The action can get fast and furious for crappie, bluegills and goggle-eyes at these Missouri panfish hotspots.
The first fish most of us probably caught in our lives is some sort of panfish. More than likely it was a bluegill because they are readily available to fishermen all across Missouri in farm ponds. In this article we will be focusing on not only bluegill, but crappie and goggle-eye. These panfish are plentiful, fun to catch for both kids and adults and they make great table fare.
I fondly remember floating and fishing the Big Piney River with my parents when I was a youngster. Not only was it fun just being on the river and camping, we caught a lot of goggle-eye and some of them had to have weighed at least 1 pound. And as a father I remember taking my son and watching him catch his first fish, a bluegill, while bank fishing.
Unless you've fished an Ozark stream you probably never heard of a goggle-eye. This voracious panfish gets its nickname from its big reddish colored eyes that really stand out against its brown mottled body. This fish's real name is northern rock bass, but I've never heard a fisherman call it that, so we will stick with the monicker goggle-eye.
If given the chance to grow, goggle-eyes have the potential of commonly reaching lengths of 11 inches and can weigh up to 1 pound. But they have the ability to reach more than 2.5 pounds.
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Goggle-eyes can be found in the clear streams of the Ozarks around large rocks, boulders, logs and weed beds in deep pools. They love eating crawdads, insects and sometimes small fish. A fish study conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation in the 1990s revealed that crawdads made up 78 percent of the goggle-eye's diet. Most of the crawdads found in the stomach contents of those goggle-eyes in the research were of medium size. They weren't small and they weren't large. Take that information to the bank fellow fishermen. The best artificial baits to use would be those that imitate medium-sized crawdads. My favorites are crawdad-colored crankbaits, but soft-plastics work too. Another longtime favorite lure for goggle-eyes and other panfish is the Beetle-Spin.
Big Piney River
The upper portion of the Big Piney River in Texas County is where I spent a lot of days fishing as a young man. It holds a special place in my heart. The fishing there today is probably as good as it was when I was a kid because of special regulations on length limits imposed by the MDC.
The section of the river known as the upper Big Piney is a 14-mile stretch from Baptist Camp Access to Mineral Springs Access. The MDC has a special rock bass regulation that starts at the Highway 17 Bridge (Dog's Bluff Access) and runs downstream to where the Big Piney flows into the Gasconade River. In this management area, goggle-eyes must be a minimum of 8 inches long to keep, with a daily limit of 15 fish. The remainder of the river from Simmons Ford to Dogs Bluff Access has a 7-inch length limit, which was just implemented in March of 2017. Boaters should know that there are a lot of logs in the river from recent flooding. Boaters need to take extra caution while navigating the Big Piney.
For more information on fishing the Big Piney River, call the MDC at (417) 256-7161 or visit their website at mdc.mo.gov.
The middle portion of the Current River is a 70-mile stretch of pristine water that starts at Akers Ferry and flows down to the town of Van Buren. This is another place I have had good success for catching goggle-eyes in Missouri.
In 2017 the MDC placed a 7-inch length limit on goggle-eyes on the entire length of the Current River. I always had good success fishing around any root wads that offered the fish cover. For more info on fishing the Current River call the MDC at (417) 256-7161.
Arguably one of the most popular fish in Missouri, the bluegill can be found in every corner of the state just waiting to inhale a worm, cricket or small lure.
These panfish can grow to about 9.5 inches long, but they can really put up a fight if you are using light tackle. You can find them in just about any farm pond or big reservoir. In rivers and streams, bluegills like backwaters with slow moving currents. They don't do well in really murky waters, as they prefer clearer waters with a lot of plant life and other cover.
Bluegills will eat just about anything they can fit in their tiny mouths, but often feed on insects, crawdads, snails and tiny fish. Of course, worms and crickets are prime live baits for these panfish, but tube jigs and small spinners work, too. They feed by sight and hone in on movement, so make sure there's a little wiggle in your worm so to speak.
Happy Holler Lake
This 67-acre lake located in northwest Missouri's Andrew County is an ideal place to catch a mess of bluegills. If you like hand-sized bluegill and bigger, you will like fishing at Happy Holler Lake.
This small lake is known for its big bluegill, which average 7 inches in length. But anglers have a great chance of catching some really bodacious bluegill that are over 8 inches long!
"June is typically the spawning season for the bluegill at this lake," said Happy Holler area manager, Sean Cleary. "The bluegill will be in the bedding phase and in pretty shallow water near the shore."
If they are on their beds, Cleary said you will get a lot of aggression hits as the fish try to protect their nest. And because the fish are close to the shore you really don't need a boat to enjoy great fishing.
Cleary cautioned that the spawning time varies from summer to summer and, if the fish aren't on the beds, anglers should look for them around woody cover.
"I'd say one-third to one-half of the lake has standing snags in it and the bluegill will be drawn to that woody cover," Cleary said. "Look for snags where the tops of the trees are submerged. You might lose a lot of tackle getting snagged, but you'll find more fish."
This area has two fishing jetties that allow anglers who do not have a boat to access deeper water. A covered fishing dock, a boat dock and a concrete boat ramp are also available.
For more information of fishing Happy Holler Lake call the MDC at (816) 271-3100 or visit their website mdc.mo.gov.
I would bet that most anglers would agree that the crappie is the best eating fish in Missouri. Of course, that's up for a huge debate, so we won't concentrate on that, but you could make a good argument for crappie fillets.
White crappie can easily grow to 9 or 10 inches long, but really big fish have been caught in the 4-pound range. Their diet consists of small minnows, bugs and small crustaceans. In the summertime they like to be in open water near submerged cover.
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One of the staple crappie lakes in Missouri is the 24,900-acre reservoir known as Stockton Lake. It is situated in Cedar, Dade and Polk counties, about 50 miles northwest of Springfield.
Fish sampling at Stockton during 2016 and 2017 showed large year-classes of white crappie for two consecutive years. Both of those years were so good they produced the first and fourth highest catch rates over the last 22 years of the MDC's trap-netting fish sampling. That is great news for crappie anglers and eaters.
Black crappie are less common than white crappie in general and the fish sampling in those same years proved that. The black crappie densities were slightly down from the previous few years. But despite fewer fish, their sizes were good. The 2017 sample showed a lot of young fish, which means good fishing for keeper-size fish in the future beginning in 2020.
"We've had some of the best catch rates for crappie in the past two-years than we've seen in awhile and anglers seem to be very happy," said MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Ben Parnell. "Our catch rates had been down over the previous 25 years, but now we seem to be on an upswing."
Parnell said by June crappie are getting into their summer patterns and anglers should be fishing deeper, at or near the thermocline. That is generally 18 to 22 feet deep, depending on what end of the lake you are fishing.
"In the summertime, Stockton becomes a brush-pile fishing lake for crappie," Parnell said. "The guys that do consistently well concentrate on the brush piles."
Another successful method is trolling for crappie around the thermocline in the summertime.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the MDC have helped with creating fish attractors and strategically placing them around the lake. These attractors offer good cover for bait fish and predators like crappie. Anglers should enjoy good success fishing around them.
"I know we have put out over 350 brush piles," Parnell said. "That's not counting the brush piles that anglers put out themselves."
Some of the fish attractors are marked with a sign on the shore, which will help you locate them. You also can use a depth finder to locate them, because the fish attractors are placed in 20 feet of water in front of the signs. Note that the 20-foot depth is when lake water levels are at 867 feet.
For more information about fishing at Stockton Lake visit the MDC's website at mdc.mo.gov. You also find a map that highlights the locations of the fish attractors. GPS points can also be found on the MDC's website. Your other option for details is to call the MDC at (417) 895-6880.
Pomme de Terre Lake
This reservoir located in southwest Missouri's Hickory and Polk counties has become a crappie fisherman's dream in recent years. Not many anglers realize just how good the crappie fishing is at Pomme de Terre, but you are going to thank me later if you try fishing there this year.
High lake levels in 2015 are probably the cause for very successful spawns and the high densities of both white and black crappie here. Anglers can expect an abundance of crappie that are larger than 9 inches, which is the minimum length limit here. This excellent fishery should continue for the next couple of years. Take advantage of it while you can.
For more information on fishing at Pomme de Terre call the MDC at (417) 895-6880.
The above mentioned public fishing areas are real hotspots for these particular species of panfish. These areas are just a few of the many waters in Missouri where you can truly enjoy panfish pandemonium this summer and catch a mess of fine-eating fish.