White Bass After The Peak
July 10, 2012
When talking white-bass fishing, the timetable typically starts at the spawn, for good reason. Spring and temperate bass aggregations go together like too much beer and football losses at homecoming: The slightest provocation incites a self-perpetuating frenzy and riotous atmosphere. And everyone seems to have fun except those who get caught.
Spawn-time action is greatly anticipated by white-bass anglers, and rightly so because it's peak time. But what's less well known is that many productive and under-utilized opportunities exist in other seasons.
The snag here is that different systems hold different potential for targeting past-peak silvers, so what works in northern natural lakes may not produce similar results in southern reservoirs. Even so, the following post-spawn, summer, and fall patterns extend to many white bass waters around the country.
Lake Erie supports the premier white bass fishery in the Midwest. Residents of Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as traveling anglers from non-Great Lakes states, target crowds of pelagic silvers that invade rivers and streams during the annual spawning ritual. But when the propagation party ends, the fish move back out into the open waters of the lake, where most anglers forget about them until the following spring.
"For sure, Lake Erie white bass are under-appreciated and under-utilized," says Travis Hartman, harvest assessment and fisheries biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "In 2003 we recorded 2.8 million angler hours for all species, but only 5,017 of those hours -- far less than 1 percent -- were spent fishing for white bass. For those who did target them, the release rate was almost 10 fish per angler hour, and the harvest rate was negligible."
The low-harvest, high-release figures only hint at the fishery's excellence. Commercial catch numbers intensify the beacon of opportunity: In June alone, the average combined commercial harvest for the western basin comprises nearly 50,000 pounds of white bass. These are postspawn fish largely ignored by recreational anglers.
Exodus from spawning streams occurs in June and early July, when water temperatures range from 65'¢F to the lower 70F range. The small but loyal angling entourage that follows them to postspawn haunts concentrates just outside the western basin's many warm-water tributaries. Between Michigan and Ontario, the Detroit River hosts the best run of white bass in the northwest corner of the lake. The Huron River (Gibraltar) and River Raisin (Monroe) also draw plenty of spawners in the Great Lakes State. Ohio white bass factories include the Maumee (Toledo), Sandusky (Cedar Point), and Portage (Port Clinton) rivers.
"Historically, anglers looked for diving gulls and predatory commotion on the lake's surface to find packs of fish to work, but that's not too common anymore," says Hartman. "The clearing of the water has changed the distribution of many species in the food chain, including relocation of zooplankton closer to the bottom. The predator species followed suit. It's probable that white bass are finding the food deeper, which is why they aren't on the surface as much as in the past."
Modern anglers searching for the huge schools of roaming white bass in vast Lake Erie take two basic approaches. One practice relies on the "seeing eye" of electronics to scan the water-column for pods of bait and bass. Whites almost always relate to forage in some manner, so catching fish means moving quickly and making presentations based on those findings.
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Trolling for contact is slower than running and reading, but effective. Anglers can run two lines each in the Michigan and Ohio waters of Erie, and should deploy the maximum to strain large swaths of the water column. Hartman recommends splitting the spread by depth. For two anglers and four lines, he runs two crankbaits in the upper half of the water column and two spoons in the lower deck. This blankets more water vertically so he can determine how fish are stacked.
"I always use smoke-colored Berkley FireLine in 14-pound test because it's strong enough to handle both white bass and big walleyes," says Hartman. "On top, my preferred crankbaits include #5 Shad Raps, Reef Runner Little Rippers, or 200 Series Ripshads with color patterns that imitate shiners or gizzard shad. Downstairs, small spoons, like the Michigan Stinger Scorpion and PA's Fintail, really shine. Whites aren't afraid of big spoons, though," he adds. "I've caught plenty of them trolling for walleye with 3 3/4-inch Michigan Stinger spoons."
To send spoons to desired depths, Hartman uses Luhr-Jensen Jet Divers in sizes 20 and 30, the model number corresponding to diving depth with 100 feet of line out. Jet Divers don't pull as hard as some of the directional divers, so they're easier on inline boards, which are occasionally used to move the spread away from the boat.
After zeroing in on large schools of baitfish or active white bass, Hartman moves all lines toward that depth, then works the area methodically by slowing trolling speed and crisscrossing the area. Boat control on the temperamental Great Lakes can be tricky with large spreads, so he suggests circling in calm weather, but during windy or rough conditions to pull lures and reposition to make straight runs.
A cautionary note on postspawn presentation: Trolling livebait works for white bass, but it's not necessary and may actually be counter-productive to catching silvers. Hartman: "The biggest drawback to livebait rigs is that they tend to attract a lot of sheepshead (drum), so I generally stay away from bait and try to use artificials. I suspect that because of the way a drum's mouth is shaped, with the jaws set below the snout, they have a harder time grabbing a spoon."
Asked why white bass receive fleeting attention from fishery departments, researchers concede that whites are only a secondary game species and, as such, receive a much smaller portion of the fishery financial pie. But things are different in Missouri, where large impoundments sustain great populations of white bass and provide important angling opportunities for that species year-round. Mike Colvin, a research biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation and contributor to a recent symposium on white bass, studied silvers in large reservoirs from 1990 through 2000. Part of his findings showed that white bass anglers weren't afraid of hitting the water after the spawn.
"Historical data show summer harvest to be substantial in certain sections of Lake of the Ozarks," says Colvin. "White bass ranked as either the first, second, or third most sought-after species in the Niangua Arm of this system for most study years, which is quite unusual in Missouri. Largemouth and crappies generally attract the most attention."
Lake of the Ozarks is a winding, 55,000-acre reservoir containing countless points and coves with rocky shorelines. The Niangua Arm, a giant section of the reservoir stretching 40 miles from the dam, holds good spawning habitat in the Niangua River. White bass circulate there throughout the year, and fishermen cash in on the bounty.
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One productive Ozarks summer pattern occurs from late July through September when water temperatures range from the upper 80F range during the warmest part of the year to the middle 70F range in September. Big flats and sloping points close to creek channels attract whites, though deep water isn't mandatory.
"More instrumental in determining summer white bass location in reservoirs is knowing that distribution comes largely from prey location and abundance," says Colvin. "Many of our reservoirs feature gizzard shad as the forage base -- which, as a whole, are quite scattered throughout the system but often form large congregations in general areas. White bass collect within these areas of abundant shad, particularly on long points and humps. They spend a good portion of the day and night near bottom, but in morning and early evening the whole ecosystem moves up."
Colvin has also witnessed recent changes to traditional white bass behavior. Like Hartman's observations on Erie, white bass don't seem to herd prey to the surface on Lake of the Ozarks as much as in past times. He notes that, historically, there would be acres and acres of silvers on top, day after day, sometimes week after week, both morning and evening. People often chased the whites and pounded them on the surface. Today this happens occasionally, but white bass seldom display that topwater behavior today.
"I think the large increase in boating activity on the lake might have contributed to this change," says Colvin. "This shift from surface to sub-surface feeding applies to many Missouri reservoirs, not just Lake of the Ozarks. Populations are healthy, and the white bass are eating and doing all the things they want to do. They just don't surface like they did in the past."
Today's anglers must understand these changes to match presentations with white bass location. In-Fisherman field editor Ned Kehde fishes for white bass about 60 times per year in various Kansas and Missouri reservoirs, and is hailed by Editor In Chief Doug Stange as a white bass fishing maestro. His fishing knowledge of heartland silvers has been continually fed since 1965, so he's savvy on location and presentation particulars.
In summer, Kehde scouts midlake humps and points in water depths of 10 to 30 feet with electronics, looking for predator or prey. At times, the white bass are flush to the bottom and can't be seen on sonar; but in a lair that's yielded a significant number of white bass in the past, he often fishes even if he can't see the fish digitally. On new, promising spots, he drops a marker to create a reference point.
"I much prefer casting when I'm fishing white bass, because I can cover water fast," Kehde says. "My standard tackle is baitcasting equipment with 20-pound Berkley Big Game. Because I generally present lures near bottom, the heavy line makes working spoons and retrieving fouled lures much easier.
"My summer setup for whites is quite simple. I throw a Fishtech 1/2-ounce Double W Shad spoon at line's end with a 1/8-ounce crappie jig, the chenille/marabou style in blue and white, tied about a foot up," he says. "Long casts find fish and do not spook them. I cast well past the spot and allow the spoon to settle. The retrieve is a slow lift-and-drag with the lure hovering close to bottom. We drag it because on some lakes there are a lot of crappie brushpiles and boulders," he says, "and we're trying to slither this spoon through the quagmire on the bottom.
"But occasionally you just can't get the right angle for presentation when casting," Kehde adds. "In that situation, vertical jigging allows better control of the spoon and a more precise presentation. When employing the vertical motif, I normally remove the jig because the two lures are apt to become tangled. I always vertical-jig brushpiles, and hanging in brush is more likely to occur with extra hooks on the line.
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"In essence," concludes Kehde, "you just have to try different approaches to see what works."
Researchers from South Dakota also contributed to the recent white bass symposium. Dave Willis, Craig Paukert, and Brian Blackwell documented various biological and social particulars of white bass in northern natural lakes. In their paper, "Biology of White Bass in Eastern South Dakota Glacial Lakes," they state that although walleyes attract the most angling attention, white bass command a loyal following.
"Two primary white bass lakes are Poinsett and Kampeska, where white bass ranked first in total fish harvest by number during 6 of 10 years of creel survey," they note. "In 3 of the other 4 years, white bass harvest ranked second only to walleye harvest." Most interesting for this postspawn discussion of natural lakes is that seasonal pressure for silvers is spread out over several months, more so than pressure in South Dakota's Missouri River reservoirs.
"Fall is a good time to target white bass in our natural lakes," says Brian Blackwell, fisheries biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We find that people who are typically fishing for walleyes from mid-September through early November make incidental but good catches of white bass in shallow, near-shore waters."
Kampeska (5,250 acres) and Poinsett (7,900 acres) are natural bowl-shaped lakes with large, shallow basins that receive plenty of wind. As with most lakes in eastern South Dakota, these are eutrophic, highly productive systems holding turbid water, an important key to bringing fall fish shallow.
White bass forage is surprisingly diverse in the glacial lakes and helps to explain why fall fishing success occurs where it does. "We've done some food habits work on whites in Kampeska, and what we've found is that they eat a lot of larval insects most of the year," says Blackwell. "In fact, invertebrates are a bigger component of the diet than fish. We also found that white bass eat crayfish in these lakes. Pretty much all fish utilize whatever food source is available, and because we lack shad populations in the glacial lakes, crayfish represent an important prey item.
"There are no gizzard shad so we don't see that typical open-water feeding component," adds Blackwell. "Though they're not as widely used, spottail, emerald shiners, and some yellow perch make up part of the diet. The shiner species inhabits shallower areas, which may be why we see movement of white bass toward shore during low light hours in the fall -- to take advantage of the abundant minnow populations."
This autumn movement of white bass toward shore also takes place in some Kansas flatland reservoirs. "It really gets good near the middle of October when water temps reach the mid-50F range," says Kehde. "And it stays good until the water temperature hits about 44F, which normally occurs, in our area, in the first ten days of December. Our goal is to catch 101 white bass on each outing. On one November day, for instance, we fished a 150-yard stretch of bank for about four hours and caught 135 white bass, including some 15- and 16-inchers. This catch illustrates how good the fishing can be."
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Like South Dakota's eastern glacial lakes, the fall flatlander bite emerges in shallow, usually stained water, right at the bank. Most catches are made in depths of less than 4 feet. Kehde scours causeways and shorelines with basketball-sized rocks, particularly working the wind-blown stone. Wind is a critical element that causes waves to wash a naturally rocky bank or riprap dam and in turn attracts bass. He notes, however, that causeways -- riprap areas lining roadways that bisect reservoirs -- don't seem to need wind. Causeways produce without the influence of wave action.
"The ticket to fall fishing is that you must cover water to find whites," Kehde says. "These fish can be scattered over many miles of shoreline; therefore, my boat partners and I fish quickly, as a team, and we each throw something different. When someone hooks a fish, we slow down and work the area more methodically."
In the fall, Kehde uses spinning and baitcasting outfits, working with jigs, crankbaits, and spinnerbaits. His repertoire includes Bomber Model 5As or Cotton Cordell Super Spots in 1/2- and 1/4-ounce sizes. Quarter-ounce Blakemore Roadrunners, 1/4-ounce Worden Rooster Tail in-line spinners, and 3-inch Bass Assassin Shads on 1/8-ounce heads also get play-time. His two favorite lures are a 1/8-ounce jig with a white head, a light blue wool body, and a white marabou tail; and a 1/16-ounce jig holding a 3-inch chartreuse curlytailed grub.
With any of these baits, he's casting the shoreline, holding the rod tip low and using a straight retrieve at a moderate pace with an occasional pause. This action forces the lure to glide along and occasionally tick the rocky bottom.
"In the fall," says Kehde, "these shallow lure presentations are exceedingly fruitful."