The vast waters of Lake of the Ozarks offer both quantity and quality to largemouth anglers. Here are a few of the best options.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The first time I fished Lake of the Ozarks, I nearly got thrown out of my boat. It happened on a still, sultry day in June.
A relentless web of wakes from an endless parade of boats made the big mid-Missouri reservoir resemble an oversized wading pool full of exuberant toddlers. Whizzing past was a veritable regatta of party barges, personal watercraft, cigarette boats and luxury cruisers. Waves bounced off the rocky banks and collided with incoming waves, creating a multidirectional chop with deep, narrow troughs.
Sitting at the bow of my ancient Ranger with my foot on the trolling motor, I struggled to stay positioned over the end of a deep point where largemouth bass were biting a Carolina-rigged worm. The boat fell sideways into one of these troughs and then pitched violently to the other side when the next wave hit. With the boat practically on its side, I wrapped my legs around the seat stem and grabbed both sides of the seat until things calmed down. I spent the rest of the day fishing from a kneeling position.
Anyone who has fished Lake of the Ozarks recognizes this as an everyday scene during the summer. Even so, the fishing is actually very good during this period. If you don't mind large crowds and the unique fishing conditions associated with them, then Lake of the Ozarks is one of Missouri's finest summer bass fishing destinations.
An impoundment of the Osage River, Lake of the Ozarks covers 55,000 acres. The lake is owned by a private electric company and is managed primarily for hydropower generation. Directly upstream is Harry S Truman Reservoir, a huge U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment of the Osage River that is managed partially to regulate water levels at LOZ.
Lake of the Ozarks has several large tributaries that can almost be considered separate lakes, including the Niangua River, Grand Glaize Creek and Gravois Creek. The Little Niangua River, which feeds the big Niangua, is another notable tributary.
In addition, the lake is fed by nearly 1,000 springs. The largest, Ha Ha Tonka Spring, feeds 48 million gallons of fresh water per day into the Niangua arm. In June, when water temperatures start getting hot, the mouth of the spring is an excellent place to fish.
LOZ touches about 1,300 miles of shoreline. The most prominent shoreline features are rocky points and tall bluffs interspersed by long coves. Much of the shoreline, especially around Osage Beach, is covered with homes, condominiums, hotels and marinas. Consequently, the lake has countless boat docks of all sizes and descriptions. In some coves, boat docks and marinas cover a large part of the water surface.
All of this adds up to a rich diversity of excellent bass habitat that can produce bites for all types of anglers. No matter how you like to fish, you can do it successfully here.
Without question, boat docks are the most popular targets for all bass anglers at Lake of the Ozarks. If one dock doesn't produce, there's another one just a short cast away. Mike Boyles of Ozark spends most of his time on Table Rock Lake these days, but he honed his bass fishing chops at LOZ during the mid-1980s. The skills he learned there helped him at age 17 become the youngest angler ever to earn a spot in the Red Man Golden Blend Diamond Invitational Bass Fishing Championship. That was in 1992, but nothing has changed: Bass loved the docks back then, and they love them now.
To prove it, Boyles took me to a couple of coves off the Osage River arm in the Hurricane Deck area. Most anglers fish the docks with jigs, but Boyles used a variety of crankbaits. This allowed him to cover more angles in less time than he could with jigs. The most effective was a shallow diver with a pearl-colored body and red eyes. In addition to casting, he also pitched the crankbaits as one might pitch a jig. The difference is that the crankbait offered a fast, horizontal presentation as opposed to a static, vertical presentation.
By mid-June, however, that pattern starts to wane as warm water and bright sunshine drive bass into the deep water of the main lake. Though not as prominent as the docks, these main-lake points contain a wide assortment of artificial brushpiles and rock cover. The brushpiles are usually between depths of 8 and 16 feet. Many anglers can't seem to pry themselves away from the docks, so these deep features aren't fished as heavily as they might be.
"I've had some of my heaviest weights per day in the month of June," Boyles offered. "That's when the post-spawn fish have moved back to main-lake brushpiles, and I catch them with deep-diving crankbaits like a Norman DD-22 in shad or perch pattern. You can also throw a 10-inch worm or a green pumpkin lizard with a chartreuse-dipped tail on a Carolina rig."
Also, at certain times in June you can get some exciting topwater action. "Topwaters can be really good at times," Boyles said. "My favorite things to throw are a buzzbait or Heddon Zara Spook." Additionally, by mid-June you can start finding solid numbers of bass in the backs of tributaries. They're attracted by big schools of shad, and bass herd them into these confined pockets, where they're easy pickings.
"The best places for that is in the major tributaries, and up the Niangua and Osage arms," noted Boyles. "There's also a whole bunch of channel swings against the bluffs. On both of those areas you can find isolated laydowns in the backs of creeks and do pretty well with spinnerbaits and buzzbaits early.
"As the day progresses, I throw a shallow-running crankbait like a Bandit 100 or a Norman in crawdad pattern or chartreuse-and-black at any of the shallow laydowns. I'd also run that same crankbait alongside the docks in the same coves. On the bluffs, I'll probably be cranking with a shallow-running shad crankbait or Fat Free Shad Junior crankbait in shad color."
Shonn Goodwin of Moore, Okla., has finished in the money five times in B.A.S.S. events -- three of which were at Lake of the Ozarks. Ordinarily, he reports, the most favored, most consistent pattern year 'round at LOZ is fishing the boat docks. Many of the docks have brushpiles planted on the deep end, supplying valuable habitat for crappie and also for bass.
"If you've never been to the lake before, you can take a jig to those docks, and you're going to catch some good fish," Goodwin said. "I've caught my bigger fish on a 1/2-ounce jig on 15-pound test line. With jigs, I like to keep it basic. Black and blue in clear water; if the water is dirty, I throw black and yell
ow. Either way, I use a brown trailer, either pork or plastic."
SOFT JERKBAITS OVER ROCKY STRUCTURE
While boat docks are the most visible targets, they're merely one option for catching bass at LOZ. Natural structure also attracts a lot of bass. Bill Berry of Terre Haute, Ind., has won money in several BASS events, including two at Lake of the Ozarks. His main technique involves fishing soft-plastic jerkbaits on banks with transitional rock cover. This technique is so effective that he finished 13th in his first event, even after losing seven hours of fishing time because of a boating accident.
"I completely stay away from what everybody else does," Berry said. "The success I've had came from fishing in some of the cuts and coves right off the Osage River. I went into some of the pockets and looked for transitional areas like chunk rock to pea gravel, and pea gravel to sand.
"I used Terminator SnapBack soft jerkbaits; I always throw white. You have to weight those baits, so I throw a No. 3 Gamakatsu hook with a cone-shaped weight."
Berry does, however, do quite a bit of experimenting with presentations before he finds one that works. "When I go out there for practice, I go to chunk-rock and pea-gravel areas and rip that SnapBack jerkbait as fast as I rip a buzzbait," he explained. "I won't even let it get underwater. I rip it as fast as I can with an erratic motion, and sometimes fish will explode on it. If I'm not getting a touch or a sniff, I jerk it back with pauses. If they're swirling at it but not hitting it, I put a trailer hook or a stinger hook on it."
Another method that works is dead-sticking the soft jerkbait. "There have been a lot of times when the fish weren't as active, and I'd just let it fall down the bluff wall," observed Berry. "That's a good way to pick up subtle strikes. If you have a good pair of sunglasses, you can see a fish swirl on it after it falls 4 or 5 feet. Or you might see your line moving off."
THE AUTHOR'S APPROACH
While I only fish recreationally at LOZ, I've never had a bad day there. In the spring and early summer, my favorite tactic is to throw a large fire-tiger-colored floating Rapala minnow near boat docks and transitional rock structure, and over main and secondary points. I retrieve the bait by jerking it erratically, making it dart, dive and roll. I reel only to take up slack.
Later in the summer, I always catch fish by Carolina-rigging 6- to 8-inch worms off the short, sharp main-lake points near the dam. Current is strong off those points when the generators are running at Bagnell Dam, and it keeps the bass frisky even during the brightest, hottest part of the day. Worm color doesn't seem to matter. I've caught them at both ends of the spectrum, but I'm most confident with blue; I also like pumpkin with red metalflake.
From early June through August, I catch my biggest bass in this area from about 3 to 9 p.m.; this pattern usually tapers off at sunset. Another worthy summer pattern is one overlooked by almost everybody but crappie anglers. In fact, I stumbled on it while crappie-fishing a couple of years ago. I use light crappie jigs, either 1/16-ounce or 1/32-ounce, on 4-pound-test line spooled on an ultralight reel mated to a Falcon Ultralight rod. I fish the jigs under a slip-bobber right under the bluffs. It's very simple: Just cast it and wait. When the bobber goes under, just lift the rod. More often than not, you'll hook a bass instead of a crappie, and chances are good that it'll be a nice one.
For a comfortable change of pace, I also recommend fishing the big tributaries in the upper end of the Osage arm near Truman Dam. One of my favorites is Cole Camp Creek, which as it narrows becomes a series of deep pools separated by narrow runs and wide mudflats. Rocks line the banks and the bottom, serving as comfortable cover for bass in the heat of the day.
You can fish these pools a couple of different ways. If you want to go deep, you can work the bottom with a Carolina-rigged worm or grub. In the summer, it's best to go with small grubs or worms in subtle colors, such as watermelon or pumpkinseed. Drifting with spoons can also be effective.
Periodically, bass will also chase shad onto the mudflats. Sometimes these feeding frenzies are spectacular; at other times it'll just be a bass or two. Either way, you can catch them with a small Sassy Shad or a similar soft-plastic bait on a 1/8-ounce jighead. The presentation is easy: Just throw it and then retrieve it by swimming or pumping it, slowly either way. You can also do well with a small topwater like a tiny Torpedo or a Zara Puppy.
Further up, the creeks look more like Ozark streams, with deep, narrow pools lined with rocky shelves and bluffs. Again, you can fish them with Sassy Shads, soft-plastic crawdads or spider grubs on standup jigs. Small ultralight crankbaits also work well at times. Avoid the skinniest, clearest water, because bass are scarce there at this time of year, and the ones that are there hold tight to cover and are hard to catch.
Although many bass anglers frown on it, trolling is a great way to catch largemouth bass on Lake of the Ozarks in June. Again, docks are key, as many of these docks have brushpiles nearby for crappie fishing. I like to troll two lines -- one with a small, deep-diving lure, the other with a larger deep-diver. I use different colors until I find one that gets strikes more consistently than the other. I let out about 30 yards of line and troll slowly in front of the boat docks. I catch a lot of bass this way, including some big ones. I also catch a lot of crappie and white bass that way, too.
That's the nicest thing about Lake of the Ozarks. There doesn't seem to be a wrong way to fish it. The trick is staying in the boat.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Lake of the Ozarks is in central Missouri, primarily in Camden, Miller, Morgan and Benton counties. To get there from Interstate 70, take U.S. Highway 63 south from Columbia to Jefferson City, and then take U.S. 54 about 40 miles south to Osage Beach and Camdenton. From I-44, take state Highway 5 north about 25 miles north to Camdenton (state Highway 5/U.S. Highway 54). Continue north to the Hurricane Deck area, or go west on U.S. 54 about eight miles to Route AA. Take Rt. AA about three miles to the Larry Gale Access. Or, from the state Highway 5/U.S. Highway 54 junction, go about 10 miles north to Osage Beach.
Collectively, the towns of Lake Ozark, Osage Beach, Sunrise Beach and Camdenton are major tourist destinations. They have many hotels, motels, restaurants, tackle shops, marine suppliers and golf courses. For information, call the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-451-4117, or send e-mail to email@example.com. For a complete list of Lake Area chambers of commerce, visit online
If you're new to the lake and would like the services of a guide, Lake of the Ozarks supports a number of guide services and resorts. A generous listing can be found online atwww.funlake.com.
For information about the lake and its bass fishery, contact the Missouri Department of Conservation Camdenton Office, RR2 Box 247, Camdenton, Mo. 65020; (573) 346-2210.