Show Me A Sure Thing: LOZ's January Bass

January bass may seem like a long shot to some anglers, but that won't be the case for you - provided you follow the advice of our experts and head for Lake of the Ozarks!

By Bill Cooper

Gambling has never been my cup of tea. However, I am a dyed-in-the-wool fisherman, just like tens of thousands of other Missourians. And it seems that wherever fishermen gather, stories begin to flow, and the longer that tales are being told, the more flamboyant (possibility even "imaginative") the storytellers become. Occasionally, matters get a little out of hand at these storytelling episodes, and the bets begin to fly. I have on several occasions been innocently wrangled into such wagering fiascos; usually I lose.

I do not, however, intend to lose when selecting Missouri's best bet for winter bass. In fact, I'd bet my Christmas fishing gear that Lake of the Ozarks is the premier Show Me State wintertime bass fishing lake.

Lake of the Ozarks enjoys a reputation as an outstanding bass fishery for both the size and the abundance of its largemouths, and this reputation has grown steadily over the years. LOZ holds three aces when it comes to bass fishing: (1.) its age, (2.) its location and (3.) the superb management plans of Missouri Department of Conservation biologists.

Age often brings slow death to ponds, lakes and reservoirs, the life choked out of them over time by sedimentation, pollution, dam deterioration and human encroachment. On the other hand, age can in some instances bring stability to a lake's biological environment - and that's how things have happened for Lake of the Ozarks, which, having been impounded on the Osage River during the 1930s, is Missouri's senior large impoundment.

Lake of the Ozarks has boasted Missouri's most consistently stable bass population over the last decade. The production of strong year-classes of largemouths, which grow to the legal 15-inch limit within three years, is the norm, thanks to the abundance of shad forage.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The 55,000-acre lake sprawls across parts of central Missouri's Camden, Miller and Morgan counties. The drainage of the Osage River basin includes the mountains region, the Missouri border lands and the western prairies. The fertility of these three distinct regions mixes together at Lake of the Ozarks, creating an organic stew that provides the foundation for an exceptionally productive food chain headed up by the largemouth bass.

MDC biologist Greg Stoner and his staff embody the third ace held by LOZ. Greg implements the MDC management plans for the lake and maintains a constant vigil over the health of its fishery. I visited with Stoner to get the latest information on Lake of the Ozarks bass.

"The bass fishery at LOZ has not changed much since I first came here in 1991," Greg began. "Our creel surveys have stayed essentially the same every year. We see temporary changes in environmental conditions, such as the drought a few years ago. A small fish kill occurred when the rains finally came. Nutrients built up on the landscape and washed into the lake, creating ideal conditions for the production of protozoa and bacteria. These pathogens attack fish, causing stress. It is a natural occurrence for die-offs to take place under such conditions. However, we continued to see lots of big fish during that timeframe."

Largemouth bass, unlike some other species, are very consistent spawners at LOZ. Add to this the fact bass are a relatively long-lived species - taking five years to reach the 15-inch legal length limit on the lake - and you can see why there are always good-sized year-classes being produced each spring.

Stoner pointed out that worries about the drought-incited losses were negated by LOZ bringing forth its largest year-class of bass on record coming out of the dry spell. "Shad are the basis of the bass population at LOZ," he noted. "We are very lucky here. Shad spawns are so large that their density slows their growth, making them available longer to bass as a forage base. Commonly, a year-class of shad will still be small enough the next winter for bass to feed on. Those stable populations of shad year after year make for stable populations of bass year after year."

Stoner, who has watched a lot of bass fishermen in his 12 years at LOZ, observed, "In January, bass fishermen head toward clear water." Which means that the lower end of the lake. The Gravois, Osage, Glaize and lower Niangua arms are the places to begin searching for cold-weather bass.

Stoner has also noticed a bit of downsizing in the lures fishermen use. Bass at LOZ have seen a lot of lures in the last decade. Jigs down to 1/4 and 1/8 ounce have become more common, and so, in order that fishermen can cast the lighter offerings more easily, spinning tackle is now the norm.

Biological information to help improve catch rates has a place in every serious bass fisherman's arsenal of knowledge. Nevertheless, good old-fashioned information from a knowledgeable fisherman goes a long way towards perking up the ears of fellow anglers. For that, I turned to the only full-time bass fishing guide on Lake of the Ozarks - Skip Surbaugh of Lake Ozark Guide Service - for an in-depth look at bassing LOZ in January.

"Fishermen are in for a great year of bass fishing at LOZ in 2004," Surbaugh began. "We had one bad summer and fall two or three years ago after an extended drought. Lots of nutrients built up in the watershed. When the rains came, the nutrients washed into the lake, prompting excessive blooms in parasites that attack fish. We had a small die-off, but we didn't lose many big fish like some other Missouri lakes. We still caught nice fish, but not on the scale we had become accustomed to.

"But that's behind us. Fishing has returned to normal, and the prospects for 2004 are excellent."

"Normal" at LOZ is "exceptional" for most waters. The impoundment is regarded as one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. And Surbaugh rates it a top January destination as well.

"I set my expectations for the year by the kind of fish I catch in January," he said. "The bite is slower in the cold temperatures, but we see lots of the biggest fish of the year being caught in January."

Surbaugh, a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed guide who works full-time at his profession, spent 306 days fishing on LOZ in 2002. You just can't spend that much time on the water without learning a thing or two.

"The majority of the cold weather bass fishing takes

place from the Grand Glaize down to the dam," he commented. "This section of the lake generally has the best water clarity in the winter months. The fish are lethargic, and you have to put a lure close to the fish. Bass won't chase a bait in January. Their metabolism is at its lowest of the year, and energy conservation is a necessity. Also, fish will rise slowly to a suspended bait that is motionless, or that has moved only slightly. Therefore, water clarity is a major factor to take into consideration when fishing LOZ in January."

Surbaugh pointed out that there are some good bass caught early in the year up the Niangua Arm and around Tan-Tar-A. Many tournament anglers run up as far as the Lodge of the Four Seasons in pursuit of keeper bass, and their efforts often pay off.

The guide went on to mention three of the baits that are used most often in January: "Most people toss some type of jerkbait. If they're not using jerkbaits, they're dragging a jig or hula grub across the bottom. Again, ultra-slow retrieves are the key to using these baits. Bass will not chase them."

A lot of jerkbait anglers use Smithwick Suspending Rogues, which over the last decade have consistently fooled LOZ fish during the cold-weather months. However, the hottest lure for the last two years has been the Lucky Craft Pointer Minnow. Surbaugh prefers the 100 series, a 6-inch bait. Clown and translucent colors are his favorites for sunny days, while darker colors work best for him on cloudy days. If bass prove finicky, he changes to the Pointer 78, a 4-inch lure.

"I tell all of my customers to allow stick baits to sit another 15 seconds when they think it's sat still long enough," Surbaugh noted. "Slowing to a snail's pace is difficult for lots of people. Fishermen are accustomed to fast moving bass baits. Cold-weather fishing takes patience, and people must slow their presentation dramatically to be successful."

How slow is slow? Surbaugh allows his stick bait to sit at least 30-seconds after pulling it down to the depth at which he believes the fish are holding. Even then he doesn't move the lure in the traditional sense. "I don't move the bait 6 inches at a time," he offered. "I shake my rod tip slightly to make the jerkbait tremble in the water. That movement imitates a dying shad and often triggers a strike. And a bass doesn't have to chase the lure at all. Slow, slow, slow is the name of the presentation game on LOZ in January."

Surbaugh begins every cold-weather bass fishing trip with the same tactics. He cranks his suspending bait down to about 8 feet, waits 30 seconds, and shakes his rod tip. "If I get bit quickly after the twitch, I may speed the bait up considerably," he described by way of instruction. "By that, I mean I may twitch the bait after waiting only 15 seconds. And I can't emphasize enough that I am not jerking the bait - I simply twitch it slightly."

Surbaugh adds a personal touch to many of his baits by painting them himself. They aren't for sale, but fishing clients get the opportunity to use his customized baits. He further tweaks his lures by weighting his baits to make them suspend with the tail sitting slightly lower than the head. "It improves my hookup rate," he added. "Suspended fish come up to get the bait. The tail-down status of the bait causes the fish to get into the back hook first."

A 7-foot, 10-inch casting rod with a fast tip and a good-quality baitcasting reel spooled with 8-pound monofilament are Surbaugh's choices for January bass fishing. "The light, thin-diameter line doesn't sink as fast as some other lines. That fact helps me to control the neutral buoyancy of my bait."

Surbaugh emphasizes that anglers should allow the fish to dictate how they should fish the bait. "Experiment if your initial presentation doesn't trigger strikes," he urged. "If fish strike while the bait is still, continue to fish like that. If they don't bite, make a subtle change in the presentation - add a slight twitch, and go from there. But remember: Movement in the winter constitutes a small twitch."

Knowing the lake as well as he does, Surbaugh opts to spend lots of time in one area before he considers moving. "I concentrate on channel swings," he commented. "I know there will be fish in those channel swings and work and work until I get a tactic that triggers strikes. I utilize my time finding out what the fish want rather than moving from spot to spot. Channel swings are natural migration routes. Fish will be there consistently in cold weather. I concentrate on a hump, secondary point, a ledge or a brushpile - or anything that holds fish relative to the channel swing. Bass will concentrate on the channel swing where it gets closest to the shoreline and has some type of cover for the fish."

Surbaugh holds his boat in 25 to 28 feet of water while fishing channel swings. "A big misconception among cold-weather anglers is that many think they have to fish 20 feet of water. If it is a sunny day, fish will hold close to the banks in 5 to 6 feet of water. Water temperature will be slightly higher there, due to shallow rocks absorbing sunlight. This holds particularly true if there's some wave action; the waves provide a sense of cover. Bass will stay deeper on colder days. The wind is your friend when throwing a jerkbait."

Every fisherman should have a Plan B, and Surbaugh is no exception. "If jerkbaits fail to bring a strike, I go to small jigs," he said. "I prefer to toss a plain brown living-rubber jig with no trailer. I trim the rubber to the back of the hook. That allows the skirt to flare, and makes a great crawdad-imitating bait."

Numerous days on the water allow for a lot of observation. "Lot's of bass that I see in the cold-weather months have bloody mouths," Surbaugh said. "They're rooting and rolling rocks in search of crayfish. That's why the brown jig works so well."

The LOZ guide keeps his jig in contact with the bottom as much as possible. In fact, he drags the jig across the bottom - very slowly. "I don't hop the jig," he offered. "Bass are not in chase mode at this time of the year. I pull the jig 4 to 6 inches per pull, and try to make contact with every rock I can. I give a bass every opportunity to easily take that bait."

Brown is a natural crawfish color, so Surbaugh starts with the solid color most often. Sometimes, however, he ties in a few strands of dull orange or green on cloudy days, or a few strands of bright orange or green on sunny days.

Surbaugh ties his own jigs, but mentioned that Jimmy Aikens jigs and those tied by local angler Dirk Slayter are available in area tackle stores. The best sizes to use are 5/16- and 1/4-ounce.

LOZ's only full-time guide concluded the interview with a few safety tips. "Wear too many clothes. You can always take some off. I also recommend that anglers keep their life jackets on at all times while fishing in cold temperatures. In case of a dump in the drink, a life jacket will help to conserve energy and possibly help get you out of the water a little quicker. Finally, always keep your boat-motor kill switch cord attached to

your life jacket."

Skip Surbaugh operates Lake Ozark Guide Service. Check him out at or call him at 1-877-964-7040 to book a trip or to check lake conditions.

Dale Goff of Rolla is a 15-year veteran of Missouri bass fishing tournaments, most of which have been held on LOZ. "I never realized that I could catch big bass in January until I started fishing tournaments," he said. "Fishing seems to be improving. I especially like to fish a jig on the warmest January days, when the water temperature is 40 to 44 degrees. If the water temperature drops into the 30s, I begin suspending a jerkbait and fishing it almost motionless. I've seen lots of big bass caught at LOZ in January using these techniques."

Lake of the Ozarks is a big place, and easy to access from any direction. Anglers using Interstate 44 from the east or west should take Highway 7 north to Camdenton and then Highway 54 north. Those coming from the north can catch Highway 54 out of Jefferson City. Once in the lake area concentrate on fishing from the following access points: (1.) Coffman Beach Access, maintained by the MDC, on the east shore of the Gravois Ann, off Highway Y; (2.) Grand Glaize Recreation Area Access, or Public Beach No. 2, 15 miles north of Camdenton off Highway 54; (3.) Shawnee Bend Access, maintained by the MDC, on Lake Road FF-14, just off Highway FF; and (4.) Gravois Mill, another MDC access area, located off Highway 5 just north of Gravois Mills.

There you have it: Missouri's best bet for January bass action. It's a sure thing!

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