An Angler's Guide to Mark Twain Lake

By Tom Cwynar | June 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2004

Mark Twain wrote, "There is no use in your walking five miles to fish when you can depend on being just as unsuccessful near home."

No matter where you live in Missouri, however, a trip to Mark Twain Lake in Monroe County makes great sense. Stay near home and be unsuccessful, if you want, but you'll be missing out on fine fishing. Whether you fish for crappie, bass or catfish, Mark Twain Lake seldom disappoints.

At 18,000 acres, Mark Twain Lake is the largest reservoir in north Missouri. Clarence Cannon Dam, which holds back the Salt River to form the reservoir, was authorized by Congress in 1962. The lake filled in 1984. In addition to flood control, the dam and its reservoir provide hydroelectric power, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation--especially fishing.

Crappie are the bread and butter fish here," said Ross Dames, the Conservation Department fisheries biologist for Mark Twain Lake. Around here, people's livelihoods rise and fall with the crappie. If the crappie fishing is good, the parking lots are full."

The lake drains a large watershed and is notorious for fluctuating water levels and turbid--or muddy--water. "It clears up during midsummer and fall," Dames said, "but it's turbid most of spring and early summer. And any time it rains, the lake comes up."


Water levels directly affect crappie success at Mark Twain. Gizzard shad are the primary forage species in the reservoir, but adult gizzard shad are too large for crappie to eat. When water levels are high in spring and early summer, shad reproduction increases, providing more food for crappie.

"In the last four years, I've seen the schools of young shad so thick you felt you could walk on them," said Fred Withrow of Winfield. "The small shad make them crappie grow."

"I love that lake!" Withrow said. He's been fishing Mark Twain Lake since it filled. "I'm up there all the time--two or three times a week--from early spring to December."

Lately he's been fishing the middle fork, launching at the Shell Branch ramp or the Highway 107 ramp, but in other years he's focused on either the north fork or the south fork.

"They're all good," he said. "I just switch to get a little variety."

Withrow says Mark Twain is one of the most consistent producers of crappie of all the lakes he's fished. "There have been a few times a year when I may not get more than five or six," he said, "but I always catch fish when I go to Mark Twain."

He says he catches a lot of smaller crappie, but usually doesn't keep any fish under 10 inches in the spring and summer, and nothing under 11 inches in the fall.

"I do my best in the fall," he said. "The fish are a lot bigger and there's a lot more of them. I tell everybody the crappie are spending the summer fattening up so I can catch them in the fall."

In the spring, Withrow tries the banks first. If he doesn't find fish, he moves out, fishing the flooded timber in the coves. Most of the time in summer he fishes about 6 feet down, and sometimes as shallow as 4 feet. Later in the summer, he'll look for dropoffs, roadbeds and old fencerows, but he still doesn't fish very deep. Only in the fall does he find crappie much deeper than 12 feet.

"Crappie really are warm water fish," Withrow said. "Sometimes you'll catch one in the summer and put your hands on it, and it'll feel like it's already been cooked."

He usually fishes with jigs with either a minnow, Crappie Nibble or tube bait attached. His favorite tube color on Mark Twain is a blue body with a white tail.

"In the spring, people catch a lot of crappie and catfish off the banks, but you really need a boat to fish the lake well," Withrow said. "The best way to learn to fish the lake is to watch other people and talk to other people. Find out what they are catching and where."

Brad Stamp, a Corps of Engineers park ranger who works out of Mark Twain Lake's management office, also keeps tabs on the crappie. His strategy is to throw unbaited, 1/16-ounce, weedless jigs with tubes into heavy cover. He, too, favors a tube with a blue body and a white tail, but when the water is murky, he will try red and chartreuse or black and chartreuse tubes.

Like many Mark Twain Lake anglers, Stamp looks for the clearest water. "Some mud doesn't matter," Stamp said, "but when the water gets like chocolate milk it can be unfishable."

Stamp said fish locations are always changing because of the fluctuating water level.

"Just because you caught fish in one place the last time out doesn't mean you'll catch them again," he said. His normal approach is to move slowly with the trolling motor, casting into thick cover until he finds crappie.


Largemouth bass fishing is very popular at Mark Twain Lake. Clyde Oligschlager of Perry has fished bass waters all over the nation on the professional bass fishing circuit, but these days he limits himself to local buddy tournaments on Mark Twain.

He said Mark Twain Lake has been very good for bass fishing for about five years, and this year has been one of the best in terms of large fish. "But, by gosh, it can be challenging," he said.

He said Mark Twain, with its clearcut main lake and coves full of flooded timber, is like a miniature Truman Lake. He said the lake fishes like any other reservoir, but it seems more finicky.

"We like to say that if you can consistently catch bass on Mark Twain, you can catch them anywhere," he said. "It's not that the fishing isn't good. It's just that the lake can completely shut down on you. You might get on a pattern during the week, but more likely than not it won't hold during the weekend."

Oligschlager said angling pressure from numerous tournaments probably has made the lake's bass smarter.

"There are a couple hundred bass tournaments a year," he said. "All of them are catch and release, though. Tournament fishing value bass too much to keep them."

Anglers can catch bass in shallow water--down to 12 feet--all year long at Mark Twain. Oligschlager suggested newcomers to the lake start fishing with a Texas-rigged plastic worm.

"Tests in aquariums have shown that the plastic worm is the lure the bass forget the quickest," he said.

He said shallow-diving crankbaits work well in flooded timber in spring and early summer, and topwater baits work well early and late in the day when the lake warms up. Summer anglers also do well casting big worms into the tree tops.

Oligschlager believes Mark Twain Lake holds bass that seldom see a lure.

"Most bass fishermen tend toward the shoreline, and the fish there get hit hard. Some structure away from the shoreline, however, like old road beds and humps and the edges of feeding flats, doesn't get fished."

Night fishing also can be good on the lake. Anglers should be extra cautious, however. The lake is so dark at night that it's easy to become disoriented. Adding to the risk of both night and day fishing are the boating hazards of flooded timber and fluctuating water levels.


Lots of pictures of big catfish--some over 50 pounds--are pinned on the bragging boards at baits shop near Mark Twain Lake. Russ Withrow describes trotlining on Mark Twain as awesome.

Like most catfish anglers, he tends toward the back of coves. He'll set lines in 3 or 4 feet of water for channel cats. His favorite bait is cut leeches.

He runs his flathead lines a little deeper, about 8 feet, and he baits them with small goldfish or small perch (3- to 6-inch sunfish or bluegill). He likes to place his flathead lines along channel or drowned field edges.


Although crappie, bass and catfish are the reservoir's "Big 3," Mark Twain Lake contains a wide variety of other fish, including bluegill.

White bass are showing up more often. Anglers sometimes catch them when fishing for crappie, but they've also learned to target them in open water. White bass sometimes "herd" gizzard shad to top of the water. Casting a spinner, spoon or small crankbait into a surface disturbance often results in jolting hits and fast action.

Walleye fishing used to be better on Mark Twain, but the lake still yields some big fish. Mark Twain Lake stands to benefit greatly from the Conservation Department's current Walleye Initiative, which aims at increasing walleye fishing opportunities in lakes throughout the state.


In 2002, the Corps of Engineers recorded the highest lake visitation ever. According to Dames, many of the anglers come from the St. Louis area, but Iowans and Illinoisans also have discovered the lake.

Mark Twain Lake features excellent facilities. Except for a few informal hunter/angler access points, boat ramps are wide and well regulated. The Corps ramps charge a small daily or annual fee, while the state park ramps allow you to launch for free.

Although the lake, which averages about a mile wide and 29 feet deep, attracts a lot of boaters and anglers, it offers a completely different atmosphere than Lake of the Ozarks or other reservoirs.

"There are no private docks and only two marinas," said Dames, "Mark Twain has more of a remote atmosphere, almost a wilderness experience. You're not going to see a lot of lights or activity, and you might have to drive 10 or 15 miles to find fast food."

That's a price many of us are willing to pay for close-to-home fishing in a near-wilderness setting.triangle

Information Please!

  • View the Conservation Department's annual report of fishing prospects for Mark Twain Lake online.
  • View the weekly statewide online fishing report which includes current information on Mark Twain Lake.
  • Check the fishing tournament schedule on Mark Twain Lake by calling the Corps of Engineers management office at (573) 735-4097 or going to online.
  • Fishing can be better when they are generating power at the dam. For a schedule of releases, call 918/595-6779 and punch in Code #19 for Clarence Cannon Dam.
  • A map of the lake will help you almost as much as a bucket of bait, and it costs about the same. You can find a waterproof "Fishing Hotspots" map of Mark Twain Lake almost anywhere fishing gear is sold. Remember that depths listed on maps are for normal pool. You will have to make adjustments for high or low water.

This Issue's Staff

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