Missouri is chock-full of family-friendly places where everyone in your clan can put a fish in the pan. (May 2006)
To teach kids the fun, patience and excitement of fishing, it's hard to beat a quiet lake full of panfish. Panfish generally include any species small enough to fit in a pan, but here we'll focus on the best places for finding bluegills, redear sunfish, crappie and a few others.
May is spawning season for most of those varieties, and lakes will be full of active fish, so it's a great time to take kids fishing. And no matter what corner of Missouri you call home, you're within a few hours' drive of a great place to take kids fishing for these popular species.
We've assembled a list of some of the best places to spend a day with kids. Most locations include conveniences such as restrooms, nearby camping, playgrounds and access to other outdoor activities.
"Just about any of our state-owned lakes offer good places to catch panfish," said Rich Wehnes, fisheries field operations chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Our objective is to have a lake within 10 to 15 miles of every Missouri city. It's important to have a place where families can go and fish, so we make that a priority."
Located about three miles southwest of Memphis and only 45 minutes from Kirksville, this lake is state-owned but maintained by the city of Memphis. Kirksville fisheries management biologist Mike Anderson says that the good upkeep shows, with lots of shoreline access, a fishing dock and a covered picnic area. The lake is known for good bass fishing, but bluegills and redear sunfish are abundant in late spring. Facilities include a primitive campground with restrooms and picnic shelters.
Just a five-mile drive from Kirksville, this close-in 573-acre fishing hole offers good fishing, with lots of white crappie in the 8- to 10-inch range and bluegills averaging between 6 and 7 inches. "Enough to keep kids' interest," Anderson said.
Other benefits include plenty of access points, a nearby restaurant and marina with bait and sundries, and a nearby state park with playgrounds and other facilities. The barrier-free dock and swimming beach make a day trip fun and easy.
This 112-acre lake in Lewis County doesn't have any fishing docks, but ample bank access and good panfish populations make this one of the best-kept secrets among family fishing sites. The Missouri Sportsmen's Information Network cites LaBelle as the perfect place to take kids and others who think of fishing as one big bore, as plentiful crappie and big bluegills make this lake extra fun to fish. The MDC bought the lake from the city of LaBelle in 2003, and fishing prospects have improved since then.
Tucked away in Shelby County, this 220-acre lake features a covered fishing dock, good bank access and a fishing jetty. Local fisheries management biologist Ross Dames says this lake is good to excellent for bluegills, redear sunfish and catfish. Redear sunfish and bluegills are best fished here during spawning season, from late May to early June. Amenities include boat rentals, a picnic area and primitive camping.
Route J Reservoir
Owned by city of Monroe and managed in partnership with the MDC, this reservoir five miles south of Monroe is known for excellent bank-fishing for bluegills, crappie and catfish. A covered dock, picnic shelters, camping facilities make it a choice destination for families.
This 21-acre lake sits four miles west of Trenton in Grundy County in Crowder State Park. A boat ramp pairs with ample bank-fishing sites to give families good access to the strong populations of big bluegills and redear sunfish. But note that no gas-powered motors are allowed. The park offers picnic sites, two playgrounds, camping, hiking and equestrian trails, tennis courts, swimming, restrooms and other amenities.
Mozingo and Bilby Ranch lakes are the fishing gems of Nodaway County, near Maryville, says regional fisheries supervisor Harold Kerns. The 1,000-acre Mozingo Lake boasts excellent bluegill and crappie fishing.
"It's an easy place to fish," Kerns said.
There's good access to the banks and a covered fishing dock. Other amenities, such as boat ramps, three boat docks, picnic shelters, an RV park, hiking and equestrian trails and a primitive campground are provided by the city of Maryville. Expect good bluegill fishing in late spring, but less action with redear sunfish or crappie.
Bilby Ranch Lake Conservation Area
This 110-acre lake doesn't have the outstanding access that visitors can expect at Mozingo, but Kerns says that the covered dock is enough to give kids a shot at the good crappie and bluegill fishing available here. Bluegills over 9 inches and redear sunfish up to 11 inches are plentiful, according to the MDC. The area about 14 miles west of Maryville includes 15 ponds and the main lake, which features a boat ramp and picnic area.
Happy Holler Lake
With a name like "Happy Holler," this 62-acre lake has a lot to live up to -- and it does. Just outside Savannah in Andrew County, Happy Holler offers good access, level fishing jetties, a covered fishing dock and restrooms. Kids can find abundant bluegills, redear sunfish and crappie, especially in late spring during spawning season.
"It's really easy to get young people there," Kerns said. "We took the Cub Scouts out there last year and nearly every kid caught a fish."
The MDC recommends fishing for crappie along the dam and off the rock jetties.
Sam A. Baker State Park
A full-service state park in the tiny town of Patterson, Sam Baker boasts boat access to both the St. Francis River and Big Creek. The river, known for bluegills, bass, crappie and sunfish, among other game fish, is good for floating and fishing. This park is a good choice for a long weekend or extended trip, as the fishing is good and other activities plentiful: covered picnic shelters, a playground, bike rentals, canoeing, hiking and backpacking trails, horseback riding and a nature center. Lodging options include rustic cabins or improved campgrounds, which have showers, a dumping station and laundry facilities and a lodge restaurant.
Rocky Fork Lake
For a good bet in central Missouri, local fisheries biologists recommend this 55-acre lake six miles north of Columbia. The lake sits directly next to Finger Lakes State Park, which features improved campground sit
es, swimming beaches, picnic areas and hiking trails. Rocky Fork features plentiful bank access, and the MDC has plans to build a dock in 2006.
Located in the Scrivner Road Conservation Area in Cole County, south of Jefferson City, this 8-acre lake has undergone recent upgrades, including improved access on a cleared path around the lake. Although it lacks a fishing dock, the new bank access affords plenty of sites for fishing for bluegills, redear sunfish and channel catfish.
Little Dixie Lake
On the flip side of the smaller Winegar and Ashland lakes, Little Dixie boasts 205 acres of good fishing. Access points include bank-fishing on jetties or the dam as well as a number of shoreline areas. Boat fishing is more popular here, and small bluegills can be found in good numbers. Crappie numbers in the 8-to-10-inch range have seen a big increase in recent years, with bluegills and catfish staying strong.
Pomme De Terre Lake
Known statewide for excellent fishing, Pomme de Terre is home to good populations of crappie, bluegills, black bass, white bass, and channel catfish. An on-site fisheries habitat program started in the 1980s has led to the implementation of hundreds of brushpiles that serve as habitat for smaller fish. Bluegills and white and black crappie have all had strong numbers in recent years.
Wherever you try fishing with kids first, keep this list handy for ideas whether you're looking for a quick day trip or for a long weekend out.
"Fishing is a great way for families to bond and spend time together," said the MDC's Wehnes. "Kids and fishing go hand in hand." And with so many excellent panfish sites available in Missouri, you're sure to find a great place to go.