It’s no coincidence that one of Missouri’s best fishing lakes is also one of its busiest. Smithville Lake, located about 20 minutes from downtown Kansas City, receives more fishing pressure than any other large reservoir in Missouri for a good reason. Its steady, high-quality fishing for bass, crappie, walleye, catfish and white bass is a lure most anglers can’t ignore.
The Conservation Department set the stage for good fishing at Smithville Lake even before the dam that made the lake could be constructed. As early as 1975, fisheries biologists built up the fish populations of Trimble Lake and numerous farm ponds that would be flooded by the 7,200-acre reservoir. By the time Smithville Lake filled in October 1979, the fish had been growing and multiplying for years and were prime for the hook.
The result was a fishing boom that most local anglers still recall as “awesome.” Their memories include 30-pound five-fish limits of bass, and stringers of huge crappie.
“Smithville was one of the best bass lakes in the state or, some say, in the country,” said Jake Allman, the Conservation Department biologist who now manages the fishery at Smithville. “And crappie fishing was so phenomenal that people flocked there in droves.” People familiar with the lake say the fishing was never quite as good after the Flood of 1993. That year, high water killed most of the lake’s vegetation, and an unknown protozoan killed off the large bass. The whole food pyramid was upended. Shad hatches declined, and the fish that fed on young shad grew slowly.
Time and hard work have helped to restore the fishery. Allman said the lake has had good to excellent shad hatches since about 2000, and 2005 was one of the best fishing years in memory, with anglers stringering plenty of 11- to 13-inch crappie and bass tournament winners logging in limits that averaged almost 4 pounds a fish.
“Even more impressive are the large numbers of 14-inch bass being caught by anglers,” Allman said. “Their body condition is excellent, so they are obviously getting enough to eat. And, healthy fish produce more young, so we’re looking at good things from the bass population.”
Bass usually don’t require stocking. They’ll do just fine on their own if they have habitat and food. Lake weeds provide both. Aquatic plants give young bass places to hide, and algae growing on the plants feed insects that, in turn, feed young fish.
In one of the largest lake revegetation projects in the country, the Conservation Department has constructed 76 plant enclosures in Smithville Lake and is adding more at the rate of about 16 per year.
The aquatic plants in the enclosures include a mix of shoreline, floating leaf, emergent and submersed species, all of them native to Missouri. About 200 feet of fencing around each of the enclosures protect the plants from wallowing carp. By the time the fencing is removed, the plants will have contributed native seed stock to the lake and should be able to out-produce what the carp ruin.
Allman said he and his crew collect young bass in the fall from some of the enclosures to check on them. “The bass are better because of the vegetation,” he said. “If you take a picture of a young bass and blow it up, it would look like a 10-pound bass. They’re just little pigs.”
Gary Burton fishes in bass tournaments, runs bass tournaments, guides on the lake and owns Burton’s Bait & Tackle in Smithville. He’s in a good position to keep his finger on the pulse of fishing in Smithville Lake.
“Right now, Smithville is on a cycle with its crappie where it’s as good as anywhere in the Midwest,” Burton said, “and the largemouth are on the mend. Last week was the best weigh-in we’ve had in a long time.” He said 39 boats brought in 80 bass, each fish weighing an average of 3.26 pounds.
Burton said most anglers use some kind of plastic, such as a brush hog, worm, lizard or grub, for bass. “Those are usually your primary baits,” he said, “but some guys throw spinnerbaits in the spring and fall, and buzzbaits when the topwater bite gets going later on.”
Burton says his best spots change with the season, the weather and even the time of day. “I can tell you that if you’re catching bass 10 feet down, you’re fishing deep,” he said. “They stay a little shallower here.”
His prescription for crappie is to head into an arm of the lake and find the creek channel. Burton said he casts jigs up onto the channel edges. “I’m looking for some brush or trash that you can’t see from above,” he said. “Usually, there’ll be some fish holding down there.”
Black and chartreuse and purple and chartreuse are his favorite colors for crappie. Although on a bright day or when the water is clear, he’ll tie on something white. He said every crappie angler has a color he or she swears by, which is why he has to keep about 50 different colors of crappie jigs hanging on the wall in his bait shop.
Burton said bait anglers often do well by tying up to a tree and watching a bobber with a minnow underneath it.
“Anywhere you go in the country you’re going to use a minnow or a jig for crappie,” Burton said. “What you choose is more about how you like to fish than what the fish want most at the time. On average, one works just about as well as the other. You just need to be where there are hungry fish.”
Even during the hot summer, the crappie are seldom deeper than 20 feet, according to Burton. He said the main lake forms a thermocline between 16 and 22 feet, and the fish tend to hang somewhere near that level, unless they are chasing shad.
“If you follow the shad schools,” Burton said, “you’re going to find fish—crappie, bass, everything.”
Depthfinders work well for locating schools of shad, he said, unless the baitfish are really shallow. Then, you often can spot the shad near the surface of the water. That’s a good time to throw a shallow-running crankbait or a Rattletrap in their vicinity.
You never know what’s going to hit.
Dean Willadsen, who lives near the lake and fishes it often, hopes for walleye to strike. He primarily relies on crankbaits. He said he’ll go out in the evening and pull the lures near and over main lake points.
Willadsen grew up in northern Iowa where he fished natural lakes for walleyes. He said reservoir walleyes are a different breed. “It’s not the classic, steep dropoff-type lake,” he said. “I’m finding that with these stocked fish if you find the weeds, you find the walleyes.”
By walleye standards, Willadsen fishes shallow, trolling the 8- to 10-foot contours of points and humps. He said he often catches fish at the corners, when the lure passes over the edges of structure, sometimes as shallow as 3 feet. After he locates fish, he stops and casts crankbaits. “You find the right spot, and there’s usually more than one,” he said.
His favorite trolling lure is a No. 5 Fire Tiger Rapala Shad Rap, but sometimes shad colors work better. He said the lures plow furrows in the lake bottom when trolled in 6 feet of water using 10-pound test Fireline. He likes to cast Rapala DT6s, which he said are heavier and rip through the weeds well. He said the walleyes often hit during a pause after he jerks the lure free from weeds.
Willadsen said he catches plenty of largemouth bass, white bass and, occasionally, channel cats while fishing for walleye. “If a person goes out there and trolls crankbaits over main lake points, they are going to catch something,” he said. “Sometimes we’d practically give up on walleye because the whites were coming up all around, and they’re too much fun to pass up.”
One reason Smithville Lake has remained such a great fishing lake is the solid working relationship between the Corps of Engineers and the Conservation Department. These two entities are represented at Smithville Lake by pals Jake Allman, the Conservation Department biologist who manages the fishery in the lake, and Bruce Clark, the Corps’ operations manager for the lake.
Clark said Allman is the right biologist in the right place at the right time. “We’ve never had a biologist who’s had as much interest in the fishery,” Clark said. “Jake has taken it on as a personal thing, something he really enjoys and feels the need for.”
Allman said Smithville Lake is fortunate to have Clark in charge of lake operations. “He’s an avid fisherman and is excellent to work with,” Allman said. “He and I have known each other for years. We fish together and are friends, not just associates. It makes for a good working relationship.”
It also makes for a very good fishing lake.
The main lake area at Smithville might best be categorized as a “civilized” outdoor recreation area. Much of the shoreline is open and well-groomed. Clay County maintains lots of public access areas for bank fishing, and there are many more places where you can park and walk to the lake. You’ll find plenty of ramps, trails, picnic tables, shelter houses, beaches, playgrounds and camping sites. The complex even has three marinas with boat slips and a couple of golf courses.
Smithville Lake has a wild side, however. When you leave the main lake and head up the Camp Branch and Little Platte River Arm, the lake narrows and becomes mostly timbered, both in the water and on shore. Skiing is not allowed above the bridges, and recreational boat traffic dwindles as the amount of obstacles in the lake increases.
Much of the upstream area has become a haven for wildlife. “We have more than 6,000 acres of public hunting lands,” Clark said. “A lot of people don’t realize we’ve got so much hunting up here. Of course, there’s a lot of people who do know about it, and they might not want others to hear about it.”
He said the Corps has 32 hunter/fishermen access points and gravel parking lots on the public hunting lands. Part of the Corps-managed land includes the Honker Cove Waterfowl Refuge. There are six hunting zones outside the refuge for waterfowl hunting, which Clark said is a strong tradition in the area.
The wind that washes over the prairies pushes waves of water against the banks of Smithville Lake. The result is high cutbanks that continue to erode as the waves batter them. This is especially a problem around Smithville’s main lake points, which are getting shallower as the waves continue to wash mud from the banks.
The Corps of Engineers, with technical assistance from the Conservation Department, has a million-dollar solution to bank erosion problems at Smithville. They plan to make the vertical banks on the main lake points with the biggest erosion problems slope more gently. They’ll then further protect those banks with riprap walls that extend out into the water.
Smithville Corps of Engineers Operations Manager Bruce Clark said, “It’s a novel project for our district. We’ve always built breakwaters to protect marinas or coves, but this is different. These are being done for soil erosion control and to improve fish habitat.”
Funding for the first phase of the project has been approved, Clark said, and he hopes construction will start on two of the main lake points near the end of the year.
The wave breakers will be well-marked to keep boaters away, and the Corps plans to position them so that they’ll serve as extensions of some of the park’s trails. They’ll have flat tops so people can easily sightsee or fish from the dikes.
As a bonus, the dikes will protect shorelines from the scouring that would normally prevent aquatic plants from growing. The Conservation Department will seed protected areas with vegetation to create even more fish habitat.
“It’s an exciting project,” Clark said. “In addition to controlling erosion and creating fish habitat, the dikes will be fishable, walkable and ADA accessible.” He’s optimistic that once the first two are operating successfully, funding will become available for more wave breakers.
Smithville Lake is a primary beneficiary of the Conservation Department’s Walleye Initiative. The program, which began in 1998, has been adding millions of walleye to Missouri waters that best suit this popular species. The Department stocks walleye fry into Smithville at the rate of 30 per acre every even-numbered year.
The staggered stocking schedule not only mimics natural year-class bulges in the walleye population, it also makes it easy for biologists to track whether walleyes are reproducing naturally. If they find young walleye during their fall collections in years when no walleye were stocked, the biologists know those fish came from Smithville Lake walleyes.
Jake Allman, who manages the Smithville Lake fishery, said he’s not seen any evidence yet that the walleye are able to reproduce, despite the fact that the fish seem to spawn successfully.
“I think the young walleye just starve to death,” Allman said. “I don’t think there’s enough zooplankton in the water at the time they hatch to allow them to survive. By the time we stock them in late May and early June, we do have zooplankton and even larval fish that they can feed on.”
Walleyes with a slightly different life cycle may make a difference, Allman said. The walleye strain that’s been stocked at Smithville originated from Merritt Reservoir in Nebraska. When the current research project ends in 2007, Allman hopes to experiment with a different strain.
It costs $17 to launch your boat at the Clay County Parks ramps at Smithville Lake. That includes the $6 daily vehicle fee and the $11 daily ramp fee.
Why so much? The federal bill that authorized Smithville Lake specified that local entities, such as city, county or state government, manage recreation on the reservoir. The Corps built the park system, and Clay County agreed to manage it and pay back 50 percent of construction costs.
Clay County does not have a sales tax on its citizens to support the parks. Instead, the park system and its many amenities operate and are maintained almost exclusively on user fees.
You can save bucks by fishing more. Annual permits cost $25 for a vehicle and $65 for boats. Daily and annual permits cost less for seniors.
If you want to fish the upper end of the lake, you can launch for free at the Corps of Engineers’ ramp. However, unless you are completely familiar with the lake, don’t try to motor down to the main lake from there. “It’s a tough boat ride through the wood,” said Corps of Engineers Operations Manager Bruce Clark. “Unless you know your way down, you’re not going to make it.”
Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Designer - Susan Fine
Circulation - Laura Scheuler