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Missouri's Topwater Largemouths

Missouri's Topwater Largemouths

Some of the most exciting bass action of the year awaits you this month on these fine Missouri lakes. (May 2010)

Table Rock fishing guide Brian Snow hefts a good May largemouth caught on a jointed stick bait.
Photo by John Neporadny.

Plop, plop, plop. Ka-Woosh!

Any Missouri angler who has experienced the thrill of topwater action knows the sounds of a plug plopping across the surface followed by the attack of a largemouth bass.

All other tactics for catching bass pale in comparison to the excitement of a largemouth busting the surface to engulf a topwater bait. In the Show Me State, bass can be coaxed into attacking topwater lures any time from late spring to late fall, but May is the prime time for surface action. Bass throughout the state will be in various stages of spawning during May so the fish will be feeding heavily before going on the nest, guarding a nest or guarding fry, which makes them vulnerable to any lure buzzing, popping or walking above them.

During the summer, you have to throw surface lures early and late in the day to trigger strikes, but I've experienced good topwater action all day long -- even on sunny afternoons -- during May. Water clarity often dictates which topwater lure works best whether you are fishing the state's largest reservoirs or the smaller city watershed impoundments or Missouri Department of Conservation lakes. Buzzbaits generally produce best in murky waters while a variety of surface plugs catch bass in stained to clear waters.

Here are some tips on how to catch bass on top at the major reservoirs during this month.

Largemouths on my home lake usually start busting surface lures in late April when the fish are on the beds. The topwater action heats up in May during the post-spawn period. My favorite topwater for Lake of the Ozarks is the Heddon Zara Spook in either baby bass or flitter shad (known locally as the Christmas tree color). The Spook is so effective because it can be worked at various speeds, but I've found the best presentation is a steady walk-the-dog retrieve. On many occasions I have seen fish follow the lure and have drawn more strikes by speeding up my retrieve rather than stopping the lure.


I prefer fishing the clear-water section of the lake from the Gravois arm to the dam area where I key on the protected gravel pockets during early May. Male bass will either be on nests behind dock cables or along sea walls from 3 to 6 feet deep, but the hefty females usually will be suspended along the sides of the docks. You can catch plenty of 2-pounders working the Spook along the sea walls and open banks, but you need to walk the plug along the back or the shady side of a dock to catch 4- to 5-pounders.

Right now is the only time of the year when I prefer fishing topwaters on sunny afternoons. The sunshine warms the water to activate bass and baitfish, and the bright conditions position the bigger fish in the shady areas under the dock, which makes them susceptible to the Spook sashaying in front of them.

From the middle to the end of May, bass have moved out to either secondary or main-lake points. The fish will still hit a Zara Spook, but the open areas tend to have more wind so a Rebel Pop-R usually works better. On the windiest days, I switch to a Gilmore Jumper, a large, double-blade prop bait that produces a lot of splash when jerked hard.

Guide Brian Snowden rates May as the best month for topwater action on his home waters.

"I've caught a lot of nice fish then," he says. "The majority of the topwater fish I catch then are between 3 and 5 pounds."

The Bassmaster pro notices he can catch topwater fish all day long in early May, but the surface action tends to be early and late in the day, or all day in cloudy weather toward the end of the month.

His favorite topwater lures for the clear sections of Table Rock are the Cotton Cordell Jointed Red Fin (Smoky Joe or chrome-and-blue hues) and the Zara Spook (flitter shad color). When fishing the murky sections of the James and Kings arms, Snowden opts for a chartreuse Super Spook or Super Spook Junior. Snowden favors waking the Red Fin in calm water and walking the Spook at a slow to medium speed on a choppy surface.

In early May, bass are just coming off the nests, so Snowden throws his topwater plugs along standing timber in pockets or on secondary points in the major creeks. The fish usually will be suspended in the trees sitting in depths of 10 to 20 feet.

By the end of the month, Table Rock bass move to the bluff ends and other steep banks where Snowden positions his boat over 40 feet of water. He throws his topwater lures to entice suspended fish in the trees about 20 feet deep.

Tournament angler Doug Vahrenberg considers May the prime time for topwater fishing on Truman. Some nesting fish can be taken in early May on topwaters in the pockets. The best topwater action, though, usually occurs after the spawn from the middle to the latter part of the month. The post-spawn fish are lean and mean after going through the rigors of reproducing, and will smash topwater baits then.

"They are on their weight-regaining program then," says Vahrenberg. "You will catch a lot of small ones but you will also catch a lot of fish in the 3- to 5-pound class, because a majority of those fish are coming right off the spawn."

The Higginsville angler says he can catch Truman bass on topwater lures all day long, whether it's cloudy or sunny during the post-spawn stage.

"Actually, it seems like midday can be some of the best fishing instead of early morning," he says. "The water warms up a little bit and the baitfish get more active then."

During the post-spawn, Vahrenberg keys on secondary points and channel swings in the backs of the creeks. The fish will be moving off the spawning flats and moving toward the deeper water of the points and swings, but they will still be feeding in the shallows.

"The fish will be close to the bank a lot of times," says Vahrenberg. "The big thing is finding the baitfish. I use my electronics a lot to see the schools of bait and that usually tells me whether I need to be throwing to the bank or pulling out a little bit."

The tournament competitor favors fishing an area that has scattered balls of baitfish rather than a whole cove full of bait because he believes too much forage makes it more difficult to trick bass into hitting his topwater


Vahrenberg's topwater selections for Truman are based on water clarity. "If it is dirtier that time of year, then my favorite is the buzzbait," he says. In cleaner water, he opts for a LuckyCraft Gunfish walking-style bait, or the LuckyCraft Wake Tail prop bait.

His favorite buzzbait for Truman is the 1/2-ounce Boogerman (black or white skirt), which has an oversized nickel blade that allows him to run the buzzer on top at a slow pace. He believes the slow-moving buzzbait generates more strikes because the fish become accustomed to seeing faster-moving buzzers at that time.

The upper Grand and Osage arms usually contain dirty water in May, and so Vahrenberg fishes those sections of the lake when he wants to throw a buzzbait all day. The Gunfish and Wake Tail work best in the clearer waters of the Tebo, Pomme and dam areas. Vahrenberg can catch bass on topwaters all day immediately after the spawn in those areas, but the pattern changes to an early and late bite toward the end of the month. "If you get a little drizzle it can be an all-day deal there," he says.

Vahrenberg also keys on the secondary points and channel swings in the creeks on the lower end of the lake, but he usually concentrates more on bass suspended in the trees along the edge of the creek channel. "They use the channels to migrate in and out of the coves," he confided.

The tournament veteran experiments with his favorite topwater plugs until he finds which one bass seem to prefer that day. "Sometimes I get more bites on the walking style topwater on a windy day but I have had equal success with both lures on the same type of day."

His favorite colors for the Gunfish and Wake Tail are aurora black for bright sunny days and chartreuse shad for cloudy skies. Employing a steady walk-the-dog retrieve with the Gunfish produces the most strikes for Vahrenberg, but he often experiments with cadences.

"Sometimes they want it stopped and sometimes I have done real well finessing it with one twitch to make it go to the right, then stop and then one twitch to make it go to the left. And then sometimes they want it as fast as you can work it."

The Wake Tail works best for Vahrenberg when he pulls it a couple of times and then lets it sit for a few moments. He believes that lure provokes bass into biting because the lure's spinning prop makes it look like an injured baitfish with scales falling off of it.

The middle of May until the end of the month is prime time for topwater action on this northeast Missouri reservoir, according to Gary Morrison, a guide and bass club angler.

The guide prefers running up South Fork to catch bass on a buzzbait. "Most people mess up then and fish a lot of main-lake stuff," Morrison advises, "but the best bite is up the rivers because the water warms up a lot faster."

Mark Twain has a reputation for turbid water, which can become a drawback when trying to fish the upper ends of the lake. If the area has experienced a rainy spring, Morrison takes a scouting trip before fishing to determine how dirty the water is in the area he plans on fishing.

"It doesn't take but 25 minutes to drive around that lake," he says. "If it has rained a lot and you have seen that the fields are plowed, don't even fish that arm because it will be muddy there."

When he finds suitable water color, Morrison runs a 3/8-ounce buzzbait (black blade and skirt) at a fast pace in about 1 to 2 feet of water. "Just throw it next to the trees and bump it off of them," he recommends.

Bass usually are guarding nests and will be close to the bank through the middle of May. The best buzzbait action will be early and late in the day, but Morrison claims he has caught fish all day long on topwaters during the spawn.

As the air and water temperatures continue to climb by the end of the month, Morrison starts throwing more topwater plugs for post-spawn bass. If it is rainy or cloudy with a slight chop on the water, Morrison will continue to throw his buzzbait.

He still starts each morning with a buzzbait, but if it is sunny and calm and the fish continue to ignore his buzzer, he changes lures. Switching to topwater poppers such as the Rebel Pop-R or Storm Lures' Chug Bug, and slowing down his retrieve usually helps Morrison coax bass to the surface again. Popping the lure and letting it sit for a while is Morrison's favorite retrieve for these surface plugs.

"Another good lure there is a (fire-tiger) Devil's Horse," he says. "I just pop it a couple of times and let it sit and then I let the ripples totally disappear." If the motionless bait fails to trigger a strike, Morrison repeats the sequence.

The topwater chuggers usually produce plenty of Mark Twain keepers for Morrison in May, but he catches his biggest fish on the surface with the buzzbait. He also finds bigger fish in the remote sections of the lake. "If you go up the creeks, you will catch a lot of 3- to 3 1/2-pounders."

Topwater action on Smithville depends on the water temperature during May. "If we get a warm spring with not a lot of rain, the water will warm up quickly and the fish will be biting on top," says David Allen, a local tournament angler.

The amount of spring rainfall determines which section of the lake will produce the best topwater action. Allen notes the topwater fishing was good last May in Camp Branch and the lower end of the lake, but topwater action was nil on the northern end above the town of Trimble where heavy rains kept the water muddy all spring.

Allen's favorite topwater for the turbid waters of Smithville is a 1/2-ounce buzzbait with a silver blade and white-and-chartreuse skirt. He uses a medium-speed retrieve to trick Smithville bass into biting his buzzer. "I don't want it chugging under the surface, but I don't want it clean on top of the water either," he says.

A black buzzbait with black or gold blades will generate strikes from pre-spawn and spawning bass in the 2- to 4-foot depth range.

Since he is fishing in standing timber and lily pads, Allen throws his buzzbait on 20-pound-test line to make sure he can pull hefty fish out of the thick cover.

Throw a topwater lure on one of these lakes or other smaller waters throughout the state in May and you are sure to experience some of the most exciting bass action of the entire year.

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