Bagnell Dam: Cold-water Hot Spot
by John Neporadny Jr.
Finding active bass in the dead of winter can be a numbing experience.
Freezing temperatures, blustery winds and a vast body of water in
which fish congregate in a small area can leave anglers feeling cold
and frustrated after a day on their favorite lake.
Reservoirs do have an area that offers some shelter from the wind
and contains plenty of active fish. When the fishing shuts down on
the lake, anglers should concentrate on the downhill side of the dam.
A favorite wintertime spot of Eldon, Mo., angler Harold Stark is
the Osage River below Lake of the Ozarks’ Bagnell Dam. Stark, a veteran tournament angler,
has been fishing the river for more than two decades and has discovered certain patterns for catching bass below
the dam during the winter.
The Missouri angler notes that spillway water tends to remain warmer
throughout most of the winter. From November to mid-January, the
water temperature below the dam stays in the 45- to 50-degree range.
The area finally loses its warm water in late January when the lake
and spillway water temperatures drop to the 39-degree mark. The
spillway area also keeps anglers warmer because the dam and the hills
alongside the structure serve as windbreaks.
Stark lists November, December and January as the best winter months
to fish below the dam. Stable water conditions during this time create
an excellent opportunity for any anglers willing to brave the cold
weather and still catch plenty of bass.
Two stable conditions needed during this time are clear water and
a constant water level. Water clarity is crucial, since cold, murky
water can completely shut down fishing. But the lack of rain during
a normal winter keeps the river clear. The lake’s winter drawdown
also helps the fishing by producing a steady flow in the spillway
area, which positions the fish in certain areas and keeps the water
The wintery weather has little effect on spillway bass. Current
has more of an influence on their daily routine. “When the water’s
up and moving, anything that blocks the current has the probability
of holding fish,” Stark says. “The current has everything to do
with finding fish. It positions everything the fish do, whether they’re
resting, feeding or moving from one place to another.”
The stronger the current, the easier it is to find bass. “It can
stack every fish of a certain area in one spot,” Stark says. During
heavy flow, Stark looks for bass in eddies close to the bank. “They’ll
really stack up in those places.”
Stark catches most of his fish 1 to 10 feet deep from structure next
to the bank. Prime structure includes rock dikes, bridge pilings,
boat docks, flooded timber or laydowns.
The most productive methods for taking these cold-water bass are
slow-rolling a spinnerbait and flipping a jig and plastic chunk. Stark
lets the water flow determine which size lure he’ll use.
During a heavy flow, Stark will throw a white or white and chartreuse
1/2-ounce spinnerbait with a nickel-colored number 5 willow leaf
blade to catch active fish. He selects a 1/2-ounce jig with a Zoom Super Chunk Junior for a strong current.
His favorite colors are a brown
jig with black and chartreuse chunk or a black-and-blue combination.
The heavier lures help him maintain contact with the bottom where
the fish will be concentrated. The Missouri angler also uses lighter
line with his spinnerbait to make the lure sink better. “Whenever
there’s a lot of current, you almost have to go down to 10- or 12-pound
test line with a spinnerbait so it can actually get down,” Stark says.
Heavier line has a tendency to drag the lure along with the current.
When fishing a 1/2-ounce jig, Stark chooses lines up to 17-pound
test. He can use the heavier line because jigs fall quicker than
spinnerbaits and stay down in the rocks better. Since the lure bangs
around in the rocks which nick the line, a heavier monofilament receives
less damage when bumped along the bottom.
Maintaining boat control in a strong current can be difficult. Stark
usually points his boat upstream and drifts with the current rather
than trying to move upstream.
Since river bass face the current to pick off any morsels that drift
by, the most natural way to present a lure is to cast it upstream
from the structure and let the current push it into the ambush area.
The bass position themselves on the outermost part of the structure,
such as the farthest point of a log, where they can nab baitfish.
In the eddies, they will hang right behind a rock and right at the
edge of it. “They’ll be positioned right at the edge of any kind
of break in the eddy itself,” Stark says.
Stark slow rolls his spinnerbait along with the current. He tries
to pull the lure along the bottom, letting it nick the rocks every
once in a while. He also works his jigs in a slow manner. “I throw
it up against the bank, swim it back and just skim the bottom.”
When the current weakens, the bass tend to move to new locations.
“You need one of the two extremes to catch bass, either a lot of running
water or none at all,” Stark says. “When there’s no current, the
bass will scatter out and find the deeper holes to lay in. They’ll
also bury up into the thickest part of the cover.”
Lure sizes should be scaled down as the current loses velocity. Stark
switches to a 1/4-ounce spinnerbait with a number 4 willow leaf blade
during a light flow. When the current ceases, Stark switches to tube baits
and single or double-tail 3-inch plastic grubs in blue or
chartreuse hues. He’ll throw the tubes on a 1/16-ounce jig head
and the plastic grubs on a 1/8-ounce jig.
While working a deeper hole or thick cover, Stark presents the bait
in a subtle manner. He lets the bait flutter into the bass’ lair
and avoids moving the lure more than an inch at a time. Even inactive
bass can be taunted into sucking up a slow-falling tube bait or
Although more bass can be caught in the lake, Stark catches heftier
limits in the spillway waters. “I can catch more limits of 3-, 4-
and 5-pounders out of the Osage River than I can out of the Lake of
the Ozarks.” He says he has taken six-fish limits up to 20 pounds
from the river. Stark has also caught bass weighing up to 7 pounds
below the dam. Anglers can expect to catch an equal share of largemouths
and spotted bass from the spillway area.
While the fishing can be great during the winter below a dam, it
can also be hazardous to your bass boat. Stark warns that anglers
should watch out for trees that wash off the bank and become lodged
in gravel bars in the middle of the river. Anyone navigating below
a dam should also be aware of constantly changing jetties, wing dams
and gravel bars, all menaces to your boat’s lower unit. According
to Stark, the ideal rig for fishing spillway areas is a john boat
with a jet-drive motor because of its capability to run in extremely
Despite the navigational hazards and frigid weather, fishing the
lee side of a dam can satisfy an angler’s craving for some wintertime
For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks
or to receive a free vacation guide, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention
& Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE or visit the Lake of the Ozarks Convention
and Visitors Bureau web site at funlake.com.
Copies of John Neporadny’s book, “THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide” are
available by calling 573/365-4296 or visiting the web site www.jnoutdoors.com.