Fishing Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri is daunting to most first-time visitors because it’s over 54,000 acres. With all that water, where the heck do you begin fishing, and what species are in the lake to catch?
In this article, we cover those questions and offer a detailed explanation of how to catch fish at the Lake of the Ozarks on your next visit.
Let’s get started!
Bass Fishing at Lake of the Ozarks
Lake of the Ozarks regularly ranks as one of the Top 100 lakes in the U.S. by Bassmaster Magazine, so it’s no surprise it’s one of Missouri’s best largemouth bass fishing lakes.
It’s known for some of the best dock fishing in the nation, thanks to the countless boat docks all over the lake.
Three species of black bass call Lake of the Ozarks home: largemouth, spotted, and smallmouth bass. Each species has a slightly different habitat preference but a similar spawning pattern. We will discuss their yearly spawning cycle and dive deeper into how to target each specific species.
Bass spawn in the spring, when the water temperature is around 65 degrees.
They look for shallow, gravelly areas near deeper water to make a nest and lay their eggs. You can spot a nest by looking for a bright round spot on the lake bottom.
Since Lake of the Ozarks is fairly clear, bass will create nests in deeper water than in a dirty lake.
Bass are very protective of their nests, so using soft-plastic creature baits and jigs is the best approach to getting them to bite this time of year. Don’t be afraid to let it sit in their nest for a while.
Once they’ve finished spawning, bass move back to deeper water for food. Post-spawn is my favorite time of year to bass fish because they’re super aggressive, and it rarely matters what lure you use because they’re hungry.
While some bass, especially largemouth, can still be found in shallow water during the summer, most will head to deeper and cooler waters near the thermocline (where the water changes from hot to cool).
As fall begins to set in, bass follow their food back shallow to feed up before heading back to deeper water for most of the winter.
The fall transition is another one of my favorite times of the year to fish because it’s cooler, fewer people are on the water, and the bass are aggressive.
Now that we have a basic idea of where to begin, depending on which season we’re fishing, let’s talk about specific tactics for each black bass species.
Largemouth dominate the shallows and murky water. You’ll find plenty of 2- to 5-pounders all over the lake, but many of the best spots for largemouths are in the off-colored waters of the two upper sections of the lake.
One of the many bridges crossing the lake is always an excellent place to begin your search for fish, especially largies.
Largemouth bass are also primarily the bass you’ll catch out of brush piles and from under docks. The main lake and secondary points also hold largemouth bass.
My favorite lures are jigs, chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, and crankbaits.
In the clearer portion of the lake, natural colors will work best, so try using colors that resemble shad or bluegill, like white, silver, green pumpkin, and flashes of chartreuse.
In the murkier portions of the lake, I would use darker colors like purple or black and blue. Sometimes it’s best to use colors on the opposite end of the color spectrum in murky water, like chartreuse and white.
Whatever color you choose should stand out more in murky water and blend in better in clear water.
Soft plastics are an option I use when the fishing is tough; I gravitate to the Texas rig and wacky rig, sticking with the same colors as I do for other lures.
Spotted bass are much better suited for clear, open water. The Niangua Arm and Grand Glaize Arm make for decent fishing for this species, also known as Kentucky bass. However, spots don’t get as big as largemouth, so don’t go expecting to catch tons of monster spotted bass.
Docks over deeper water, main lake points, and bridges are great places to find spotted bass looking for their next meal.
Their primary food source is shad, so using lures that mimic these baitfish is the best way to go. I also recommend using slightly smaller lures since a Kentucky bass’s mouth is smaller than a largemouth’s.
A swim jig, spinnerbait, crankbait, and fluke are excellent spotted bass lures. Since shad are silver, the best colors to match the forage and get a bite include white, chrome, and silver.
The soft plastics I use the most for spots are a dropshot rig and swimbait in shad patterns.
Smallies are also better suited for clear water. When targeting smallmouth, I recommend focusing on rock piles or riprap around bridges and main lake points.
The lower section of the lake, closer to Bagnell Dam, is the best place to begin your search since it’s clearer and will likely have a slight current flowing.
Downsizing your lures is one way to increase your hook-up ratio.
I love using swimbaits and in-line spinners as search baits for smallies. Once I’ve located a school, I’ll use a weightless wacky rig in less than 8 feet of water and a Neko rig or drop-shot if they’re deeper than 10 feet.
I’ve caught several smallmouth bass with crawfish still in their mouth, so using crawdad colors is always a good idea. I also use silver, white, and translucent colors when fishing in clear water with moving baits.
Some of the tastiest fish in the lake are black and white crappie. The Lake of the Ozarks is one of the top spots to catch crappie in Missouri. Though they’re two separate species, they’re often found side-by-side throughout the lake.
The main difference between the two, besides black crappie being darker than white crappie, is their water clarity preference. Black crappie prefer clear water, while white crappie can handle murkier water better.
However, as I mentioned, they’re often caught in the same area using the same approach because they have an identical spawning cycle.
In the spring, as water temperatures start to creep up, crappies move shallow to spawn along rocky shorelines and shallow brush piles. So if you don’t have access to a boat, this is the best time of year to fish for crappie from the shore.
Once they’ve spawned, crappies move off to deeper brush piles (15-30 feet deep) and spend the summer in these areas.
Summer also is a great time of year to target docks, as crappie will be looking for cooler water, and the shaded area under a dock will be hot spots.
During the fall, crappies follow shiners and other tiny baitfish back to the shallows, where they’ll feed up before winter.
In the winter, they spend most of their time suspended in deeper water, but during warm stretches, you can find them patrolling flats and shallow areas.
Let’s move on to what baits to use for crappie.
The best bait I’ve found for crappie is live minnows. I’ve fished right next to someone using minnows while I used a soft plastic crappie jig, and I didn’t get a single bite while they reeled in fish after fish. Nothing beats live bait.
However, you still have few options when you don’t have live bait.
I love using crappie jigs because you can cast and reel them or use them with a cork or bobber. They come in various colors and sizes to mix-match which ones work best for the day.
I also enjoy trolling with a small crankbait. Many anglers overlook this technique for crappie, which works really well at locating a school during the summer.
My best colors are natural with splashes of chartreuse. I use pearl a lot, as well as green pumpkin with a chartreuse tail.
Crappies are more drawn to bright colors than bass, so don’t be afraid to mix it up with a bright pink or orange every now and then.
Catch More Crappie
Lake of the Ozarks is among Missouri’s crappie fishing hot spots. Check the link to find the rest.
The walleye is arguably the tastiest yet most challenging fish to catch in Lake of the Ozarks. These elusive creatures often patrol ledges and main lake points, but they can also be caught from the bank during the spring.
Walleye are one of the earliest spawners in the spring. They move shallow onto riprap banks, such as those around the dam and bridges, to lay their eggs.
Once they’ve spawned, walleye head to deeper water. They’re very light-sensitive, so you’ll have to catch them in deep water during the day, but in low-light hours you can catch them feeding around shallow flats.
In late fall, they’ll follow their food back to the shallows until winter sets in, when they head back to patrolling open water along ledges and drop-offs.
I’ve found live bait to work best for walleye. I’ve caught many with minnows and nightcrawlers on a crawler harness or bottom bouncer.
However, if you don’t have live bait, several lures, ranging from deep-diving crankbaits, jigs, and swimbaits, will still work.
Trolling with crankbaits or drifting with bottom bouncers are good ways to cover a lot of water in search of walleye, while jigs and swimbaits are best to throw from the shore during the spawn.
Walleye are similar to crappie regarding which colors they like. Bright colors like pink, orange, white, and chartreuse are great options, as well as natural or translucent colors.
Catch More Walleye
Don’t miss our best Missouri walleye lakes and rivers article.
The lake is also home to another dinner plate favorite, catfish. Three species of catfish inhabit the waters here, the channel cat, blue cat, and flathead.
Lake of the Ozarks also ranks as one of our top catfishing destinations in Missouri due to how large they grow and the number of catfish in the lake.
All three have a similar spawning cycle and are often caught in similar areas using similar bait, but there are a few things you can do to target one species over the other.
First, let’s discuss where you should fish based on the time of year.
Catfish are some of the last fish to spawn in late spring and early summer. Honestly, catfishing during this time is some of the hardest because the catfish are consumed with finding a mate and nest.
Once they’ve finished spawning, the bite picks up along ledges and channels throughout the rest of summer.
As fall takes hold, catfish follow their food back to shallow flats and coves, where they feed in preparation for winter. Once the water has cooled, catfish will head back for the ledges and deeper holes to winter over.
Creek and river channels are usually the best places to begin fishing for catfish, meaning any bridges crossing the lake are prime locations.
Catfish are scavengers, so cut bait and chicken livers tend to get a catfish’s attention when using a rod and reel, jugs, or trotline.
There are also a few things you can change to target a specific species, so let’s talk about those briefly.
Channel cats are the smallest of the three species, reaching only 30-ish pounds, and the least picky.
I recommend downsizing your hooks and baits when going after channel cats; that way, you know they can get the bait and hook into their mouth.
I generally use a 6/O hook on a Carolina or slip-sinker rig. The deeper I’m fishing, the heavier the weight I use.
As far as baits for these catfish, not much is off the table. They’ll eat hot dogs, worms, chicken livers, stink baits, cut bait, and I’ve even caught them using bass lures.
Blue cats are the largest of the three species, growing well over 100 pounds in ideal conditions. This means you’ll need to beef up your hooks and baits if you want to catch one of these monsters.
I use an 8/O hook with cut bait when going after blues to help avoid the possibility of the fish bending my hook.
I’ve found cut bait to work the best with blue catfish, most of the time. However, if you’re not getting bites, mix it up with live bait or stink bait.
Flatheads are the oddball of the three catfish species because they mostly prefer live bait over cut bait. Bluegill and green sunfish are the two best live baits for flathead catfish.
Though they don’t get quite as large as blues, they can still reach monstrous sizes, so I also use 8/O hooks when fishing for flatheads.
They also differ in their habitat preference from blues and channel cats. You’ll catch more flatheads in woody cover or boulder piles. However, I have caught flatheads and blues side-by-side.
The pre-historic paddlefish or spoonbill is a big draw to the lake from March 15-April 30 during the brief snagging season when these giant fish make their way up the creeks and rivers to spawn.
While it would be good, snagging is not permitted from the Truman Dam downstream to the Highway 65 Bridge.
Most snagging occurs in the deep pools on the upper 40 miles of the Osage River Arm.
Another good place to try snagging is the Ivy Bend/Coffman Bend area near the 50-mile marker. The Niangua Arm between the mouth of the Little Niangua Arm and the Highway 54 Bridge is another good place to try your luck snagging in early spring.
Paddlefish are highly regulated, so check the regulations before you head out. I recommend hiring a guide to learn the ropes and ensure you follow all the rules.
Spoonbill snagging is very much a game of chance. The more times you cast, the more likely you are to snag a fish. It’s one of the most exhausting forms of catching fish I’ve ever participated in, but it’s also a lot of fun when you haul in a big fish.
Snagging from a boat gives you the advantage of finding the fish using sonar, but don’t let that stop you from testing the waters from the shore. Most of the paddlefish I’ve caught over the years have been from the shore.
White Bass Fishing
White bass, or sand bass, are also found in the Lake of the Ozarks. They’re not highly sought-after species like black bass, which is okay with me because I love catching them, and I’m all for less pressure!
Where and how you should fish for white bass depends on the time of year you’re fishing.
In early spring, sand bass run up the rivers and creeks to spawn. The spring spawn is one of the easiest times of year to catch them using a variety of lures from the bank because so many are concentrated in a tiny area close to shore.
Once spawning has ended, white bass return to the river channels and main lake, where they patrol the waters looking for shad.
As fall sets in, they follow the shad back to the shallows, where they feed heavily before winter, when they’ll head back to the open water.
This generalized spawning pattern always helps me choose my technique and lure for white bass.
I’ll find a deep hole in the creek or river with some brush or rocks and cast until I find a school of fish.
I usually throw something shiny for sand bass, so I use in-line spinners, spoons, and spinnerbaits. In the spring and into summer, I’ll also mix in swimbaits and crappie jigs.
However, I like to use spoons and crankbaits when I’m trolling. I primarily troll over main lake points, humps, and in the river channel in the summer.
The fish that started my fishing obsession was the sunfish. They’re easy to catch and are lots of fun, especially on ultra-light gear.
Sunfish and bluegill often hold under docks, in brush, and other shallow areas, so this is one of the best species to target if you don’t have a boat.
Live worms and minnows work great; if you don’t have those, I’ve caught a lot of sunfish using small jigs and in-line spinners.
As far as colors go, anything that resembles a small minnow or worm color works. White, green pumpkin and silver are my go-to colors for artificial lures.
Catch More Sunfish
Planning Your Trip
Now that you know how to start fishing for the most popular species, it’s time to start planning your trip to Lake of the Ozarks. Below you’ll find public access areas, boat ramps, and nearby places to stay.
Boat Ramps & Public Access
Listing all the boat ramps and public access areas would be a monumental task. So instead, I’ll give you some of the best-maintained areas and boat launches.
- Brown Bend Access is on the Osage Arm in the far western portion of the lake
- Gravois Mills Access is on the Gravois Arm in the far northwestern portion of the lake
- Coffman Beach Access is on the northern portion of the lake, lower on the Gravois Arm than Gravois Mills
- McCubbin’s Point is on the southeastern portion of the lake in Lake of the Ozarks State Park (Grand Glaize Arm)
- Larry R. Gale Access is on the far southern portion of the lake, in the Niangua Arm
Where to Stay
Whether you love camping, staying in a hotel, or at a resort, Lake of the Ozarks has what you want.
The Lake of the Ozarks State Park is a wonderful place to camp with your RV or tent.
There are also many private resorts and hotels scattered around the lake. This lake is very much a vacation destination, so you won’t have to go without the luxuries if you don’t want to.