By Brent Frazee
This was a fair-weather fisherman’s worst nightmare.
On a miserable day in March, spring was coming in like a lion.
The air temperature had plummeted to 30 degrees and a cold north wind was kicking up whitecaps from the Lake of the Ozarks.
So what was Marcus Sykora doing out there?
He knew by experience that days like this, no matter how miserable they might seem, produce some of the best bass fishing of the year in the Missouri Ozarks.
“Some fishermen think you have to wait until the weather warms up before you can catch bass,” said Sykora, dressed in several layers of clothes and with a hood pulled tight around his face. “But by the time they get out, they’ve already missed the best time of the year to catch big bass.”
“The big ones are the first to move up. They’ll leave their winter spots and go to the chunk-rock banks and secondary points next to deep water to sun and start to feed.”
“That’s when I want to be out.”
There’s no mystery as to what Sykora will cast – a suspending jerkbait.
Once a well-guarded secret in the Ozarks, it now is the bait of choice in late winter and early spring when the water is still cold and the fish are sluggish.
Those elongated baits that are tuned to suspend in the water column are the perfect imitators of struggling shad.
The baitfish will slowly swim along with erratic flips of their tails, then pause occasionally to rest.
That’s what a good bass fisherman can get a suspending jerkbait to do.
Sykora proved it on this trip several years ago.
He made a long cast with his Megabass suspending stickbait and cranked it down, then jerked it several times and let it sit for a 12 count.
He followed that cadence several times before it attracted the attention of a big bass.
The strike felt more like something a bluegill, instead of a big largemouth, would make.
But when Sykora set the hook, he felt weight.
When he lifted the bass into the boat, he knew he had something special.
Placing his catch on a scale, he found that the bass weighed 5 pounds, 6 ounces. He carefully released it, then started casting for more.
By the end of the afternoon, he landed and released eight more keepers, including several others in the 4-pound range.
A stellar day? Well, yeah, but certainly not out of the ordinary.
Sykora does the same thing every year, catching big bass before most fishermen even get their tackle out of storage.
As soon as the water temperature climbs into the 40s, he knows it’s time to launch his boat.
He often concentrates on the shallows along channel swing banks or points or chunk-rock banks where bass have close access to deep water.
But he doesn’t simply drop his trolling motor and start fishing.
He likes to fish what he calls “a specific spot on a spot.”
He and his fishing partner, Bill Davenport, often sink brush piles on key banks and points at Lake of the Ozarks, mark them on their GPS units, then return when conditions are ideal.
They will cast beyond their targets, and pull the stickbaits down to the point where they will suspend just over the top of that cover. That’s often when they get a strike.
“A lot of times, the bass will be inactive and just sit down there in a brush pile,” said Sykora, one of the top tournament fishermen at Lake of the Ozarks. “But if an easy meal comes along, they’ll take it.”
Sykora will use 8-pound test line to get better action from his lure than if he would use heavy line.
And he is careful not to “overwork” the jerkbait. “If you retrieve it too fast, it doesn’t look natural to the bass,” he said.
Time of day can also be a factor. Sykora often catches his biggest bass in the afternoon when the sun has warmed the water by a degree or two.
He prefers to use Megabass jerkbaits, because he said they cast further and usually suspend perfectly.
But bass fishermen use a wide range of other suspending baits including Smithwick Rogues, Luck-E-Strike RC models, Strike King KVD baits, Spro McSticks, Rapala Shadow Raps and more.
They all will fool bass during the early part of the fishing season when the bass are still sluggish.
By the time the water temperature rises into the 50s, fishermen such as Sykora often go to other lures such as spinnerbaits, crankbaits and plastics to appeal to more-active bass.
By that time, Sykora has usually caught a few bass weighing 5 pounds or more, though.