Lake of the Ozarks, MO
Fishing is one of the few instances where you can say “crappie day” and have it be a totally good thing. Of course, pronouncing it the way it’s spelled is pretty much a surefire way to identify someone from up north, as most folks in the south pronounce it “croppie,” and that’s exactly how my grandpa taught me at Lake of the Ozarks.
I’m not sure how many times I can describe a place from my childhood as truly defining to who I am and the life I’ve been blessed to lead, but without a doubt, Lake of the Ozarks is a place totally ingrained in my memory from youth.
When I was living in Oklahoma, my grandpa lived over in Kentucky, and we’d drive into Missouri to meet up at Lake of the Ozarks. The first time I ever saw that lake, I was totally floored by how big, how remote, and how pure it was. It felt like nature untouched, the waters clear as they must have been when the original pioneers first set out west from St. Louis.
Lake of the Ozarks is more like a gigantic river than a traditional lake, meandering and twisting a serpentine route over 90 miles through the heart of Missouri. That’s because it’s manmade, completed in 1931 during the Great Depression, when the project to build Bagnell Dam created thousands of jobs for the region.
Because of this, it’s riddled with hundreds and hundreds of little fingers and alcoves jutting out from the main body, lined with beautiful green forests and jagged cliffs, and we spent just as much time exploring and cruising this beautiful maze of waterways as we did actually fishing there.
That first visit, I remember seeing a large dock jutting out across the water to the middle of the lake, like some sort of bridge sitting there half-completed. At the end of it was a huge hut, and we all got too curious to not check it out.
It was hollow inside, and my grandpa realized it first. “It’s a crappie hut,” he said. There was a hole right in the middle, and people would go in, set up some chairs, and jig for crappie.
If you’ve never fished with a jig before, it’s a type of lure with a sinker and a hook that you kind of jerk through the water to attract a fish’s attention. When jigging for crappie, you can also use lights and bait like minnows to attract the crappie closer. They can’t get to the minnows, but your jig is sure to get their attention.
With this crappie hut just standing there waiting for us, we grabbed our poles and came back right away, and we caught crappie after crappie that day well past the sunset. It was an absolute blast and one of my first with jigging. My dad and grandpa told me all about the crazy things they’ve seen people throw into the water to stir up crappies, from rocks and shrubs to boulders even, and all kinds of lights. Whatever works, right?
In addition to our crappie time, my dad took me to the headquarters of Bass Pro Shops, this gargantuan complex of fishing gear, outdoor equipment, and these massive tanks of gorgeous fish. They had a beautiful bass there named Ethel, the largest in captivity at the time, and I remember staring at her in total awe as she glided through the water. Her 13+ pounds might as well have been 25 to me, and even though she has since passed, I’ll never forget seeing her on that trip.
To me, Lake of the Ozarks is exactly that kind of place to explore and just let yourself be in awe of things. It sits west and a bit north of Mark Twain National Forest, and I guess that’s fitting. A mighty river dammed up into a manmade lake, a twisting hive of nooks and inlets ripe for exploring, it has a little bit of a Huck Finn vibe. It’s a place to take the wife and kids to fish, explore, and pass along the same beauty and memories I have from a couple long lost crappie days.