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How the Missouri bronzeback opportunity is golden year-round

Missouri is the Show Me State. Geographically we’re in the middle of the country but we also rarely make the best or worst of many rankings.  According to U.S. News and World Report rankings, we land at #25 for education, #33 for economy #20 for infrastructure and surprisingly #45 for crime & corrections.  Our #21 ranking for opportunity certainly does not factor in our natural resources.  We have absolutely been blessed in this state.  One shining star is the multitude of Ozark streams that are not only fantastic for a variety of outdoor activities like floating, kayaking, camping, swimming, and hiking but of course fishing.

The smallmouth bass is native to and a part of Missouri.  They can be caught readily in their gorgeous natural surroundings and are fantastic sport fish to be pursued.  Smallies are aggressive, athletic, and known for their exceptional leaping ability.  Both fly and conventional anglers love them and while you can catch smallmouth in lakes and reservoirs, the wild stream smallmouth experience is set apart.  Almost a separate species to be pursued from their lake dwelling brethren.  To get just a sliver of the heritage and the opportunity Ozark stream smallmouths provide, take a look at Water & Blood, featuring the Niangua River with Nathaniel Maddux and Jeff Trigg.

Water & Blood // The Niangua River Smallmouth

Nathaniel floats his home river, the Niangua, with Jeff Trigg and explores his family history, rooted deep in the surrounding hills.

Posted by UNDIVIDED on Sunday, August 19, 2018

To be completely transparent writing this, I’ve done myself a personal disservice by not getting out on the streams within a short drive of my home and have only caught a handful of these fighters in my life.  I plan to change this soon so in the meantime to inform this article and help me plan my fishing calendar, Max Turner with The Ozarks Smallmouth Alliance who agreed to share his knowledge on catching Missouri smallies year round.

Can you tell me a little bit about some of the opportunities Ozarks anglers have to catch smallmouth bass?

This is probably one of the questions I get more than any other. Luckily, here in Missouri we have more opportunities to fish for smallmouth than most anglers would be able to fish for in a lifetime. Ryan Walker and I compiled a list of some of our favorite waters here, but there are over 3,500 miles of rivers, streams and creeks that hold smallies in this state so chances are, unless you live in Northwest Missouri if you open an atlas, and throw a dart at a little blue line you can mine some Missouri bronze.

Fishing

Depending on the season where would you go fishing for smallmouth?

So this isn’t really smallmouth specific but I think the first thing any angler should do when they get to the water is take a minute to, and its a super hacky saying at this point, but “think like a fish”. What are they looking for at this time of year and how can you use that information? In winter they are going to be looking for stable water temperatures so springs and deep wintering holes are going to be the key. In spring areas with a good forage base close to winter staging areas and pre spawn staging areas are going to be absolutely loaded with fish. Once the dog days of summer are in full swing fish are going to be moving from the cooler, oxygenated water of riffles to shaded areas with submerged cover. For fall fishing I have one rule: Follow the forage. Crawdads activity slows down significantly as water temps cool and baitfish will start moving towards deeper water for winter. Follow the food. Find the bass.

So now that we have the where what are some of your favorite techniques to catch bass year round?

In winter subtlety is the key for me. On the colder winter days, fish are suspended in deep pools and not wanting to move much so the ability to dang near bonk a fish on the nose is key. My most effective technique is actually the classic “float and fly” where I will suspend a black or white marabou jig under a strike indicator (that’s fly fishermen for bobber) and work it through a hole and around any structure I can see. Pre spawn is where it starts to get fun again. Fish are feeding aggressively after a long winter of just hanging out and I’m assuming being super bored. I tend to fish larger baitfish streamers and anything with a LOT of tinsel. Spring is a tricky time to fish because I am vehemently against fishing for spawning and bedding bass. Once I see fish spawning or guarding nests my bass fishing slows considerably (temporarily) and when I do fish I’m avoiding beds and using fast moving flies that are either topwater or high in the water column. I cannot stress enough how harmful to a bass population pulling fish off of nests can be. An entire nest can get stripped by sunfish or any other number of fish in minutes. Summer is the best. Summer means poppers. It probably isn’t the most effective method all the time but it will always be the most fun. Since Ross is reading this I’ll say you should also 100% be fishing crayfish flies come summer. Smallies love crayfish almost as much as I love Chinese buffet. Fall is back to baitfish. I love chucking giant streamers on the outskirts of any schools of baitfish I see. Chances are if you see them the fish are watching and waiting too.



Why smallmouth?

I love fishing. For really any species. If it has fins and will eat a fly I’m down to catch it. But for some reason I keep coming back to smallmouth and it’s for a few reasons. I think they are a fish that was built to be an almost perfect fly rod quarry. They are vicious fighters, they eat readily, (but not too readily) and in the Ozarks they tend to live in places that easily rival the most beautiful trout water. There is also something so wonderful to me about fishing for a fish that has been in the Ozarks as long as the Ozarks as we know them have existed. Since long before men came here these fish have been in this water doing exactly what they are doing now. As long as people have been here they have been fishing for these fish. It’s a tradition I think is important and I think our most critical job is to protect these fish and the opportunity to chase them for those that come after us.

To learn more about smallmouth fishing resources in the area, checkout the OSA mainpage or come check out Bronzefest to celebrate all things Smallmouth Bass on September 8-9th at Hootentown campground.

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Patrick Ritter
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Patrick Ritter is the founder of River King Fishing, LLC.  Raised near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the outdoors, especially fishing, has always been a passion.