Denny Brauer and Stacey King: Two of the best tournament anglers in the business, they know Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake about as well as anybody can.
By Ed Harp
Why sit around waiting for spring when you can have the water to yourself, learn a few things, and perhaps catch your biggest bass of the year?
It's still late winter, and you've had enough of it. You've hunted all you want, reread all your old outdoor magazines, and dreamed of all the lunkers you're going to catch this year. What to do?
Well, you could clean your boat, respool your reels, sharpen your hooks, organize your tackle boxes, or undertake any number of similar preparations while you wait for spring. Or you can go for the real thing. Why not try some early-season bass angling at one of the better lakes in the state?
If that's your choice, you should take a close look at what follows: valuable advice from Missouri resident and top professional bass angler Denny Brauer and his fellow pro Stacey King. Their testimony will quickly suggest to you that you need to get to either Lake of the Ozarks or Table Rock Lake and start bassin'!
Located in the south-central portion of the state, Lake of the Ozarks was filled in 1931 when the Osage River was dammed. The impoundment is not only one of the oldest but also one of the largest artificial lakes in the nation, covering nearly 93 square miles and offering anglers 1,300 miles of shoreline. Its countless tributaries, channels, cuts, bays, bluffs, points, flats, drops, and ledges complement a wide variety of bottom compositions that range from simple mud to house-sized boulders.
According to Brauer, Lake of the Ozarks is one of the best locations in the state for an early-season launch - maybe the best. He points out that the combination of clear, deep water and extremely various habitat provides a fine home for black bass. Brauer believes that the early season - February and March - offers advantages not found at other times of the year. Because of these advantages, and the productivity they foster, this is one of his favorite times at which to fish.
Flipping and pitching a jig-and-craw or jig-and-pig helped Denny Brauer win millions of dollars on the cast-for-cash circuit. Photo courtesy of Strike King Lure Company
First: There is no season of the year during which a bass will weigh more than it will during this prespawn period. The females are developing eggs and putting on weight in anticipation of the spawn, and are not overly active, thanks to the lower water temperatures. As a consequence, this is perhaps the best opportunity of the year for the weekend angler to catch a real trophy - perhaps even the fish of a lifetime. Noted Brauer: "They weigh as much as they ever will."
Second: The fish have experienced light pressure from anglers over the winter. The number of anglers on the water drops dramatically in October and on through the winter. The fish are thus less negatively conditioned and far easier to catch. Their long-term memories are not good, so they've forgotten the horrors of last year and will as a result respond readily to your fishing lures.
Third: Because it's so early and still somewhat cold you'll have most of the lake to yourself. Few if any pleasure boaters, personal watercrafters or anglers will compete with you for space or time, thus affording you a chance to fish at your own pace with little distraction. You'll have the opportunity to practice, to experiment, to learn. What could be better?
Assuming that the weather patterns typical of this time of year are in play, the water temperature should be near 50 degrees, give or take a little. Water clarity is usually good to excellent. With those factors in mind, Brauer begins his early-season bass angling by selecting secondary points in pockets, cuts and bays off the main lake. Likely selections include any area with both shallow and deep water nearby. The very best secondary points run from shallow to deep and are near channels with adjacent areas rising to gravel or rock flats.
His first choice of baits is a hard jerkbait. His preference, which he's prepared to recommend, is the suspending model of the Strike King Wild Shiner in a shad color. On sunny days he selects chrome with a blue back, which, according to Brauer, is the most productive color combination for clear water and sunshine.
When the sun disappears behind the clouds, however, he switches to chrome with a black back. This color change may seem small, but Brauer believes it's important for consistent success on Lake of the Ozarks - and if Denny Brauer thinks it matters, it matters. After all, he didn't get where he is by making poor choices.
He works his bait with the same precision he brings to selecting its colors. On the cast, he'll initially work the bait fast and hard to pull it down into the 5- or 6-foot depth range; after that, it's a matter of letting the fish and conditions guide him.
At first he will work the bait slowly - short, slow pulls with long pauses. Brauer opines that it's important for the bait to hang motionless in the water on the pause; it shouldn't rise, nor should it fall - hence the suspending Wild Shiner, whose neutral buoyancy enables it to hang perfectly motionless so long as the angler does nothing to it.
If that retrieve is unproductive, he'll first increase the length of the pulls, and then the speed of the pulls, and, last, shorten the length of the pauses until he finds a combination the fish want.
He also suggests that anglers give careful consideration to their line. He throws his jerkbaits on 10-pound-test line with bait-casting equipment. He'll generally use Stren Magnathin, at least to start.
A trick that he and several other pros have been using involves throwing jerkbaits with some of the new fluorocarbon lines. Brauer points out that, as they're heavier, they'll help get the bait down a little deeper. At the same time, however, he reminds anglers that these lines have a thicker diameter and, as a result, will sometimes tend to hold the bait just a little shallower as a result of their increased resistance in the water. These factors tend to work against each other. He suggests that you experiment to find the combination that works best for you.
At times, if the weather is warm or the fish especially active, he will throw a crankbait. His preference is for Strike King Series 3 models in crayfish colors. In clear water he prefers green crawdad; if the water is a little murky he selects brown crawdad, while very murky or even muddy conditions in water over 60 degrees will call for a Series 4 model. With a very wide wobble with a hard thump, this bait, Brauer believes, helps the fish find the lure.
If it's an especially warm day, and the weather's been warm for a few days, Brauer will fish in the gravel areas well up into the pockets. Decades of experience have taught him that such weather moves the fish shallow and on the gravel. At these times they will feed voraciously, such that extraordinary catches in terms of both numbers and size are possible.
If, on the other hand, the weather has been cool or downright cold, Brauer will fish steep banks (45 degrees or better) with lots of chunk rock. Favorite locations include the ends of bluff walls and points leading into the numerous coves on the lake; look for areas where channels run in against these points and bluffs.
If faced with a nasty cold front, he'll first move out on the point into deeper water, and if the fish still can't be found, he moves to deeper points on the main lake. How deep he'll fish will depend on the severity of the front. Work your way down slowly and carefully; don't make the mistake of believing that the fish have moved deeper that they have - make sure you cover each depth thoroughly.
At times, these deep cold-front bass can be tempted with a simple spinnerbait. Brauer's choice of color is white. His technique is to slow-roll it. He always makes certain that he thoroughly covers all structure, all cover, and all depths from all possible angles and all possible directions.
The best tactic for locating these fish involves both careful use of your electronics and thorough fishing. "Slow," "careful" and "methodical" are the watchwords for these conditions. Always make note of the depth and location when you get a bite, as this will tell you where at least one fish is located. After that, it's a matter of developing a pattern.
When the water warms to 52 or 53 degrees Brauer breaks out his jig-and-craw combo, which he'll work in areas of shallow water with sand, gravel, rock or chunk rock. His color selection is simple - crawfish. (Does this surprise anyone?)
Jig size is mostly a matter of personal choice, but weights in the 3/16- to 3/8-ounce range seem to work best. These weights handle well with the lighter lines and equipment used in the clear waters of Lake of the Ozarks, yet are heavy enough to maintain contact and feel with the structure while you're working them.
Stacey King, a fellow Missouri professional bass angler, disagrees with his colleague when it comes to selecting the best early-season lake in Missouri. He puts Table Rock Lake at the top of his list.
Located in the southwestern portion of the state, Table Rock covers "only" 50,000 acres of water and provides "only" 800 miles of shoreline. It's much smaller than Lake of the Ozarks, but it's still huge by most standards. It's also much younger - a mere 45 years old, having been created when the White River was dammed in 1958.
A classic highland reservoir, Table Rock sports clear, deep water with lots of tributaries, channels, bluffs, points, cuts, and bays. Like the neighboring Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock features a bottom composition ranging from mud to large chunk rock. This variety of habitat supports a strong complement of spotted bass, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass, according to King, who points out that during the early prespawn, spots, smallmouths and largemouths will often hold in the same area. All three will respond to the same lures and the same techniques. Find a good location, and you just might have the experience of a lifetime.
King begins his search for these early-season fish by locating channel turns - "swings," in his terminology - along the numerous tributaries that flow into this lake. He'll be on the lookout for sharp swings and steep underwater banks in the 5- to 20-foot depth range. Long experience has taught him that this is where he will find fish, especially quality fish.
Other favored areas are channel swings that approach the numerous bluff walls surrounding the lake. Again, he'll be searching for swings with steep banks and water depths not exceeding 20 feet.
He thoroughly works these areas with his favorite late-winter/early-spring lure: a small Bass Pro Shop jig. Generally, he throws one in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce weight range and sporting his favorite color, crayfish.
King typically rigs his jigs with either a single-tail or twin-tail skirted grub. He tries to match his grub and jig colors to show the fish a complete package; muted complementary colors seem to work best.
His jig retrieve will vary with the prevailing conditions and the mood of the fish. He as often as not starts by working the bait slowly and then increasing its speed as necessary. Like all successful anglers, he lets the fish tell him what he needs to do.
If the weather is unusually warm - if, say, four or five days of nice sunny weather have warmed the water somewhat - King may throw a crankbait to provoke strikes from these prespawn fish. He likes Storm Wiggle Warts in crayfish colors. When asked about his selection he replied, "They have a nice, wide wobble and have caught fish for years and years in clear-water highland reservoirs. Why change when something works?"
King also reminds his fellow anglers not to forget the standing timber still to be found throughout Table Rock. He points out that, during the warmer periods of late winter, fish will suspend in this timber and are very catchable. His lure choice for the trees is generally a crankbait.
For his February and March angling King uses both open-face spinning and baitcasting equipment. Thanks to the extreme clarity of Table Rock's water, his line choice is light - ordinarily between 6- and 10-pound-test. He prefers spinning tackle for line-test weights less than 10 pound, but uses baitcasting equipment for 10-pound-test.
His rod selection? King's casting rods are 6 1/2-foot Johnny Morris models with medium-heavy action; his spinning rods are 7-foot Bass Pro Shop Extreme models or Pro Qualifier models.
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It's interesting to note that while these two experienced and successful anglers approach their fishing somewhat differently, much of what they do is similar. Neither knew that the other was being interviewed - yet each said things that tracked the other's observations surprisingly closely. The traits common to these seasoned pros are worth taking notice of.
Consider, for instance, the areas they fish: turns, steep drops, channels that run into bluff walls or points. Further, consider that although their primary lures - jerkbaits for one, jigs for the other - are at first blush very different, they do have some things in common.
First, they resemble natural forage in the lakes being fished. Brauer opts for shad colors for his jerkbaits; King selects crayfish colors for his jigs.
Second, note that both baits allow for a variety of retrieves; either can be worked slowly and carefully, which is what most anglers would think of first. Yet, when required, their speed can be increas
ed to match the mood of the fish. Versatility and adaptability are the keys.
Think about their crankbait selections: Both select crankbaits with a wide, hard wobble and done up in crayfish colors. These hard baits thus mimic their prey's natural forage.
Last, and perhaps most significant, neither uses anything not available to the average weekend basser. Each and every bait they recommend is a standard over-the-counter model. And their color selections are likewise standard; every recommended hue is commercially produced and, again, available to any angler.
All these baits are affordable. Jigs and craws are about as inexpensive as any lure on the market. Strike King Wild Shiners, Strike King Series 3 and 4 crankbaits, and Storm Wiggle Warts, while quality products, are scarcely costly and, yet again, are obtainable practically anywhere.
The efficacy of the "tricks" employed by these anglers doesn't lie in their tackle selection. It's their persistence, their knowledge of the water and their understanding of the fish that makes them experts.
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