By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
PITTSBURG, Mo. – The long, silvery body of a large fish broke the glassy surface of Pomme de Terre Lake just as Earle Hammond brought his pontoon boat to a halt at his favorite fishing hole. We hoped it was an omen of good things to come.
“That was a muskie right there, with its snout up out of the water,” Hammond said. “You don’t catch a muskie every day. Expect the best, but don’t count on it.”
Hammond is one of three guides who specialize in muskie at Pomme de Terre, a manmade lake in southwest Missouri. The lake is home to Pomme de Terre State Park, which consists of 734 acres in two sections of wooded hills on both the Hermitage and Pittsburg sides of the lake.
The lake is the smallest of the Corps of Engineers’ impoundments where the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has state parks. But don’t overlook Pomme de Terre when planning a spring fishing trip.
The 7,800-acre lake is at the center of five other state parks – Lake of the Ozarks, Harry S Truman, Stockton, Bennett Spring and Ha Ha Tonka – and can be part of an extended vacation. And, unlike many of the other parks, Pomme de Terre is seldom crowded, although boasting more marinas and public facilities per acre of water than any other lake in the state.
Pomme de Terre Dam just marked its 50th anniversary, and Hammond has been coming since the lake was formed. He moved there with his wife, Mary, in 2003 after retiring from a 39-year career as a police officer in Kansas City.
“For a long time, Pomme de Terre was the only lake down here,” Hammond said. “Then they built Stockton, and that took a lot of people. Then they built Truman, and that took a lot of people. So now, Pomme de Terre is kind of the forgotten lake. But that doesn’t bother me at all. When I have clients out there, I tell them, ‘Welcome to my private lake.’”
And there’s one other important reason to give Pomme de Terre a try – it’s the state’s best place for catching a muskie, which is legendary as one of the largest, most elusive fish in North America. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks the clear waters of the lake with up to 4,500 muskie each year. Every sixth year there is a “pulse” stocking of 10,000 fish. It takes about three years for the 13-inch muskies to reach 30 or more inches in length.
“This is the muskie capital of the Midwest,” said Hammond, who is on the board of Muskie, Inc., a national group. The local chapter sponsors an annual muskie tournament at Pomme de Terre on the first weekend of October. Hammond and his fishing partner won the tournament one year with two 41.5-inch muskies and a 36-incher.
(Lake of the Ozarks holds the Missouri state record for muskie with a fish caught in 1981 that was 49.5 inches long and weighed 41 pounds, two ounces. The Conservation Department stocked the lake one time in the late 1960s.)
Known as the “fish of a 10,000 casts,” catching a muskie can be a project. But when a muskie clamps its tooth-lined jaws on a bait, the fight is on.
“They’ll take a duck, and a squirrel going across the water,” Hammond said. “They’ll follow your lure in. I’ve had a lure about two feet out of the water and a muskie came out of nowhere and hit it. They’re fantastic athletes. I was standing on my bass boat and had one come out of the water on a perfect arch that went higher than my head.
“But you can’t just go out and catch a muskie, like you can a bass. You’ve got to work for them.”
Fishing should be excellent
Fishing is just one of the activities available at Pomme de Terre State Park, said Laura Hendrickson, the natural resource manager. The park has three modern shower houses, two sand beaches and four free concrete boat ramps. The marina offers recreational boats for rent from April 1 through Oct. 31. Visit mofunparks.com for a listing of what is available.
The park has two hiking trails, including the Indian Point Trail, which loops three miles through the woods to a rocky bluff overlooking the lake. The staff uses regular controlled burns to improve the park’s savannah landscape of wildflowers and grasses growing beneath widely spaced mature trees.
“Primarily, we’re a weekend destination except during June and July, when we have a lot of family vacations,” Hendrickson said. “We have more than 250 camp sites – the largest number of any Missouri state park. Many of our sites are lakefront.”
“You can go to Ha Ha Tonka to hike, make a day trip to Bennett Spring and buzz up to Truman,” she said. “We are a nice central location.”
Muskie is the oddity species at Pomme de Terre, which also is known for its bass and crappie fishing, as well as walleye. The Department of Conservation has put in fish attractors, usually sunken cedar trees. The locations are marked with green signs, and maps are available. Surveys by the department indicate fishing for black bass should be “very good” in 2012 and crappie should be “excellent.” Catfish will be fair to good.
“Muskie angling opportunities will continue to be excellent in 2012,” wrote Craig Fuller, the department’s biologist at Pomme de Terre. “Spring sampling results showed good densities, with more than 50 percent of all muskies exceeding the 36-inch minimum length limit and about 20 percent exceeding the 40-inch mark.”
The cry of a loon
Spring and fall are the best times for catching muskie. Winter is the slowest. But a balmy winter day of full sun, no wind and temperatures around 50 degrees coaxed out Hammond and his 24-foot pontoon boat.
“Early morning, late afternoon is prime time,” he said. “We stop fishing for them when the water hits about 80 degrees in summer. The third week of August till about the third week of September, that’s the best time. Normally it lasts until the end of October. That’s when they’re eating a lot to fill up for winter.”
Hammond casts the shore line three to five feet deep for muskie, using lures that seem to adhere to the rule that big and ugly is better. He also trolls at a couple miles an hour with poles mounted on Down East rod holders trailing from 60 to 100 feet of line in depths of anywhere from five to 20 feet and deeper.
His boat is equipped with a Lowrance “fishfinder” that shows what’s below the surface, from ledges and brush piles to schools of shad and individual fish. Hammond prefers the water to be a tad murky.
When casting, he jerks the lure back in and, when reaching the boat, moves the bait in large figure 8s in the water in attract a trailing muskie. If he gets a hit, Hammond sinks the hook in the cartilage of the fish’s mouth with a vigorous tug.
“I catch more muskies trolling than anybody out here, and I do alright casting, too,” said Hammond, who practices catch-and-release fishing for muskies. “In spring time, 85 percent are caught by trolling and 15 by casting. It’s just the opposite in fall.”
We saw only one other boat during our tour of the lake, and the two bass fishermen aboard were having better luck than us.
We entertained ourselves watching the wildlife on the surface and shore of the lake. “There’s usually a bald eagle in that tree,” Hammond said. “Right here is where I saw the two black bear cubs.”
Over the hum of the quiet four-stroke Suzuki engine, we heard the plaintive cry of a loon, which, like the muskie, is a more commonly found in northern waters.
“They can come out here and make all the noise they want,” Hammond said of the loon. “I love to hear that.”
For information on Pomme de Terre State Park, call (417) 852-4291 or visit mostateparks.com. For information on lodging, visit the Pomme de Terre Lake Area Chamber of Commerce at pommedeterrechamber.com. Muskies Inc. is at missourimuskies.org. Earle Hammond is at pommemuskieguideservice.com.