Jim Dill squeezed his bass boat into a narrow opening behind a complex of docks at Lake of the Ozarks and launched a sidearm cast under a set of cables.
“There has to be a bass hanging out in here,” he said as he sputtered a topwater bait across the protected water.
The lure made it most of the way back to the boat. Just when Dill was getting ready to pull it out of the water, a big bass attacked, spraying water in all directions.
The fight was short-lived and Dill soon used a net to scoop up the big largemouth.
“That fish must have been following my bait,” Dill said as he admired his catch before releasing it.
In a nearby boat, Dill’s wife, Denise, watched the show and asked, “How big?”
“About 5 pounds,” Dill responded.
Welcome to Lake of the Ozarks, a venerable body of water that never really shows its age when it comes to bass fishing.
When construction was completed in 1931, it was the largest manmade reservoir in the U.S. Over the years, it became a popular playground lake, with tens of thousands of houses and cottages on the lakeshore.
Traffic is heavy both on the water and on the roads during the summer months. Surf’s up when waves roll across the water and make it almost impossible to fish on weekends during June, July, August, and parts of September.
Doesn’t sound like an ideal environment for a largemouth bass, which treasures a peaceful and secluded setting, does it?
To the contrary, bass thrive in that world.
“With all the boat docks on this lake, bass have plenty of places to hide,” said Dill, a longtime angler on the 54,000-acre reservoir in central Missouri. “The docks give them shade, a lot of forage, and protection.
“When they get way back under a dock, it’s hard for an angler to reach them. And in the summer, with all the boats running up and down, there isn’t a lot of fishing pressure anyway, unless you go out real early.
“I think that plays a part.”
A Biologist’s Viewpoint
Samantha Holcomb, the MDC fisheries biologist who manages the lake, agrees. But she points out that the docks are only part of the equation.
Most of the reservoirs in Missouri are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control. Lake of the Ozarks is managed by Ameren Missouri for hydropower production, and recreation is one of the priorities.
When floodwater from Truman Lake is released into Lake of the Ozarks, it quickly flows down the big lake and is released on the other end.
“One of the main differences between Lake of the Ozarks and other reservoirs is that water levels are much less variable on Lake of the Ozarks,” Holcomb said. “Water levels are usually on a slow and steady rise during the bass spawning period, then staying at full pool during the bass’ juvenile stage, providing good survival of nests and good growth of juvenile fish.”
The result? Consistently good fishing year after year for largemouth and spotted bass.
Surveys conducted by MDC show that 20 to 30 percent of the largemouth and spotted bass collected during samples exceed the minimum-length limit, Holcomb said.
It’s little wonder that Lake of the Ozarks is considered one of the best bass lakes in the country. It might not have the giant largemouth that lakes in Texas, Florida, or Alabama do, but it has great numbers of 2- to 5-pound fish.
“It’s just a great fishery,” said Denise Dill, who’s also an experienced angler with intimate knowledge of the Lake of the Ozarks. “You can fish it year-round and find good bass fishing.
“There are (seasonal) patterns that are pretty consistent year to year. I’m not saying there aren’t challenges from time to time, but as a whole, it’s a great place to be a guide.”
His and Hers Bass Boats
On a sunny fall day last year, the Dills set out on one of their favorite dates — in a bass boat.
Actually, in two bass boats.
Jim worked a bluff, points, and docks from his boat; Denise cast a topwater bait and a buzzbait from hers.
“We won a tournament together last year, and the prize was a certificate for a bass boat,” Denise said. “Jim already had a nice boat, so I got this one.”
Casting everything from small swimbaits to larger gurling topwater lures, they caught and released about 20 bass in a variety of sizes in three hours.
Experienced anglers and tournament partners, they both are adept at finding and catching the big ones. In fact, bass fishing played a big part in getting them together.
“When we started dating, we entered these guys and gals tournaments and it was a great way for us to get to know each other,” Denise said. “When you’re spending hours together in a small space, you get to know what someone is like.”
The Dills got married 20 years ago, and bass fishing and Lake of the Ozarks are the central part of their lives more than ever.
Jim, with Denise, owned Crock-O-Gator lure company for 10 years. Denise was a longtime elementary-school teacher who fished in her spare time. Once she retired in 2021, she and Jim devoted more time to fishing.
“Denise has found a niche in women, retirees, and kids,” Jim said. “She is great with inexperienced anglers, showing them what they need to do to catch fish.”
Heavy Fishing Pressure
The outstanding bass fishing at Lake of the Ozarks isn’t exactly a secret.
In 2022, the big lake played host to more than 525 bass tournaments — the highest total in Missouri. Add the thousands of recreational anglers who flock to the lake each year, and the bass see a lot of lures.
But the population holds up just fine in the face of that heavy pressure.
First, there is a strong catch and release ethic among seasoned anglers. Second, there are plenty of places for bass to escape the barrage of lures.
“The fish get hammered, but it’s a big lake with a lot of good cover,” Jim Dill said. “They have a lot of places where they can hide.”
Anglers can improve their odds by getting out at key times, Dill said. He looks at late May and early June as the best time for getting lots of bites.
When there is current flowing across the points, as there often is when water is being released from Truman into Lake of the Ozarks, it attracts schools of baitfish. And the bass go on a feeding spree.
“The bass are coming off the spawn and they’re hungry,” Dill said. “They concentrate on points, bluffs, and ledges, and they’re aggressive.”
The Dills will use a variety of baits — plastic baits on shaky-head rigs, swimbaits, crankbaits, and topwater baits — to catch those bass.
Gauging the Future
If last spring is any indication, the near-future looks encouraging for Lake of the Ozarks bass anglers.
Anglers reported 75-fish days during a stretch from late May to mid-June when bass were on a feeding rampage. There weren’t a lot of keepers (15 inches and larger), but many fish measured from 12 to 14 inches, boding well for the next few years.
That also is encouraging for many resort owners, who view bass fishing as a money-maker.
Mom and pop resorts are disappearing at Lake of the Ozarks as times change and condominiums pop up in their place. But those resort owners who hold on are still filling rooms, and they credit bass fishing with playing a part.
“When we first bought our resort (in 2003), there were only a couple tournaments going out of here each year,” said Michael Spriggs, who with his wife, Paulette, owns Point Randall Resort. “Now we’ll have two or three each weekend in the spring. They’re usually small tournaments — five to 30 boats. But that adds up.
“Bass fishing is definitely a draw for us.”
Also In This Issue
This Issue's Staff
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner