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Catching Early Slabs at Lake of the Ozarks

By John Neporadny Jr.

February can be a real tease for Lake of the Ozarks crappie anglers.

The month is still in the throes of winter doling out snow, ice and bitter cold, but it also shows hints of spring with certain days radiating sunshine and warmth. The lake has gone through the annual winter drawdown to its lowest level and the surface waters have dropped to the coldest temperatures of the year. During an average winter, the reservoirs north of I-70 are usually covered with ice that is too thick for boats to break through yet too thin to attempt any ice fishing. So the Lake of the Ozarks in the central part of the state offers crappie anglers the best chance to catch a mess of slab crappie—weather permitting.

You might have to break through a thin layer of ice at the boat ramp in the morning, but it will be well worth the effort for the chance to catch some of the biggest crappie of the year. Savvy crappie anglers know that the biggest fish usually move to the shallows first, so they find any possible way to get to open water when that first warming trend of the month arrives.

Throughout the winter, Lake of the Ozarks crappie suspend over deep-water haunts waiting for warmer weather to trigger their spring migration to the shallows. A couple of warm, sunny days in February prompt some of those suspending fish to move closer to the surface to feed on baitfish that rise to the warmer surface water. Slab crappie suspended over a creek channel close to a flat or a bluff with a shallow ledge will move up quickly on the shallow structure after a couple of balmy weather days.

I have lived at the lake for more than 30 years and have never seen it freeze over completely, but during most winters we do have to contend with breaking through ice especially in the coves and the narrower sections of the Niangua arm, upper Osage and the Gravois and Grand Glaize creeks. A mild winter last year allowed me to fish for crappie the whole month of February on my home waters, but during the previous two winters my cove was covered with ice and I was unable to get my boat out until the first week of March.

When the weather cooperates, February can be one of the best months for catching the biggest crappie of the year on the central Missouri lake. “Once the lake gets pulled down and stabilizes and the sunlight starts warming up the water it brings the fish up pretty shallow in February,” says guide Terry Blankenship. The Osage Beach angler believes the biggest crappie move shallower faster than the rest of the panfish during the warming trends of February, especially in areas containing dirtier water. He recommends trying the Grand Glaize arm and Indian Creek of the Gravois arm for early slabs in the shallows since the waters in these tributaries tend to warm up faster than the main lake.

Two patterns produce best for Blankenship when he pursues slab crappie throughout February. When the surface water temperature climbs after two or three warm, sunny days, Blankenship knows shad and slab crappie move closer to the surface so he relies on techniques that keep his lures suspended in the shallower strike zone. His favorite tactics for catching these fish are jerking a suspending stickbait and working a jig-and-bobber rig.

Slab crappie will suspend over various depths in February and during the warming trends the fish hold 4 to 8 feet deep on flats in the 10- to 15-foot range or along steeper banks in 20 to 25 feet of water. Blankenship searches for baitfish on his electronics to pinpoint the depth and location of slabs during the warming trends.

The stickbait tactic works best for Blankenship in clear water since the fish can see farther to move up and snatch the suspending lure. So Blankenship favors jerking the stickbait for crappie in the clearest section of the lake from Bagnell Dam to the 10-mile mark and the lower Gravois arm.

The Megabass 3 3/4-inch Vision 95 Is Blankenship’s favorite stickbait to catch both numbers and slab crappie, but the 4 1/3-inch Vision 110 model usually produces the biggest crappie. The guide opts for stickbaits with a tint of blue on the lures such as blue-and-chartreuse. He also likes the lures to have some shades of purple.

Once he finds the baitfish, Blankenship casts to the spot and jerks the stickbait five to seven times on 6- or 8-pound test to make the lure dive down to its maximum depth. Then he lets the lure sit for various lengths of time before twitching it again. “if the water is fairly cold you really have to slow it down a lot,” he says.

After the bite stops on the stickbait, Blankenship will throw the jig-and-bobber setup to the same spot. “A lot of times you can really tear them up then,” he says.

Blankenship uses a small egg-shaped clip-on bobber that he sets about 4 to 6 feet above a 1/16-ounce jighead. He attaches either a Bobby Garland 3-inch Slab Slayer or Baby Shad in blue ice, threadfin shad or bluegrass colors.

The local guide also uses a slow presentation for his bobber tactics. “You can throw it out there and let it sit for 30 seconds sometimes and if you are in the midst of a school one will finally whack it,” he says. Blankenship occasionally twitches the bobber a couple of times and then pauses it, but most of the time he casts the rig beyond his target and slowly reels to where the bobber sits above the fish. In dirty-water situations, he sets his bobber so the jig rests slightly above the tops of brush piles.

The ideal weather for Blankenship’s tactics is a partly cloudy day with a 5 to 10 mph breeze. He notes it is tougher to catch slabs on sunny, calm days, which tend to push the fish down into the brush or under docks.

The pattern for slabs tends to change towards the end of February when the backs of creeks become 5 to 8 degrees warmer than the main lake. “When you find that warmer water the bigger fish have a tendency to go toward the warmer water because the baitfish go there too,” he says.

Although he has caught 15-inch crappie on his home lake in February, Blankenship mostly catches limits of 12-inch slabs during the month. “When you catch a limit of 12-inch fish off of this lake you have really done something,” he says.

For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free vacation guide, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE or visit the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau web site at funlake.com.

Copies of John Neporadny’s book, “THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide” are available by calling 573/365-4296 or visiting the web site www.jnoutdoors.com.