My dad used to tell me, “If you aren’t getting hung up, you aren’t fishing where the fish are.” This proved to be true, as we would routinely catch our daily limit near fish habitat structures.
Whether for resting, feeding, or a place to hide, fish habitat structures (brush, rocks, stumps, etc.) attract bass, crappie, and many other species of fish in Missouri’s lakes. These areas provide great fishing, but they can also increase your chances of getting hung up and losing your lure. Follow these tips to increase your odds of catching fish and to minimize frustration.
The Department of Conservation has managed fish habitat in Missouri lakes for decades. Most of this work is conducted by local biologists who interact with anglers at their regional lakes. As a result, many of the fish habitat structures placed in Missouri lakes are where extensive research, surveys, and local anglers have identified the best locations for attracting fish.
However, not all fish habitat structures are created equal. They vary based on habitat type and location. Some structures routinely hold fish, while others may not be as productive. When fishing habitat structures in a lake, do not get discouraged if you are not catching fish immediately. In many cases, changing your lure presentation may help, but other times the fish may not be in the area that particular day. I’ve fished many habitat structures where I haven’t caught anything on one day and then caught numerous fish on the same structure the very next day. I’ve also caught many large fish on a habitat structure one day and only small fish the next. Fish species such as bass and crappie will often follow schools of baitfish that may be near a habitat structure one day and not the next. Fish use of habitat structures also varies based on the time of year. During the winter and summer months, fish often use habitat in deeper water, while during the spring and fall, fish are frequently found near shallower habitats.
Numerous fish species use fish habitat structures, including bass, crappie, sunfish, and catfish. There are a variety of techniques to try when fishing around habitat structures. These may vary based on the type of fish you’re trying to catch, the time of year, time of day, weather, barometric pressure, and water clarity. On some days, fish will be suspended over the top of a habitat structure, while other days they may be down in the middle of the thickest part of the structure. Knowing the depth, size, and orientation of the structures you’re fishing will greatly improve your odds of catching fish around them. Good electronics (like a depth finder) can help with finding and determining these characteristics of the habitat structures. It is a good idea to use your trolling motor when you are close to a shallow habitat structure because the sound and vibration of the outboard motor can spook fish away.
Largemouth bass are by far the most popular and prevalent bass species found in Missouri lakes. They are also very habitat oriented. Some of Missouri’s larger impoundments (mainly in southern Missouri) contain spotted (Kentucky) and smallmouth bass, which can also be found near habitat structures. with multiple hooks, you do not want to fish that type of lure in the middle of a large habitat structure, such as a brush pile. Instead, use your electronics to determine the depth of the structure and where its edges are. I like to throw out marker buoys on each side of the structure so I can fish around it more effectively.
Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and drop-shot rigs can be effective when fished above or just off to the side of a habitat structure. Top-water lures can also work well on some days to “call up” fish out of habitat structures.
For those days when bass are down in the middle of a brush pile, fish with lures such as weedless jigs or worms and bring them through the middle of the pile, tapping the branches with your lure and letting it fall back into the pile. Many bites will occur when the lure falls off the branch. For these applications, heavier fishing line such as 14- to 20-pound test line is necessary to bring fish out of the brushpile.
In many cases, the largest bass will be in the middle of the pile so be sure to fish each structure thoroughly. Use multiple colors and lures, before heading to the next one. Depending upon the depth of the structure, you may want to use heavier lures for fishing the deeper water or when fishing on very windy days.
Crappie are extremely structure-oriented fish and are regularly found near fish habitat structures. Studies have shown that crappie often prefer brush piles composed of cedar trees, but they can be found on nearly every kind of woody structure in a lake. As a general rule, the bigger the pile, the more crappie it will attract and congregate.
Use the same method for fishing a structure for crappie as you would for bass. Start by fishing above and around the piles to catch the suspended fish. Smaller 1/32- to 1/8-ounce jigs, minnows, or a combination of both work well for this application. The weight of the lure will depend on the depth of the water and the amount of wind.
If the crappie do not bite when you fish around the structure, you may need to fish in the middle of it. Weedless jigs work well for this; fish them slowly through the structure and tap the brush with the jig. Again, many of the bites come when the jig falls off a branch or other part of the structure. I prefer to use light line such as 4- or 6-pound test line when fishing for crappie, though a heavier fishing line may help reduce the number of jigs or hooks you break off if you get hung up in the brush pile.
Many species of sunfish, including bluegill, green sunfish, and rock bass or goggle-eye, can be caught near habitat structures as well. Structures congregate large numbers of small sunfish, which are a primary source of food for other fish such as bass and crappie. They can also hold a lot of larger sunfish because the sunfish feed on the aquatic insects and invertebrates that colonize in the algae on the structures.
Many of the same techniques for catching crappie around habitat structures can be used for catching sunfish.
Live bait such as crickets and worms fished above and around structures can produce good catches of larger-sized sunfish. Use a float to keep your hook above the structure. Many of the habitat structures located in shallower water will hold sunfish throughout much of the year, thus providing good shoreline fishing opportunities.
Both flathead catfish and channel catfish can be caught near habitat structures and are typically located in the middle or underneath a habitat structure. As a result, it may be necessary to fish within the structure. A weedless hook, baited with either live bait for flatheads or cut or prepared bait for channels, fished on heavy 30- to 60-pound monofilament can be effective for catching these fish out of a habitat structure. Jug lines and trotlines can be set near habitat structures as well, but are likely to be more effective catching catfish at night as they move away from the structure to feed.
How to Find Habitat Structures
The Department of Conservation records the locations of the fish habitat structures they put into lakes using GPS technology. They also post signs along the adjacent shoreline in some lakes to mark them. These locations are available to the public on the Department website at mdc.mo.gov/node/10182. Anglers can download the coordinates directly to their GPS unit using the EasyGPS™ software. Certain types of GPS sonar units require that coordinates be in a specific type of format before downloading to the unit. These brands usually have free software available that will change the file format available on the Department’s website. Another useful tool for finding habitat structures is the Find MO Fish application for Android and Apple smartphones (mdc.mo.gov/node/15421). This app uses your phone’s GPS to show your current location and the location of any fish habitat structures on the lake you’re fishing.
The next time you’re planning a fishing trip, do a little research beforehand and see what fish habitat locations are available. Whether you have fished a certain lake for years or it’s your first time, fishing habitat structures could improve your odds of success.
Partnerships Improve Water Quality and Fishing
The Department of Conservation funds the construction of many fish habitat projects throughout the state each year. It also uses outside funding and partnerships to take a lake-wide and watershed approach to improving fish habitat.
The Table Rock Lake National Fish Habitat Initiative (NFHI) is one such example. In 2007, the Department partnered with Bass Pro Shops, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and many other partners to begin a six-year project aimed at sustaining and improving fish habitat in two of our state’s largest and most popular reservoirs, Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo. The project continued through December 2013 with funding totaling $4 million. During this timeframe, 2,024 fish habitat structures were installed in Table Rock Lake. The coordinates of these structures can be found at: http://short.mdc.mo.gov/Z4u.
The Department also worked with the James River Basin Partnership and Table Rock Lake Water Quality, Inc. to implement a program to improve water quality throughout Table Rock Lake. This program offered a $50 incentive to landowners in the Table Rock Lake and James River watersheds for preventative pumping out of septic tanks before failure occurred. More than 2,000 septic tank pumpouts were completed,
a potential reduction of more than 2 million gallons of septic effluent entering the Table Rock Lake watershed. This also helped reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the lake by 550 pounds per year.
To reduce the amount of sediment transferred from the watershed to Table Rock Lake, the Department worked with landowners to provide a cost-share program to stabilize highly eroding streambanks. Eight cost-share projects were completed in the Table Rock Lake watershed and approximately 3,610 linear feet of streambank was stabilized, and many acres of riparian corridor were established.
Habitat improvements were completed in the upper portion of Lake Taneycomo, which is the tailwater of Table Rock Lake and Missouri’s largest and most popular trout fishery. Boulder clusters were installed in the upper mile of the lake to add diversity of habitat to the lake, create improved feeding areas for trout and other species
of fish, and increase angling opportunities.
The Table Rock Lake NFHI project builds upon a long-standing public/private partnership in southwest Missouri to improve and restore fish habitat in Table Rock Lake, Lake Taneycomo, and their watersheds through cover augmentation, watershed management, and other water quality-related projects. This project was an excellent opportunity to maintain and enhance fish habitat in and around two of the Midwest’s most popular sport fisheries. It has become a national example of sustaining and improving reservoir sport fish populations through large-scale habitat improvements.