats. "As the water warms in the latter part of April you can go to a faster moving spinnerbait and Chatterbaits," said Vahrenberg. He also suggests trying hollow-belly swimbaits if the fish ignore a spinnerbait.
Bass usually spawn on Truman in late April and early May, depending on the water temperature and moon phase (new moon to full moon period). Vahrenberg finds nesting fish less than 2 feet deep in dirty water or 5 to 10 feet deep in clear water. Spawning areas include ledge rock banks, protected pockets and stumps on muddy bottoms.
MDC fisheries biologist Eric Dennis forecasts a good year of bass fishing for Smithville.
"We continue to see lots of smaller fish in the last several years come up through the system so we have had some really productive recruitment going on," he said.
Several factors have contributed to the revival of bass fishing at Smithville. "We had some vegetation come back in the lake," Dennis said. "We continue to put shallow-water brushpiles and habitat in and we have also had high water during the spawns. So we are starting to see several year-classes three to four years in a row now where we have had really high reproduction."
Recent electrofishing samplings reveal 42 percent of the bass sampled were longer than 15 inches, which Dennis said is the highest percentage of keepers recorded since 2002. Four percent of the sampled bass measured more than 20 inches, which is the highest percentage ever for quality bass at Smithville. Dennis said last year's tournament results revealed winning weights in the mid- to upper 20-pound range whereas winning weights in previous years were in the lower teens.
Pre-spawn bass start moving to the front of coves by mid-March on Smithville. "March is hit or miss for those fish coming up, depending on the temperatures," said Dennis, who recommends using drop-shot rigs and deep-diving crankbaits for early spring bass.
From middle to late April, the biggest bass move to the backs of coves and start building nests. The fish spawn in flooded willows if the lake is high, or in shallow brushpiles and vegetation during a dry spring. The best lures to tempt spawning bass include soft-plastic creature baits and stickbaits.
Smaller lakes managed by the MDC are bass fishing jewels that receive little fishing pressure.
"A lot of those lakes seem to be in the northern part of the state so they are going to warm up a little slower than the southern lakes do," said Scott Pauley, Missouri Division of Tourism fishing ambassador. Two of Pauley's favorite MDC lakes are Binder near Jefferson City, and Show Me in Scotland County.
"Most of those (MDC) lakes fish like an oversized pond so the first thing I typically do is fish the windy side and I look for places where the wind is blowing straight in (steeper points or weedlines)," he said. He mentions a key time to fish these shallow lakes is during a warming spell of two or three straight days in the spring.
Pauley's top two lures for catching spring bass from the smaller lakes are jigs and spinnerbaits. "Some of those lakes have wood cover so a square-billed crankbait in a smaller size that doesn't run so deep would also be good," he said.
These bass fishing gems can be found in rural areas throughout the whole state.
"A lot of ponds are made like a bowl and they can still have some huge fish in them because they don't get fished heavy," Pauley said. "As a matter of fact, a lot of times ponds get overpopulated and really need to have fish harvested out of them to keep them in balance."
Because he fishes ponds ranging in size from 1 to 10 acres, Pauley usually walks the banks and looks for points and transition banks. He starts fishing the shallow end of the dam first and keys on windy spots, then works his way to the deeper water by the pond's dam.
"A lot of times I throw a (plastic) tube on a 3/16-ounce sinker, which is a small sinker but the ponds are shallow so I want the lure to fall slow," Pauley said. Other lures Pauley relies on to catch pond bass in the spring include white or white-and-chartreuse spinnerbaits, small swimbaits in bluegill or perch colors, and buzzbaits.
So the bottom line is this: The forecast looks great for Show Me State anglers to catch bass from the largest reservoirs to the smallest farm ponds this spring.