By John Neporadny Jr
This is the first part of a two-part series on tournament winning patterns at the Lake of the Ozarks. Part One will focus on how to pattern bass throughout the spring from pre-spawn to post-spawn, while Part Two will discuss the top patterns for summer and fall tournaments at the lake.
Under its disguise of luxurious condominiums, million-dollar homes and dock-to-dock shorelines lies one of Missouri’s top bass tournament lakes. Although younger reservoirs appeal more to the bass angler’s eye with all the flooded timber and undeveloped shoreline, the Lake of the Ozarks entices bass tournaments with its hidden charms.
Numerous tournaments ranging in size from 10-boat bass club events to 150-boat national circuit contests are held each weekend at this 58,000-acre reservoir from February through May. With this sort of attention, the lake receives plenty of fishing pressure, yet still yields heavyweight stringers of bass to tournament competitors.
Since Lake of the Ozarks is such a popular site for bass clubs, charity benefit organizations and regional and national circuits to hold tournaments, let’s look at the best springtime patterns to help make you a winner on this massive reservoir.
The Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League (formerly Red Man) circuit usually gets the early jump on the Lake of the Ozarks tournament season by holding events in February. As the days get longer and warmer throughout this month, bass begin their pre-spawn staging on secondary points.
These pre-spawn bass move close to the bank on sunny days but overcast weather causes the fish to suspend in deeper water. Some of the heaviest stringers of the year are taken in late February and throughout March, as big bass become active after a long winter’s slumber.
Jerking a Suspending Rattlin’ Pro Rogue or other weighted stickbaits on 8- to 10-pound test line produces best in the clear-water sections of the lake, including the North Shore, Gravois, Grand Glaize, Big and Little Niangua and the lower half of the Osage arm. The most productive stickbait colors are clown (yellow, red and white), silver/blue, silver/black and fire tiger.
On calm, sunny days in the early spring, a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jig and a plastic crawfish trailer dragged along the rocky points and creek channels take quality bass. The best color combinations for the jig-and-trailer include black/brown, black/blue and black/chartreuse.
Slow rolling a ½-ounce white-and-chartreuse spinnerbait along bluffs produces pre-spawn bass if early spring rains turn the lake turbid. When the lake remains clear, slow rolling the same spinnerbait through shallow brush in the stained waters of the upper Big and Little Niangua arms takes heavyweight bass on sunny days.
When the water temperature climbs above 45 degrees in March, a brown crawfish Storm Lures Wiggle Wart crankbait becomes an effective lure for catching a quick limit of bass. This lure works best along the flat gravel banks inside coves on the Osage arm above the Hurricane Deck Bridge.
While the crankbait pattern produces good numbers of fish throughout late March and early April, most of the major tournaments held during this time are won on jigs. Allen Armour won the April 1994 Missouri BASSMASTER Invitational flipping a Lunker Lures Rattleback Jig and Riverside Big Claw plastic trailer to shoreline cover along creek channel banks on the Osage arm. Takahiro Omori captured the April 1996 Missouri BASSMASTER Invitational by working a Hula Grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead along main lake points and chunk-rock banks on the Grand Glaize arm.
A couple of Central Pro-Am Association events held in the spring were also won with a jig. Jim Eakins won the March 1998 Lake of the Ozarks Pro-Am pitching a homemade brown 3/8-ounce jig and a brown Gene Larew Salt Craw to chunk rock banks in the back of creeks around the Hurricane Deck bridge area. His son, Troy Eakins, took first in the April 1999 Lake of the Ozarks Pro-Am using the same homemade jig and a green pumpkin Zoom Critter Craw, which he pitched to ledges in the backs of cuts and shallow boat docks on the Osage arm and the mouth of the Niangua.
Perennial tournament winner Bruce Gier earned one of his biggest victories on his home lake by relying on a brown 3/8-ounce jig and a number 11 Uncle Josh pork frog during the April 1992 Lake of the Ozarks Pro-Am. The local angler moved back and forth from shallow to deep water along sandy, gravel areas in pockets of coves in the North Shore area.
The number of tournaments at the lake declines and the winning weights drop sharply by late April and early May when bass move on the nests.
Bass spawn anywhere along pea gravel banks in pockets, but the biggest fish usually build their nests behind boat docks where cables, walkways, pillars and sunken brush piles offer protection from the wind and nest intruders.
Targeting docks in the backs of coves is a key to finding spawning bass. The back ends of main-lake condominium docks also attract bedding fish in latter stages of the spawn.
On the upper Osage and other stained-water sections of the lake, pitching or flipping with heavy line (20- to 30-pound test) and flipping tackle behind the dock cables produces the best fish. A ½-ounce jig and jumbo trailer or a Texas-rigged 8-inch plastic lizard usually triggers strikes from bedding bass in water less than 3 feet deep.
Sight fishing can be a productive pattern in the clear sections of the lake throughout the spawn. Aggressive fish can be taken on a brown ¼-ounce jig and number 11 pork frog or double-tail plastic grub worked on bait-casting tackle and 10-pound test line.
If nesting bass shun jigs, these same finicky fish can be tricked into biting a variety of soft plastic baits tossed on spinning tackle and 6- to 8-pound test line. Top lure choices for tournament anglers include 6-inch plastic lizards and small plastic crawfish imitators rigged with either little or no weight to create a slow fall.
In the May 1995 BASSMASTER Invitational, George Cochran won the event by catching most of his keepers on a Texas-rigged purple Riverside Air Worm that he threw on spinning tackle and 10-pound test line. He found spawning fish next to shallow laydowns at the mouths of pockets in the Grand Glaize arm around the Public Beach No. 2 weigh-in site.
Since quality fish locked on beds can be difficult to reach sometimes, keying on cruising bass provides an alternative method for taking kicker fish. Run down the pea gravel banks and make long casts with Zara Spooks, 5- to 7-inch soft plastic jerkbaits or 6-inch floating worms. Retrieve all of these lures at a steady pace and move the lure faster if a dark shape starts following the bait.
Bigger bass also tend to spawn deeper—especially in clear water. The best lures for these spawners are 6-inch plastic lizards worked on Carolina or split-shot rigs. Drag these lures on the bottom along the front or sides of docks at depths of 8 to 10 feet.
The winning weights continue to drop by late May when bass are recuperating from the rigors of spawning. During this time, catching a limit of 3-pounders usually ensures a high finish in most tournaments.
A variety of patterns pay dividends in the post-spawn stage. In the early mornings and late evenings, quality fish can be taken on Zara Spooks, Excalibur Spittin’ Images, and propeller topwater lures worked along flat main lake points. Twitching a pearl or shad-colored soft plastic jerkbait along the same structure also tricks hungry post-spawn bass on the points. Topwater action can last all day when the skies remain overcast.
A problem tournament anglers must contend with during this time of year is increased recreational boat traffic. The wakes from pleasure boaters makes the surface choppy and curtails the topwater bite. So competitive anglers resort to tactics that allow them to probe deeper water.
The most consistent pattern for taking bass during this situation is dragging a Carolina rig along main lake points and humps. After the topwater bite ends, try dragging a rig in the 8-to 10-foot depth range and eventually move out to depths of 20 to 25 feet.
The best lures for dragging are 6-inch plastic lizards, double-tail plastic grubs and the new creature-type baits (Zoom Brush Hog, Riverside Lures Wooly Hawg Tail, Berkley Power Hawg and the Gene Larew Hoo Daddy). The most productive colors for all of these lures are green pumpkin, watermelon, watermelon/red flake, pumpkinseed and pumpkinseed/chartreuse. Components for the Carolina rig should include a ½- to ¾-ounce slip sinker, plastic or glass bead, swivel and a 3- to 4-foot leader line tied to a 3/0 hook for the plastic lizard or 4/0 to 5/0 hooks for the plastic grubs and creature baits.
After catching a limit of bass on the Carolina rig, you can try for a kicker fish in the backs of creeks. Head for the last docks on each side of the creek and pitch a plastic worm in back and down the sides of the dock. Bluegill are plentiful around the docks and are a post-spawn bass’ prime forage. You should mimic this bait by using 5- to 6-inch ring worms in bluegill hues, such as camouflage, pumpkinseed/chartreuse, green pumpkin or rootbeer/green flake.
If the water is murky on the lower end, post-spawn bass remain behind the docks throughout May. These shallow fish can be taken on 5/16- to 9/16-oucne jigs and Uncle Josh number one pork frogs or plastic crawfish pitched behind the cables.
The upper Osage arm also produces winning catches during the post-spawn. The best pattern for this area is flipping black-and-blue or black-and-brown 3/8- to ½-ounce jigs and plastic craws or 10-inch plastic worms (pumpkinseed, red shad, electric grape or green pumpkin) along the sides of docks in the coves. The bigger fish will be holding at depths of 6 to 10 feet. On windy days, plenty of keepers can be taken by running a 3/8- to ½-ounce chartreuse or white spinnerbait with willowleaf blades through the shallow brush.
Night tournaments usually begin in May on the lower end of the lake. Sunken brush piles in the 8- to 10-foot depth range along secondary and main lake points are ideal spots for working a Texas-rigged plastic worm after dark. The most productive plastic worm for this pattern is the 10-inch Berkley Power Worm in dark colors (blue fleck, black/blue, red shad, electric grape, black and tequila sunrise).
For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 152-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 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.