Big Fish in Small Streams

By Mark Goodwin | May 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: May 1997

It's a well-known fact that many of the rivers that drain the Missouri Ozarks support trophy smallmouth bass. In big rivers, such as the Current, the Meramec and the Gasconade, you can, with time on the water and proper technique, regularly catch smallmouth over 15 inches long. Now and again you will catch smallmouth in excess of 20 inches - trophies by any standard.

But as you fish these rivers, you will be sharing space with legions of canoeists. To avoid the crowds you can rise before first light or fish through the night, or fish during fall and winter. But if you like daytime, warm-weather fishing, be ready to dodge lots of aluminum.

In contrast, if you like privacy coupled with the chance to catch big smallmouth, small Ozark streams are a resource to consider. Be forewarned: finding lunker smallmouth in creeks requires effort. You can't float fish because the creeks are too small. You must wade to fish.

Moreover, many of the creeks that you explore won't have trophy smallmouth. Yet in the Ozarks, tucked away here and there, are creeks that support smallmouth bass to challenge anglers.

Finding Creeks

Purchase county maps that cover the areas you plan to explore. The Conservation Department, for a modest price, offers a 264-page, large format atlas that includes maps of every county in the state. County maps are invaluable guides to all kinds of outdoor recreation and show creeks and their accesses.


Most anglers consider low water bridges public access to streams and fish accordingly. But some landowners don't. Be sure to contact the landowner before fishing. Often a telephone call or a short visit is all it takes to gain fishing access. To help you determine who owns the land, you can buy plat books for about $20 from most county courthouses.

Selecting a Creek

Creeks to pinpoint and explore are those that drain remote areas and flow into larger rivers known for big smallmouth. Fish in these rivers often migrate up small streams looking for more suitable habitat.

After exploring a few of Missouri's clear, permanently flowing Ozark creeks, you will realize most support healthy smallmouth bass populations. You won't have trouble catching lots of 8- to 10-inch smallmouth bass. You may catch a fair share between 12 and 14 inches. You may even bring a few 15- to 16-inchers to hand. But for smallmouth over 17 inches you will have to search. Here are a few tips.

Big Fish

A nice feature about creeks that will help you in your quest for big smallmouth is water clarity. Most good smallmouth creeks are clear, allowing you to sight-fish for your quarry. Sunglasses let you see what's below the water's surface.

Look for the few big holes. Though trophy smallmouth are sometimes found in the smaller pools of creeks, the really big holes are often where the largest smallmouth lurk.

It pays to be stealthful while you search these places. With clear water, not only can you see the fish, the fish can also see you. It's often advisable, when approaching a big hole of water on a creek, to get out of the water entirely and walk the bank, for smallmouth bass can detect subtle vibrations in the water, including the ripples an angler makes when wading.

If you slip up to a large hole and the water in front of you runs deep with good structure, but you see no big smallmouth, it's prudent to wait and watch for 20 minutes or so. A broad-backed smallmouth may just be out of sight.

Nature Viewing

While you wait for a trophy fish to reveal itself, other denizens of the creek may provide enjoyment. A prothonotary warbler might fly across the creek to your side to hunt for caterpillars among the witch hazels and hornbeams. If you make squeaking noises with your lips, the bird may fly in mere yards from you to investigate, entertaining you with its gold finery.

Swallowtail butterflies may catch your eye as they flit from one buttonbush to another, probing for nectar. One of the rewards of searching small creeks for big smallmouth is the joy derived from observing nature's other residents.

But keep an eye on the water for a large, dark form. That's the focus of your search. Patience pays. You will find the fish.


Once you locate a smallmouth, three pounds or better, what's the best way to catch it? First, a word on gear. Much can be said for a combination that's designed for catch and release. Small-mouth over three pounds are among the most uncommon of all stream residents. Most will be close to 10 years old and should be considered a natural resource to protect and cherish.

Pinch down barbs to reduce the likelihood of injuring fish. A medium weight spinning outfit equipped with clear, 8- or 10-pound test line does fine. Lighter line and gear should be avoided.

Though you can catch 3-pound-plus smallmouth on 6-pound test line or lighter, to do so you must play them until they are exhausted, reducing their chance of survival after release. Heavier line also enables you to turn a fish that's swimming hard for cover.


Over the years I've used a variety of crayfish species to catch stream smallmouth, and all work well as bait, but I have found one, the spot-handed crayfish, to be unmatched for catching trophy smallmouth.

This species, distinguished by spots occurring at the angle of its pincers, is common throughout Missouri's central and southeastern Ozarks and is typically found along creek banks under larger rocks in water that supports water willow. Hooked through the lower side of the abdomen with a size-4 hook, point up and barbs pressed down, large spot-handed crayfish, 4 to 5 inches long, are hard for bass to pass up.

A large crayfish is simply a big mouthful for a smallmouth bass. So, casting only when a smallmouth is in sight and using only big crayfish for bait, the chances of hurting a fish during hook set and the ensuing fight is minimized.

There's another plus to this technique. Not only do you get to feel the fight, you get to see it. Even with 10-pound test line and medium weight gear, a 3-pound or better smallmouth will bull you.

I'm always amazed at the power that these fish possess. You feel it down to your elbows. And their beauty when brought to hand, glistening golden brown with mottled markings and ruby-red eyes, make smallmouth bass one of the Ozark's finest creatures.

This summer, consider looking for trophy smallmouth in Missouri's smaller streams. Though a challenge to find, the fish are there - living in some of the most beautiful and least disturbed areas of the Missouri Ozarks.

Crayfish: Catching and Care

I have experimented with 11 crayfish species as bait for catching trophy smallmouth bass, and the spot handed crayfish is the best. If you can't find this species of crayfish in your region, perhaps there are other species that will work as well.

Crayfish species that excel as bait for trophy smallmouth bass are often the most active. Unfortunately, this also makes these crayfish the most difficult to catch.

Your best chance at catching a darting, active crayfish is the two-handed approach, closing in from in front and behind with both hands. Forget about the pincers. Though sometimes a crayfish will find a place on your hand where a pinch really smarts, typically their pinch results in little discomfort. If, out of fear, you hesitate in grabbing crayfish that are rapid swimmers, you will catch few.

Regardless of your skill at catching crayfish, species that are the most active will test your reflexes and determination. Once you have captured several you will want to ensure that they remain healthy and vigorous until you are ready to use them as bait. Crayfish, like all aquatic organisms, get their oxygen from the water. If left in a bait bucket, particularly if the bucket is crowded, crayfish will quickly deplete the oxygen in the water and die.

To avoid this problem put enough grass in your bait bucket so the crayfish can crawl above the water level. As long as a crayfish's gills remain moist it can respire. Using this method, captured crayfish will remain vigorous for many hours.

Learn to Identify Missouri Crayfish

Anglers and other nature lovers can learn about the habits, habitats and home range of the 32 species of crayfish found in Missouri in a new book, The Crayfishes of Missouri.

Written by well-known fisheries biologist William L. Pflieger, the 152-page book features color photos and drawings to aid even the amateur in identifying these interesting and important aquatic animals. The book can be purchased for $7 plus $2 shipping (Missouri residents add 44 cents for sales tax), by writing to: Missouri Department of Conservation, Fiscal Division, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102-0180.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer