One way to beat the merciless summertime sun is to chase your bass after dark. These are the best waters in the Show Me State for nighttime bass action.
No doubt about it: Bass fishing has become the craze of outdoor America - Missouri included. Every weekend throughout the summer, Show Me State lakes and reservoirs are packed with colorfully clad bassers driving glitzy 21-foot bass boats powered by 200-horsepower engines. Armed with the best rods, reels, lines, lures, maps, electronics and the savvy to use them, these anglers are fishermen of the new millennium. And they do catch fish - big fish, and lots of them.
All that hype sounds terrific. But a growing number of bass anglers are tiring of the high-powered race-about tactics so often required to compete with the growing numbers of affluent anglers on Missouri waters. Those in the know are going undercover - under cover of darkness, that is - to catch the biggest stringers of bass of their lives. You can, too - by following the advice of those who ply the waters of Missouri reservoirs after dark.
NORFORK LAKE Kevin Ollar, ex-bass fishing guide and host of the Ozarks Advantage TV series, cut his bass-fishing teeth on Norfork Lake, and he's spent his share of time chasing bass there well after the sun has settled behind the western horizon.
"Once water temperatures settle down to consistent summertime figures, I head to the bluffs," Ollar said. "I look for bluffs that have a good ledge at 20 feet, another at 30 feet and another at 40 feet. I also check to find the thermocline. When water temperatures reach 80 degrees or better, the thermocline will be at about 25 feet. Bass will suspend near the ledges close to the thermocline level. Sometimes they hang slightly above or below the thermocline level. But night in and night out, the depth of the thermocline is where I will begin fishing."
Ollar is a fan of small-profile baits for his nighttime bassing excursions. He also downsizes his line to 10-pound-test monofilament. A 1/4-ounce bullet weight adorns his Texas-rigged offering.
"I love to free-fall baits," Ollar offered. "I throw my baits up next to the bluffs and let them slowly descend to the first ledge. I ease the bait off of the first ledge; if I don't get a hit, I let it free fall to the next ledge. Most strikes come on the drop, so paying very close attention is absolutely necessary. I only feel a slight thump, or I feel my line go slack momentarily. Holding the line between thumb and forefinger is a good 'feel' tactic anytime, but especially so at night."
Photo by Michael Skinner
Hooksets can be the undoing of nighttime bass fishermen, so Ollar recommends lifting the rod tip just slightly when a bite occurs. "The bite is often so subtle that fishermen often jerk the bait out of a bass' mouth by trying to set the hook instantly," he observed. "Raising the rod tip to remove slack in the line and to feel if the fish is actually there before responding will increase hookups dramatically."
Pegging a bullet sinker to hold it in place is a standard tactic among Texas-rig fishermen, but Ollar advises against that move. "Allowing the weight the capability to move keeps more distance between the bait and the weight, creating a more natural presentation."
Ollar's favorite bait for Norfork is a 7-inch ribbon-tailed worm in black/ red flake. Largemouths in the 3- to 4-pound class are not uncommon, but 2-pounders are plentiful.
Before heading to Norfork, Ollar assesses the weather. "I like to have a front moving in," he said. "If the boat seat and carpet get wet from the dew, I know I'm in for a good night of bass fishing."
Working the bluffs from the Udall Recreation Area access to the Arkansas line is the key to nighttime bass fishing on Norfork. "The bluffs are near deep water," Ollar noted. "You have to find deep water for summertime action. The fish may not be far down in the deep water, but they will suspend over deep water. I like to cast parallel to a bluff. I may be sitting over 50 feet of water and fishing in 25 feet of water. Shallow water areas tend to lose oxygen rapidly as temperatures rise. To be consistently successful at Norfork, you have to think deep."
Topographic maps are helpful for fishing Norfork. Ollar recommends locating humps and points that run long distances into the lake and that are adjacent to very deep water. The key to finding concentrations of bass is to find the thermocline where there is water as deep as 60 feet nearby.
Every good night-fisherman has a backup plan, and Ollar is no exception: If his Texas-rigged worm fails, he switches to a black spinnerbait with No. 6 or 7 silver Colorado blades and tips the bait with a 4-inch trailer, to give it some bulk. Windy nights when the moon is full are the prime times to throw the black spinnerbait.
"Bluff ends where they drop off to chunk rock are my favorite places to use the black spinnerbait," Ollar advised. "I like to move the bait just fast enough to keep the blades turning. That creates a thumping sound that both me and the fish can feel. Casting a spinnerbait is a great way to cover a lot of water in a hurry, too."
If the bass have moved up to shallower water, Ollar prefers to use a 3-inch grub in green pumpkin. A rocker-style or pumpkin head stands the grubs up, imitating a crayfish. "These baits work wonders in pea gravel areas," Ollar pointed out. "Again, maps can help to locate those areas. They often extend far out into the lake. If you see guys fishing way out in the lake, they are more than likely on a pea gravel slope."
Ollar recommends that fishermen chasing bass after dark check out the upper stretches of Norfork. "Water temperature can be 7 to 8 degrees cooler up there. There are lots of brush piles at the bluff ends. Too, there is a noticeable current in the upper reaches of the lake, creating ideal conditions."
Topwater enthusiasts can expect the best action just after dark or during the last hour before daylight; schooling fish often chase shad at those times. Tossing a topwater popper or stick bait provides fast but often short-lived action.
For up-to-date information on Norfork Lake fishing, call the Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist in West Plains at (471) 256-7161.
TABLE ROCK LAKE "The Rock" is back! In spite of the die-off of big bass a couple of years ago, bass fishing at Table Rock is fantastic. Results of 2001 electro-fishing surveys by lake fisheries biologist Bill Anderson turned up some of the highest capture rates ever. Mother Nature has smiled on the popular reservoir, and ni
ghttime bass fishermen are reaping the benefits of the amazing rebound in bass numbers. Expectations are that there will be lots of 4-pound-plus largemouths caught in 2002. That's good news anywhere!
Even though Kevin Ollar lives near West Plains and spends a lot of time on Norfork, he can't ignore the fabulous bass fishing due west in Table Rock Lake. "Table Rock has been a completely different lake for the last couple of years," he observed, "but it is coming back. During the summer I begin my night-fishing trips there before dark. The last couple of hours of fading light can be phenomenal at times on surface baits. Too, that action often continues well after the sun has set."
Topwater action is as fun as it gets, but every Table Rock angler needs a plan to keep putting bass in the boat after the topwater action subsides. Ollar has that covered, too. "When bass are not actively chasing shad, I like to find standing timber or fish over submerged cedar trees," he explained. "Fish suspend around the structure to ambush their prey. Points with this type of structure are some of my favorite spots on Table Rock. A buzzbait or stick bait will often bring bass up to feed, but if that doesn't work, I Texas-rig a worm or centipede to coax them into striking. I have had a couple of 5-pound average days using these tactics in the Scooter Creek arm."
Banks with an angle of 45 degrees are favorites of Ollar's as well. I can personally attest to his ability at catching fish on a black spinnerbait on the slopes. I joined Kevin and his camera crew for a Table Rock excursion last summer. He caught fish consistently throughout the afternoon and well into the night. The largest fish, however, fell to the black spinnerbaits between 8 and 10 p.m.
"Watch for changes in structure at the ends of the bank lines," Ollar suggested. "If you find a bluff end changing from chunk rock to pea gravel, fish it thoroughly but slowly. My favorite tactic is to slow-roll a black spinnerbait in these areas. This tactic has produced most of my 3- to 4-pound smallmouths and 5-plus-pound largemouths on Table Rock."
As when he fishes Norfork, Ollar watches weather conditions closely. "The best nights to fish Table Rock are those with enough wind to ripple the water. I also prefer a steady or dropping barometer. With those conditions in place, I can expect to catch good fish in 15 to 25 feet of water."
Ollar prefers bigger, flashier baits for Table Rock. "Table Rock consistently produces larger stringers of bass for me than any other lake I fish," he said. "Generally, 75 percent of my catch is made up of smallmouths and Kentuckys. There are some brute smallmouths here, and I have had limits of Kentuckys that average 4 pounds."
Fish stories? Not on your life. I've been in a boat with Ollar on several occasions, and he's consistent. However, the real trick to his trade is intensity - his concentration is the tightest I've ever witnessed. More than once, I'd be popping the top off a soda can or unwrapping a sandwich as Ollar was feeling a "tick" and reeling up the slack.
Ollar's two favorite put-in spots are at Udall and at the Red Bank Access in Gamaliel, Ark. (he motors two miles back to the Missouri line from the latter). For up-to-date water and fishing information, call MDC fisheries biologist Bill Anderson at (417) 895-6880.
STOCKTON LAKE North of Springfield lies 25,000-acre Stockton Lake, which is known for its excellent walleye and crappie fishing. And, according to tournament angler Dale Goff, Stockton is also a great destination for nighttime bassing.
"I have fished a number of night tournaments at Stockton and done very well," Goff reported. "It's a lake that gives fishermen the opportunity to go after big fish or numbers of fish since Stockton holds largemouths, Kentuckys and smallmouths."
Goff prefers to fish out of Stockton State Park Marina because everything that he and his family might need - including fish! - is nearby; a motel, store, restaurant, marina and bait shop are on site. Additionally, some of Goff's favorite nighttime bass fishing spots are not far from the state park boat ramp.
From sundown until midnight is Goff's favorite time to fish Stockton. "The fish always seem to take a break from midnight to 2:30 a.m.," he stated. "That gives us a break, too. Then the fish feed again from 2:30 a.m. to daylight. I can almost set my watch by that schedule."
Goff has fished Stockton enough to have mapped dozens of brushpiles in 15 to 20 feet of water and very near the marina. "I begin my evenings by working the brushpiles with a Texas-rigged 10-inch worm," he said. "All-black, black/purple and red shad are the most productive colors."
Anglers unfamiliar with Stockton should begin looking for brushpiles at the end of bluff lines or breaks in the contour, Goff suggested. He also observed that all marinas on the lake have brushpiles nearby. One advantage to fishing near the marina results from the fish caught in tournaments being released nearby; once liberated, these bass immediately head to nearby brushpiles before dispersing throughout the lake.
I work the 10-inch worm very slowly through the brushpiles," Goff offered. "Every time my bait snags on a limb, I shake the worm vigorously. Most strikes come then, or when the worm falls off the limb."
From brushpiles Goff catches predominantly largemouths. Fifteen-inch fish are common; bass to 5 pounds are not unheard of.
When the brushpile action slows, Goff changes tactics to put more fish in the boat: He targets Kentuckys and smallmouths. This choice often enough brings him more bass, albeit ones smaller, on average, than the brushpile bigmouths.
"I move to the bluffs and rocky points to catch both smallmouths and Kentuckys," he said. "I fish a very small jig and light line. A 1/4-ounce jig in brown or brown/blue is my favorite bait. I bump the jig through the rocks. It imitates a crayfish. I generally catch a lot of Kentuckys and smallmouths in the 12- to 15-inch range. They sure take up the slack when the largemouths slow down."
As Stockton's a clear lake, Goff recommends using 12-pound-test line to increase the number of strikes. "A lot of guys use 20-pound line," he pointed out. "Being careful and retying a little more often is worth the effort. Light line and diligence equals more fish."
Goff's bass club prefers to hold nighttime tournaments at Stockton because of the numbers of fish that members catch. That bit of information is reason enough for anyone considering after-dark bass fishing to make the trip.
Topwater fans, Goff suggests, should hit the water very early in the morning. The best topwater bite at Stockton takes place between 4 to 6 a.m.; stick baits and chuggers are favored at this time.
Just to add a little icing to the cake, I spoke with MDC fisheries management biologist Tim Banek, who asserted emphatically that bass fishing should be super at Stockton this year.
"Bass fishing has been improving for several years at Stockton, and this year should be one of the best yet," he said. "About 20 percent of the bass in the lake are 15 inches or better."
Banek indicated that fishermen themselves are playing a role in the improved bass fishing at Stockton. It seems that almost 80 percent of the legal-size bass being caught are being released - a situation that gives fish a chance to grow to respectable sizes.
"Tournaments have become very popular at Stockton," Banek continued. "We're seeing a lot of bass limits with fish averaging 4 to 5 pounds. Fish up to 8 pounds are showing up more often, too."
Banek's habitat improvement projects are a part of the success story. In 1995, Banek hired a private contractor to fit out lake areas lacking natural structure with 50 hardwood structures. Most of those structures were refurbished earlier this year and a few new ones added. All the brushpiles are marked with green signs on shore. Anglers can visit the Web site www.conservation.state.mo.us, work through the fishing portals to Stockton Lake and print a map indicating the location of the structures.
For up-to-date information about nighttime fishing action at Stockton, call the Stockton State Park Marina at (417) 276-5329.
If you, too, are tiring of the daytime bass fishing crowds in Missouri reservoirs, or if you simply want to get in on the fun of after-dark bass fishing, have at it in July. You may catch the biggest stringers of your life!
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