One of the best things about living in a state that has prairies, forests and swamps, thousands of miles of streams and hundreds of thousands of acres of flat water is that there is no such thing as an off-season for fishing. Large reservoirs — 14 in all — are found in every part of the state, from Mark Twain in the northeast and Smithville in the northwest to four White River reservoirs spanning the Missouri-Arkansas border and Wappapello and Clearwater lakes in southeast Missouri. Of course, Central Missouri has Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks, whose combined 109,000 acres of fertile water support amazing catfish, crappie, bass and paddlefish populations.
Unlike most Midwest states, Missouri also boasts hundreds of miles of spring-fed Ozark streams teeming with wild and stocked trout. Four trout parks situated on those streams make trout fishing as comfortable and easy as fishing at high-dollar fishing resorts but at a fraction of the cost. And Missouri's position astride North America's two mightiest rivers creates big-river fishing opportunities unmatched anywhere in the United States.
Here is a month-by-month guide to the Show Me State's best fishing.
Roaring River Rainbows
Roaring River is one of our most scenic state parks, especially in the winter when you are likely to have the place almost to yourself. That ends March 1, with the beginning of the catch-and-keep fishing season, so why not beat the rush? The winter catch-and-release season offers chances to catch regular-sized rainbow trout, plus a small number of "lunkers" 3 pounds and up.
Leave your salmon eggs and plastic lures at home; the winter season is limited to flies only. The park store and lodge are closed this month, but accommodations are available in nearby Cassville. Instead of having to buy a daily tag, a $7 trout permit allows you to fish throughout the catch-and-release season.
The winter catch-and-keep season starts the second Friday in November and runs through Feb. 9 this year. You can fish from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Monday at this and the DNR's two other trout parks.
Bull Shoals Stripers
In 2008, a temporary worker for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission mistakenly stocked 19,000 striped bass in Bull Shoals. One of those fish weighed 68 pounds when it was caught 12 years later. Having seen how stripers thrived in Bull Shoals, MDC stocked another 16,000 stripers in 2013. So the 45,000-acre lake currently is patrolled by thousands of voracious, hard-fighting young stripers.
Look for them in deep water near the submerged river channel during the day. They hit anything that looks like a shad, including big plastic swim baits, plastic minnows, marabou jigs dressed with curlytails and Rat-L-Traps. Cast these lures across the mouths of secondary coves at dawn and dusk, or troll jointed minnows along the edges of dropoffs. Use heavy, abrasion-resistant line and wire leaders.
If you are lucky enough to find white bass herding shad at the surface, stand just off the edge of these "breaks" and cast into the melee. Stripers often school with their smaller relatives and join in the fun of busting shad.
Lake Of The Ozarks Walleyes
Lake of the Ozarks is loaded with walleyes. MDC has been stocking 'eyes there for 15 years, and the lake's abundant shad population guarantees fast growth. Yet few anglers know about this amazing fishery. That's partly because an abundant shad population allows walleyes to fill up with minimal effort and then just hang out in deep water to digest. Another reason is the lake's narrow, U-shaped bed.
Walleye anglers typically look for their quarry around submerged humps and long, tapering points. Lake of the Ozarks doesn't have many of those structural walleye magnets. Spring is the best time to catch them, as they swim up the lake's Niangua and Osage arms.
A bass boat will get you far enough upstream to enjoy some great fishing. A jet boat or kayak will take you on upstream to work smaller water. Try trolling No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Raps, or for real fun cast 1/4- or 1/8-ounce twister-tailed jigs dressed with a small piece of nightcrawler.
Hazel Creek Muskies
Heart-stopping action is available this month at Hazel Creek Lake, just west of Highway 63 about 3 miles north of Kirksville. This 530-acre lake is home to muskellunge that will suck down a muskie plug with treble hooks big enough to snag paddlefish. You can also use big, deep-diving crankbaits or spoons.
Seasoned muskie anglers know these fish often wait until the bait is next to the boat to snatch it, and so at the end of each cast they use their rod tips to trace two or three figure-8s with the lure in the water next to the boat. That maneuver has prompted a lot of strikes.
Spend most of your time fishing coves with standing timber and shallow points near deep water. There is a minimum length limit of 36 inches, and the daily limit is one. Tape a yardstick to the side of your boat to facilitate measuring and bring a stout pair of pliers to unhook fish.
Community Lake Bluegills
Scattered around the state like so many pots of gold are hundreds of community recreation and water supply lakes with fish managed by MDC. Many have good populations of largemouth bass, channel catfish, bluegill and redear sunfish.
Chances are you already know about one or two near you. Many others are out there, waiting to be tapped. The easiest way to find them is to use the online Conservation Atlas at http://on.mo.gov/1pulmDD. Just select a county and use the search filters to select the type of fishing you want and you can get a complete list of lakes to try out. The atlas database includes ratings for each species at each lake, and so there's no need to waste effort dunking worms or casting plugs in waters that are only fair to poor for your favorite species.
Also take time to look at the facilities listed for each lake, so you know whether it has a boat ramp, handicap-accessible fishing dock or jetties, camp sites, and so forth.
Missouri River Flatheads
If you trade gossip at bait shops anywhere along the Missouri River you know our state's namesake stream harbors an almost boundless supply of flathead catfish in the 25- to 50-pound range. They are particularly abundant north of Kansas City.
Flatheads prefer live food. Shad, sunfish and crayfish all are favorites of flatheads. They are ambush predators during the day, lying in wait under root wads and piles of flotsam, waiting for a meal to drift by. At night, they go on the prowl, patrolling the edges of wing dikes, riprap banks and shallow water around sandbars. This allows you to set up in a comfortable spot, cooler close at hand, and mind a stout pole. If you are comfortable boating the river at night, you can set out trotlines or bank poles. However you choose to fish, make sure your bait stays fresh and lively.
Lamine River Channel Cats
From its mouth just west of Boonville on upstream to Lamine Conservation Area, this fertile prairie stream has good to excellent channel catfish action. Its direct connection with the Missouri River guarantees annual replenishment of fish stocks during spring floods.
Getting a boat on the river in that area is easy, thanks to the MDC's de Bourgmont, Harriman Hill, Roberts Bluff and Swinging Bridge accesses. These areas, along with Lamine River CA, also provide ample bank-fishing.
The best way to catch a limit of 10 catfish is banklining. Just cut and strip several springy, 8- or 10-foot willow saplings, rig them with stout line and 4-0 hooks and jam the other ends deep into clay banks with hooks dangling at water level. One-inch chunks of sponge soaked in stink bait work well, or you can use cut shad, chicken liver or nightcrawlers.
Other Options: Bowfishing for gar in the Headwater Diversion Basin offers the possibility of boating a monster alligator gar like the 127-pounder Larry Wolfe of Chaffee arrowed in 2007. Access is via the Headwaters Access on Highway 74 just east of I-55 south of Cape Girardeau.
Upper Mississippi Catfish
The lazy days and nights of late summer call for laid-back fishing, and the pools of the Mississippi River above St. Louis provide it. Locks and dams slow Old Man River's current to a leisurely pace that makes minding juglines easy. Rig your lines at various depths until you discover where the fish are, and then adjust accordingly.
Cut bait is best for blues, live bait for flatheads, and chicken liver or stinkbait for channel cats. Unanchored juglines must be personally attended at all times. This means you have to have them in sight and be able to see the jug move when a fish bites.
The maximum number of hooks allowed on the Mississippi is 50 so if you choose to fish with pole and line while watching your juglines, be sure to include hooks on your poles in the total count.
The daily and possession limit for channel and blue catfish on the Mississippi River is 20 in the aggregate. The daily and possession limit on flatheads is 10. Check the 2015 Fishing Regulation Guide for other details.
Jacks Fork Smallmouths
The stretch of the Jacks Fork from Highway 17 to Highway 106 is a special smallmouth bass management area, where smallies must be at least 18 inches to be kept. As a result, smallmouths are abundant there, and your chances of hooking a fish longer than 15 inches are very good.
The biggest fish are found in the few miles downstream of Rymers Access. Concentrate your efforts along rock ledges and boulders in bluff pools. Woolly Buggers and crawfish or sculpin imitations are good bets for fly-fishers. Spinning gear favorites include small silver Rapalas, Rebel Crawfish or Teeny-Wee Crawfish in moss or stream crawfish colors. If you want to home in on the big fish, try a 1/4-ounce brown jig dressed with a crawdad-brown pork frog.
The quality of fishing falls off below Alley Spring. That is directly related to the fact that the water above Alley Spring is shallower, and floating there requires walking throughout most of the year. For detailed information about access, campsites, and river miles, call the National Park Service office in Van Buren at 573-323-4236.
Not long after the dam was closed at Stockton Lake in the early 1970s, the MDC stocked the lake with walleyes. From 1998 through 2011, MDC put 750,000 walleye fingerlings into the lake every other year. Since then, it has received 300,000 walleyes every year.
Stockton's walleye harvest rate ranks right up there with some of the legendary waters of Canada. A good sonar graph will allow you to track the schools of gizzard shad that walleyes stalk like wolves stalking coyotes. Walleyes show up as dark crescents around spherical shad schools. Blurred crescents mean fast-moving, feeding fish.
A steady south wind for several days in a row will push tiny plants and animals north, down the lake's Sac River arm, causing shad to congregate near the dam. When that happens, the walleyes tend to concentrate on submerged rocky points and along bluffs, grazing on passing schools of shad. Fish jigs and deep-running crankbaits 20 to 30 feed down in these areas for best results. For more information, visit www.stocktonlake.com.
Thomas Hill Hybrids
Warmwater discharge from the power plant at the lake's south end makes this a hot winter fishing spot. White/striped bass hybrids follow baitfish up into the Brush Creek arm, where the water stays a comfortable 60 degrees throughout the winter. There, "wipers" feast on shad, and quickly reach weights up to 10 pounds. They are active at dawn, dusk and on overcast days.
Areas with a little current and abrupt depth changes are your best bets. Shad imitations sometimes work there, but when the fish get leery of artificial lures, switch to chicken liver or other natural bait and use catfishing tactics.
A medium-heavy, 8-foot rod and a quality baitcasting reel spooled with 12-pound, abrasion-resistant line is an ideal hybrid rig. Wipers hit hard so don't set the hook just because your rod tip jiggles a little. It's probably just a fiddler cat.
Thomas Hill has a daily limit of four hybrids with a minimum length limit of 20 inches.
Lake Of The Ozarks Crappie
This 58,000-acre lake has more than 1,000 miles of shoreline and basic fertility that allows lots of crappie to reach 12 to 14 inches. They are at their fattest following the fall feeding frenzy. As the lake's water cools, fish move from deepwater refuges back toward the mouths of streams. Any major tributary cove is a good choice.
One very effective way to find crappie at this time of year is to drift jigs across the mouths of coves. Crappie schools can be on unpredictable structure at this time of year, and drifting allows you to randomly sample types.
Most boat docks have crappie beds associated with them. You can use the MDC's free fishfinder app www.mdc.mo.gov/node/15421 to locate fish attractors around the lake. When the weather turns really cold, don't forget commercial (read "heated") fishing docks. Fathead minnows, horsehead jigs, tube jigs and 1/32-ounce marabou jigs are your best bets.
Lake of the Ozarks has a 9-inch minimum length limit and a daily limit of 15 for crappie.