Listen up as these pros reveal their secrets for finding and catching big water bass on some of the biggest lakes.
Missouri anglers are blessed to live in a state dotted with ponds, lakes and reservoirs in which to catch bass and other fish. But sometimes fishing on the waters of some of our bigger bodies of water can be intimidating. Finding the fish can sometimes be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.
But now, thanks to two very successful and well-known anglers in fishing circles across the state, we have put together some of their favorite tips and tactics for catching largemouth bass at this time of year that can be applied in other states, too.
Win Stevens, of Springfield, has a long history of successful tournament angling. He serves as a Pro Staff member for companies like Strike King, Lew's, Minn Kota and many more. His home near Springfield allows him a lot of time to fish just for fun on Table Rock Lake.
Win Stevens says the timing of the best bass fishing centers around the weather. The weather can affect our water temperature and water clarity, which both greatly affect the way bass behave.
"Water temperature is of major importance to bass activity," Stevens said. "Fish are cold-blooded animals and water temps can affect the timing of the spawn."
Spring rains can also cause big lakes to get murky from all of the runoff from the surrounding hillsides. That is especially true in the upper reaches of the lakes where the creeks and tributaries empty into them.
"Fishing in cold, murky water can be very difficult," Stevens said. "Pay attention to the clarity of the water. You can often see the divide where the murky and clear water meet. This is a good place to catch spring bass."
According to Stevens, light penetration in the water plays a big role on what color of bait you should be casting. He suggests using natural-colored baits in clear water where light penetrates deeply. Colors like shad and crawdad shades work best in these water types. But in murky waters he suggests using brighter colors like chartreuse or fluorescent colors.
Stevens said the bass in Missouri reservoirs start spawning activity when the water temperatures hit the upper 60-degree range or in the lower 70s. Spawning can begin as early as sometime in March and last through early May.
"Look for the fish on the side of the lake that gets the most sun," Stevens said. "That's where the water warms up the quickest and the fish will start getting close to the banks on that side of the lake."
When temps are right for spawning, the fish can be anywhere from 1 to 12 feet deep. Stevens warns that cold snaps in the spring can quickly push the fish off the banks and out into deeper water. Those spawning bass usually make their nests on pea gravel or other rocky type bottoms.
Stevens said that after the sow bass have laid their eggs, they move off the nests to feed. The males get on the nests to protect the eggs in a couple of feet of water out to maybe 10 feet deep. At that time, if you fish close to the bank you are going to catch a lot of the aggressive males that are protecting the nests, but those will be the smaller fish.
"If you move out away from into waters 12 to 15 feet deep, you will catch the bigger female bass," Stevens said. "But they won't be as aggressive as the males, so you might have to put your bait right in their face."
More spring bass tips
Stevens used himself as an analogy to the bass. "If you finally get home from a hard day of work and you sit down in your easy chair and you see that your wife has just baked a nice cake, you are going to see it and think that it looks good, but you're tired and don't want to get up and go get a piece," said Stevens. "However, if your wife cuts you a slice of that cake and sits it right down in front of you, then you're going to grab it and eat it. The same holds true for bass."
In late May and early June, Stevens is looking for bass that have dispersed from the spawning cycle. They will be spread out over a larger area and harder to find and catch.
"Once the fry are gone from around the nest, the parent bass scatter and that begins a whole different fishing pattern," Stevens said. "Fish can be a little more difficult to catch because they are dispersed."
Stevens said he loves fishing the creek and river channels that lead away from the flats and shallows out to the main lake. He said the fish take these travel corridors back out the same way they came in.
"I like hitting the channel swings where it hits a point and goes back out to deeper water," Stevens said. "I like using faster baits that can cover more water, like crankbaits with a tight wiggle or spinnerbaits that I can move fast."
Pro Tip: Bass in the Grass
James Dill of Sunrise Beach practically has the Lake of the Ozarks in his backyard. That isn't surprising for a successful tournament angler and owner of the well-known Crock-O-Gator Bait Company. Also, James Dill and his wife Denise are both professional bass-fishing guides at Lake of the Ozarks.
Late spring and early summer are some of Dill's favorite times to catch bass anywhere in the Midwest.
"May is an interesting month for bass fishing," Dill observed. "In the beginning of the month the fish are just starting to end the spawning period, but generally by the end of the month they are moving out into deeper water and feeding heavily."
In the first part of May, while the fish might still be nesting, Dill looks for the bass in protected pockets of water. Those areas could be in the backs of coves, up in creek arms or even bluffs that are protected from the wind and waves that might disturb their nests.
"I look for gravel bottoms where the fish like to nest," Dill said. "The fish love getting back under docks, around rocks, logs, cables, dock corners and any structure."
But according to Dill, the really good fishing starts after the spawn, which begins sometime in mid- to late May.
"In May you have two important things going on," Dill said. "First, the fry have hatched and the parent fish will often hang around them to protect them. Second, the bass are feeding back up so that they can put weight on after the rigors of the spawn."
Dill said he often looks for large schools of fry swimming in open water in early May. You can toss just about anything around that school of fry and the aggressive bass will attack it.
In the latter parts of May into early June, the bass are on a feeding binge as they are hungry after the spawning cycle. Both the males and females will be feeding heavily. The fish will be beat up from the spawn and still skinny. But they are on the prowl looking mostly for big schools of shad, which is where they can be found in good numbers chasing the baitfish.
Dill looks for the feeding bass
"You can get a great topwater bite at this time of year," Dill said. "We like to use our Crock-O-Gator Head Knocker buzzbait, Zara Spooks and Chug Bugs in 12 to 18 feet of water on main-lake points that start shallow, but go out to deeper water where they drop off to 40 or 50 feet."
Dill said the fish are feeding throughout the day at this time of year and the topwater bite can be good at any time. But in mid to late afternoon he likes to throw crankbaits and swimbaits too.
"It really doesn't matter which lake you are fishing," Dill said. "The bass all go through the same cycles every year, the body of water is not important."
If you are interested in booking a guided fishing trip with James or Denise Dill, you can reach them at 573-204-9005.
Greg Stoner is a fisheries management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Not only is he a biologist, but he also is an avid angler. He said that May is a key time of transition in the largemouth bass spawning cycle all across Missouri.
"Bass in Missouri start spawning as early as mid-April, but the spawn can last into early May," Stoner said. "Spawning is triggered by water temperature and photoperiodism."
Photoperiodism is the physiological reaction of animals and plants to the amount of daylight or darkness. "It's hardwired in the bass' brain and it is a biological safeguard to protect the spawn against an early warmup followed by extreme cold weather."
Like the expert anglers stated here, Stoner too says that once the females lay their eggs, they move away from the nest and the males stay there to protect it. "Once the yolk sacks are absorbed by the fry, the males will stick around for a little while. But then they too move away from the nest and go into feeding mode."
Stoner says no matter which big water you are fishing in Missouri, the bass are basically doing the same thing at this time of year. But timing is everything. Weather will play a key role in the timing of the bass spawn. You will have to figure out if the fish are still in the spawn mode or in post-spawn mode and change your tactics accordingly.
Late spring and early summer can be a magical time for bass anglers. Just as with deer hunters waiting for the rut, when the timing of the deer breeding cycle will determine when, where and how they hunt. From my experience as a bass fisherman, early May can be exciting as you get an aggressive bite from bass on or near the nest. Mid-May can be tricky though. Sometimes it is that period immediately following the spawn that can be hard to find the fish. But late May and early June can be a very exciting time for bass hunters. I like to fish any cover I can find along the flats that are between the spawning areas and the deep water of the main lake. That's when you must hang onto your rods tightly — because the bass bite is on!