Where do the Show-Me State's bucketmouths go in the winter? We'll tell you about a few spots in which low temperatures can mean high-grade bass. (January 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
During the winter, a common sight in Missouri is a covered bass boat sitting alone and forlorn in a driveway. Take a trip out Highway 7 from Warsaw and you'll see all the boats in dry storage out by Truman Lake. As you pass over the Grand Glaize Bridge at Osage Beach, Lake of the Ozarks looks dark, gray and forbidding, with whitecaps and miles of deserted water. Truman, with its undeveloped shoreline, looks positively desolate. Even on nice, sunny days, the lakes look windy and formidable.
Sure it's cold: It's wintertime in the Midwest, But even if the fishermen have gone on sabbatical for the next five to eight weeks, the bass in our favorite lakes don't have that luxury. If you want to experience some of the best fishing of the year, invest in some good foul-weather gear and get out there with them. While your buddies are home on the couch, you can be out creating some world-class bass fishing memories.
Another advantage to midwinter bass fishing is that you can pinpoint bass patterns now, and then follow their movements into the pre-spawn and beyond. That will give you a huge head start when the rest of the state's bass fishing fraternity comes out of hibernation in late February. Here's a quick look at the winter bass fishing scene on some of our most popular waters.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Lake of the Ozarks is one of the busiest, most festive places in the Midwest. People come from all over the state to revel in the party-cove atmosphere, creating a veritable traffic jam of speedboats, party barges, personal watercraft and all other manner of pleasure craft. Trying to fish this lake in the summer is a high-impact workout that tests tempers and patience.
In the winter, as noted earlier, it's a different scene altogether. You'd think anglers would take advantage of their opportunities, but few are eager to brave the wind, rain, snow, sleet and cold. Those who do find unpressured bass that are surprisingly active and aggressive. Although LOZ is famous for its spring fishing, some say that it's even better in the winter, when conditions are most favorable to fishermen.
With its hundreds of boat docks, anglers naturally concentrate on these highly visible structures throughout the year. While docks can still be very productive in the winter, you'll actually find the best fishing offshore, on main lake points and secondary points in major tributaries. Bass concentrate over deep structure because these features attract shad and funnel current. If you can find that magic combination, bass are pretty easy to find and pattern.
One of the most desirable situations at LOZ during the winter is when the floodgates are open at Truman Dam, at the head of LOZ, and at Bagnell Dam, at the tail. This creates flow-through current, and stains the water, driving big bass out of deep water onto shallow flats and high onto the points. Anglers who've been fortunate enough to be on the water during these conditions have reported some of the biggest limits and some of the biggest individual fish of the year.
While docks aren't my first choice of target in the winter, they're still productive. If we get a few days of warm temperatures, bass will often follow baitfish into the coves, and you can catch them by running white or pearl-colored crankbaits off the sunny, outside corner of a dock.
Although it's directly upstream from LOZ, Truman Lake has very little in common with its sister to the east. For starters, LOZ is more typical of an Ozark highland reservoir, somewhat similar to Table Rock and Bull Shoals. It occupies deep, narrow valleys and is characterized by tall bluffs and rocky points.
Truman Lake, in contrast, sprawls over 56,000 acres of rolling terrain and flatlands where the Ozark Plateau levels off toward the Kansas prairie. Instead of sharp, steep points, it has gently sloping fingers that separate very long, rocky coves. Here, as at LOZ, the inside bends of the main river channels are defined by stone bluffs, but they're not as high as are the bluffs at LOZ. In sharp contrast to LOZ, the fingers, or points, at Truman still contain thick stands of standing timber that essentially serve the same function as that of the boat docks at LOZ.
Despite the physical differences between these main types of topographic structure, bass still orient to them the same way. They concentrate along the dropoffs between the points and flats, taking advantage of current to herd and corral shad. One of my favorite areas is around KK Island. There, you can almost always count on catching bass, but you also might catch a walleye or two.
One thing to remember is that bass do eat a lot in the winter, but usually in spurts. Because of the cold temperatures, they don't generally chase prey for long distances, so consider that when selecting baits. When I find a school of bass bunched up over deep structure, such as a brushpile or rock garden, I mark the area with floating buoys, anchor my boat directly over the fish-holding structure and catch them with spoons. This is a matter of patience, because you can't make the fish bite -- you just have to wait until they feed.
It's also a matter of trial and error to decide what size spoon the fish prefer. I might use a 1/4-ounce Bomber spoon to mimic small shad and work my way up to 1-ounce CC spoons.
You can help yourself in this pursuit quite a bit with your electronics. By turning up the sensitivity, you can actually mark your spoon on your graph and watch fish come to it.
If the barometer is moving, I'll also try to catch them with black or purple worms on a Carolina rig. I'll use these in the same areas to catch more-aggressive fish. If that fails, I'll use a large, red, deep-diving crankbait such as a Norman DD-22 or a big Bagleys.
TABLE ROCK LAKE
Without question, Table Rock Lake is the best place for catching some big smallmouths in Missouri this month. It, Bull Shoals Lake immediately downstream, and Beaver Lake immediately upstream, are three of the best smallmouth lakes in the region. Boat and angler traffic will be sparse this month at Table Rock, but smallmouths, a coldwater species, will aggressively prowl deep points in search of shad.
One of the great things about fishing for smallmouths in the winter is you don't necessarily have to fish slow to catch them. You can catch them with deep-diving suspending stick baits, and you can sometimes catch them in the mornings by slowly retrieving a big Cordell Red Fin just fast enough to give it a wake-creating wiggle. Sma
llmouths will shoot up from great depths to meet this challenge.
You can also catch them near the bottom on main-lake points with any number of jig combinations. Regardless of the season, I always enjoy going after Table Rock's smallmouths with a spider jig on a 1/2-ounce standup-style jighead. In the winter, I prefer a dark color, like smoke/pepper or black/silver flake. When using conventional jigs, I go with at least 1/2 ounce, usually in something off-red or rust colored.
My favorite way to fish for Table Rock smallmouths in January is with a crankbait. This is a fairly simple and often overlooked proposition. Mainly, I look for windswept banks, and work them over thoroughly with something that gives off a solid vibration signature, such as a Storm Wiggle Wart. The only demand is that it must be some shade of red, including purple.
Unlike jigs, crankbaits seem to produce only big smallmouths in the winter. You can usually look forward to catching bass in the 3- to 5-pound range. Some of my best days have seen the bottom fall out of the barometer -- for example, on a warm morning during which the temperature drops 15-20 degrees on a howling north wind. You won't catch many fish on days like that, but the ones you do catch will be big.
If you're after largemouths, look for transitional areas with vegetative cover. As a rule, smallmouths gravitate to chunk rock, boulders and pea-gravel banks. Largemouths, on the other hand, inhabit topographic transition areas, such as the point at which a bluff meets a mudflat.
For smallmouths, the best areas are from Kimberling City to Table Rock Dam.
For its size, profile and amount of cover, Stockton Lake is one of the easiest places for catching bass in Missouri. Shaped like a giant twin-tailed grub, Stockton consists of two main arms -- the Sac River arm and the Little Sac arm -- that merge at a long point on which Stockton Lake State Park is sited. A number of small tributaries feed both arms, but in the winter, most of the fish concentrate on main-lake points.
Although Stockton is one of my favorite lakes, I spent most of my time in the Little Sac arm, so that's the half with which I'm most familiar. It exhibits two distinct profiles. From the Highway 245 Bridge to Pomme de Terre Dam, the Little Sac Arm consists of sharp, rocky points and long, very wide flats that extend in places nearly half a mile from the shore to the main channel. In the winter, I look for suspending bass at the deep ends of the points with deep-diving crankbaits, or on deep flats with a finesse worm on a Carolina rig.
Directly across from Masters Recreation Area is a large island with a deep cut that separates it from the mainland. This cut, littered with rocks and concrete debris, is a good place for bassing on a warm, overcast day. The seaward side of the island is connected to the main channel by thin, narrow ridges. Bass suspend over and on both sides of the ridges, and if you can graph any fish suspending there, you can catch them with crankbaits, spoons and Carolina rigs. You can also catch them by slow-rolling a 1-ounce white spinnerbait with tandem silver willow-leaf blades.
Smallmouths are abundant from Masters Recreation Area to the dam, and you can catch some big ones during the winter. I recall one trip when I snagged a trunk of standing timber deep with a Bagley DB-3 crankbait. I tied my boat to the tree and then banged away on the lure with my plug knocker. When it finally came free, a 5-pound smallmouth hit the lure. Evidently, it just sat there and waited until the lure appeared vulnerable and then attacked it. I wasn't able to do much against both the fish and the plug knocker, but it showed me the lake's potential as far as smallmouths are concerned.
In the winter, the best spot for smallmouths is off the points directly across from the dam on the northwest side of the lake. A friend once told me that his favorite time to fish there is when a north wind whips the surface in to 3- and 4-foot swells. He zips up his life jacket and inserts the backrest of his seat under the back of his jacket to keep him from getting thrown from the boat.
THOMAS HILL RESERVOIR
For winter bass fishing, Thomas Hill Reservoir, near Moberly is a popular destination for anglers all over northern and central Missouri. Covering 4,500 acres, Thomas Hill serves as a cooling reservoir for a coal-fired power plant. The warmwater discharge from the plant provides stable water temperatures, which keep bass and other game fish active throughout the winter.
Perhaps because it's so small, Thomas Hill seldom makes anyone's short list of Missouri's top bass lakes. Nevertheless, it supports a very good bass population, with a sizable percentage exceeding 15 inches. When the warm water's flowing, you can catch bass near the discharge areas with any number of fast-moving baits such as crankbaits, spinnerbaits and lipless crankbaits.
When there's no discharge, however, you might believe there isn't a bass in the entire lake. The sudden, severe temperature drop really shocks them into inactivity. On days like that, you might as well head to the house.
MARK TWAIN LAKE
Nestled among the river hills southwest of Hannibal is Mark Twain Lake, one of the state's most underrated, most underappreciated bass venues. Because of severe water fluctuations during the spawning season, the lake's bass population has some sizable gaps in its age-structure, but fish are, by and large, plentiful and in very good condition.
Covering about 19,000 acres, Mark Twain Lake impounds the Salt River. Its profile is very similar to those of Stockton and Pomme de Terre, exhibiting long, well-defined points and associated flats and dropoffs, as well as wide valleys and deep coves. In its main river arms are some wide bays with extensive flats, but these don't really come into play until spring.
During the winter, you'll find the best fishing in the mid to lower end of the lake, from the Highway 107 bridge to Clarence Cannon Dam. One of my favorite areas is on the South Fork of the Salt River, from Mark Twain State Park to Highway 107 and around the peninsula to the Highway 107 bridge spanning the North Fork of the Salt River. Here you'll find wide, tapering points and deep dropoffs that often yield generous amounts of largemouths to anglers using deep-diving crankbaits and Carolina rigs.
In January, water levels are often very high. After a succession of warm days, you can sometimes catch largemouths by fishing flooded campground structure such as picnic tables and elevated charcoal grills.
Of course, this is the northernmost of Missouri's major lakes, and this area is subject to some of the coldest weather in the state. If you fish Mark Twain in January, you'll likely find large expanses of water, particular in coves and sheltered bays, locked up with ice.
That's just part of the Missouri winter bass fishing experience -- and if you can hack it, you can enjoy some terrific fishing.