A Trio Of Hotspots For Missouri's May Bass

Pomme de Terre, Mark Twain and Smithville reservoirs mean May bass to savvy Show Me State anglers. Follow the advice of our experts to get in on the action this month.

By Bryan Hendricks

Last May, while scouting for turkeys at a conservation area in central Missouri, I followed a narrow trail into a deep, hidden hollow. I found not a turkey roost, but a rippling, tree-studded sapphire enclosed by a ring of thick brush and tall grass.

My wanderings often lead me to such places, so I was prepared. In my right hand was a 5-foot, 6-inch medium-action baitcasting rig tipped with a 1/4-ounce black buzzbait with a single blade. This setup is essential equipment for scouting not only turkeys, but also deer, quail and anything else you might care to hunt, because this is when you always find secluded, unmolested fishing holes. You tell yourself you'll come back later, but you know you never will, so you learn to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

I walked to the edge of a muddy flat and cast the buzzbait between a pair of cedar trees that stood nearly shoulder-deep in the water. About midway between them and the shore, the tips of submerged grass formed a dark barrier just a few inches below the surface.

Chirping like a cricket, the buzzbait cut a wake between the trees and then made a slow arc as I changed its course to run parallel to the grass edge. As it cleared the threshold, the chirping stopped, and the buzzbait vanished! I waited a second, and then set the hook on something solid. After a brief, head-shaking standoff, my quarry vented its rage with a furious leap. It was a plump largemouth bass, about 15 inches long, glowing emerald in the afternoon sunlight.

After a spirited fight, I landed the bass and marveled at its physique. It had broad shoulders and a deep body. Its color was bright and vivid, its lateral line dark and unbroken. I released him and started making my way around the pond. My satisfaction multiplied fourfold as I caught another one just like him from the far end of the dam, and then three more from a series of laydowns on the opposite bank.

In May, the flooded timber at Lake Pomme de Terre offers some of the best bass fishing in southern Missouri. Photo by Bryan Hendricks

I was totally absorbed in this little detour until I heard something from the creek bottom at the far end of the hollow. I snapped to attention and listened closely. The yelp of a turkey hen! She yelped again, and elicited a lustful gobble from a strutting suitor. Mission accomplished.

While I fish for turkeys, so to speak, thousands of other anglers across Missouri are enjoying the year's best bass fishing on their favorite lakes. Regardless of the lake or river, it doesn't get any better than it is right now, so don't waste another minute off the water. Some of your neighbors are catching them like crazy. Here's where and how they're doing it.

While it might be considered a "sleeper" bass lake on a statewide scale, Lake Pomme de Terre is a keeper among anglers in southwest Missouri. It's better known for its outstanding crappie fishing, but Rich Meade, a fisheries biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said it produces a lot of bass, as well as a fair number of big ones. The reason is its excellent habitat.

"It has a lot of underwater ledges," Meade said, "and it still has some submerged hardwoods and cedars. On the points that come up to dropoffs, there are also over 100 large fish attractors. Some of these sites contain over 3,000 individual trees, and people do very well fishing over those structures."

In electrofishing samples conducted in 2001, Pomme de Terre yielded 173 bass per hour, Meade added, and 168 per hour in 2000.

"Ninety to 100 an hour is considered good," he elaborated.

Of those, 58 percent were longer than 12 inches, and 41 percent were longer than 13 inches, with a fair number up to 22 inches.

Pomme de Terre feeds all those bass with a healthy shad population, most of which are between 2 and 3 inches long.

One angler who is very familiar with Pomme's outstanding bass fishing is Coach Jim Wilson of Coach's Guide Service, (417) 745-2163. Wilson also guides at Truman Lake on occasion, but Pomme seldom gives him a reason to leave. For proof, consider an incident that occurred in May several years ago.

"There's a little Friday night tournament there that I like to fish, but one time only two or three boats entered, so they canceled it," Wilson said, "so I said to a friend, Let's have our own tournament. We'll fish until 10 o'clock - 10 cents an inch for every legal fish we catch.

"We went to Sinking Creek and made two casts. My first fish weighed 8 pounds, 3 ounces, and was 25 inches long."

In early May, the best fishing occurs in Lindley Creek and the Pomme de Terre River. In Lindley, start above Nemo Bridge. In the Pomme de Terre, start above 83 Marina. The water is warmer and more stained in those areas than in the main lake. It also has more cover, which means you can catch fish with a greater variety of lures and methods than in deep, clear water.

"There are trees, roots, limbs and all kinds of other stuff lying in the water, and you fish around those just like you were river fishing," Wilson said. "In the Pomme arm, smallmouths always hang around those root wads, so you want to look for eddies.

"There's a lot more trees in the Lindley, the water's a lot shallower, and there's a lot more baitfish," he added. "There's one little bend that's got this great big logjam, and, man - you can work that sucker forever! You can fish it for an hour, go down and fish something else, then come right back and pick up where you left off."

Wilson likes to use Texas-rigged tube jigs in pumpkinseed or black/ blue with a 3/8-ounce slip sinker in this area, but in the Pomme arm, he switches to crankbaits and spinnerbaits for standing timber in deeper water.

"There's some really nice fish up there, and you can catch them by bouncing crankbaits or spinnerbaits off the trees," Wilson explained. "Last spring, some guy went up there and caught five keeper smallmouths, so they're up there. You're not going to catch a lot of big bass. They'll be somewhere in the 13- to 16-inch range, but you can catch bigger fish farther down."

As the water warms, bass chase shad along rocky banks farther down the lake. Some of Wilson's favorite areas are around Bolivar Landing, Stinking Creek and Possum Creek. Those areas have a lot of standing timber, and a good wind will blow huge schools of shad into the coves. When that

happens, bass move in for the slaughter, and, if you're there when it happens, you can catch a limit in no time.

If the wind is still, you'll have to try your luck in the outsides of points.

In late May, you'll catch bigger bass in the main lake, Wilson said. Plastic worms are good for numbers of fish between 4 and 5 pounds.

"As the water gets warmer, they're going out on deeper points that go out into the lake, or ones that are on river swings," he added. "In May, start out at the bank and work out to 20 to 25 feet to catch fish."

Despite the proximity of the Mississippi River, Mark Twain Reservoir is the lake of choice for most St. Louis area bass anglers. This sprawling impoundment of the Salt River is loaded with great bass cover, but high water has played havoc with fishing over the last couple of years. Still, a good spawn last year put a lot of new fish in the lake, so if water levels are reasonable, the fishing should be decent.

At least, that's what Lynn Tharp of Lynn's Guide Service is expecting. The New London guide has seen Mark Twain at its best and its worst, and when things are clicking just right in May, it can be mighty hard to beat.

"My best day, I caught four fish that averaged about 4 pounds apiece," Tharp said. "I was practicing for a tournament, and I caught them on four different spots on four different lures."

In early May, bass are spawning in the upper creek arms, such as Sandy Creek, Pigeon Creek and Shell Branch. Those areas have plenty of brush and standing timber. Sandy Creek warms the quickest, Tharp said, so it draws the biggest concentrations of baitfish.

Later in the month, bass start hitting in the lower arms, such as Big Indian Creek, Little Indian Creek and Lick Creek. Key on the northwest banks, because they receive more sunlight than the east banks. Therefore, they warm faster and stay warm longer. Also, prevailing winds are usually from the south, which means they blow shad against north banks. There you'll find plenty of rocky structure, such as pea gravel banks, shoals and rocky flats, that holds bass. There isn't much woody cover, but there are a lot of protected pockets where fish can find both food and comfort.

Last year, Tharp said, anglers caught a lot of fish during the spawn on white tube jigs, both Texas- and Carolina-rigged.

"The water usually isn't clear enough for that," Tharp said, "but the fish were shallow, and we caught them just working pea gravel flats and small chunk rock close to the channel.

"Mostly, you want to fish flats close to deep water - like a channel that comes off another channel," he added. "That could be a 5-foot channel coming off a 15-foot channel - just a way for fish to get to calmer and warmer water."

Last May, the fishing was difficult because of high water, which often plagues Mark Twain in the spring. In those conditions, Tharp said you just have to slow down and fish methodically.

"There's so much food in the water that the fish just shut down," he explained. "This lake is notorious for rising and falling water, so conditions change constantly. It's not uncommon for the lake to shoot up six-tenths of a foot per day in heavy rain. You can fish for three days and just whack them the first day. The next two days you scratch your head and wonder 'Where are they?'"

When that happens, the entire profile of the lake changes, with a whole world of new habitat in the water. Don't be fooled, Tharp advises. Just fish where you normally fish.

"I rely on the old trees - the old shoreline," he explained. "The fish are always there; you just have to move in and out and try to find them. I use my graphics to find the dropoff ledges and the channels that go up into the creeks and off into the smaller coves.

"It's not that fish don't school here, because they do, but they have such a wide variety of schooling fish here," he added. "If you're going to catch them here, it's going to be in one to eight feet of water. If they're any deeper, you're not going to catch them here in May."

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Smithville Reservoir was one of Missouri's hottest bass lakes. Its numbers fell off a bit in the 1990s, when the lake lost most of its aquatic grass, but since it's a short hop from downtown, it remains very popular with anglers from the Kansas City area. Here's another secret: It's an excellent place to catch big bass.

Jake Allman, an MDC fisheries biologist who manages the lake, said Smithville is dominated by bass 12 inches and larger. Many of those are larger than 15 inches, he added, and 44 percent of the bass larger than 8 inches are also larger than 15 inches.

"It's a lake with good trophy potential," Allman said. "They usually catch several 10-pound bass every year, usually in the spring before they go to nest."

Russ Matt, a tournament angler from St. Joseph, agrees about Smithville's trophy potential, but warns that fish of that caliber can be hard to catch.

"I've had days when I caught lots of 3-, 4- and 5-pounders," Matt said, "but right now it doesn't have any small fish in it. In 2002 we had high water, so I think we had a pretty good spawn."

Unlike Mark Twain's and Pomme de Terre's, Smithville's shoreline is fairly uniform, without much diversity in structure or cover. Aquatic grass provided most of the cover in its heyday, but the MDC is working hard to bring it back. Until that happens, success is mainly a matter of timing.

"Smithville has mostly 45-degree banks with some laydowns and rock banks that fish relate to, mostly in 5 feet of water or less," Matt said. "It kind of depends on time of day. You can go up there and not get bit for a long time, but if they start feeding, and you're on the right bank, you can get what you need. I have friends who have gone up there and caught 20-pound (five-fish) stringers."

The height of the spawn occurs at the end of April and the first of May. Anglers catch a lot of fish in the main river on jigs (black/blue) and lizards (watermelon). The most effective sizes for jigs are 1/2 or 3/8 ounce.

"It's a pretty good spinnerbait lake too, occasionally," Matt said. "Once the spawn is over, there's a really tough period until the fish start moving deeper. There are a lot of brushpiles in the lake, and they help some.

"If that isn't working, you can slow roll a spinnerbait in the same area," he added. "The fish seem to move some, but sometimes they're closer to the mouth of the creeks. They're usually in the same general area, but they do move around."

By mid-May, the spawn is pretty much finished, and fishing starts getting tough, b

ut not impossible.

"Some guys use small Carolina-rigged baits on points down in the main lake in less than 10 feet of water," Matt said. "Some points are better than others - the ones with deeper water close to them. Some shallower points have brush. I think that's more important than anything. Basically, the bass key on shad in the lake all year, and there is a pretty good shad population."

By the end of May, things start picking up again as bass start responding to topwaters. Then, you can catch them on buzzbaits, poppers and even on Carolina rigs.

"People key on the riprap that time of year - mostly because a lot of tournaments release fish there," Matt said.

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