No Doubting Thomas

By Tom Cwynar | January 2, 2006
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2006

Anglers may have a hard time believing that in the middle of winter they can find tons of feisty, actively feeding fish of all species within a stone’s throw of a launch ramp, and that they’ll find this wintertime action in a lake that actually warms them as they fish.

Those left doubting should take a trip to Thomas Hill Reservoir in Macon and Randolph counties. Parts of this 4,950-acre reservoir fairly steam all winter long. That’s because the lake was built to provide cooling water for the Associated Electric power plant located on the lake’s south end. When warm water discharged from the plant bumps cold arctic air a moist fog arises. If not dissipated by wind, the fog removes some of the chill from the air, even on the iciest days.

When it’s really cold, the fishing itself can heat you up, according to Jeff Purcell, a Conservation Department protection district supervisor who drives from Brookfield to fish the lake when conditions are right.

“When it’s 10 degrees and really bitter, that’s when the fish move up into those warm areas,” Purcell said.

The “warm areas” at Thomas Hill consist of the Brush Creek Arm in the lake’s southeast section and the channel discharging from the power plant. The warm water, which might be in the 60s on even the coldest days, filters out past a small island at the mouth of the arm and eventually dissipates in the lake.

Purcell and his fishing partners target hybrid striped bass. These tough, determined fish follow schools of shad into the warm water. Purcell said hybrid fishing is best when the plant is pumping out lots of warm water. It’s then that almost any bait will attract them.

“They put up an amazing fight,” Purcell reported. “That’s the reason we fish for them. We once weighed a 21-incher and it was 3 1/2 pounds, so any legal fish (longer than 20 inches) is going to weigh nearly 3 pounds.”

Purcell also fishes other lakes for hybrids. He says the traditional methods of trolling rattling lures and casting crankbaits don’t work very well at Thomas Hill, at least in the warm-water arm in winter.

“The best approach is more like a catfish method,” Purcell said. “We almost always anchor. We look for fish on the depth finder or maybe some kind of dip, where the water might go from 4 feet down to 6 feet and back to 4 feet again.”

When Purcell and his buddies find a good spot, they’ll position the boat to fish it properly and remain there for a while, because the schools of hybrids seem to be constantly on the move. “When a school goes through, a lot of times you’ll have two rods go down at once.”

In the warm-water arm, Purcell and many other anglers often gob chicken liver or bait shrimp on their hooks. The aromatic baits also attract channel cats, usually small ones that wear the bait off the hook.

“You can tell the difference,” Purcell said. “With small catfish, your rod tip will be sitting there bouncing. If you set the hook on the bounce, you’re not doing anything but ripping the bait off the hook.

He said hybrids take the bait much more aggressively. “They may hit it once,” he said, “but usually you better have your rod in your hand or have it hooked into the boat good because the big ones will just take it clean out. We’ve lost one or two rods and came close to losing more.”

Purcell likes a 7-foot or longer rod equipped with an open-faced or bait-casting reel spooled with 8- to 12- pound line. He said the long rod and strong line helps guard against the fish breaking off when it goes on a long run. He cautions anglers not to set the drag too tightly.

“If you lock down on them on their initial run, a 3- or 4-pounder will break your line pretty much every time,” he said. “Even if they come back to the boat, you better be ready because when they realize something’s wrong, they’re gone.”

Hybrids also will snap up jigs with tubes or plastic baits. Purcell thinks the fish will often go for a different color than the millions of shad they see. He prefers chartreuse or black and chartreuse. He and his fishing partners have tried fishing with shad themselves, but he said they had no success.

Jump-fishing Hybrids

Delane Green, a former mail carrier who lives on the lake, said he catches hybrids all year long. He said some of the most exciting fishing comes when schools of hybrids herd schools of shad near the surface.

“It usually happens in June and July when the young shad are an inch or two long,” Green said. “The hybrids get them up on those points that come up from deep water and bust them up—just tear into them!”

The feeding sprees create a disturbance that’s easily visible in late afternoon and early evening when the water is still. Green usually fishes for crappie, but whenever he spots hybrids feeding near the surface, he puts down his crappie rod and quickly motors alongside the disturbance.

“The hybrids are getting big,” Green said. “I saw one that weighed 13 1/2 pounds last spring. I usually keep a stouter rod with a 3- to 3 1/2 -inch Sassy Shad handy. You cast anything silvery in there, and they’re going to hit it.”

Green said seagulls sometimes swarm above hybrids feeding on the surface to eat shad injured or disoriented in the melee. “If you see where a bunch of gulls are feeding, you need to race over there,” he said.

A Shore Thing

Green seldom bothers to launch his boat in the winter. He said most days he can easily catch a limit of crappies from the banks of T Road, a mere quarter of a mile from his home.

“A few years ago, hardly anyone fished up here because they thought all the crappie would be in the warm-water arm in winter,” Green said. “Then we started putting in

some brush piles—15 or 20, all total—and we found a lot of crappie are staying in those brush piles. “We caught a lot off the road the last two or three winters,” he said.

According to Green, unless the winter is very cold, the bridges ice in for only a week or two each winter. The rest of the time, anglers are able to fish from shore.

The brush piles aren’t marked, but it doesn’t take long to learn where they are. Green said he usually fishes a sixteenth-ounce tube jig with a blue head and a silver flecked clear tail from 7–12 feet below a cork.

“If there’s a chop, that’ll twitch it enough,” Green said, “but if it’s still, I’ll wiggle it a little bit.”

Targeting Brush Piles

The Conservation Department has constructed numerous brush piles throughout the lake. Older brush piles are marked with green signs on shore. Bright yellow signs mark 11 of the old brush piles that the Department refurbished in 2005, as well as five new ones.

Mike Anderson, fisheries management biologist for the Conservation Department’s northeast region, said the brush piles are 100–200 feet out from the signs on shore. “We put them in when the lake was a foot high,” Anderson said. “If the water is low, you can see some of the brush sticking out of the water.”

The brush piles are large, usually consisting of 10–15 big trees submerged in a large area. “Two or three boats could easily fish the same brush pile,” Anderson said.

Bob Schultz of Memphis, Missouri, said he makes a milk run of the brush piles whenever he visits Thomas Hill. He said he usually launches at the north ramp, close to T Road, and works his way down the lake.

“If they’re not hitting on one, I’ll move,” he said, “and I’ll keep moving until I find something. There have been days when I haven’t found anything, but that’s awful rare.”

He likes to fish a sixteenth- or eighth-ounce jig equipped with a fiber guard baited with a tube with some chartreuse in it. His favorite crappie rig is a 5 1/2-foot-long rod and an open-faced reel spooled with 6-pound-test chartreuse Fireline.

“I usually fish 8–10 feet down, even in the winter,” Schultz said. “The crappies are schooled up, and they’ll get into those brush piles—it’s just habitat, you know. Usually they are right in the brush piles or right on top of them, or at least close to them.”

Schultz often fishes vertically, letting the jig down until it hits the brush. He then raises it a few inches and slowly moves it back and forth and up and down. He said some days he likes to cast beyond a brush pile, let the snag-resistant jig drop to the bottom and bring it back slowly.

“When it hits a limb, I’ll just lift it up, and when I feel it coming over, I’ll let it drop. They usually bust it when it comes off the limb and drops,” Schultz said. “It just kind of twitches the line.”

Exceeding Expectations

“Thomas Hill is a well-balanced fishery,” said Mike Anderson, who manages the reservoir.

“The only thing we stock there is hybrid striped bass, and fishing for them can be really good,” Anderson said. “We’ve watched boats fishing the riprap where the warm-water discharge channel comes into the Brush Creek Arm catch hybrid bass after hybrid bass, every other cast.”

Anderson said last year Thomas Hill was identified as one of the top lakes in the state to fish for crappie. He said the word got out, and the lake received lots of fishing pressure during 2005.

“Crappie fishing is still going to be really good, except that we’re not going to have the numbers of large fish that we had this year. But, that could change,” he said. “There are a lot of small shad there, and the crappie at Thomas Hill grow very quickly. There’s a bunch of fish that are ready to jump over that 9-inch length.”

Bass anglers consider Thomas Hill a “numbers lake,” which suggests that the fish don’t run large. Anderson said that in recent lake surveys, two of every 10 bass sampled exceeded the legal limit of 15 inches.

Channel catfish also run small. Anderson believes there are just too many of them. Flathead fishing, on the other hand, is very good, especially in the summer when anglers bait trotlines with goldfish.

The lake also contains drum, carp, buffalo and bluegill. Although most anglers at Thomas Hill don’t target these species, catching them while fishing for hybrids, crappie or largemouth bass makes a day more interesting.

“All in all, Thomas Hill is a great resource,” Anderson said. “I encourage anybody in the doldrums of winter with cabin fever to put on a good set of warm clothes and get out on that warm-water arm. You don’t have to go out very far. You can be fishing within 100 feet of the ramp, or you can just fish for crappie from shore.”

Thomas Hill Practicalities

  • Winter fishing, even in warm water can be dangerous. Wear your life jacket. Even if you don’t have an emergency, it can help keep you warm.
  • Boat ramps at Thomas Hill can be tricky in cold weather. Runoff from boat trailers ices up the ramp, making it too slippery to launch a boat. Check for traction before launching or retrieving boats. People who fish Thomas Hill regularly have learned to bring salt or sand for use on icy ramps.
  • Signs on shore mark brush piles placed by the Conservation Department. Lake Manager Mike Anderson has updated the map of Thomas Hill brush piles, including their GPS coordinates. For a copy, write to the Northeast Regional Office, Thomas Hill Map, 2500 S. Halliburton, Kirksville, MO 63501.
  • If not quickly released, hybrids die soon after being caught. Handle fish carefully and try to keep the time they have to spend out of the water to a minimum. Bring a net to help you bring them aboard or to hold them in the water while you remove hooks.
  • Hybrids also won’t survive long on a stringer or in a livewell. Put the hybrids you plan to keep on ice to maintain the flavor and firmness of their flesh. After filleting hybrids, remove all reddish meat from the centerline and from beneath the skin.
  • Be careful handling hybrids. Their sharp gill plates can flare out and inflict a nasty cut.

This Issue's Staff

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