John Neporadny scanned the clear water in a cove on Lake of the Ozarks and spotted crappies on their spawning beds.
That was the easy part. The hard part? Finding a way to get those fish to hit.
“The males are in, fanning their beds, but they seem to be spawning deeper than usual because of this clear water,” said Neporadny, who lives in Lake Ozark. “You can see them, but that doesn’t mean you can catch them.
“They spook pretty easily if you get too close. But there are little tricks you can use to catch ’em.”
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With that, Neporadny reached for his secret weapon — an ultralight rod and a reel spooled with 2-pound test line, and a 1/64th-ounce jig head and a tiny plastic jig.
“You have to be patient,” Neporadny said as he cast the jig and watched it slowly flutter down. “But if it lands near that bed, a lot of times they’ll hit it. I think it has a more natural look to it when it drifts down like that.”
Neporadny watched as the Bobby Garland Itty Bit Swim’R jig slowly fell toward a cleared-out spot on the bottom. He also watched a crappie dart up and engulf the small lure.
He hooked the fish, and his ultralight rod immediately bent sharply. In a matter of seconds, he had the male crappie, resplendent in its spawning colors, in the boat and was touting the advantages of going small.
“Everyone talks about sight fishing for bass,” said Neporadny, 60, a well-known outdoors writer and author who lives on the waterfront at Lake Ozark. “But you can do the same thing for crappies.
“You can pick out the one you want to catch.”
Neporady and his two fishing partners — Jim Divincen of the Tri-County Lodging Association and I — found that to be a successful method on a recent trip during a Missouri Outdoor Communicators conference at Lake of the Ozarks.
At a time when the crappie fishing was challenging, we regularly put fish in the live well, enough for a tasty fish fry.
For Neporadny, that success was a welcome sight. During most springs, limits of crappies are taken for granted at Lake of the Ozarks. This year, not so much.
Roller coaster weather has confused the crappies as well as the fishermen. The fish have been in and out for their annual spawn at a dizzying pace. And the fishing has been erratic.
It has nothing to do with the big lake’s crappie population. The quantity and quality of the crappies remain strong, much the same as in the past. That’s why Lake of the Ozarks is consistently recognized as one of the best crappie lakes in Missouri.
But unusual conditions have had an effect on the fishing this spring, according to Greg Stoner, a fisheries biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“The water temperature has hovered around the mid- to high-50s for weeks and weeks, and I think that has resulted in a prolonged spawning period,” Stoner said. “We haven’t had that mass move to the banks like we get some years.
“Plus the water is a lot clearer this year, and the fish aren’t spawning where a lot of fishermen are accustomed to catching them. They’re spawning deeper.”
Still, Stoner said, good catches have been reported in some parts of the giant lake. And Stoner believes the spawn is still going.
“We’re still catching dark males,” he said.
That’s good news for fishermen such as Neporadny. He and many others look forward to the spring days when the dogwoods are blooming and the crappies are in on the banks.
Neporadny has fished Lake of the Ozarks for most of his life. He remembers the days when he lived in St. Louis and he and his dad would drive to the lake to fish for crappies each spring.
“About the only lure we would use was a Road Runner,” Neporadny said. “At the time, they weren’t that easy to find.
“We’d go around all the tackle shops at the lake and buy them out.”
Neporadny and his wife moved to the lake in 1982, and he has been fishing for crappies and bass ever since. He has long been a writer for BASS, but he also writes about crappies in national magazines.
The subjects of his articles are never far away. He and his wife live on the water, and he has a bass boat waiting at his dock.
Even after the spawn ends, he knows he can catch crappies. The fish will move deeper, but they still can be caught “shooting” the docks (making an underhand, slingshot cast), he said.
“The great thing about Lake of the Ozarks is that we consistently have good crappie spawns here,” Neporadny said. “The water doesn’t fluctuate a lot like it does at some lakes.”