Whether you're a big-water boat angler or a puddle wader, Missouri has the bass hotspot for you. From trophy largemouth in impoundments like Lake of the Ozarks or Truman, to big smallmouths pulled from riffles and holes in Black River or the Gasconade, now's the time to plan your bass fishing outings for 2012. Here are some of our best waters for the coming months, according to the people who spend a lot of time on them and know what to expect there.
For decades the Show Me State has managed a quality population of largemouth bass. All of our large impoundments were created either for power generation or flood control, with recreation a side benefit. In each case a dam was built and hundreds of acres flooded as nearby creeks and rivers emptied into the new basin. The stream channels, submerged ledges and flooded timber created perfect bass habitat almost from the start.
Smallmouths have been flourishing in Ozark streams and rivers since before the first white men stumbled through the rolling hills of virgin timber and discovered the pristine streams. In the early to mid-1900s, when most of southern Missouri's lakes were being created, the state's conservation department was coming into its stride with fisheries management techniques. What might have been lost with the damming of streams was saved with more aggressive efforts to keep the smallmouth population strong.
Add in spotted bass and there's essentially a non-stop supply of fish to fill the livewell or creel. Here are some of the first places you should be looking this year.
Currently the Missouri Department of Conservation, in conjunction with the Missouri Smallmouth Alliance has 12 streams targeted for special management plans. All total, that accounts for 358 miles of northern Ozarks streams. Some of the best habitat for smallmouth lie inside these Stream Black Bass Special Management Areas, or SBBSMA, but not all. Some streams have excellent smallmouth populations with no hands-on management needed.
Some of the streams have been in a management program before, and now a new study is under way. One of the first things the new study group did was mail out 100,000 survey cards to holders of Missouri resident fishing licenses in 2010. Respondents who replied that they often fished for black bass were then forwarded a full survey to complete. As anticipated, the bulk of respondents were located in southern Missouri, but a sampling of anglers from across the state were questioned. In March of 2011 some 7,742 surveys were sent out.
To get an accurate picture of harvest rates, in 2011 workers tagged 1,420 smallmouths 12 inches and larger in five rivers — North Fork of the White, Courtois, Current, Castor and Black. They repeated the process earlier this year. The tags carry cash rewards for anglers reporting their discovery, whether the tagged fish is harvested or released.
Streams with SBBSMA sections include Big Piney, Big, Mineral Fork, Joachim Creek, Eleven Point, Elk, Gasconade, Jacks Fork, James, Meramec, Osage Fork of the Gasconade and Tenmile Creek. Here's a look at the best bets for taking smallmouths this summer, whether the water is in a SBBSMA or not.
I grew up near the Black River in Iron County, just upstream from Clearwater Lake. The pristine river that spans several counties has long been considered one of state's finest smallmouth streams. While a small section is prone to float jobbers, the bulk of the river from where the three forks merge, in Reynolds County some 80 miles southwest of St. Louis, to the headwaters of Clearwater Lake in Wayne County is remote and generally untouched exception by a few locals.
The upper stretch, upstream from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Clearwater Lake, holds an excellent population of smallmouths. Fish in the 20-inch range are common, and lunkers 4 pounds or greater range can be found. MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Paul Cieslewicz, who manages the upper Black, said sampling in May of 2011 showed some "dandy" smallmouths with quantities of fish between 18 and 19 inches and enough larger smallmouths to keep it interesting.
The upper Black River includes three forks suitable for wading year 'round or floating when water levels are high. The East Fork flows past Ameren UE's reservoir-fed power plant and Johnson Shut-Ins State Park. The West Fork flows past the Reynolds County Seat of Centerville. The Middle Fork flows about halfway between the other two. The Middle and West forks merge upstream of the community of Lesterville, while the East fork joins just downstream of the small town. From that point downstream the river is generally floatable year 'round.
A canoe is a great way to cover water and target deeper holes, while much of the stream can be plied by a johnboat with a jet prop. Whether wading the upper reaches, or fishing from a boat downstream to the headwaters of Clearwater, target smallmouths using live minnows or plastic jigs. If relying on plastics, white or yellow crappie jigs tend to work best. Cast upstream of submerged rootwads or trees, or against gravel banks in bends, or to the upstream edge of shallow gravely riffles. Let the current carry the live or plastic bait downstream at a natural pace and be ready to set the hook.
While we're putting upper Black River in the "smallmouth" category, you might want to test Clearwater and the river just downstream of the spillway for some nice largemouth and spotted bass. There are plenty of shallows, with maps available showing the stream channels and underwater topography. Once you travel downriver to the Markham Springs area you'll start finding consistent smallmouth angling again.
Upper Meramec River
Just down Interstate 44 from St. Louis is one of central Missouri's best spring-fed streams in the form of the upper reaches of the Meramec River. Few anglers or guides know the stretch of smallmouth water better than "Big Joe" Dmuchovsky. For several years Dmuchovsky has worked as a part-time fishing guide for Green's Canoe Rental.
During the early months of summer Dmuchovsky prefers going after smallmouths in the portion of the river above Scott's Ford. If there's enough water at the time he'll fish upstream of State Route 8. He prefers to guide from a canoe, but isn't fond of dragging a boat and wading instead of giving his attention to catching fish.
"My favorite trip is Riverview to Bird's Nest," says Bog Joe. "It's great water and there's plenty of fish. I generally throw bigger spinners, crankbaits and plastics. You'll catch more fish on smaller lures, but if you want to catch some big smallmouths you need to throw bigger lures."
One of his favorites is a white Zoom Super Fluke. "I may not use it all the time, but I'll always have it rigged and ready."
He uses 8-pound-test line while fishing for smallmouths.
The stretch of Meramec between Scott's Ford and Bird's Nest is one of the state's smallmouth management areas and sampling in 2011 showed excellent numbers and sizes of fish. The stretch is the best bet for scoring 15-inch and larger smallmouths, and there are plenty of largemouths 12 inches and longer.
Spotted bass numbers found farther down in the river during sampling showed 15 percent of fish exceeded 12 inches. Getting to them can be done at Choteau Claim Access, Redhorse Access, River Round Conservation Area and Robertsville State Park.
Just west of Poplar Bluff in Butler County in southeast Missouri runs a little-known wade stream that's no slouch when it comes to smallmouths. Tenmile Creek sees little fishing pressure, but recent sampling showed good numbers of bass greater than 18 inches.
Paul Cieslewicz manages Tenmile Creek for the state conservation department in addition to Black River and several other bass streams in the region. He says the best place to access the good smallmouth portion of the creek is from State Route PP off State Route TT just west of town. There are a couple of bridge crossings in the area where anglers can park off the roadway and wade the stream.
Cieslewicz urges anglers to be sure and pick up after themselves in order to maintain a good cooperative spirit between fishermen and landowners along the stream. Tenmile Creek is a Special Smallmouth Bass Management Area.
LARGEMOUTH AND SPOTTED
The goal here is to expose what appears to be the best bass waters in the state, not necessarily the largest or most familiar. One of the hottest lakes in northwest Missouri is Limpp Lake outside King City off State Route 48.
MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Eric Dennis says the 28-acre Limpp Lake is the hotspot for large bass in the region. Last year anglers consistently pulled trophy largemouths out of the little lake. What you won't find is much natural cover. In 2010 the MDC put in brushpiles and added more in 2011. Target the submerged brush with Texas-rigged plastics and anything else you've had luck with elsewhere.
To get to Limpp Lake, head west out of King City on State Route 48 and go one mile, then turn north on Route CC and go a half-mile.
Bull Shoals Lake
On the state's southern boundary sits Bull Shoals Lake, a 45,440-acre impoundment lying primarily in northern Arkansas. But the upper reaches of the lake fed by the White River and a northern bend sit in Missouri.
A.J. Pratt, fisheries management biologist for the MDC in charge of Bull Shoals, says angler reports in 2010 and 2011 showed the largemouth population was as good or better than it's been in the past 30 years. Sampling confirms what anglers are saying. Pratt says the lake has a lot of larger, older bass still hanging on from the 2002 year-class, fish in the 6-pound or better range. Most of those older, mature fish will be over 18 inches. The 2008 year-class fish will be in the 12- to 15-inch slot. There was a good spawn in 2011, assuring the future of the fishery.
The one area of management that has suffered in recent years has been the addition of artificial cover. Due to chronic high water, the Corps of Engineers hasn't been able to do much in the way of improvements, but Pratt says there's a plan in place for work adding more cover in the near future, perhaps even by the time you read this.
Hazel Creek Lake
Moving from a large lake in the southwest region to the northeast, the 530-acre Hazel Creek Lake on the edge of Kirksville is an impoundment that has responded well and fast to management, and largemouth anglers stand to reap the benefits.
For years Hazel Creek Lake was known as a "big-bass lake." The problem was, there wasn't a lot of smaller fish to ensure the future. But Fisheries Management Biologist Mike Anderson, MDC's point man for the area, says due to several factors coming together, anglers and biologists are now seeing good numbers of largemouths of all sizes. In years past, sampling might not turn up 10 bass over 18 inches, but nowadays that has easily tripled. It's not uncommon to see 70 to 90 bass per hour while electrofishing.
Anderson said that for several years acquatic cover in the lake got sparse due to overstocking of grass carp in the 1990s. But in recent years, bowfishing has whittled away at the carp and low water due to drought conditions has caused a comeback in vegetation in the shallows. As another management step, Anderson says in 2008 the daily limit was reduced from two fish 18 inches or longer to five fish 15 inches or better. In 2010, sampling revealed 42 percent of largemouths were 15 inches or larger.
One final note about Hazel Creek Lake. Don't plan on using the outboard because the lake sits within the city limits of Kirksville, and a municipal ordinance allows for trolling motors only. But with the number of nice bass available, it's a small price to pay.
Table Rock Lake
The next to final lake on this year's "must fish" list is Table Rock Lake in the Branson and Springfield area. The lake sits on the Missouri and Arkansas border with a combined 800 miles of shoreline. Right now the lake is benefiting from a good spawn in 2008. For the past three years, the number of nice-sized bass taken at Table Rock has increased annually. It's been expected that 2012 will be the banner summer when the 2008 year-class reaches 15 inches. In 2010 some 24 percent of largemouths seen during sampling were 15 inches or greater. The same sampling showed a lot of smallmouth and spotted bass along with the largemouths.
Expect to find spotted and largemouth bass in the river arms, and smallmouths from the State Route 86 bridge up to Campbell Point. If you're fishing in the lake itself, target bluffs, mounds and points. Maps are readily available at bait shops, convenience stores or the local MDC office. The guys who fish Table Rock the most suggest trying spoons or jigs, or assorted plastics rigged drop shot for deeper structure fishing in summer months. But don't pass up a chance to throw into the shallows while you're in the neighborhood.
Lake of the Ozarks
It's about 200 miles from King City's little Limpp Lake to the state's iconic impoundment, Lake of the Ozarks. While the David-and-Goliath fishing lakes have little else in common, the one thing they share is a great bass population.
Lake of the Ozarks is the site of more bass tournaments than any other lake in the state. Despite heavy fishing pressure, the massive size of the lake alone allows all species of black bass to remain stable according to Greg Stoner, MDC's fisheries management biologist there.
"I've been here 20 years and the lake (bass population) stays the same," says Stoner. Recent electrofishing showed an 'above-average' number of 15-inch-or-greater fish on the Niangua and Glaize arms. We're working in the Niangua, upper Gravois and upper Glaize above Anderson Hollow and the Fort Wood recreation areas."
A large year-class in 2007 produced a lot of spotted and largemouth bass. It's expected that class will reach legal size this year.
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So there you have it. Whether you fish from a $30,000 bass boat or wade in a pair of cutoff jeans and old tennis shoes, the year of 2012 has plenty of quality bass action for you.
But enough talk; it's time to fish!