Mark Twain Lake Fishing: Complete Angler’s Guide

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Mark Twain Lake is the largest reservoir in northern Missouri, known for crappie, catfish, and bass fishing. However, that’s not all this lake offers the average angler. 

Today we’ll explore what lurks beneath the fluctuating waters of Mark Twain Lake, learning which techniques to use to catch the fish that call it home.

Since it’s known for its crappie fishing, we will begin there; then we’ll make a few casts for bass and catfish, finally finishing up with some of the lesser-targeted but equally fun fish.

If you’re ready to figure the fish out on Mark Twain Lake, let’s get started!

Crappie Fishing at Mark Twain Lake

Despite Mark Twain Lake’s varying water clarity throughout the year, it’s home to some of the best crappie fishing in Missouri for both black and white crappie.

While there is a genetic difference between the two crappie types, the main difference that anglers are concerned with is each species’ water clarity preference.

Black crappie prefer clear water, while white crappie are better suited for turbid or muddy water. However, both species are often caught in the same areas using the same techniques and bait. 

This is because they have identical spawning patterns, and their spawning patterns are what dictate where they’ll be throughout the year.

In the spring, during late April and early May, crappie move shallow in search of an excellent location to spawn. They’re most often found around shallow laydowns, stumps, and rocks.

The spawn is the best time to catch crappie as a bank angler because they spawn in very shallow water, especially when the water is murky like it tends to be at Mark Twain during the spring.

Once they’ve spawned in late spring and early summer, crappie move offshore to brush piles ranging from 10-25 feet deep, depending on the thermocline (water temperature) and water clarity.

Post-spawn is still a good time of year to catch crappie from a boat or kayak because they’re feeding aggressively to gain back the weight they lost while spawning.

As the water temperature rises, crappies move to deeper brush piles or suspend near steep depth changes, such as ledges like river and creek channels.

As fall sets in and the water cools, crappie will follow their food, primarily small gizzard shad, back to the shallows to feed heavily before winter.

Once winter sets in, you’ll often find crappies suspended along the ledges again. However, during warmer stretches, they’ll patrol shallow flats for food.

Now that we understand where crappie will generally be throughout the year let’s discuss which baits and techniques work best. 

The all-time best bait to use for crappie is minnows. Where it’s legal, nothing is better, no matter what time of year you’re fishing.

However, I love using crappie jigs. I’ll use a dark purple or a bright chartreuse jig when the water is murky. When the water is clear, I use a natural color such as pearl, translucent or green pumpkin with a touch of chartreuse on the tail.

Trolling with small crankbaits is another way to locate a school of crappie during the summer, especially when you don’t have high-end electronics.

My mom loves pedaling her kayak and trolling a small shallow-diving crawdad or grasshopper crankbait to catch crappie.

Mark Twain Lake Bass Fishing

Mark Twain Lake is known for producing some of Missouri’s best largemouth bass fishing opportunities. The number of quality-sized bass in Mark Twain is exceptionally high.

But there are better times to fish for them, such as spring and fall, due to the natural cycle bass have throughout the year. 

Largemouth bass spawn in the spring, so they head for the shallows to make nests on pea gravel (hard bottom) flats near a depth change.

Bass are very protective of their nests this time of year, so using lures that imitate marauding bluegill or crawfish works very well.

After spawning, most bass move offshore to a ledge, brush pile, or rock pile. However, several will remain in shallow cover.

Post-spawn is an excellent time of year to fish for bass in Missouri because they’re aggressively feeding, so many lures work well. My favorites are jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and a Texas rig.

As the water heats up, most bass are suspended along ledges or set up on main lake points. You’ll still find a few in the shallows, primarily relating to shady areas.

Beginning at one of the several bridges which cross the lake is usually a great idea this time of year.

During the fall, when the water is cooling, bass will follow their food back to the shallows to feed heavily before winter sets in.

By winter, you’ll find most bass suspending near steep depth changes such as creek and river channels.

Since Mark Twain’s water levels and clarity fluctuate so much, I recommend using colors such as black and blue, green pumpkin, and white and chartreuse with jigs, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, and Texas rigs.

Spinnerbaits work well when the water is high and floods the trees surrounding the lake in the spring. Chatterbaits are another great lure for murky water.

Jigs work well at all times of the year; try dark colors when the water is muddy and lighter colors when the water is clear.

Texas rigs are great when the water is a little clearer, and the bass are shallow. If the bass are deep, a Carolina rig is better suited for catching them.

Catfish Fishing

Catfishing at Mark Twain Lake is also top-notch by Missouri standards. It’s home to three species of catfish: channel cats, blue cats, and flatheads. 

Each species has similar spawning patterns but differs in the best methods and baits to catch them. So we will first dive into where to find them depending on the time of year and then what techniques work best for each species.

Catfish are late spawners at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. Unlike most other species, there are better times of year to fish for them. They’re primarily concerned with finding the best locations to nest and are less focused on food.

However, once they’ve spawned, catfish are hungry and ready to start eating on flats, along ledges, and in deep holes such as river and creek mouths.

Their primary food source is shad, so they’ll follow these baitfish throughout the rest of the summer and into fall, where you are likely to find them back in shallow water, feeding in preparation for winter.

During the winter, catfish tend to stick to the deeper holes and channels but venture onto shallow flats to feed when they can.

The three ways to catch catfish at Mark Twain Lake are by rod and reel, jugs, and trotlines.

When using a rod & reel, you’ll likely catch more channel cats and blues with the occasional flathead. Jugs and trotlines will yield more flatheads, depending on where you place them and which bait you’re using.

The bridges that cross the lake act as a funnel for the baitfish, which draws the bigger predator fish into the area. So these locations are great places to start fishing for catfish.

The upper parts of the North Fork, Middle Fork, South Fork, and Indian Creek arms are where most anglers catch catfish at Mark Twain Lake.

Channel Catfish

Channel cats are the smallest of the three popular species but the easiest to catch. They’re the least picky, so you can use hot dogs, chicken liver, stink baits, worms, and cut shad to catch them throughout the year. 

I recommend downsizing your hook to a 6/0 hook so channel catfish can easily fit it into their mouth. However, don’t go too small because there’s still a good chance of a blue catfish picking up your bait. We don’t want a big blue straightening your hook and losing a fish of a lifetime! 

Channel cats are primarily found along the flats and in the creek and river channels, hence the name “channel catfish.” You may often find them schooling up with similar-sized blue cats.

Blue Catfish

Blue catfish, the largest of the three species, can grow well over 100 pounds in ideal conditions. Several blues over 50 pounds are caught in Mark Twain every year, but many more will be around 15-20 pounds. 

Blue cats are a little more picky than channels, so cut bait, especially fresh shad, is the primary bait. Sometimes they also might be in the mood for live bait, such as bluegill or shad. 

Using heavy-duty fishing gear when blue catfishing is a must, as you never know when a big one will bite. I recommend using an 8/0 hook or larger with large chunks of cut bait to target the bigger fish.

Blue cats use the river and creek channels to move around the lake, so starting your search along ledges and deep holes is always good.

Flathead Catfish

Catfish anglers prize flatheads, which in most waters are not as abundant as other species. However, Mark Twain Lake has a healthy population, so don’t be surprised when you catch a few.

While you might catch flathead catfish in the same areas, using the same baits as the other two species, they’re most often the oddball. They are more active hunters and usually prefer live bait, such as bluegill, but occasionally eat cut bait.

Flatheads are regularly caught out of brush piles using a rod and reel, but trotlines in the creek arms account for many catches.

I recommend using an 8/0 hook when targeting flathead catfish, as they can easily exceed 50-plus pounds at Mark Twain Lake.

Mark Twain Lake Walleye Fishing

Walleye numbers in Mark Twain Lake remain low; however, they have increased thanks to stocking efforts by the MDC. The low numbers help the walleye’s overall size found in Mark Twain Lake, as it has quality-sized fish.

During the early spring, walleye spawn in the streams and along riprap banks, like those found around the bridges.

The spawn is the best time of year to catch walleye because they’re close to the shore and congregated.

Once they’ve spawned, walleye head to patrol ledges near flats. During the day, they will be less active and in deeper water, as their large eyes are very light-sensitive.

In low-light hours they feed more and are easiest to catch, especially during the summer.

As fall sets in, walleye follow their food back to the shallows, but not as shallow as they go during the spring, so fishing along points near depth changes remain great spots for walleye fishing.

Winter means the walleye head for the creek and river channels, suspending in holes and along ledges.

Identical to crappie, the best bait to use for walleye is minnows. I’ve caught a ton of walleye using minnows. However, that’s only going to pay off once you’ve found them. 

Other lures that work very well are deep-diving crankbaits used for trolling, swimbaits used for casting, and bottom bouncers for drifting or slow-trolling.

I also prefer to keep my colors similar to crappie fishing, except I use bright colors more often when walleye fishing than with any other fish. White and chartreuse, bubblegum pink, and green pumpkin and chartreuse are my go-to colors, depending on the water clarity.

White Bass Fishing

White bass fishing is some of the most fun you can have; these “sand bass” are aggressive, swim in big schools, and don’t require a lot of gear. Plus, they’re suitable for eating!

Mark Twain Lake has a healthy population of white bass, and spring is the best time to catch them when they run up the rivers and creeks to spawn on the riffles. 

Once the spawn is over, sandies spend most of their time in the river, creek channels, and main lake. They follow their primary food source, shad, back to the shallows in the fall before they hunker down in the deeper water for winter.

In the spring, white bass aren’t picky with lures. I’ve caught them using swimbaits, crappie jigs, spinners, and white crankbaits.

Then when white bass have finished spawning, and the water has warmed, I love trolling the main lake points, humps, and river channels with crankbaits and spoons during the summer. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll run across a school busting the surface on shad. That’s a great time to grab a topwater lure and catch a few while they’re in a feeding frenzy.

White, chrome, or anything shiny resembling a shad will be the best colors for white bass fishing.

Catch More White Bass

Be sure to check out my simple white bass fishing tips, including my favorite techniques and lures.

Sunfish Fishing

Sunfish fishing, such as fishing for bluegill, is the best way to introduce someone to fishing, especially kids. Bluegill and their sunfish kin are easy to catch, and the action is fast.

They swim in schools often visible from the shore because they’re only a few feet out.

Once you’ve found some sunfish, bait up your small hook with earthworms, place a bobber 6 inches to a foot above the hook, depending on how deep the fish are, and start catching fish.

These are the fish that got me hooked on fishing, and I still love catching them when I’m having a tough day targeting other species.

Catch More Sunfish

We have a simple guide to fishing for bluegill and sunfish, including favorite baits and tactics.

Planning Your Trip

Now that we’ve thoroughly covered the species commonly found in Mark Twain Lake, we can briefly touch on planning your trip to this beautiful lake.

First, you’ve got to get there, which isn’t difficult. The lake is about two hours northwest of the St. Louis area, or a little more than half that distance traveling northeast from Columbia.

Now let’s look quickly at the boat ramps, public access locations, and best places to stay during your next visit to Mark Twain Lake.

Boat Ramps & Public Access Areas

No matter what portion of the lake you plan to fish, there’s a boat ramp and public access area nearby. 

The Indian Creek Recreation Area offers public access with a boat ramp mid-lake on the northern side of the lake.

The 107 Boat Ramp is a state ramp just off the Route 107 bridge on the north side of the lake.

The Mark Twain State Park boat ramp is mid-lake on the southern side of the lake.

The Ray Behrens Recreation Area boat ramp off Highway J is one of the options if you plan to fish on the eastern side of the reservoir.

Places to Stay

Whether you’re looking for a quality hotel or a fun campground, you’ll find it near Mark Twain Lake.

The Mark Twain State Park is a favorite place for many visitors to the lake, but you can find several smaller campgrounds that will also meet your needs.

There are a few hotels and inns at the lake and in nearby towns, including Monroe City, which has a fair number of restaurants and supplies north of the lake.

Hannibal is the closest city (about 45 minutes) that’s large enough to have multiple hotels to choose from, but there are small bed and breakfasts and resorts to stay much closer to the lake.