It's high time to go crappie fishing at Lake of the Ozarks

John Neporadny knows that April is the time to catch big crappies at Lake of the Ozarks.
John Neporadny knows that April is the time to catch big crappies at Lake of the Ozarks. Special to The Star

John Neporadny steered his bass boat at Lake of the Ozarks into a cove that was lined with boat docks and was greeted with an unwelcome sight.

Someone else was parked on the stretch of water he had planned to fish.

Other fishermen might have complained. Not Neporadny. He learned long ago that you almost have to take a number and wait to fish some of the popular banks at the big lake when the crappies move in to spawn.

“I can’t believe the number of fishermen who will be out when the crappie spawn starts,” he said. “Look at today. It’s the middle of the week, but there are still a lot of boats out.”

That heavy fishing pressure didn’t faze Neporadny though. He has fished Lake of the Ozarks since he was a kid, and that amounts to plenty of good fishing spots in his memory bank.

He made a run of some of those spots on Wednesday, until he found one that didn’t have a boat sitting on it. Then he went to work. He cast a bright-colored jig under a bobber to the shallows off a gravel bank and began shaking it.

A silver crappie flashed at the bait and buried the bobber. Seconds later, Neporadny had the 12-inch fish in the boat and tossed it into a live well that would soon be teeming with fish.

Welcome to spring at Lake of the Ozarks.

No fish spreads spring fever at the big lake faster than the crappie. Sure, lots of fishermen flock to the 55,000-acre reservoir in central Missouri to cast for bass. But the crappie is the main attraction.

Once the water temperature climbs into the upper 50s, the speckled panfish head en masse to gravel banks throughout the lake to spawn. And a legion of fishermen follows.

The crappie is everyman’s fish. You don’t need a high-powered boat, all kinds of high-dollar equipment or the latest electronics to catch them when they move into the shallows to spawn. They are accessible, even to those fishing from shore, and they are easy to catch.

The fishing can turn on overnight. A few warm days and mild nights can trigger instant good fishing.

That’s what happened last week in the coves in the dam area. On an overcast, warm day, Neporadny and two friends — Jim Divincen and I — got a good look at the spring crappie fishing that has made Lake of the Ozarks famous.

We all filled our compartments of the live well with the tasty fish that many seek, and the size of the fish was impressive. But that came as no surprise to Neporadny, a longtime outdoors writer who is in the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

“Some people have been saying how late the crappie spawn is this year,” said Neporadny, 63, who lives at the water’s edge in Lake Ozark. “But I was looking at my records, and the spawn always takes place the last two weeks of April here at the lake.

“When the dogwoods are blooming, the crappies will be in spawning.”

Neporadny uses a medium-light-action spinning rod, a small reel spooled with 4-pound test line and a small plastic bait to entice those crappies. He likes a bait that falls slowly through the clear water, attracting even the most finicky of fish.

Most of the fish Neporadny, Divincen and I caught on Wednesday were in 4-5 feet of water. Some were taken out of the top of brush piles, but just as many were found on bare banks with a mix of gravel and softball-size rocks.

Neporadny believes the spawn is just starting. The best fishing should continue for two to three weeks, he said.

Of course, cold fronts can temporarily interrupt the fishing, sending the crappies out to slightly deeper water. But the good fishing resumes once the weather warms.

Neporadny has seen that pattern for success develop virtually every year at Lake of the Ozarks. The big reservoir has plenty going for it. With numerous coves with gravel banks, it offers plenty of spawning habitat. The water level seldom fluctuates greatly in the spring like it does at some reservoirs. And the panfish have plenty of forage, which sustains a healthy population.

“I started fishing here in the ‘70s, but I think the fishing is just as good today as it was back then or maybe better,” Neporadny said. “The management of the lake (by the Missouri Department of Conservation) has played a big part.

“Our population stays consistent, and the average size of our fish is good, too.”