By John Neporadny Jr
Learning about the local geography can be beneficial to anglers when they want to fish a highland reservoir such as Table Rock this spring.
This Ozark highland reservoir is characterized by rolling valleys and steep hills The terrain around the lake is rocky with scattered cedar glades encircled by dense hardwood forests. The reservoir features main tributaries twisting through valleys and hollows. The rivers are fed by the spring rains and creeks flowing down from hillside springs.
Brush and cedars line the creeks that meander for miles before emptying into the main lake. The upper ends of the lake consists of flooded cedars and hardwood trees standing in the pockets and creeks next to the main river channel. Table Rock can be divided into three distinct sections: (1) the lower end with its steep bluff banks and deep, clear water; (2) the mid-section with more sloping shorelines, long, gravel points jutting into deep water and a mixture of clear and off-colored water; and (3) the upper end with its riverine characteristics of stained to murky water flowing over long, flat stretches of shoreline combined with some steep channel swing banks.
Rock and timber provide the main cover for bass in Table Rock. The best spots to fish in the spring s are anywhere you find isolated boulders or rock combined with wood or gravel. Chunk rock and gravel banks provide a forage base of crawfish for bass, while pea-gravel banks are the preferred spawning sites. When searching for wood cover, remember that cedar trees usually stand in shallow, rocky areas while hardwoods can be found in water 50 feet deep or more.
Knowing these common characteristics of a highland reservoir will help you develop springtime patterns that can be applied successfully at Table Rock. Let’s look at some of the top patterns that produce bass during the three stages of spring (pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn) on this Ozark highland impoundment.
If you fish much in the early spring on this clear reservoir, you’ll notice dying shad fluttering to the surface. This usually occurs when the water temperature is still in the upper 30-degree range or the low 40s as shad finally succumb to a long period of cold water. During this time, bass move out of the deep wintertime haunts to the 45-degree chunk rock banks, bluffs, channel swings and main or secondary points. The most productive structure will have cedar trees where bass suspend in the wood cover.
To catch these suspended fish, throw a suspending deep-diving stickbait in black and silver or blue and silver. You can work the lure with either bait-cast or spinning tackle and 8- to 12-pound test line. Use 8-pound test line for open, clear water and switch to the heavier lines when fishing in stained water or in standing timber.
The suspending stickbait works best during this time of year because the lure’s buoyancy keeps it in the strike zone longer for suspended lethargic bass seeking an easy meal. The lure’s action and profile also imitates the dying shad that provide the main forage for bass in the early spring. Since bass tend to suspend at different depths depending on the weather, you need to vary the type of stickbaits and retrieves for these early spring fish.
Another early spring pattern that produces in the clear water areas, especially after a cold front, requires bouncing plastic grubs or jigs along chunk rock boulders of steep banks leading to pea-gravel spawning flats. The cold front causes bass to seek shelter on the rocky bottom where they feed on crawfish, so you want to use a lure that bounces along the rocks. Slowly lift the lure over the rocks with spinning tackle and 6- to 8-pound test line. One of the best soft-plastic rigs for bottom bouncing is a double-tail plastic grub with a 1/4-ounce rocker or stand-up jighead in crawfish colors (watermelon or pumpkinseed). A 1/4-ounce live rubber or hair jig tipped with a small plastic or pork chunk is also a good crawfish imitator that you can effectively crawl along the bottom this time of year.
Fishing on the upper ends of the lake turns on once the water temperature climbs above the 50-degree mark. Break out your heavy-action rod and bait-casting reel filled with 25- to 30-pound test line and slow-roll a spinnerbait or flip a jig. In the earliest stages of spring, bass on the upper end congregate along the points of pockets where they can be taken slow-rolling a white or chartreuse tandem willowleaf spinnerbait. A spinnerbait rolled over the rocky point produces enough vibration for bass to pinpoint this shad imitator in the off-colored water.
When the lake is on the rise, flip a jig into the flooded bushes of the upper end. If the lake level is normal, pitch the same combination to any wood cover you can find along the bank. Jigs in 3/8- to 1/2-ounce sizes and in color combinations of black/chartreuse, black/blue or black/brown work best for this pattern. The rapidly warming water of the upper end causes bass to move extremely shallow and burrow into the heaviest cover they can find. The flipping technique allows you to quietly present a slow-falling lure in front of the shallow fish and winch it out of the cover with your heavy tackle and line.
On the lower two-thirds of the lake, bass continue to migrate towards the spawning banks when the water temperature is in the low 50s. Bass become more active now and have a tendency to chase faster moving lures such as spinnerbaits or crankbaits. Banging a crawfish or fire tiger medium-diving crankbait on the bottom in areas where chunk rock changes to small gravel can be a deadly technique during this time since bass feed heavily on crawfish before moving to the pea-gravel spawning flats. The technique works best when your lure digs into the rocks, so you need a medium-light action rod to make a long cast and a baitcast reel filled with 8- to 10-pound test line, which allows the lure to dive deeper.
As the water temperature moves into the upper 50s, bass in the lake’s lower and mid-sections tend to concentrate on the pea gravel points and flats in depths of 10 to 15 feet about halfway to three-quarters of the way back in coves. On sunny days look for the fish in the little pockets within the coves.
Bass lose interest in chasing anything now and prefer slower-moving, bottom-hugging lures as they continue to feed on crawfish. Tube jigs and plastic grubs catch some fish, but the quickest way to cover a lot of water and still work at a slow pace is to drag a Carolina-rigged plastic lizard or 4-inch finesse worm along the gravel bottom. Rig a watermelon seed or green pumpkin plastic lizard or finesse worm on a 3- to 4- foot leader of 10- to 12-pound test and add a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce bullet or egg-shaped weight. The heavy sinker stirs up silt as it bounces along the gravel bottom, which draws bass towards your lure. Vary your retrieve depending on the mood of the fish. Start with a steady pace for aggressive fish, but if that fails to produce, switch to a slow pull with long pauses for sluggish bass.
Another good crawfish-imitator for this pre-spawn stage is a jig and craw in a brown-and-black combination. Tie the lure on 12-pound test line for fishing in clear conditions and open water; thick cover requires heavier line. Pitch the lure to the bank and pop it off the bottom, then let it drop to simulate the action of a crawfish scurrying along the bottom.
When the water temperature climbs into the 60s, bass start building their spawning nests. Bass start to scatter along the pea gravel banks throughout the coves and construct spawning beds 3 to 6 feet deep, depending on the water clarity. On the lake’s upper end, the fish build nests even shallower in the dirtier water. The earliest spawning activity will be on the north side of the lake where the water warms faster due to more exposure to the sun and the south winds.
A good pair of sunglasses becomes an important tool when looking for spawning bass in the clear water. Since bass concentrate on building and protecting nests now, you need to use a lure that will slowly fall into the nest and stay there, which forces the bass to pick up the bait and move it out of the bed. A variety of soft plastics will do the trick, such as split- shotting a finesse worm or a 4-inch plastic lizard, or dropping a plastic grub with a 1/8- to 1/16-ounce stand-up jighead into the nest. Skipping a tube jig with a 1/32-ounce jighead over the top of a nest or slowly drifting a jerkworm into a nest also trick spawning bass. A suspending stickbait is also effective since it remains stationary in a nest and when a bass takes a swipe at it, the lure’s sets of treble hooks usually latch onto the fish.
When bass first move on the beds they tend to spook easier and are hard to catch. Switch to light spinning tackle now since you might even have to drop down to 4-pound test line in the clear water. You almost have to pitch your lure up on the bank or at least on the opposite side of the nest and drag it into the bed to prevent spooking the bass. If the fish spooks, leave the lure in the nest until the bass returns, then jiggle the lure to entice the fish into picking it up out of the bed. When bass are locked in on the nest, then you can throw your lures right on top of them and provoke them into hitting.
Hordes of minnows and sunfish pester nesting bass throughout the spawn, triggering bass to smash at anything swimming over the nest. Early in the morning, some bass attack topwater lures, such as chuggers, Zara Spooks, floating worms and buzz baits. The best topwater action during the spawn usually occurs after the water temperature climbs above 65 degrees.
Flipping and pitching continues to work for spawning bass in the river sections of the lake. Look for pockets off the main river and target any shallow cover. The best lures for this shallow-water fishing include jigs and pork frogs or Texas-rigged plastic worms, lizards or craw worms. These larger profile lures work better in the upper end since bass can locate them easier in the dirtier water. Pitch the lure into the cover and let it fall to the bottom. Shake the bait once or twice, then pull it out and pitch to another piece of cover.
The spawn usually ends when the water temperature reaches the 70-degree mark. The arduous task of building nests and producing offspring puts a strain on bass that carries over into this period so slow-motion lures and retrieves are the key to catching bass now. The fish migrate to pole timber or points near the pea gravel banks where they suspend or drop to the bottom at depths of 10 to 18 feet. The location of the spawning bank determines what type of point holds post-spawn bass. If the bass spawned back in pockets, they move to secondary points before eventually migrating to the main lake points. Bass that spawned in main-lake pockets or in the upper river sections of the lake move to the primary points during the post-spawn.
One of the most exciting post-spawn patterns is topwater fishing, which is an effective early morning tactic in the clearer water of the lower and mid-sections. Male bass are easier to catch now since they stay near the surface to protect their fry. Bass strike at topwater plugs because they perceive these lures as a threat to their fry. A Zara Spook retrieved in a walk-the-dog fashion or a stickbait barely twitched across the surface are two of the best topwater techniques for catching post-spawn bass on these lakes. The stickbait works best on 8- to 10-pound test line, while a Zara Spook walks smoothly on 12- to 14-pound test.
Later in the day, bass tend to drop down and can be taken dragging the bottom with a Carolina-rigged plastic lizard or finesse worm. Look for long, pea gravel points that drop off into deep water (30 to 40 feet deep). Since you’re fishing deeper, use a heavier weight (3/4 ounce) on your Carolina rig. Stay away from the bank and cast close to the drop or beyond it, then drag your lure to the drop-off and let it fall off the edge. Pump the rig with the rod and stop it, then reel up the slack and pump again. Stopping your retrieve allows the lure to rise up and gives the bass a chance to grab it off the bottom.
A Texas-rigged plastic worm is an effective slow-paced lure for catching post-spawn bass suspended in timber. Cast a 7- to 11-inch curly-tail worm with a 1/4-ounce bullet weight past the cover, let it slowly fall back into the timber and pull it up through the tree limbs. The fish will be holding at depths of 8 to 12 feet along the standing timber near the pea gravel banks or as the water continues to warm, they move out to the main lake points. Bait-casting equipment with 20- to 25-pound test line works best in the heavy timber and stained waters of Truman Lake, while 12 – to 14-pound test is more effective in the clearer waters of Table Rock, Stockton and Lake of the Ozarks.
For information on shows, lodging and attractions in the Table Rock Lake or Lake Taneycomo area or to receive a free vacation guide, call the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-877-BRANSON or visit the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB web site at www.explorebranson.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.