The Heartland's White Bass Conundrum


Since the late 1960s, an integral part of our piscatorial endeavors has been to purse white bass when our summertime and autumn black bass fishing became trying.  It was always a great solace and tonic, and we could count on this with absolute certainty year after year.

And until the past three years, we were so certain about this annual revelry with the white bass that we were confident that we had found a flaw in Howell Raines' notion that "few things change more quickly than the absolute certainties of sport fishing," which he noted in his 2006 memoir titled "The One that Got Away."  But starting in the fall of 2009, we began noticing that Raines was correct, because something was going awry with the white bass that inhabit several of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer impoundments in northeasternKansas.


For instance at Lake Perry, Kansas,  some of the specimens were emaciated and oddly colored, others had reddish-bacterial-like inflammations scattered across their bodies, and some had what appeared to be a fungus on their dorsal, anal and caudal fins. From September to early November of 2010, Dave Schmidtlein ofTopeka,Kansas, saw an alarming number of white bass on the surface, struggling to swim upright.


Now as we  ponder the goings on with our white bass populations, we are aware that their world and the way we fish for them  have been changing for a goodly number of years.

Stretching back into the 1980s and 90s, anglers at Perry could readily catch white bass from July 4th to Thanksgiving along shallow windblown shorelines and points, as well as upon 20 offshore lairs. Significant numbers of them also abided year-round in the riverine portions of Perry'sDelaware Riverarm. Shortly after the turn of the century, however, the summertime shoreline white bass fishing virtually disappeared. Our white bass catches in the river declined dramatically, too. By 2005 we could catch summertime white bass only at nine offshore lairs, and our traditional autumn shoreline fishing was confined to a half dozen spots, which has caused the diminishing white bass population to be pummeled by intense angler predation.

By the fall of 2009, the number of white bass we caught at Perry declined considerably. Our white bass catch plummeted even more in 2010 and 2011.  It has become so awful that I fished for them only once last fall and twice this summer.

This sorry change has occurred at other northeasternKansasimpoundments, and it was poignantly reflected by an outing that Clyde Holscher, who is an expert multi-species guide and angler fromTopeka,Kansas, had atPomonaLakeon August 26, when he guided two anglers, and they eked out only five white bass.  When all was hunky-dory in the white bass world, Holscher and his clients could catch 100 or more white bass at Pomona on an August outing.

Holscher and other white bass anglers have also found that their white bass catches have diminished appreciably at Melvern and La Cygne lakes in northeasternKansas. For instance, anglers used to catch untold numbers of white bass during the spawning season in late April and early May along the shorelines atMelvern Lake,Kansas, but during the past decade that phenomenon has gradually disappeared.  For winters on end, La Cygne used to yield thousands of white bass, but during recent winters, the yield has decreased remarkably.

The white bass at La Cygne, Melvern and Pomona never exhibited the physical problems that Perry's white bass displayed, but it's interesting to note that La Cygne, Melvern and Pomona lie at the headwaters of Truman Lake, Missouri, and there are hints that what ails the white bass populations at La Cygne,  Melvern and Pomona lakes in northeastern Kansas might have been transported down the Marais des Cygne River into Truman. Last year, John and Roger Kehde of Sedalia, Missouri, enjoyed one of the most fruitful white bass years in their many decades of giving chase to them, but they noticed that a significant number of the white bass that they caught at TrumanLakewere afflicted with reddish inflammations. Throughout 2010, the Kehdes were catching several year-classes on white bass, and they anticipated that 2011 would be as fruitful or even more fruitful than 2010. But to their surprise and chagrin, their spring and summer white bass fishing this year was very trying. 

     White bass are pelagic creatures. So when their population dwindles, Holscher and the Kehdes have found that it can be a vexing task to locate these smaller populations of white bass when they begin to roam far and wide acrossPomonaLake's 4,000 acres,PerryLake's 11,600 acres andTrumanLake's 55,000 acres.

   Elsewhere across the Heartland the white bass fishing has befuddled and worried  anglers

 For decades Grand Lake, Oklahoma, has been deemed to be the white bass nirvana, where knowledgeable anglers can virtually catch them at will. But in 2011 even the most veteran and skillful anglers found Grand Lake's white bass fishing to be hellishly difficult. 

Joe Davis ofTulsa,Oklahoma, called it the most perplexing time he has seen atGrandLakeand other northeasternOklahomaimpoundments. During the spawning season,  Daviswas worried that the extremely harsh and long winter of 2010-11 had adversely affected the white bass.

Ivan Martin ofAfton,Oklahoma, who is a stellar multispecies guide and first-rate angler, describedGrandLake's white bass fishing as being problematic and sporadic, noting that "the white bass haven't been at the same place two days in a row all year long," and some days anglers couldn't find them anywhere.

Even though theNeoshoRiver, which runs across many miles of easternKansas, flows intoGrandLakeat Twin Bridges, Martin hasn't seen any signs thatGrandLake's white bass have been plagued with the same problems that have afflicted the white bass inKansasreservoirs andTrumanLake.

Martin suspects the problem might revolve around the unusual and somewhat violent weather patterns that have bombarded northeasternOklahomathis year. Now,Davisthinks it might be a weather phenomenon, too, because the behavior of white bass at other reservoirs across northeasternOklahomawas similar to what was and is transpiring atGrandLake.Davisalso noted that the thermocline atGrandLakechanged almost daily throughout the summer.

Most anglers are a hopeful lot

Despite the trying times that these white bass anglers have endured in 2011, hope still reigns that things haven't changed permanently for the worse. And as the fall equinox approached, Martin reported on September 11 and 18 that the white bass were making their annual fall pilgrimage to shallow, wind-blown shorelines, where anglers were catching an impressive array of them by wielding Worden's Rooster Tails and grubs affixed to a jig.

Similarly John and Roger Kehde have experienced the identical phenomenon atTrumanLake, but nearly 60% of their catch has consisted of small wipers, which was odd. On September 19, however, Roger Kehde experienced a horrendous outing on which he caught only one white bass, and another friend had an identical experience that day. Nevertheless, they are hopeful that this sorry outing was merely an anomaly, and the Kehdes suspect that white bass were exhibiting their pelagic nature traveling many yards off the shoreline and off the bottom, which made them impossible to find. Thus, the Kehdes say it's still likely that their fall pursuits will be bountiful, allowing them to catch and release hundreds and hundreds of white bass before winter's onset.

Even though Holscher's white bass pursuits have been perplexing for several years, hope still reigns in his heart, too. And that hope was spurred when he was able to find two offshore spots at Perry that surrendered some hefty catches for his clients during the waning weeks of summer, as well as a few shoreline areas that yielded some white bass. Now Holscher and several white bass aficionados in northeasternKansasare optimistic that their traditional fall white bass bonanza along the shoreline will commence once again.

Gary Dollahon's observations are another beacon of hope. Dollahon of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is an ardent and veteran white bass angler, and although the white bass at the waterways he fishes in northeasternOklahomaexhibited a different behavior pattern this year than in years past, he found that their populations remain bountiful, stretching across several year classes, and relatively easy to catch once their whereabouts is pinpointed.  And he noted in an e-mail on September 20 that he recently enjoyed two outstanding outings atFort Gibson Lake,Oklahoma, where he caught score of them in "inches of water."

Here's another white bass mystery to ponder:

Back in 2009,Table Rock Lake,Missouri, was brimming with big white bass, as well as several year classes of white bass.  The population was so bounteous that some observers thought that Table Rock was about to replaceGrandLakeas the region's white bass nirvana. But now that copious supply of white bass can't be found.

When we seek counsel from fisheries biologists about what is going on, they are as puzzled as we are. Thus, we get responses similar to this one:  "You know white bass are very cyclic depending on lots of factors which I personally don't have control over."

Guide information 

Readers who would like to book a trip with Clyde Holscher and Ivan Martin can contact Holscher at 785-267-0065 and Martin at 918-260-7743.

September 24, 2011  update:

Joe Davis of Tulsa sent a report that he and Jerry Kropff of Afton, Oklahoma, chased white bass at Grand Lake from 5:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. on September 24.  Davis' son also fished with them.

  This trio primarily  used an 1/8-ounce jig dressed with a Bobby Garland Custom Softbait's  Stroll'R in pearl white, electric chicken and bluegrass hues.  They were casting the Stroll'R snf jig to the water's edge; then they retrieved it by swimming off the bottom or dragging it on the bottom. They were plying a flat point was buffeted by some wind and had a 20-foot drop-off adjacent to it. The bulk of the white bass were in about four feet of water and along or near the edge of the dropoff. By the time they executed their last casts, they estimated that they had tangled with at least 250 white bass. Thus in Davis and Kroppf's eyes, Grand Lake is back in its grand and lustrous form of old.

September 30,2011 update

  On the evening of September 29, John Kehde and a friend chased Truman Lake's white bass at the Sterett Creek area.  He reported that the wind was howling out of the north, gusting almost to 30 mph, which is often an ideal scenario for catching white bass in the fall at Truman. But for the first hour they searched in vain for white bass on wind-blown gravel and rocky points and shorelines.  Eventually they found them around 6:15 p.m.in a small, slightly wind-sheltered pocket. The shoreline was red clay rather than rock and gravel. The white bass were abiding in inches of water along the edge of the shoreline; in fact, their quarry was so shallow that they found that the most fruitful presentation was to cast their Rooster Tails onto the clay shoreline and drag it into water. By the time they had executed their last casts, they conservatively estimated that they had tangled with more than a hundred white bass, wipers and black bass. The biggest was estimated to be a four-pound wiper.  And as they have found throughout much 2011, about 60% of their catch consisted of wipers rather than white bass. But to their delight, only one of the white bass exhibited the sign that it was affected by a bacterial infection.

 Traditionally most white bass angler focus on wind-blown rocky and gravel shorelines and points, but John and Roger Kehde have found across the years at Truman Lake that a surprising number of  white bass can often be found on clay or mud shorelines rather than the rocky ones in October.

October 3, 2011 update:

Pok-Chi Lau of Lawrence, Kansas, just returned from a few days of exploring Pomme de Terre, Stockton and Truman reservoirs in Missouri for white bass, where he found the fishing to be sorry. While he was at Pomme de Terre, an  angler told him that there was a major white bass kill in 2009.

This morning we talked to the folks at Nemo Marina, Pittsburg, Missouri, which is situated on the lake,  and they said Pok-Chi Lau's report was correct. They also said that the fisheries biologists have not been able to determine what caused this demise.

Pomme de Terre River, which flows out of the reservoir, eventually flows into Truman Lake, and perhaps the culprit that afflicted Pomme de Terre's white bass in 2009 are what has caused the surprising decline of white bass at Truman this year.

Anglers who are interested in the Pomme de Terre situation can contact the folks at Nemo Marina ,HC 77 Box 274, Pittsburg, Missouri 65274,Telephone: 417-993-5160, Website: http://www.nemomarina.com

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