Let’s call the fourth Saturday in May what it really is.
To my knowledge, the fourth Saturday in May is the only date on the calendar when Missouri anglers and hunters all have something to rejoice about. That’s because the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is opening day for squirrel hunting and for catch-and-keep fishing for black bass south of the Missouri River.
This year’s squirrel season runs from May 28 through Feb. 15, 2017. You can fish for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass year-round, and you can keep these three black bass species all year anywhere north of the Missouri River and in impoundments statewide. Though in most streams south of the Missouri River, you may not legally keep black bass until the season opens. This is designed to give bass protection during their spawning season and during the part of the year when Ozark streams are at very low levels and bass are concentrated in small pools.
Note that I said “most” streams south of the Missouri River. The area where black bass fishing is restricted excludes what is commonly known as “swamp east Missouri,” the low area that is part of the Upper Mississippi Embayment. This includes all of Dunklin, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Mississippi and Scott counties, most of Butler and Stoddard counties and tiny bits of Ripley and Cape Girardeau counties. The actual boundaries are much more precise than this, being demarcated by highways as described in the Conservation Department’s Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations. The booklet is available wherever fishing permits are sold or online at http://on.mo.gov/1LwnqRA.
There’s no trick to finding places to hunt squirrels. Anyplace with trees is sure to have bushy tails. If you don’t own such land or know anyone who does, there are literally hundreds of conservation areas that are crawling with squirrels. The Conservation Department makes it easy to find an area near you with its online Conservation Area Atlas. The database is searchable by county, activity or type of facilities.
What might be slightly more complicated is finding the right kind of squirrel. To me, the “right” kind are fox squirrels, which are about twice the size of gray squirrels, and consequently are more likely to add up to more than one serving apiece.
In principle, finding fox squirrels is easy. They inhabit open woodlands and areas where wooded acres are surrounded by open ground, especially agricultural land. This means southwestern and northern Missouri for the most part. However, you can find fox squirrels throughout the state where forest borders on pasture or row crops.
Most of the bass you catch in Ozark streams will be smallmouths, those bronze-backed masters of the aerobatic hook-toss. In a few streams, however, smallmouths have been fighting a losing battle against an invasion of spotted bass.
I’m not normally one to intervene in a fair fight, but in this case I think anglers have legitimate cause to take sides. For one thing, the spotted bass’s fighting ability pales in comparison to that of a smallmouth. Add to that the fact that spots are significantly smaller, on average than smallies, and you’ve got a no-brainer.
To let anglers weigh in on the smallmouth-spotted bass battle, the Conservation Department has removed the minimum length limit for spots on all or parts of the Big, Bourbeuse, Courtois, Meramec rivers and on Huzzah, Blue Springs, Dry Fork and Mineral Fork creeks. Taking home a limit of six spotted bass of various sizes lets anglers enjoy fish on the table without reducing the supply of hard-fighting smallmouths.
More restrictive length and creel limits apply to smallmouths on various other streams where the Conservation Department is trying to build trophy smallmouth fisheries. Before heading out, be sure to check the section of the Fishing Regulation Guide for regulations specific to the area you plan to fish.
Stream bassing in Missouri isn’t all about the Ozarks. Several streams in Northern Missouri have good smallmouth bass populations mixed in with the dominant bucketmouths. The South Fabius (pronounced (Fabby”) River, which runs through Knox, Lewis and Marion counties north of St. Louis. This Mississippi River tributary is virtually unknown outside of Northeastern Missouri, but it is notable enough to be included in the Conservation Department’s “Padder’s Guide to Missouri.”
Plenty of other northern Missouri streams also have excellent black bass fishing. North of the Missouri River there are the North Fabius, Grand, Chariton, Salt and Platte, and in the south you have fine Ozark Border streams, including the Lamine, Moreau and Maries rivers.
Oil up your shotgun and fishing reel. The fun is about to start!