Largemouths, smallmouths, spots: magic words to bass anglers all across Missouri. Where you should you go to catch these fabulous fish? Try these venues!
Being a black-bass angler in Missouri is sort of like being a kid in a candy store — there’s so much good stuff that you hardly know what to do. As a result, many anglers run to and fro looking for the mecca of bass fishing. The savvy ones know better.
Bronzebacks are special in the eyes of most Missouri bassers, and Table Rock's our prime place for taking smallies this year. Photo by Ed Harp.
Let’s face it: Any reasonably competent angler can catch several good bass a day from many different waters in the Show Me State. Accordingly, picking the top spot for each species is no easy task.
The approach of top anglers differs a great deal depending upon the season, the location and the target species of fish. All of them have one thing in common, however: They fish waters that harbor high populations of the fish they seek.
That may sound obvious, but it’s a mistake many anglers make. Why fish a venue that has a poor population of the fish you want to catch? You’re beat before you start.
If it’s largemouths you want, most anglers and fisheries professionals will send you to Lake of the Ozarks. For smallmouths and spotted bass, your best shot is Table Rock Lake.
So at the risk of insulting some readers by not selecting their favorite spot, let’s take a closer look at both these lakes. We’ll examine the opportunities they offer and see what several top experts have to say about them.
LARGEMOUTHS AT LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Lake of the Ozarks, a massive impoundment in south-central Missouri, is nearly equidistant from Kansas City and St. Louis. Interstate 70 runs to the north of it, I-44 to the south. There are a number of good ways to get there.
There’s a lot of water to fish in this impoundment covering 90 square miles. If you like to fish shorelines, this is the place for you: Lake of the Ozarks has as much shoreline as the east coast of this country.
When the lake was built over 70 years ago, ecology and environmental concerns were in their infancy. There is little or no timber in the lake. According to Greg Stoner, the Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist in charge of the lake, most of the timber was cut and hauled away at the time the lake was constructed. What little remained was burned or has long since silted over.
Stoner notes that the primary structure and cover is artificial: boat docks and the brushpiles found around them. That’s good news and bad for anglers: The fish are easier to find, but they’re also under more angling pressure, and are far better conditioned to anglers’ offerings.
Given this, Lake of the Ozarks seems like a strange place to grow huge numbers of huge largemouths. And yet grow them it does. Stoner believes that one of the reasons for their growth rate and survival rate in the lake, despite its lack of classic habitat, is the forage base. Year after year the shad spawn can be rated good to great. (The only recent exception was 2003.) A good spawn does good things for a fishery. Chiefly, it provides a steady food source for the fish — all the fish. The small get big, the big get bigger.
A strong food source also keeps the fish healthy. Fish that are well fed with nutritious forage such as shad stay slick, fat and strong. They are far less susceptible to the ravages of disease. Parasites and predators find them to be difficult marks.
The shad spawn in 2004 was even better than usual. “There are two distinct sizes of shad in the lake this year (2004). That’s good news. It’ll make the bass grow fast and big … keeps ’em healthy,” said the Lake of the Ozarks fisheries biologist. Thus, its 2005 largemouth fishing should be even better than ’04’s. If that turns out to be the case, it’ll be a virtual paradise for Missouri anglers.
Stoner’s experience leads him to believe that there isn’t any one area of the lake that holds more or bigger fish than the others. In his view, they’re scattered around the lake, relating to docks and brushpiles, and high numbers of good-sized largemouths can be caught just about anywhere.
George Tomlinson, a Missouri B.A.S.S. Federation official, agrees that the key to understanding Lake of the Ozarks’ largemouth bass is brush. He strongly recommends fishing the upper section of the lake above the 50 Mile Marker, especially early in the season. According to the local bass expert, most of the brush will be found near private boat docks.
Nearly every dock on the lake has one or two piles. Some piles are put out by crappie and bluegill anglers, others by bass anglers. No matter why they’re there: The bass find most of them attractive.
When asked about tactics, both men will launch into a discussion of the venerable Texas-rigged worm. An old lure that’s been around for a long time, it’s still effective. The worm of choice, at least with local anglers, is simple enough: 10 inches long, black, and rigged with an offset wide-gap worm hook.
Most anglers work the area around the brush first, throwing increasingly close to the main pile. A few anglers throw right into the brush on their first cast. This group’s theory is clear: Why waste time and effort on less productive water? Give it some thought, experiment and make your own decision. Both groups catch fish, so …
As the season wears on and late spring turns into summer, many anglers direct their efforts below the 50 Mile Marker, in the lower section of the lake. The same tactics apply, however: Fish the brushpiles, and wherever you can find a channel break near one, fish it hard. There’s probably a keeper waiting for your bait.
How big are the largemouths in this lake? Well, that depends on whom you ask. A few anglers claim that specimens weighing between 8 and 10 pounds are common. There’s no doubt that several are caught in that class each year — but “common”? That seems a little hard to believe.
Nevertheless, 5- to 7-pound fish are common, and show up at the scales of most major tournaments. (A 5-pound largemouth won’t even
turn a head.) Fish in the 3- and 4-pound class are ordinary. It’s an unusual day that doesn’t produce a couple in that weight range for any angler at any skill level.
Keep this in mind: Any day you can catch a couple of 3- or 4-pounders along with a few other keepers, you’ve had a good day. Don’t let the boys at the dock — or outdoor writers — tell you otherwise!
SMALLMOUTHS AT TABLE ROCK LAKE
Table Rock Lake is in the southwestern part of the state, just north of the Arkansas state line and south of Springfield. I-44 runs north of this impoundment. Like its cousin to the north, it’s easily accessible from any direction.
Table Rock is smaller than Lake of the Ozarks, and its basic characteristics are different. It’s best described as a classic highland reservoir: Its waters are deep and clear with a high number of inflowing tributaries. It’s also characterized by bluffs, points, cuts and bays. Table Rock is full of chunk rock and sand. All this is important to the fishery. Its topography is one reason that Table Rock is the unchallenged king of smallmouth bass fishing in Missouri.
And, according to Bill Anderson, MDC fisheries biologist for the lake, another is an excellent spawning environment. Table Rock is blessed with relatively stable conditions for spawning, which helps both the forage and the game fish. As a consequence, the lake has a high population of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and crawfish, giving the smallmouths, and the spotted bass, plenty to eat on a year-round basis.
It also helps the smallies more directly. Good spawning conditions make for a steady population; the babies are always coming along. That’s very important, as it’s essential to good fishing.
Anderson reports that smallmouths grow quite fast in Table Rock. “They’ll usually reach 15 inches in 5 to 6 years,” he said. That may be slow compared to largemouths, but it’s much faster than what’s seen in most smallmouth venues.
This fast growth allows them to reach larger sizes well before their natural mortality. Smallmouths of 4 and 5 pounds are regularly caught by anglers targeting them. Smallies of 6 pounds, while certainly not common or ordinary, are not unheard-of, either. (A 6-pound smallmouth will get folks’ attention.)
Numbers are good as well. It’s not uncommon, especially in the spring and fall, for anglers to catch several smallmouths over 3 pounds in one day, along with a few other keepers.
Anderson points anglers towards the gravel banks, chunk rock and wide-open gravel flats if they want big smallies from Table Rock. He cautions anglers to exercise stealth while doing this, however, as the shallow, clear water will make the fish very skittish. “They spook easy,” he said.
Professional guide Phillip Stone of Stone’s Guide Service (www. ozarksfishin.com) has a lot of smallmouth experience on Table Rock. His view is similar to that of Anderson.
In the spring around the time of the spawn, he recommends, look for smallies on gravel flats in 10 to 12 feet of water. He likes to throw a Wiggle Wart (www.stormlures.com) to provoke strikes from these finicky fish. Stone points out that on 8-pound-test line, Warts will run around 10 feet deep. “That’s right where you want to be,” he noted.
After the spawn, smallmouth fishing starts picking up. From early summer into October, Stone fishes the thermocline, which is usually found in 25 to 35 feet of water. He drags a jig, brown and purple on a football head, right through the thermocline over any structure he can find — usually a gravel point, rock field, cut or channel swing.
Stone advises anglers to keep a rod rigged with a spoon handy at all times. “You never know when you’ll see surface activity,” he remarked. “It’s best to be ready.”
October can be a special month at Table Rock. That’s when you find them in relatively shallow water, maybe 15 feet, around cedar trees. The favored technique is to wake a spinnerbait over the tops of the trees. The strikes are dramatic, nerve-shattering and a heck of a lot of fun.
Those who like winter fishing should try the pole timber in 30 to 35 feet of water. Fish any structural irregularity you can find with a jigging spoon.
Realistic size expectations for smallies from Table Rock will be around 3 pounds, with an occasional fish up to 5 pounds. There are smallmouths over 5 pounds caught, but not on a regular basis — not here or anywhere else for that matter. It just doesn’t happen.
THE SPOTTED BASS OF TABLE ROCK LAKE
The spotted bass fishing at Table Rock is the best in the state — no doubt about it. In fact, it’s one of the best venues in the country, and it just keeps getting better. It shows no signs of slowing down.
Anderson believes that the great spotted bass fishing is directly tied to the forage base, because while gizzard shad and crayfish support the smallmouths, threadfin shad support the spots. Table Rock has a lot of threadfins. They roam the waters in huge schools and haunt the deep water that spots prefer.
Being slow to mature and even slower to grow to any reasonable size, spots need this forage. It may take as long as 7 years for a spotted bass to reach 15 inches at Table Rock. That’s a long time — maybe not as long as in some places, but still a long time.
Anderson’s research shows that the spots of Table Rock don’t hang out with smallmouths as much as do those in many waters. They tend to school in large numbers and follow the threadfins. It’s important for anglers to keep this in mind.
Spots will typically be found suspended, in huge numbers, over deep channel swings and timber. At times they will suspend off the bluffs that line the lake. Even then, however, they will be deep. At times, most notably during the summer and the winter, it’s not unusual to find them at depths approaching 60 feet.
The only exception to the deep-water rule comes during the spawn. Anderson opines that they spawn nearer to largemouths than they do to smallmouths. By this, he means “shallow.” He frequently tells the story of watching as he was scuba diving what he describes as the “biggest spot I’ve ever seen” spawning under a log on a gravel bank. The fish was really big. His fascination with it caused him to forget about his air supply — and suddenly, he was out of air!
Fortunately, Anderson was able to recover — because the
water was shallow enough that all he had to do was stand up. The fish wasn’t very deep.
Anderson reminds anglers that to be successful with spots on his lake they must find, and fish, the threadfin shad. “If the threadfin shad are around, the spots won’t be far away,” he offered in summary.
Capt. Rick LaPoint of Chauffeured Guide Service (www.strikebass.com) offers Missouri anglers the following advice (which, incidentally, you should take seriously, as he regularly puts clients on 3-pound spots and has himself caught several over 5 pounds): Fish shallow for the spots in the spring. He reports that they spawn as shallow as 8 feet, seemingly mostly in the clear main-lake water.
As the seasons progress, the spots tend to drop deeper and deeper. During the warmer months of the year the “magnum spots” (as LaPoint calls them) are mostly found near the dam in the main lake. Some are caught suspended at 30 feet or more, at times to 60 feet, off the deeper points in this area of the lake.
“Seems like the main lake is where we get the biggest ones,” he remarked succinctly.
During most of the year, LaPoint recommends, anglers should fish with a 3/4-ounce football head jig dressed with a rubber skirt. If that doesn’t work, try a drop-shot rig with a small plastic worm. Other anglers like blade baits.
Late in the year, he recommends jigging spoons over suspended fish in the trees. They will be deep at this time of year, maybe 50 or 60 feet. LaPoint and a client once caught several good spots at 95 feet. “Deepest I’ve ever caught a fish,” he recalled with a mixture of enthusiasm and wonder.
Note that, although both Anderson and LaPoint approach spots from a slightly different perspective, they both emphasize that spots are deep-water suspending fish. That’s where they fish for them; that’s where you should fish for them.