Why Go to Wappapello?

By Tom Cwynar | March 2, 2006
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2006

Fishermen may stretch the truth, but fisheries researchers never do. Fish biologists count and measure fish and tally and survey anglers. They then release their findings without the least bit of exaggeration, or even a wink.

Their conclusion? Wappapello is a great fishing lake that’s getting better. The crappie have a predictable baby boom every year, and largemouth bass are growing bigger and bigger.

About 75 percent of anglers who fish Wappapello target those abundant crappie. A nice day in the fall and winter, and almost any kind of day in the spring, will bring a flock of southeast Missouri and St. Louis anglers to the lake.

If it’s a weekday, Ron McKuin is among the flock. Because he’s retired, he leaves weekend fishing to those he calls “poor fellows who still have to work.” His boat is always ready, though, and he’s calculated that it takes him 30 minutes to go from the recliner in his home at Poplar Bluff to a boat seat on Wappapello.

McKuin has been fishing Lake Wappapello for more than 30 years. He says the lake’s good crappie fishing tugs him away from bass fishing during winter and spring.

He mostly tightlines 1/16-ounce tube jigs around cover with a long jigging pole. McKuin uses only one fishing rod and generally attaches only one color of tube bait to his 1/16-ounce jig.

“I almost exclusively use purple and chartreuse,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll use pink and white, but my go-to bait has a purple body and a chartreuse tail.”

McKuin says he motors around the lake, looking for stumps and logs with his depthfinder.

“In our lake, 10 to 12 feet on the edge of the channel is kind of the magic depth,” he said. “I’m usually easing along with my trolling motor trying to find some structure on the bottom that shows some fish around it that I assume and hope to prove are crappie.”

He said using only one pole lets him work quietly and efficiently, and the 20-pound test line on his reel lets him straighten jig hooks that get hung up in stumps.

When water begins warming up in the spring, starting about late February or early March, McKuin follows the crappie up into the backs of coves and bays.

“Then, I fish with a floater and a jig,” he said. “It’s amazing that you can tie a jig under that floater no more than a foot deep and catch nice, big crappie.”

McKuin said that during the years he’s fished Lake Wappapello, about half of the lake’s original stumps have disappeared as water washed sand and dirt away from their roots. He and others are working hard to replace this valuable cover.

“For the fish, a lack of cover is like living in a room with not enough furniture,” said Mark Boone, the Conservation Department biologist who manages the fishery at Lake Wappapello. “Stumps, brush piles and that sort of thing are like furniture for fish.”

He described how little fish hide in the furniture to avoid predators, and big fish surge from behind the furniture to surprise and capture passing prey.

New Wood

To create more fish furniture, the Conservation Department and the Corps of Engineers, along with members of local fishing clubs, began putting brush in the lake about five years ago.

“The first few years, we put in large, hardwood brush piles all around the lake,” Boone said. “We didn’t mark any of them, but then, in 2004, we started creating larger brush piles that consisted, on the average, of three loads of large hardwood trees. They’re all marked with yellow signs that say ‘Fish Attractor.’”

Boone said they used one of the Department’s habitat barges to create 22 marked brush piles in 2004 and 16 of them in 2005.

“We are trying to eventually have 80 marked large brush piles around the lake,” Boone said. “Once we get them all in, we will go back to the original ones and add more trees to them.”

Boone said they place the brush piles from shallow water to deep water so that they will attract fish in all water and weather conditions.

“Anglers can fish up and down until they find fish,” Boone said. “They don’t need fancy boats with all kinds of electronics. All they have to do is find a sign, and they’ll find the brush.”

Anglers are also creating fish habitat on their own. McKuin said the Lake Wappapello Corps of Engineers supports angler efforts to create more fish habitat. Their only requirement is that anglers place the structure where recreational boaters won’t be affected.

James Gracey, natural resources team leader at the Lake Wappapello Corps of Engineer’s office, said, “We do everything in cooperation with the Department of Conservation to make the fishing better.”

The Corps efforts include angler creel surveys, helping with habitat restoration, building a new drive-up fish-cleaning station near their headquarters and adjusting springtime flows to increase the amount of prey in the lake (see “Applied Shadology”).

Applied Shadology

Before they are about a year old and 6 inches long, crappies don’t eat shad. Instead, they feed on invertebrates. Until they start feeding on fish, crappie in most Missouri reservoirs grow at about the same rate. Then, their growth rate begins to vary, depending in large part on the availability of shad of the proper size (usually less than one-third of their body length).

From 1987 to 1995, Conservation Department Resource Scientist Paul Michaletz studied shad dynamics in Missouri reservoirs. He found that prolonging the spawning period for gizzard shad makes more small shad available to crappies and other fish during their critical growing time.

Mark Boone, the fisheries management biologist in charge of the Wappapello fishery, said he took what Michaletz learned about how to manage shad and applied it to Wappapello.

“In the past when the water would rise in the spring,” Boone said, “the lake Corps of Engineers would lower it about a half a foot a day, leaving a lot of shad eggs high and dry.”

He said the Conservation Department and the Corps now regularly consult about lake levels, especially in the spring.

“They do a fantastic job,” Boone said, “Unless the lake gets too high, they try to hold it steady or drop it very, very slowly so that the shad eggs have a chance to hatch.”

Boone said as soon as they started getting more consistent and longer lasting shad spawns at Wappapello crappie started growing faster. The lake also began to shed its reputation as a “stunted bass” lake.

“It used to be, you didn’t see a whole lot of bass over 12 inches,” Boone said. “Once we started getting these better shad spawns, those 10- to 12-inch fish didn’t stop or slow down. They just kept growing.”

Boone said that some question whether research is valuable. “Well, the research that Paul Michaletz did was beneficial,” he said. “Because of it, we have much better growth for bass and white crappie, and a better population of both.”

Green Growth

Gracey said the Corps is also teaming with the Lake Wappapello Bassmasters fishing club to try to reintroduce vegetation into the lake.

“The old timers say that at one time Wappapello was a highly vegetated lake,” Gracey said. “It had what they call ‘the moss,’ and yancopin (American lotus), and spatterdock in some areas.”

According to Gracey, spring floods and low winter water levels knocked the plants out and kept them from coming back. He’s hopeful the new planting effort will be successful.

As part of the effort, Bassmaster members have been loading pots of lily pads, spatterdock and other varieties of vegetation into their boats and planting them in places where those plants have grown in the past.

“We’re trying to put some cover on these mud flats,” said Roger Robinson, president of the Lake Wappapello Bassmasters.

Robinson has been fishing the lake since 1954. He remembers when vegetation covered about 20 percent of the lake.

“We still have a lot of bass here,” Robinson said, “just not as many of the larger fish as before. Where they used to catch 6- and 7-pounders, now they’re catching more pound-and-a-halfers.”

According to Robinson, the numbers must be good because bass tournament anglers weigh in more fish at Wappapello than at other lakes on the circuit.

In fact, the large amount of tournament and recreational bass fishing pressure on the lake has caused bass anglers to change tactics. They can’t rely on the big, bulky baits that attract bass on other lakes.

“We use a lot of small jigs and finesse worms,” Robinson said.

One of Robinson’s favorite baits is an artificial centipede on fluorocarbon line with a 3/16-ounce weight. He said that anglers fishing any kind of “rubber” usually choose crawdad colors.

He said lots of anglers throw shad-colored Rattletraps or Bandits, which are small, square-billed crankbaits, and crank them in fast.

“Those school bass get after them pretty good,” he said.

Robinson explained that the key to finding bass depends on the time of year. In winter and early spring, the bass usually are holding together near points. Later, they’ll spread out and start looking for beds in shallower water.

“After they bed, they’ll come back to what we call their summer haunts,” he said. “That means deeper water.”

“Deep” at Wappapello usually means down to about 15 feet. Robinson said he looks for places where 3- to 4-foot-deep mud flats drop down to a 15-foot-deep river channel.

“By and large, during the summer,” he said, “you’re fishing for bass that are sitting on those river channels.”

Major Microfisheries

Wappapello also offers good opportunities for bluegill and other sunfish. A group of anglers who regularly visit the lake eschew all other species so they can chew on tasty bluegill.

The willingness of Wappapello’s white bass to hit small shad-colored crankbaits thrills most anglers, but frustrates serious bass fishermen like Robinson, who said, “They can be fun, but sometimes you just have to get away from them.”

His technique for avoiding white bass might help you catch them. He said white bass usually won’t chase down a bait the way a bass will. “If you stop it during the retrieve and there are any whites around,” he said, “that’s when they’ll show up.”

Anglers also target channel cats and flatheads at Wappapello. Many nice flatheads are taken near the face of the dam and in the backs of coves.

The lake’s upper reaches, which more resemble a river, occasionally yield smallmouth bass.

Three C’s in Success

It’s rare when fishing improves in old reservoirs. A lake that’s been around as long as Wappapello (since 1941) accumulates a lot of silt, and the timber and cover habitat left when the lake was created breaks down, reducing the amount of cover available to fish.

Improving the fishing at Wappapello requires cooperation among three “C’s”: The Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake; the Conservation Department, which manages the fishery in the lake; and concerned anglers willing to work to help the lake produce more fish.

Anglers are very involved in Wappapello’s welfare. More than 200 of them, for example, attended a public meeting concerning new crappie regulations at the lake. It was standing room only at the meeting, and most of the anglers supported imposing a 9-inch length limit, even though it would make catching a limit more difficult.

According to Boone, the new regulation is a good example of how the Corps, the Conservation Department and anglers are working together to ensure good fishing at Wappapello.

“Anglers first petitioned the Department to put a minimum length limit on crappie and reduce the daily limit,” he said. The Corps and the Conservation Department then conducted complementary studies to determine what regulations would work best on the lake.

“We then asked anglers at a public meeting if they would support our recommendations,” Boone said.

Nearly 75 percent of anglers favored the 9-inch length limit, and about the same percentage opposed any decrease in the harvest limit.

The new regulations, which go into effect March 1 of this year (2006), are a compromise. They impose a minimum length limit of 9 inches on crappie from Wappapello but leave the harvest limit at 30.

“It should work,” Boone said. “It’s not hard to catch 30 crappie now, but it will be more difficult to catch 30 of them longer than 9 inches. Anglers should release more crappie, so we should end up with more and bigger fish.”

Bassmaster President Robinson said he remembers when the Corps at Wappapello Lake took the position that they are into water management, and not fishing.

“The people I’m meeting with now,” he said, “are saying if there is something they can do to help the fishing as they manage the lake for flood control, why not do it?”

Lake Wappapello Profile

  • Location: Wayne and Butler counties in southeast Missouri.
  • Size: 8,400 acres at recreational pool.
  • History: Completed in 1941 as an impoundment of the St. Francis River. Operated by the Corps of Engineers for flood control, hydroelectric power generation and recreational use.
  • Average depth: 7.5 feet at recreational pool.
  • Access: 26 public boat ramps.
  • Amenities: Food, fuel and fishing bait available at nearby marinas, resorts and businesses. Public facilities also cater to swimmers, recreational boaters, hikers, sightseers, hikers and picnickers.
  • Contacts: For lake information, including a map of marked fishattracting structures, go to mvs.usace.army.mil/wappapello/. For 24-hour information about Lake Wappapello, call toll-free (877) 525-3463 or (877) LAKEINFO.

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