Bagnell Dam: Cold-water Hot Spot

by John Neporadny Jr.

Finding active bass in the dead of winter can be a numbing experience.

Winter Fishing Below Bagnell Dam

Freezing temperatures, blustery winds and a vast body of water in which fish congregate in a small area can leave anglers feeling cold and frustrated after a day on their favorite lake.

Reservoirs do have an area that offers some shelter from the wind and contains plenty of active fish. When the fishing shuts down on the lake, anglers should concentrate on the downhill side of the dam.

A favorite wintertime spot of Eldon, Mo., angler Harold Stark is the Osage River below Lake of the Ozarks‘ Bagnell Dam. Stark, a veteran tournament angler, has been fishing the river for more than two decades and has discovered certain patterns for catching bass below the dam during the winter.

The Missouri angler notes that spillway water tends to remain warmer throughout most of the winter. From November to mid-January, the water temperature below the dam stays in the 45- to 50-degree range. The area finally loses its warm water in late January when the lake and spillway water temperatures drop to the 39-degree mark. The spillway area also keeps anglers warmer because the dam and the hills alongside the structure serve as windbreaks.

Stark lists November, December and January as the best winter months to fish below the dam. Stable water conditions during this time create an excellent opportunity for any anglers willing to brave the cold weather and still catch plenty of bass.

Two stable conditions needed during this time are clear water and a constant water level. Water clarity is crucial, since cold, murky water can completely shut down fishing. But the lack of rain during a normal winter keeps the river clear. The lake’s winter drawdown also helps the fishing by producing a steady flow in the spillway area, which positions the fish in certain areas and keeps the water level stable.

The wintery weather has little effect on spillway bass. Current has more of an influence on their daily routine. “When the water’s up and moving, anything that blocks the current has the probability of holding fish,” Stark says. “The current has everything to do with finding fish. It positions everything the fish do, whether they’re resting, feeding or moving from one place to another.”

The stronger the current, the easier it is to find bass. “It can stack every fish of a certain area in one spot,” Stark says. During heavy flow, Stark looks for bass in eddies close to the bank. “They’ll really stack up in those places.”

Stark catches most of his fish 1 to 10 feet deep from structure next to the bank. Prime structure includes rock dikes, bridge pilings, boat docks, flooded timber or laydowns.

The most productive methods for taking these cold-water bass are slow-rolling a spinnerbait and flipping a jig and plastic chunk. Stark lets the water flow determine which size lure he’ll use.

During a heavy flow, Stark will throw a white or white and chartreuse 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with a nickel-colored number 5 willow leaf blade to catch active fish. He selects a 1/2-ounce jig with a Zoom Super Chunk Junior for a strong current. His favorite colors are a brown jig with black and chartreuse chunk or a black-and-blue combination.

The heavier lures help him maintain contact with the bottom where the fish will be concentrated. The Missouri angler also uses lighter line with his spinnerbait to make the lure sink better. “Whenever there’s a lot of current, you almost have to go down to 10- or 12-pound test line with a spinnerbait so it can actually get down,” Stark says. Heavier line has a tendency to drag the lure along with the current.

When fishing a 1/2-ounce jig, Stark chooses lines up to 17-pound test. He can use the heavier line because jigs fall quicker than spinnerbaits and stay down in the rocks better.  Since the lure bangs around in the rocks which nick the line, a heavier monofilament receives less damage when bumped along the bottom.

Maintaining boat control in a strong current can be difficult. Stark usually points his boat upstream and drifts with the current rather than trying to move upstream.

Since river bass face the current to pick off any morsels that drift by, the most natural way to present a lure is to cast it upstream from the structure and let the current push it into the  ambush area. The bass position themselves on the outermost part of the structure, such as the farthest point of a log, where they can nab baitfish. In the eddies, they will hang right behind a rock and right at the edge of it. “They’ll be positioned right at the edge of any kind of break in the eddy itself,” Stark says.

Stark slow rolls his spinnerbait along with the current. He tries to pull the lure along the bottom, letting it nick the rocks every once in a while. He also works his jigs in a slow manner. “I throw it up against the bank, swim it back and just skim the bottom.”

When the current weakens, the bass tend to move to new locations. “You need one of the two extremes to catch bass, either a lot of running water or none at all,” Stark says. “When there’s no current, the bass will scatter out and find the deeper holes to lay in. They’ll also bury up into the thickest part of the cover.”

Lure sizes should be scaled down as the current loses velocity. Stark switches to a 1/4-ounce spinnerbait with a number 4 willow leaf blade during a light flow. When the current ceases, Stark switches to tube baits and single or double-tail 3-inch plastic grubs in blue or chartreuse hues. He’ll throw the tubes on a 1/16-ounce jig head and the plastic grubs on a 1/8-ounce jig.

While working a deeper hole or thick cover, Stark presents the bait in a subtle manner. He  lets the bait flutter into the bass’ lair and avoids moving the lure more than an inch at a time. Even inactive bass can be taunted into sucking up  a slow-falling plastic tube or plastic grub.

Although more bass can be caught in the lake, Stark catches heftier limits in the spillway waters. “I can catch more limits of 3-, 4- and 5-pounders out of the Osage River than I can out of the Lake of the Ozarks.” He says he has taken six-fish limits up to 20 pounds from the river. Stark has also caught bass weighing up to 7 pounds below the dam. Anglers can expect to catch an equal share of largemouths and spotted bass from the spillway area.

While the fishing can be great during the winter below a dam, it can also be hazardous to your bass boat. Stark warns that anglers should watch out for trees that wash off the bank and become lodged in gravel bars in the middle of the river. Anyone navigating below a dam should also be aware of constantly changing jetties, wing dams and gravel bars, all menaces to your boat’s lower unit. According to Stark, the ideal rig for fishing spillway areas is a john boat with a jet-drive motor because of its capability to run in extremely shallow water.

Despite the navigational hazards and frigid weather, fishing the lee side of a dam can satisfy an angler’s craving for some wintertime bass action.

For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 162-page  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

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



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