Missouri's Great Lakes: Stockton Lake

By Tom Cwynar | April 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2003

You can whip a dart anywhere at a map of Missouri to find good fishing, but if you want to catch walleye, you better aim a little bit above and to the left of Springfield.

Stockton Lake isn't the only place to catch walleyes in Missouri, but it's the best one! Anglers catch more walleyes and more walleyes per hour of fishing here than in any other lake in the state. The Conservation Department's Walleye Initiative is working to establish walleyes in more waters in Missouri, but a pilgrimage to Stockton remains the dream of most of the state's walleye fanatics.

Stockton offers much more than walleye fishing, however. Fisheries Management Biologist Tim Banek, who oversees the Stockton fishery, said Stockton Lake also provides anglers with good opportunities to catch crappie, black bass, white bass, bluegill, channel catfish and bluegills. It's the kind of lake that you can visit and let whatever species is biting best be your target for the day.

The Stockton area has escaped commercialization to the point that you may have to drive many miles to find fast food. On the other hand, the lake is well supplied with more than a dozen recreation areas offering top-notch accesses. Most of them are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Campgrounds are plentiful, including the one at Stockton State Park, which sits on the point where the Little Sac and Big Sac arms of the reservoir converge.

Stockton has some of the clearest water in the state, making it great for diving and swimming, as well as fishing. The wide expanse of water in the lower part of the lake attracts many sailboaters. The same wind-swept area can sometimes be hazardous for travel in small boats.Many anglers are tickled to hear that Stockton is stocked, but Banek said the Conservation Department only adds walleye to the lake every other year. The other fish populations are self-sustaining.

Gizzard shad are the primary forage in the lake. Various minnows, brook silversides, crayfish, aquatic insects and the young of other fish species are also important parts of the food chain.

Most of the main part of lake was cleared before Stockton began to fill up in 1969. Standing timber left in the upper ends is still visible.

Fifty-five brush structures (crappie beds) have been installed to provide habitat that concentrates fish for anglers. The structures are marked with green reflective signs on the shoreline. A lake map and a depthfinder will help you find them and other good fishing spots.

At nearly 25,000 acres and with almost 300 miles of shoreline, Stockton Lake is big enough to get lost in, or at least to provoke someone who is visiting the lake for the first time to ask, "Where in all that water should I start?"

There's nobody more qualified to answer that question than Stockton "regulars," people who have learned the lake's secrets by fishing there for much of their lives.

Flying white bass

Paul Henry of Springfield finds all the action he can handle at Stockton by attacking the fringes of the lake with a fly rod.

"I don't bother with boats," he said. "It's much easier to slip waders on and not have to worry about a dead battery or a bad trolling motor and all those problems, I just put my waders on, get into my car and go. Everything I need fits into my fishing vest."

Henry looks for points that wind is blowing into. "Wind is very important," he said, and you don't have to make long casts into it. The fish come right into the bank. The waders let me get out into the water if I need to."

He moves from point to point until he finds fish. The nice thing about Stockton is you can get in from many different places," he said. His favorite spot is Masters Recreation Area, because it allows him to easily reach a lot of good fishing water.

Henry's primary target is white bass and his best action comes in spring. "It starts getting good about the first of March and lasts until early May," he said. "April is the best month." He said the same tactics work well from late summer through fall.

He casts 2 1/2-inch, lightly weighted streamers that he ties himself or 1/100- or 1/80-ounce jigs, usually light or bright colors. Henry said the streamers work better when white bass are feeding on shad near the surface. "Sometimes you can actually see the seagulls feeding, or you'll see the water just kind of boiling," Henry said. "Even when the big shad are around, the white bass are still nearby, and the small lures work."

Henry rips his lures briskly through the water, stripping the line in by hand. When he hooks a big fish, he plays it with the fly reel.

The windswept points are apt to attract all kinds of fish. Henry said he frequently catches walleye, black bass, smallmouth, bluegill and crappie on his streamers and small jigs. One day last fall, he and his partner caught eight keeper walleyes while flyfishing for white bass.

Think deeply for walleyes

Frank Claspill of Springfield says he's been fishing Stockton Lake since it filled up. "I know it like my hand," he said.

He used to target bass, but now his main quarry is walleyes. To find them, he looks for shad on his boat's depthfinder. He said walleye hang out underneath the shad schools and follow them around. He says the fishing is best when the shad are over a rough, rocky bottom. Claspill speculated that the walleye hide among the rocks and attack young fish in the school.

He catches most of his walleye on jigging spoons. He lets the spoon down to the bottom, then "rips" it upward 10 feet or so, before letting it fall back on an almost slack line. He said the fluttering spoon looks like a crippled shad falling from the school. The walleyes usually hit as the spoon is descending. He likes a push-button casting reel and a 7-foot pole that he considers "soft" not "stiff." It lets him feel the spoon as it falls.

He uses 50-pound test super-braid line tied directly to the lure or the lure's ring. The heavy braided line remains flexible in cold weather, gives him a better feel for what the lure is doing and lets him pull out of snags. He said if you are fishing correctly, you will get snags.

Claspill prefers a shiny Hopkins spoon or something that looks like one. He fishes spoons that weigh a half-ounce down to about 20 feet, If the water is any deeper, he fishes a 3/4-ounce spoon.

He and his fishing partners catch walleye throughout the winter in 50 to 60 feet of water. He usually launches from the state park and fishes toward the dam in the winter, but he said anyplace where you find shad will work. He also looks for fish off points and near bluff walls, especially over debris piles where rock has sloughed of the bluffs.

Once he finds shad, or a likely looking spot, Claspill will hover over it, using the trolling motor to control the boat. He said the shad attract walleye, huge white bass and other kinds of fish. "In spooning," he said, you'll also catch great big crappie. I don't think I threw back a crappie all year long."

During spring (after the spawn), summer and fall, Claspill usually finds the shad and walleye in from 18 to 30 feet of water. He prefers the Greenfield arm, but he said he's liable to go anywhere. During the summer, he says he catches more fish on bottom bouncers and minnows or nightcrawlers.

Secret Bass Lake

Mike Eutsler, Protection Supervisor of the Joplin District, southwest region, grew up near Stockton. He said he was on the area even before the lake was impounded. He likes to fish for largemouth as much as possible. "The only thing that interferes with my fishing," he said, "is my job."

Eutsler describes Stockton as a three-bass lake. "As a rule of thumb, from the state park to the dam is smallmouth water. Largemouth fishing is usually better in the upper third of the lake and Kentucky bass are throughout the lake, usually along bluff walls."

"Stockton is a real sleeper for bass," he said. "The locals refer to it as the best kept secret in the Ozarks. I catch more and bigger fish from there than I do at Table Rock." Eutsler said the lake doesn't attract as many tournaments as other lakes. "There are very few days when you can't get away from people--even on holidays and weekends."

"Because they are bigger," is the way Eutsler explained his preference for largemouth bass. He usually fishes the upper end of the lake. He looks for pea gravel during the spawning season and "chunk rock" later in the summer. He said he likes flipping jigs into brush. It's a plus if shad are nearby, but he's primarily fishing likely spots.

Instead of "pounding the bank," a common strategy for largemouth bass, Eutsler looks for sharp swings in the creek channels. He said that bass travel those creek channels the way we might follow a highway to go to work. It takes a little more work, as well as a depthfinder and lake map, but he said finding a sharp bend in the creek channel that drops off to 15 to 20 feet of water usually pays off for him.

Eutsler said the lake is usually clear enough for sight fishing spawning bass. "Look for pea gravel toward the backs of the coves. Bring a floating Rogue or a bright color worm--chartreuse or white--back over the nests, and they'll usually whack it pretty good.

Bass fishing techniques and lures are almost as numerous as anglers. Eutsler said he'd advise a newcomer to Stockton Lake to start by probing secondary points with a small leadhead jig fixed with a 3- to 4-inch curly-tailed grub. He suggested smoke-colored, red, black or green grubs.

"Use 10-pound test line and try to keep the jig swimming just off the bottom, The deeper you go out, the slower your retrieve. Cover a lot of territory," he said.

Crappie seasons

Rick Flint, the Conservation Department's Hunter Education Program Coordinator, lived only 25 minutes from Stockton. He said there were times in his life when he would fish it every day for crappie.

He shuns live bait, maintaining that using it is a waste of time, is unnecessary and needlessly wets his hands in cold weather. He primarily uses plain jigs, almost always 1/16-ounce. He occasionally threads on a small plastic tube. He's also uses small Roadrunner jigs. When asked what color he saw most when he looked into his tackle box, he answered "chartreuse."

He relies on ultra-light spinning rods, from 5- to 5 1/2-feet long. He threads 4-pound test clear monofilament line on his reels.

Flint has crappie fishing techniques for each of the four seasons. From late March to early May, the spawn governs crappie movements, and he looks for male fish in the coves and upper tributaries. He starts about halfway back in a cove and works his way in, casting his jig toward shore and swimming it back to the boat. "Pay attention to notches in the shoreline, brush, stumps--any type of structure," he suggested.

Flint says he sometimes locates spawning crappie in water almost too shallow for his boat, but in clear water he's found them spawning as deep as 28 feet. "The dingier the water, the brighter the lure you'll need and the shallower the fish will be."

In summer, he likes fishing early in the morning and at night. He said he usually finds the fish at about 18 feet and rarely deeper than 24 feet. He targets shallow crappie beds, man-made fish attractors.

He said the lake maps of Stockton Lake, available almost everywhere in the area where fishing gear is sold, are "pretty true to form" in showing the locations of crappie beds. He plumbs the top and the sides of the crappie bed, either casting and swimming his jig or holding his boat above the structure and slowly moving his lure up and down.

In the fall, Flint targets "laydowns," trees that have fallen into the water and provide cover from shallow to deep water. The fish might be anywhere along the log, He usually starts at about 24 feet and moves in shallower. "If you find good structure," he said, "keep working it. The fish will be there somewhere."

In winter, Flint fishes deeper crappie beds and said he finds fish anywhere from 28 to 50 feet deep. It's easier to spot fish at those depths. "If you see suspended fish," Flint said, "work your jig up through them and right over the top of them." He said he'll frequently graph crappie in rocks where there is no bed.

Surfing (the Web) for Stockton

The Website www.stockton-mo.com/ provides a good introduction to the area and links to local motels and other businesses. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains an informative site. For a map of the brush structures installed in the lake to attract and hold fish, go to http://mdcgis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=aa720aaaf06b49269b355b5a6e049d28. For a roundup of fishing opportunities on the lake, go to mdc.mo.gov/fish/prospects/detail.htm#94. For a weekly fishing report on Stockton and other state waters, go to mdc.mo.gov/fish/fishrt/. You can also sign up at this site to have the fishing report e-mailed to you each week.

Barefoot Battle

Something grabbed my fluorescent yellow crankbait as we were trolling along one of Stockton's main lake points in about 15 feet of water. I yanked the bucking rod from the holder and tested the fish. It was big. I killed the outboard, and my partner reeled in the other lines.

The fish pulled out line. I lifted the rod and reeled it down to gain line back. After a few minutes of pumping, I managed to bring the fish directly beneath the boat. There it stayed.

A gentle wind moved the boat away from shore into gradually deeper water--30, 35, 40 feet. The depthfinder showed a clear bottom, so it was just a matter of wearing the fish down. It was like being in an arm-wrestling match, except that I could change arms now and then.

After nearly 20 minutes of battling the fish, I dangled my bare feet in the water to cool off. Even though I was 40 feet above it, the fish seemed to go bonkers and rushed away, making my drag sing.

I used the fish's skittishness to finally break the stalemate. Every time, I'd get the fish back below me, I'd splash my feet in the water to make it run and use up more energy. Finally, it tired and I was able to bring the 14-pound channel cat into the boat. - TC

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler