Long known as a crappie factory, southeastern Missouri's Wappapello Lake is rapidly developing credibility among anglers as a largemouth bass lake. (June 2009)
Electro-shocking surveys at Wappapello Lake indicate that good numbers of largemouth bass -- including some 4- to 6-pound fish -- are using manmade brushpiles for cover. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in southeastern Missouri is a gem of a lake known statewide for its great crappie angling. However, crappie are not the only fish in the 8,400-acre lake worth an angler's attention. There is a very nice bass fishery there as well, and it's only getting better.
Wappapello Lake has long been known as a crappie fishery, and most of the fishing effort at the lake is directed toward papermouths. In fact, surveys have shown as much as 65 percent of the angler effort is targeted toward crappie, with only about 18 to 22 percent focused on largemouth bass.
However, with ongoing improvements in the bass fishery here, those statistics may soon change.
The Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologists who oversee Wappapello believe the bass fishery is in good shape for this year. Biologist Mark Boone said they weren't able to sample the lake properly during 2007 and 2008 due to high water, but they haven't heard any negative reports from anglers. In 2006, when they sampled, some 23 percent of the bass measured longer than 15 inches.
For most lakes, the MDC has a target goal for the fishery to have 40 to 60 percent of the bass above 12 inches. From 2001 to 2006, Wappapello Lake has done exactly that -- maintained between 41 and 60 percent of the bass over 12 inches. Both Boone and fellow biologist Paul Cieslewicz said the bass population has been really good.
In the past, the lake exhibited a lot of stunted bass. This is the main reason the lake never gained a big reputation with bass anglers. The bass grew slowly, and there were large numbers of bass less than 12 inches in length.
However, once the bass reached 14 inches, they seemed to grow much better, and there were some real lunkers there.
Some anglers have suggested the need for a length limit on bass to improve the quality of the fishery. However, quite the opposite is actually true. Currently, there is no length limit on bass at Wappapello, and anglers are actually encouraged to harvest fish below 12 inches. The reason is because there is practically no bass harvest at the lake, as some 90 percent of the anglers practice catch-and-release tactics.
A creel survey done in 2001 and 2002 showed the bass catch rate to be two fish per acre, with the harvest rate at only .2 bass per acre. With harvests that low, there is absolutely no need for a length limit, and too low of a harvest can actually result in overpopulation and stunted fish.
Something that has really helped the bass fishery improve is a set of changes related to the management of the lake level during the time of the shad spawn, which, at Wappapello, is usually from mid-April until sometime in May.
The MDC did a research study on gizzard shad and found that the best spawns occur when the lake is steady or slowly rising. A sharp rise in the lake level would cause the shad to spawn all at once, which resulted in a huge spawn and overpopulation. The resulting fry over-ate the zooplankton and many didn't survive.
On the other hand, if the lake level dropped rapidly, the banks became dry and the spawn died. Therefore, MDC fisheries biologists have been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to regulate the lake level to facilitate the best shad spawns possible while still maintaining the lake and water flow as needed for flood control.
Another thing the MDC has been working on with the Corps is the construction of brushpile fish attractors. These projects have been ongoing for years and are a huge boost to the lake's available structure. Electro-fishing has proved that bass make good use of the brushpiles throughout the year, although they can be hard to fish.
The brushpiles put in by the MDC and Corps are quite extensive. Large loads of hardwood trees -- usually three big loads -- are positioned along points and dropoffs. The brushpile is strung out from close to the shore out into deeper water.
This creates a line of woody structure from shallow water into medium-depth water then into even deeper water. Then the bass, crappie and other fish can simply choose structure at whatever depth they desire based on conditions and time of year.
Fishing these structures is not quite as easy as, for instance, fishing a short log jutting out from the bank. The fish can be at any depth and interspersed throughout the submerged limbs of the trees.
However, by starting at the shallow end and systematically and diligently working into deeper water, anglers can usually locate the depth of the fish.
The MDC occasionally gets some grief from anglers who have trouble fishing the brushpiles. However, in a demonstration during midsummer, the fisheries biologists went out to a brushpile in about 3 to 4 feet of water on a windy point and did some electro-shocking to prove there were fish on the structure. "We shocked up about four or five fish in the 4- to 6-pound range, 10 fish in the 2- to 5-pound range, and bunches in the range of 10 to 12 inches," Boone said. "These structures are sometimes hard to fish, but the fish are there."
Right now is a great time of year to target those brushpiles. Bass typically spawn between April and May, and although Cieslewicz said that there is a bigger window for the spawn than most anglers realize, it's pretty much over by this time of year. The bass are pulling out of the shallow-water areas along the pea gravel and mud banks and backing out into deeper water.
Another great place to find bass is along the banks with good chunk rock. The rocks are loaded with crayfish and bass will hit these areas hard in search of the mudbugs as long as the water temperature allows.
There are plenty of methods and baits that will work when the bass are in the rocks chasing crayfish. Basically, any bait and fishing tactic that resembles the real thing will produce well. Crankbaits in crayfish color can be cranked deep and bounced along the bottom. This tactic will not only produce the right look, but it will also create noise and vibration and stir up silt, thus producing a more realistic presentation.
Soft or rigid plastic baits and jigs with trailers are other great choic
es. They should be fished similarly to the crankbaits. Get them down to the bottom and bounce or scurry them along in a short, erratic fashion. A quick, short start-and-stop motion is hard for a nearby bass to resist.
During the hottest parts of the year, the shallow water temperatures and sunlight penetration become too much for the bass and they pull off into deeper water.
However, anglers need to remember that Wappapello Lake stratifies each year, usually sometime during May or June.
Although the bass will want to pull out of the extreme shallow water, they can't go too deep because there is usually not enough oxygen below about 8 to 10 feet. Unlike many other lakes, bass can be caught virtually year 'round at Wappapello without having to fish really deep water.
There is also a good topwater bite at Wappapello. By this time of year, it's predominantly an early-morning bite, but it can again produce really late in the afternoon.
For the best surface action, anglers should be on the water before sunup if possible. The bass will often move shallower during the night in search of food, but can even be pulled to the surface from quite a ways down when they are in the mood for a meal.
Throwing baits such as the Zara Spook, Chug Bug or Pop-R buzzbaits can also be effective at times. Cast these baits along the coves over old submerged tree stumps, along the points near the coves, or around the shallower ends of the brushpile fish attractors.
On some days, the surface action can last all day, but usually it will subside after the sunlight starts becoming intense. Then, many anglers will switch over to crankbaits, spinnerbaits or Rat-L-Traps. These baits help anglers cover more water, more quickly than do jigs or plastic baits. However, if the bass are tight to cover, the latter baits will be the better choice.
A final choice for midsummer fishing would be to hit the water after dark and take advantage of the great night-bite action on this lake. Top-water action can be good with buzzbaits along the points, near the rocky banks or along the breakline between shallow and deep water, such as along the river channel.
Other anglers will get up on the chunk rock banks, on shallow woody structure, or on tapering points and fish more deliberately.
Plastic worms and creature baits can be awesome at times. Any bottom structure found, such as a hump, rock, or stump, should be worked thoroughly.
Aquatic vegetation is very important in a lake. It provides much in the way of the shelter and foraging needs of fry and small fish.
Additionally, it provides structure and a place to target forage for bigger fish. For anglers, it is a haven for sport fish and is usually a great fishing location.
However, due to dramatic fluctuations in water levels, it is often hard for aquatic vegetation to establish in large flood control reservoirs. At Wappapello Lake, there is an annual 5-foot winter drawdown. In contrast, spring rains often cause very high water levels and lots of turbidity.
Boone said the MDC, in cooperation with the Corps, began an aquatic vegetation study in 2006 to determine which species of plants are best suited for introduction into Wappapello Lake.
They constructed nine series of 10 fenced enclosures. They planted nine different species of plants in the enclosures, including three emergent species (burr reed, square-stem spike rush, and bull's tongue), two floating species (spatterdock and fragrant water lily), and four submerged species (wild celery, water star grass, large-leaf pondweed, and American pondweed).
In 2008, the study was expanded with 70 enclosures added to Paradise Point cove and Otter Creek near the Strickland boat ramp.
"These cages and the existing cages in Mayham cove were planted with seven different aquatic macrophyte species," Boone said. "Later in the month, we planted 10 sites with water willow, mostly in the Rockwood area of the lake."
Hopefully, the MDC will learn which plants survive best and both anglers and fish will soon have an ample amount of aquatic vegetation to enjoy.
Most of the bass fishery at Wappapello Lake is dominated by largemouths. There are some spotted bass and smallmouths in the lake as well, but there is not a large population of either.
There are some decent smallies weighing up to 3 and 4 pounds caught occasionally, but they are difficult to target and catch consistently.
Both Paul Cieslewicz and Mark Boone welcome contact from anglers. They believe their job is to serve the public and help in any way possible. They will also provide maps of the brushpile locations to anyone who asks.
Both may be reached by phone at (573) 290-5730. Boone may be reached by e-mail at Mark.Boone@ mdc.mo.gov and Cieslewicz at Paul.Cieslewicz@mdc.mo.gov.
Information on the lake, water level and more may be found on the Corps Web site at www.corpslakes.us or by calling (573) 222-8562.
A 24-hour information hotline is also available at (573) 222-8139 or toll-free at 1-877-LAKEINFO.