March 29, 2018
Where would you fish to catch really big largemouth bass in Missouri? These big bass targets should be on that list.
During my early years of Missouri bass fishing, my dad and I set a 6-pound largemouth bass as the benchmark catch for having a mount made by a taxidermist.
Even though I have now surpassed that benchmark by about tenfold (including a 12-pounder I caught in Mexico), when fishing Missouri waters I still consider a 6-pound largemouth a trophy catch. While lakes filled with Florida-strain largemouths throughout the South and in California offer perhaps the best opportunity to catch that once-in-a-lifetime bass, some Missouri waters are producing double-digit largemouths.
The biggest bass I have caught in Missouri, weighing 8 pounds, 1 ounce, was taken from my home waters of Lake of the Ozarks. I've also caught a 7 1/4-pounder and some 6-pounders from my home lake and from Table Rock.
Anglers who want to pursue a trophy bass close to home — and maybe a state record — should try the following Missouri waters.
TABLE ROCK LAKE
Five years ago on April Fool's Day, Table Rock Lake guide Mike Webb caught an 11.07-pound largemouth while vertical fishing 30 feet deep with an Alabama rig on his home waters.
Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist Shane Bush notes Webb's catch is the largest bass he has heard caught in recent years at Table Rock. The southwest Missouri reservoir's reputation for producing big bass is bolstered by two state-record catches, a 7-pound, 8-ounce spotted bass caught in 1966 and a 5-pound, 10-ounce hybrid black bass (spotted/smallmouth cross) in 2004.
Despite Table Rock having a high-density bass population that could inhibit growth of the fish, the lake still has the capacity to produce heavyweight bass.
"From the studies we have done, we really don't see those densities affecting the growth rate any," Bush says. "All the ingredients are there to grow big fish. One of the main reasons is the really good food base that it supports. We have both species of shad, threadfin and gizzard, because the water stays typically warmer here than it does in other lakes in Missouri."
Bush says the lake also contains an ample supply of crayfish and a "dozen other species of baitfish."
Webb believes Table Rock's habitat is another reason big bass thrive in the lake. "There are a lot of submerged trees in deep water where those big fish hide," he says. "They have a lot of places to hide in those deep trees and deep cuts and are not easily caught."
The Table Rock guide suggests December through March as the prime months for catching trophy bass there. The best tactic for catching big bass is working a Rapala Jigging Rap or single-tail plastic grub on a 1/4-ounce jighead through the tops of standing timber about 30 feet deep in coves. Some heavyweight pre-spawn bass can also be caught on suspending stickbaits in January and February.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
On March 15, 2016, a client of Lake of the Ozarks guide Jack Uxa caught a 10-pound, 11-ounce largemouth bass on a spinnerbait. "The majority of the day we were catching fish on main-lake points, but that particular fish came off a secondary point," Uxa recalls.
Another 10-pounder was caught a couple of weeks later in the same area Uxa released his client's fish. Uxa and MDC fisheries biologist Greg Stoner concur that the second 10-pounder was probably the same bass Uxa's client caught.
Stoner notes 6-pound bass are common catches at Lake of the Ozarks but 7- and 8-pounders are rare. "We just don't have a long enough growing season to consistently produce those 8- and 9-pound bass," he says.
A large population of gizzard shad helps increase the growth rate of Lake of the Ozarks bass. "We have a very stable forage base," Stoner says. "We do have a real consistent shad population."
Uxa also notices bass have plenty of sunfish to eat at his home lake. "Just about every dock on this lake has got bluegill around it in the summertime," he said.
The guide suggests bass have a chance to grow larger because the fish can hide under the large condominium docks where it is difficult for anglers to reach them.
Spring is the best time to catch a Lake of the Ozarks trophy bass. "There is something special about that March 15 to April 10 timeframe before bass go on the spawn," Uxa says. "The bass weigh the heaviest that time of year."
His clients also consistently catch 5-pound-plus bass in June.
Uxa's best lures for catching heavyweight pre-spawn bass at Lake of the Ozarks include Carolina-rigged soft-plastic creature baits such as the Berkley Pit Boss or Thief, spinnerbaits, suspending stickbaits, and crawfish-colored crankbaits such as the Berkley Digger or Storm's Wiggle Wart.
The guide targets secondary points and transition banks for catching big bass in the spring. "Those secondary points always have fish going in and out of them," he says.
He finds bigger bass also hiding in brushpiles about 10 feet deep along the banks were the rocks transition from chunk rocks to pea gravel.
During June, Uxa sets up his clients with a Texas-rigged 10-inch Berkley plastic worm to catch quality bass on main-lake points. "You can hardly beat that plastic worm then because you can swim it, flip it, and drag it on those big, long points when current is moving," Uxa says.
The guide also has his clients use a 5/16-ounce shaky jighead with a Berkley Rib Snake to catch hefty bass along the tapering points and bluff points.
BULL SHOALS LAKE
Marvin Russell Bushong of Gainesville caught the state-record largemouth weighing 13 pounds, 14 ounces in April 1961 on the Missouri portion of Bull Shoals.
During a recent Bassmaster Elite Series event launched on the Arkansas side of Bull Shoals, anglers reported the heavier weights during the tournament came from the Missouri side of the lake. That's according to MDC fisheries biologist Nathan Recktenwald.
"The Missouri side produces a lot of bigger fish and part of that reason is maybe less pressure on some of that upper end of Bull Shoals just because it is more remote," Recktenwald said. "But also there is a lot of productivity from high-water events and a lot of nutrients getting flushed into the lake."
Recktenwald noted he frequently samples bigger bass during electrofishing the Forsyth and K Dock Marina sections of the lake. Tournament results also reveal anglers catching plenty of 5- and 6-pound bass and five-bass limits weighing 18 to 20 pounds from the Missouri section.
The state-record smallmouth bass weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces was caught by Kevin Clingan of Springfield in December 1994 at Stockton.
Electrofishing sampling and creel surveys reveal Stockton is loaded with sublegal smallmouths. The biggest smallmouth recorded in the two-year creel survey measured 19 inches, according to MDC fisheries biologist Ben Parnell. He also has heard of some 19- and 20-inch smallmouths being caught lately at Stockton.
"With our sampling we just don't see those higher-end fish, which doesn't necessarily mean that they are not there though," he says.
Spread throughout the state are smaller lakes in MDC wildlife areas or public lakes managed by the MDC with the potential of producing trophy bass.
MDC Fisheries Chief Brian Canaday credits good management practices, including special regulations, and a lack of fishing pressure as a couple of reasons these smaller waters can produce big bass.
"We spend time on the smaller lakes evaluating those fish populations on a rotation (either annually or every three years)," Canaday says. "We also do a lot of habitat work where we put in brushpiles or stabilize the shoreline. We take the lessons we learned on our bigger reservoir habitat projects and apply them on our smaller 100- or 200-acre lakes."
The fisheries chief says smaller lakes such as the 6-acre South Farm Lake (managed by MDC in a partnership with the University of Missouri) in Columbia receives minimal fishing pressure because most of the bass anglers near those lakes head for the bigger reservoirs.
"It is not uncommon to catch 18-inch-plus bass there," Canaday says. "But it is just one of those things where people are not fishing for bass there."
For a list of MDC-managed lakes throughout the state, visit the MDC Web site at mdc.mo.gov.
Missouri Department of Tourism Fishing Ambassador Scott Pauley competes in bass tournaments on the big reservoirs throughout the state, but he honed his skills for years on farm ponds and still spends time fishing these small-water gems for bass.
A lack of fishing pressure makes ponds an ideal fishery to pursue bigger bass. "Most ponds are not fished that hard, and so there are fish that are allowed to grow old," Pauley says. "I have caught big bass out of ponds that were little bitty and not more than 5 feet deep, but those never got fished."
When searching for ponds with big-bass potential, Pauley makes sure the pond has some key features. "The best ponds are big enough to have some good depth to them so the fish have a good environment and good water quality," he says. "If you have a pond that has a lot of agricultural runoff and stays muddy all the time, it may not be as good of a fishery as other ponds with better water quality."
The Missouri angler also likes ponds filled with aquatic vegetation, which is the main cover for big bass on most ponds.
The pond should also have a good forage base of shad, minnows or bluegills. "If a pond has a good bluegill population, then it often has a good bass population," Pauley says.
He also prefers ponds of 10 acres or more with a maximum depth of about 20 feet. Pauley notes smaller ponds are susceptible to fish kills caused by oxygen depletion when ice and snow cover the ponds for extended periods of time.
According to Pauley, spring is the best time for catching a big bass from a pond. He notes the fish are heaviest during the pre-spawn because big female bass are full of eggs then.
Pauley suggests anglers should fish ponds differently than the big reservoirs, which have an abundance of structure and cover. "With a pond you just have to fish what is there, and a lot of times the only cover is maybe weeds, some brush or some standing timber. Most ponds were made with a bulldozer and they are just kind of shaped like a bowl."
The outside edges of the weeds are where Pauley keys on big bass in ponds. When fishing from the bank he tries casting his lures parallel to the weed edges. "If I know the fish are going to be at the edge of that vegetation, then there is no sense in making long casts to the middle of the pond to be efficient," he says.
Other key spots Pauley tries for big bass are points or dips in the vegetation, or spots where the vegetation changes from one type to another. His favorite lure for pitching to the weed edges is a Texas-rigged flippin' tube bait with a 3/8-ounce sinker.
The biggest bass Pauley has caught from a farm pond weighed in the 6-pound range, but he says Missouri anglers can catch their fish-of-a-lifetime from the small waters. "There could be monsters in those ponds that are 10 acres and have some good habitat," Pauley says.