LAKE OZARK, Mo. (MCT) - For Dion Hibdon, there's no place like home.
As a professional bass fisherman, he spends most of the spring on the road, competing on some of the best bass lakes in the country.
But he will tell you that the best always awaits when he gets a chance to return home.
"I've fished some of the best bass lakes in the world, but I'd still put Lake of the Ozarks up there near the top," said Hibdon, who lives in Stover, Mo., and is one of the top fishermen on the FLW circuit." In a 300-mile swath, this is the best bass lake you'll find.
"We might not have the huge bass like lakes in Florida and California have, but just for numbers of keepers and fish in the 3- to 5-pound range, Lake of the Ozarks is tough to beat."
Especially in the spring.
When the fish head for the shallows to feed and spawn, it's a magical time for bass fishermen such as Hibdon. They know they can head into coves and stand a chance of catching the fish of a lifetime.
Hibdon has lived that dream at Lake of the Ozarks. He remembers a day years ago when he pulled up to a secondary point and caught a 10-pound bass. He landed a 5-pound largemouth on his second cast. On the third, he caught a 4-pounder.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime deal," Hibdon said with a smile.
But such fishing trips always fuel dreams at Lake of the Ozarks. And Hibdon was dreaming big when he went out on a recent spring day.
A day earlier, he had caught and released several impressive bass along spawning banks in coves. And he was ready for more of the same.
He pitched a Luck-E-Strike jig with a Guido Bug trailer - the plastic bait he helped design years ago for a grade-school project - to a brush pile in the shallows and shook the line slightly. When he did, he felt his line grow heavy.
He immediately set the hook and watched as a large bass wallowed to the surface. The bass fought hard for a few seconds, but it wasn't long before Hibdon had the fish in the boat.
Lifting his catch, he said, "That's a good 4, 4 ½ pounds. That's a nice bass, but there are a lot of fish that size in here."
Minutes later, Hibdon caught another keeper - a fish about half the size of the first one.
"At some of the places we go, that's a good-sized bass," said Hibdon, one of few fishermen to win the Bassmaster Classic and the FLW Championship. "But at Lake of the Ozarks, you wouldn't even want a fish like that in your bag in a tournament."
So why is Lake of the Ozarks such a good bass lake? You can start with its excellent habitat - a mix of rocky and gravel banks, brush put in the lake by fishermen, and docks that provide shade and protection.
Factor in stable water levels, an abundance of baitfish and good management by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and you have a formula that has worked for years.
"The bass population stays stable here," said Greg Stoner, the fisheries biologist for the Department of Conservation who manages the lake. "We see good spawns almost every year, and the numbers and size structure remain pretty steady."
At this time of year, Hibdon likes to target the areas with gravel banks - a prime largemouth spawning spot. But he looks for a sweet spot - the subtle differences that will attract big bass.
"When a bank changes for whatever reason, that's a prime spot," he said. "A bass has to have a reason to stop."
Similarly, he targets water that is out-of-the-way and hard to reach. Often, that translates to the shallows behind boat-dock cables.
"It doesn't take long for bass to figure out where to hide," he said. "The average fisherman isn't going to fish behind those cables - it's too much work.
"But I've caught some of my biggest bass under a walkway, in some brush behind a cable or along a pillar."
The other key? Precision casting. Hibdon knows that big bass often will not stray far from cover, especially when they are spawning.
"A big bass is like a fat guy," Hibdon said. "He doesn't want to work hard for his food.
"The bigger he gets, the lazier he gets. But if you put it right in front of his face, he'll hit it."
Lately, it has taken plenty of casts. Many of the bass at Lake of the Ozarks have gone onto the spawning beds, meaning they won't stray far to hit a lure.
In an ordinary year, the big lake is clear enough for fishermen to find those beds and work those spawning fish. But with the water murky now after weeks of rain and releases from Truman Lake, fishermen such as Hibdon are reduced to casting to likely looking spawning areas.
That has made the fishing tougher than usual, but not impossible.
"You just have to pitch to enough targets before you finally find one home," Hibdon said. "They're in here."
© 2008, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.