By early summer, even the tardiest of fair-weather largemouth anglers start hitting the water. At these Ozark lakes, you can still get away from the crowds -- and into some fish! (April 2006)
Southwest Missouri is a place of pilgrimage for bass anglers. The major reason? Massive reservoirs.
One of the top bass fisheries in the nation is at Table Rock Lake. The state-record largemouth was taken from the Missouri portion of Bull Shoals Lake. And there are other bass fishing gems in this part of the state as well: Stockton Lake, which produced the state record smallmouth bass, and Pomme de Terre. So Missourians have plenty of chances to fish big waters for bass in this reservoir-rich section of the state.
But though opportunities abound on the large impoundments, big-water fishing has its drawbacks. The reservoirs are appealing to both tournament circuits and recreational anglers, so the impoundments experience heavy fishing pressure every spring. The massive size of Table Rock also makes it difficult for a novice angler to pinpoint bass, especially during the spring when the fish migrate from their deep-water haunts to the shallows.
For beginning anglers, and those who want to avoid the crowds, a host of small waters in the Ozarks represent a readily available alternative. Some small lakes, ponds and strip pits managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation offer plenty of bassing action in settings that all but assure solitude -- fisheries ranging from artificial impoundments covering a couple of hundred acres to ponds and strip pits a couple of acres in area.
Many of these waters are close to Springfield, which makes them ideal for local anglers wanting to spend a couple of hours after work fishing for bass. The small lakes also offer excellent opportunities for those anglers who don't own a big fancy bass boat. Plenty of bass can be taken here either from the bank or in belly boats, two-man crafts or small johnboats.
Despite their diminutive size, the MDC-managed lakes throughout this region still produce bass both of high quality and in large quantities. The smaller lakes also contain the same type of cover and structure seen at Table Rock, Stockton and Pomme de Terre: laydowns, rocky banks, channel swings, points and coves. However, anglers have a unique opportunity to fish a variety of aquatic vegetation, which is a rarity at the bigger waters in this part of the state.
The fishing patterns on the smaller waters mimic those on the bigger reservoirs, except the small lakes tend to warm up more quickly than do the massive impoundments. So bass in the miniature lakes should be closer to spawning in April than those in Stockton or Pomme de Terre.
Since the MDC-managed lakes receive less fishing pressure than do the big Ozarks waters, anglers can rely on "Bubba" baits and heavy line to catch bass. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and jigs with pork frogs or plastic craw trailers are all productive power baits for taking bass from the smaller lakes. Anglers should rely on 14- to 25-pound monofilament or braided line for throwing these lures into the vegetation and brushpiles that are common on most of these waters.
If the bass are locked onto spawning beds, switch to Texas-rigged plastic lizards, 4- or 6-inch plastic tubes, plastic creature-type baits or plastic craw worms to entice nesting fish. Concentrate on gravel or hard-bottom areas at depths of 1 to 5 feet, depending on the water clarity. In the small lakes, the dirtier the water, the shallower the bass will spawn. The biggest fish will usually spawn in hard-to-reach spots such as small pockets in the thick vegetation and next to gnarly brushpiles or laydown logs.
Buzzbaits, walking-style topwater plugs and chuggers will also draw strikes during the morning or throughout the day in cloudy weather during April. You can scale down to 4-inch finesse worms and 8- to 10-pound-test line with spinning gear to catch bass from the clearer mini-lakes and strip pits in the area.
Chris Vitello, MDC fisheries management biologist for the Southwest District, has discovered a few of these small gems through his electro-fishing sampling and personal fishing experiences at MDC-managed impoundments. He recommends the following four spots for topnotch bass fishing on a smaller scale.
This 820-acre artificial impoundment can be reached by traveling 4 miles north of Springfield on U.S. Highway 65, a half-mile west on state Route AA, and then north on County Road 197. The MDC manages the fishery, but the land surrounding the lake is regulated by the city of Springfield.
To launch your boat from the lake's a boat ramp, an annual sticker from City Utilities of Springfield is required. The city has also imposed a 40-horsepower engine limit on Fellows Lake.
Vitello sees plenty of similarities between Fellows and the large Ozark highland reservoirs in his district. "If I had to describe it, I would call it a mini-Table Rock," he said. "It has the same kind of look to it (clear water and rocky shorelines)."
Fellows Lake contains a certain type of bass cover not present at the larger impoundments. The upper end of the lake contains some patches of milfoil that extend from the shoreline out to depths of 10 to 14 feet. "There are some pretty large beds of submerged aquatic plants that have developed over the years," reported Vitello.
Hardwood brushpiles have been sunk throughout the lake; a map of their locations is available at the MDC office. If the lake level is high, Fellows will have a shoreline ring of flooded timber, but most of the time the lake lacks wood cover along the bank.
The MDC has imposed a 12- to 15-inch slot length limit for bass at Fellows Lake. "Our numbers this year show that about a quarter of the population is over 15 inches, which is in the same range as most other reservoirs throughout the state," stated Vitello. "The population is in good shape with pretty good numbers, and the catch rate is similar to that at Stockton and Pomme de Terre. The fish are pretty plump and grow pretty well."
Visiting anglers can definitely catch plenty of bass at Fellows -- but landing a lunker there is a rarity. "I don't hear of any really big fish caught there," said Vitello. The biologist, who estimated that a "big" fish at Fellows ranges between 4 and 6 pounds, speculated that the absence of threadfin shad probably prevents Fellows from producing bigger bass.
To catch bass at Fellows, the biologist uses about the same patterns that work at Table Rock. "On the right day you can fish on the surface and on other days crankbaits will work effectively," he said.
Whereas bass on Table
Rock will be spawning during April, bass at Fellows will probably still be in the pre-spawn stage. Vitello has noticed that Fellows bass tend to spawn at about the same time as their cousins at Stockton do. "We do most of our serious sampling at Stockton and Fellows in the first week or 10 days of May," he said.
Since pre-spawn bass will be in the shallows at Fellows during April, a variety of lures such as spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jigs and Texas-rigged plastic craws will produce fish throughout the month. A word of caution, though: Save your $15 crankbait for another lake, because Fellows contains muskies, and if you hook one of these toothy critters, it'll saw off your expensive bass bait in the blink of an eye.
Vitello describes fishing pressure at Fellows as moderate. "You are not going to get as many folks as you do on Table Rock partly because of the motor restriction, but it still gets quite a bit of use," he said.
The lake offers good bank-fishing opportunities as well, since some of the brushpiles are strategically located within casting distance of the shoreline.
Springfield anglers can reach this lake in a hurry by heading south on U.S. Highway 160, going one mile east on County Road 178 and then going south on County Road 169 across the James River to the facilities along the lake's southern shore.
The 312-acre lake has boat ramps, jetties and several wheelchair-accessible fishing docks. Its proximity to Springfield makes the lake the ultimate choice for local anglers to fish after work, especially in April when Daylight Saving Time increases the evening hours of sunlight.
Most of the lake is shallow, with a mud bottom, scattered vegetation and a sprinkling of standing timber. Like Fellows, the lake is owned by City Utilities of Springfield, which has instituted a 6-horsepower engine limit. "It's kind of the old-fashioned fishing there with a johnboat and a 6-horsepower motor," said Vitello.
Cooling-water effluent from the local coal-fired power plant makes Lake Springfield into a year-round warmwater reservoir. The discharge causes the lake to warm up faster in the early spring, so bass tend to spawn there earlier than do the fish at Fellows Lake. The warmer water also triggers a longer growing season for fish, so Lake Springfield bass tend to grow larger than those in other area lakes. This lake has a 12- to 15-inch slot limit.
Since the lake impounds a section of the upper James River, it features a distinct river channel. "It is very easy to identify, because just adjacent to the channel you get into water that is only 4 or 5 feet deep and the channel is 12 to 15 feet deep," said Vitello.
Three-time Bassmasters Classic qualifier Brian Snowden used to fish the lake in the summertime when he lived in Springfield. He discovered that the lake contained plenty of cover and structure for bass, including lily pads, laydown logs, rock riprap and bluff banks.
"There is a lot of shallow water, but also some water in the 10- to 20-foot range," Snowden noted.
A vegetation-control project conducted by City Utilities a couple of years ago eliminated a lot of the American lotus pads on Lake Springfield, which made more areas accessible to fishing, but Vitello believes the loss of vegetation also caused a slight decline in the bass population.
Vitello describes the bass population as decent. "There is a good number of fish in that slot range," he said. "The opportunity to catch a lunker is a little better there than at Fellows Lake. I know of 6-, 7- and 8-pound fish that have been taken out of Lake Springfield."
Anglers fishing from a boat also have the opportunity to pursue smallmouth bass from the river. "The nice thing about Lake Springfield," said Vitello, "is when you launch you are right at the spot where the lake meets the upper James River so you can go up and fish the river for at least two or three miles."
Since bass will likely be spawning in April at Lake Springfield, Vitello recommends keying on the chunk rock banks, especially the rocky shoreline where the old river channel swings next to the railroad tracks. "When we sample during April, that is the hotspot," he said.
As noted, most of the lake features a mud bottom, so you should key on any cuts near the channel swings that contain small broken rocks since bass prefer spawning on a hard bottom. Soft plastics such as flipping tubes, finesse worms, craws, creature-style baits and jerk worms will work best for nesting bass at Lake Springfield.
Fishing pressure at Lake Springfield is moderate. "It is close-to-home fishing for Springfield residents," said Vitello. "But it is mostly casual fishing from guys who have an hour or two after work and want to hit it real quick." The biologist believes the lake receive more pressure from guys wanting to catch catfish or crappie.
SHAWNEE TRAIL CA
This 3,635-acre conservation area on County Road M, a mile south of U.S. Highway 160 in Barton County, has 18 lakes, four ponds and numerous strip pits loaded with bass. Vitello describes the area as a "real sleeper" for bass fishing.
"You can go down there for a day and hit a bunch of different water," said Vitello. "We have built some lakes there, and there are some ponds left over from the farmers when we bought it, plus there are also several old strip mines."
All of the lakes, ponds and strip pits at Shawnee Trail have a slot limit of 12 to 15 inches for bass. Boats are restricted to electric motors only. Pin Oak Lake is the largest artificial impoundment on the property.
"It has good largemouth fishing and good access," said Vitello. "The numbers of bass aren't particularly impressive, but the size structure is pretty good. In our sampling we have taken several fish in the 20- to 22-inch range."
Pin Oak Lake contains a couple of weedy arms filled with submerged and emergent vegetation, sunken brushpiles and, since the lake receives a lot of wind from the prairie, some riprap banks for erosion control. "You can walk around the whole lake," said Vitello. "The whole area would be wonderful for a belly boat and the little two-man boats."
Some of the ponds and pits are easily accessible; others are secluded and might require about a quarter- to half-mile hike to reach. "There are some small impoundments and strip pits that don't see very many anglers," Vitello suggests. "I don't think there are a lot of people who go there to seriously fish for bass."
The biologist believes that catfish are the popular catch there, even though the lakes do contain some plus-sized bass.
Surface plugs will entice bass in these lakes during the morning, but anglers will have to switch to sub-surface lures when the winds whip off the prairie later in the day. The same lures that work at Fellows an
d Lake Springfield will work just as well for the Shawnee Trails lakes and pits.
KELLOGG CITY LAKE
Off U.S. Highway 96 near the Carthage eastern city limits, this 25-acre impoundment owned by the city of Carthage has an electric-trolling-motor-only restriction for boats. The lake also has a 15-inch minimum-length limit for bass.
"There are a lot of bass in the lake, but the size structure isn't all that great," said Vitello. "You are not going to run into very many fish over 15 inches. "
Kellogg contains some sunken brushpiles, and an island in the middle of the lake draws bass. The shallow lake also has some submerged vegetation. "It is just a big bowl," remarked Vitello. "I don't know of an area that is more than 8 or 9 feet deep."
The lake receives heavy fishing pressure from bank-fishermen; indeed, few anglers fish from a boat here, even though Kellogg features a boat ramp.
For more information about the quiet bass lakes in the Ozarks, call the MDC District Office at (417) 895-6880.