White Bass Beyond the Run
June 18, 2014
Constantine Rafinesque, the renowned French naturalist, found white bass in abundance along the banks of the Ohio River in the early 1800s. During Rafinesque's day, this species inhabited the Great Lakes and many of the waterways in the Mississippi River Basin. He and his contemporaries considered the white bass a feisty and noble creature, and ultimately it was transplanted to France in the 1870s, where it was called Le silver bass du Canade.
Nowadays, white bass thrive in scores of reservoirs across North America, where they're deemed by many anglers to be the sportiest panfish. Although the world record — 6 pounds 13 ounces — was caught at Lake Orange, Virginia, the epicenter of white bass fishing remains in the nation's heartland.
Since the late 1960s, the most creative and multifaceted angling for white bass has taken place within a geographic triangle that covers parts of three states. Starting at Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma, the triangle's boundary extends northeasterly along the western and northwestern perimeter of the Ozarks to the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. From there it runs on a westward line to Milford Lake, Kansas, returning southward to Eufala. Besides Eufaula, Lake of the Ozarks, and Milford, the triangle is graced with scores of fine white bass reservoirs, including Ft. Gibson, Grand, and Hudson lakes in Oklahoma, Stockton and Truman in Missouri, and La Cygne and Perry lakes in Kansas.
Shad Fry Connections
John and Roger Kehde of Sedalia, Missouri, have given chase to white bass at several of the northern Ozark reservoirs for decades, catching and releasing untold numbers and tangling with as many as 200 fish on numerous outings. The pursuit of this silvery sportfish lies at the core of their piscatorial passion.
One of their best days occurred in June 2008, when the Ozark reservoir they fished was 7½ feet higher than normal as 39,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) of water was flowing into it, and 29,000 cfs was flowing out of the dam. The water clarity measured more than 5 feet.
When water gushes through the dam's turbines during the first weeks of June, current above the dam attracts gizzard shad fry, and vast numbers of white bass arrive to forage on the shad. On that June day, the Kehdes estimated that there was an aggregation of shad fry about the size of a football field along the concrete portions of the dam. The fry were slowly milling about on the surface among the foam and seams in the current over 45 to 100 feet of water. At times, a portion of the shad school wandered from the dam's concrete wall to a steep point on the riprap portion of the dam.
Along with the shad were masses of white bass, plus adult gizzard shad, herring, carp, drum, bluegills, walleyes, crappies, wipers, spotted bass, channel catfish, and largemouth bass. Many of the predators were foraging on minute fry, which couldn't move quickly and were at the mercy of the current. The white bass and other foragers slurped fry off the surface, creating a slow-motion feeding frenzy. The massive concentration of feeding fish stayed intact throughout the afternoon and evening as anglers enjoyed consistent action.
They fished the area with medium weight and action spinning outfits spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament, as they cast 1/4-ounce silver marabou jigs. They made 20-foot casts, aiming so the jig would land about 10 feet from the edge of the school of suspended fry. To get the attention of the white bass, they rapidly retrieved the jig to keep it 6 inches under the surface. If they didn't use a rapid retrieve and allowed the jig to drop and be carried with the current, they caught other species. Occasionally they used a Rebel Pop-R P-60 to elicit strikes from fish that were flush to the dam's concrete wall.
They rarely made a cast without catching a fish, and caught and released hundreds of white bass. It was a multispecies bonanza to boot; they tangled with about 100 big crappies and many spotted bass, as well as a carp, catfish, bluegills, drum, herring, wipers, and a 5-pound largemouth. About every fish they caught regurgitated tiny shad.
On the Flats
During many early June afternoons across the years, however, when the current is slack along the face of the dam, the area is devoid of shad fry and white bass. Under these conditions, the Kehdes search for schools of young shad near the surface over several main-lake flats from 1 to 4 miles upstream from the dam. Early in the afternoon, they scout for white bass feeding over the deeper sections of the flats, sometimes over 70 feet of water.
Once they locate white bass feeding on the tiny shad, they use the same spinning setups they use at the dam, but instead of the 1/4-ounce jig, they choose a 1/4-ounce Worden's Rooster Tail in chartreuse. They cast the spinner across and around the schools of shad and foraging white bass, retrieving so it creates a slight wake on the surface. Small, listless shad can't escape the ravenous white bass, which extends the feeding activity and enables them to catch scores of fish.
As evening approaches, shad and white bass gradually move to shallower portions of the flats. By nightfall, they often cruise along the shorelines of the flats in 1 to 2 feet of water. The action usually is hand-over-fist at sunset. This pattern occurs from about Father's Day until Labor Day.
Occasionally in June and throughout the heat of mid-summer, they spot white bass foraging on shad along the shallow shorelines of the flats during the middle of the afternoon. To catch these whites, they use spinning tackle and a 1/16-ounce jig with a white head, baby-blue yarn body, and white marabou tail, retrieving the jig either by slowly swimming it with a do-nothing motif or slowly bouncing it across the bottom.
The Hump Bite
In July, juvenile shad have grown large enough to flee when a school of white bass attacks, so surface activity is short-lived. The Kehdes abandon surface patterns and spend afternoons searching main-lake humps associated with the flats. The depths of the humps range between 15 to 25 feet.
The best humps are near the areas where white bass can be seen foraging momentarily on the surface, or where other anglers catch one while trolling across a massive flat. When they spot surfacing activity or see a troller catch one, they search for a concentration of fish on nearby humps by making long casts with a 1/2-ounce spoon on baitcasting outfits.
Once the spoon reaches bottom, they hop and drag it across the hump. When they locate white bass, they use spinning outfits to cast either a 1/4-ounce jig or spoon of the same weight, slowly hopping, dragging, and bouncing the lure across the bottom. Occasionally they shake their rods during the retrieve. Unless a deep-water hump is snag infested, they shun vertical presentations because casting and retrieving elicits more strikes.
Their favorite summertime fishing occurs when the dam begins generating electricity early in the afternoon. If that happens when the lake is relatively calm, shad and white bass migrate toward the dam. For a couple miles above the dam the lake's surface is pock-marked with schools of white bass feeding on shad.
Eventually, the white bass and shad reach the dam where the Kehdes use their jig and topwater tactics. If the current isn't too intense, they add another twist to their dam repertoire by probing humps above the dam. Here they cast a 1/4-ounce jig or spoon to the up-current side of the hump. As it falls, current carries the lure across the hump and they try to keep it bouncing bottom, a tactic that scores white bass, as well as hefty wipers.
Night Fishing for White Bass
In the late 1960s, Guido Hibdon, Dusty and Harold Ensley, and a handful of other anglers popularized night fishing for white bass on Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. The conventional nighttime method across the nation was to anchor at a strategic spot, such as a hump, and drop lights over the side of the boat to attract shad and white bass. Anglers fished vertically around the lights with minnows or light-colored jigs.
The Ensleys and Hibdon, however, fished at night like they did during the day, casting black 1/8-ounce jigs on 6-pound-test line, concentrating on shorelines of long, flat, main-lake points. A slow, swimming retrieve worked best, with the jig occasionally touching bottom.
Today many anglers use a 1/16-ounce Gopher Mushroom Jig Head with a 2-inch black-and-blue YUM Wooly Beavertail or 3-inch black-neon YUM Walleye Grub. Fishing at night is a key option from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving.
When white bass congregate on main-lake points and humps in some Kansas reservoirs during the late spring and throughout the summer, many anglers use casting tackle to fish a lure like the 1/2-ounce chartreuse Fishtech Lures Double W Shad Flutter Spoon with an 1/8-ounce marabou jig tied above the spoon. They make long casts and retrieve the combo by slowly hopping off the bottom. It isn't unusual to catch two white bass at the same time.