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Small Waters, Big Missouri Bass

Small Waters, Big Missouri Bass

Missouri's large reservoirs aren't the only places for tangling with bragging-sized bass this month. Downsize to some of these little lakes for big fun.

While the author enjoys fishing big waters, he catches his biggest bass on the ponds and lakes of state-owned conservation areas. Photo courtesy of Bryan Hendricks

By Bryan Hendricks

Two of the most enduring images of my childhood involved leaping fish. One instance occurred on the Snake River near Jackson Hole, Wyo.

My dad and I had been fishing for several hours at a popular access on a highway, but it got so cold that my dad retired to the car to smoke a cigarette and have a cup of coffee. I was casting a Mepps Comet as far as I could and letting the current carry it far downstream before I started retrieving it. Shivering, I reeled the lure back for the umpteenth time when something big bent my rod. A huge trout or salmon - I was never really sure - raced across the river and then launched skyward like a Poseidon missile. He threw the lure, and I didn't get another bite. I never told Dad about it because I didn't think he'd believe it, but 28 years later, I can still see it as if it happened yesterday.

The second happened that same year, my 11th, later in the summer. I was fishing a golf course pond with my friend Tony. With a mighty sidearm swing, I cast a big Lucky 13 plug as far across that pond as I could. I didn't know I was supposed to jerk the thing through the water to make it pop and gurgle. I just reeled it back like a crankbait. My heart stopped as the water erupted. From the middle of the geyser appeared a largemouth bass, shimmering golden green in the sunlight as its body shook from head to tail. One of those shakes threw the lure high into the air. The fish splashed back beneath the surface and vanished. The lure splashed down right behind it, and then all was quiet. Hours later, at sunset, I caught my first bass ever, but it wasn't nearly as big as that first one.

I've caught hundreds of bass since then, but I still remember every nuance of that first big strike. It was also the beginning of my lifelong love affair of bass fishing on small waters. I love the challenge of fishing for bass on big reservoirs, but some of my best trips - and biggest bass - have taken place in more-intimate places.

Luckily for me, Missouri is blessed with an abundance of such waters. Many of them are on the Conservation Areas owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and they support excellent bass populations. Many are also small enough to fish thoroughly from the bank. Best of all, you can often have them all to yourself.

If you're a bass angler in the St. Louis area, you don't have to go to the Mississippi River or to Mark Twain Reservoir to enjoy top quality fishing this month. An entire tackle box worth of opportunities await you at August A. Busch Conservation Area.


Covering 6,987 acres in St. Charles County, the Busch CA contains 32 lakes offering more than 500 acres of fishable water. Most of these lakes contain largemouth bass, not to mention several species of panfish. Each lake is unique, and each fishes a little differently than the other. Mastering one doesn't guarantee you'll master them all, and that makes it doubly challenging to figure out which patterns work on which lake on what day. In addition, all the lakes offer generous bank access, and all are accessible by road.

At 182 acres, Lake 33, on the south side of Dardenne Creek, is the largest lake at Busch CA, followed in size by lakes 35 and 34, respectively. On the small end of the scale, Lake 26 is about an acre. The banks are all well-maintained, so you can work your way around the shorelines with ease.

For big bass, lakes 33 and 35 are also your best bets. These lakes contain about 30 fish per acre, and at Lake 33, about 70 percent are larger than 15 inches. Of those, 15 percent are larger than 18 inches. Lake 35 covers 62 acres, but the population profile is comparable. You sure aren't going to get that kind of odds at Twain or on the Mississippi!

Both lakes are shallow and fertile, with excellent food supplies to help bass grow fat. The MDC has placed Christmas trees in the lakes to provide cover, but they also have other vegetation.

If you just want to catch bass, with perhaps a big one as a bonus, you might try lakes 31 and 16. Those lakes are catch-and-release only. They contain large bass populations, but because harvest is prohibited, some of the older fish have attained impressive sizes. At lake 31, at least 25 percent of the bass are larger than 15 inches.

To catch big bass at these lakes this month, your best chances will be early in the morning and late in the evening. These lakes are all pretty shallow, so they get pretty hot in August. As soon as the sun hits the water, the big ones seek whatever shelter they can find and stay there until conditions are more hospitable for roaming.

When fishing in the morning and evening, you can expect success retrieving black or white buzzbaits parallel to the bank. You can also do well buzzing any type of exposed wood cover, such as stickups or laydowns. You can cast to Christmas tree tops with buzzbaits or spinnerbaits, but if a big bass bites, it's going to head straight for cover. If it tangles you in the tree branches, you'll probably lose your bait.

You can, however, try to catch those big ones in the middle of the day by using stout tackle, such as a heavy-action rod with 20-pound-test line. With that, you can cast a jig-and-pig or jig-and-frog into the branches. Using the branches as a fulcrum, you can whipsaw your jig up and down, without it going to the bottom. If a bass is hiding in the branches, eventually this is going to aggravate it enough to strike. If that happens, a stout rig will allow you to haul him out of there.

Stickbaits also work well during low-light hours, when bass are roaming. Just be careful where you cast. Most of the time, you can't see brushpiles that are just below the surface, but if one snags your jerkbait, it's sayonara.

To reach the Busch Conservation Area from I-44, take U.S. Highway 40/61 south to Highway 94; then go a mile and a half on Highway D to the visitor's center. For more information, call the Busch Conservation Area at (314) 441-4554.

Situated practically at the Macon city limits, Long Branch Lake is one of the best bass lakes in northeast Missouri, yet it doesn't get a lot of pressure. That's due partly to its reputation as a great walleye lake, and also due to the proximity of Mark Twain Lake.

Covering 2,430 acres, Long Branch Lake is a miniat

ure version of Mark Twain. The northern half of the lake splits into two arms formed by the Little Chariton River to the west and Long Branch Creek to the east. The lower half is narrow and deep. Like Twain, it has a lot of standing timber in the tributary arms, as well as a lot of long, tapering points. This combination is magic for bass, and August is a great time to catch them, said Greg Cooper of Monroe City.

"We catch them on topwaters in the first hour of daylight," Cooper said. "Once the sun comes up, we go to a Carolina rig."

For Carolina rigging at Long Branch in August, Cooper likes to use a 4-inch centipede in watermelon/black flake or watermelon/red flake on an 18- to 24-inch leader. If the bass don't respond, he dips the tail of the centipede in chartreuse dye. This gives the bait a different look, breaks up its outline and makes it more visible in deeper water. This can make a difference if the water is even slightly stained.

If those methods don't produce, Cooper has a secondary pattern that involves fishing 10-inch worms next to standing timber in the deeper holes.

"We drop it in right next to the tree on those channel bends," Cooper said. "The clearer the water, the better. Not many people do that this time of year."

To get to Long Branch, take U.S. Highway 36 west from Macon to Long Branch Lake State Park. You can also get there by taking U.S. 63 north from Macon. The park has fully equipped campgrounds at the Bloomington area. For more information, call the park at (660) 773-5229. For lake information, call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at (660) 385-2108.

A great place to enjoy a wide range of bass fishing experiences in central Missouri is Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation Area. Spanning 2,200 acres, Rocky Fork Lakes CA is tucked into the rugged hills of northern Boone County, about five miles north of Columbia.

The area is reclaimed mining land, and it is pockmarked with more than 75 strip pits of various sizes that provide about 130 total acres of fishable water. Only a few ponds are accessible by the one road that enters the area. A few others are accessible by the road leading to Finger Lakes State Park. The rest are accessible only by foot, and some are connected by trails. The rest you have to find by exploring. Of course, those ponds are going to draw only light pressure, if at all, which makes them a great place to stick some big bass.

In addition, the pits have points, ledges, dropoffs and various other features that provide depth variation. The banks are heavily wooded, and over the years a lot of trees have fallen into the water. Shallow parts of some pits even have emergent vegetation, so as a group, they offer surprisingly good bass habitat.

Because of its reclaimed nature, the terrain at Rocky Fork Lakes CA is rugged, with a lot of scrub brush and thick undergrowth. This makes getting around somewhat difficult in some places, but the banks of the pits are fairly open to provide sufficient room for casting. The most effective way to fish them, however, is from a belly boat. That allows you to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the pits, and also to cover more water more effectively.

In August, you can do very well in the clear water of the Rocky Fork Lakes with white/blue or chartreuse spinnerbaits. Blades don't really matter. I've caught bass on spinnerbaits with a single, small silver Colorado blade, and I've caught them with 3/4-ouncers sporting twin willowleaves. Topwaters and buzzbaits are good in the mornings before the wind starts blowing, but I've also had excellent success with medium-diving crankbaits. The best color for me has been brown back with a white belly.

To reach Rocky Fork Lakes CA, take U.S. Highway 63 about five miles north from Columbia and turn right at the sign. Camping is available at Finger Lakes State Park. For more information, call 1-800-334-6946, or (573) 443-5315.

If Smithville Lake isn't your cup of tea, Kansas City area bass anglers can enjoy excellent fishing this month at James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area.

Covering 2,603 acres near Lees Summit, the Reed Wildlife Area has 12 lakes offering a total of about 250 acres of fishable water. The area also has a lot of small ponds, many of which get little to no fishing pressure. Catclaw and Gopher lakes are about 42 acres. Lakes Nell and Jackrabbit are 31 acres, followed in size by Cottontail Lake (26.6 acres), Coot Lake (22.4 acres), Plover Lake (15.3 acres), Bluestem and Bodarc lakes (14.5 acres each), Prairie Hollow Lake (7 acres) and Tanglewood Lake (5 acres).

Like the lakes at the Busch Conservation Area, these lakes contain healthy populations of largemouth bass. Habitat ranges from sunken Christmas trees to laydowns. Lakes Bluestem, Nell and Bodarc are known for good bass fishing, with a good percentage of largemouths exceeding 15 inches.

Private boats and float tubes are not allowed on the area, but all the main lakes are easily accessible from the bank.

For more information, contact the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area at (816) 622-0900.

Perhaps the most overlooked bass fishing opportunity in southwest Missouri is beautiful Lake Springfield. An impoundment of the James River, Lake Springfield is a 319-acre reservoir used to generate power for the city of Springfield. Its emerald tinted water is typical for the southern Ozarks, making it similar in appearance to Table Rock Lake. Despite being just on the outskirts of the city, most anglers bypass it in favor of Table Rock, which is only about 40 minutes away to the south.

Lake Springfield doesn't have a large bass population, but it does contain a healthy number of lunker size bass. It also has a growing population of spotted bass. Most of its bass habitat is deep, rocky structure, such as shelves, ledges, drop-offs and small bluffs. The upper portion has some laydowns.

Although Lake Springfield is best known for winter bass fishing, it can be pretty exciting in August. Mornings can be productive with topwaters, but the best time to catch big bass is in the evenings by fishing jigs among the rocks in deep water. Black, brown or blue are the most dependable colors. Carolina rigs also work well here.

Starting at the upper end of the lake, a good strategy is to fish a pumpkinseed/red flake spider grub on a 1/2-ounce standup jighead on main channel dropoffs. As you work your way downstream, you'll soon get a feel for the depth at which most of your bites occur.

One endearing feature about Lake Springfield is the fact that outboard motors are limited to 6 hp. That excludes big bass boats and their huge, rolling wakes, making it a really peaceful place to fish. I imagine it probably has a positive effect on the bass, too.

Lake Springfield is just off Highway 160, south of

the city. From 160, go one mile east on County Road 178, and then go south on County Road 169. For more information, call (417) 895-6880.

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