“I don’t get it,” says Joe Jackson, a 36-year vet at Ameri-Pride and a Clam Corporation Power Stick. “White bass fight extremely hard, and they stack up massively in small, predictable areas. I don’t know why so few people chase them under the ice. On a good day it’s easy to catch 50 or more, with a few pushing 4 pounds.”
Jackson primarily fishes the backwaters of the Mississippi River, but white bass can be sought in many of the natural lakes of South Dakota, the Winnipeg River, Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, and many natural lakes and river systems throughout the upper Midwest.
“In lakes or backwaters, white bass seem to require some kind of depth in winter,” Jackson says. “The best holes tend to be at least 20 feet deep, and 25 feet might be better. We catch them in 8- to 9-foot holes in the North Lake backwash off the Mississippi, because the bass have no other options. Those backwaters get no deeper than 9 feet, and the bass don’t seem to get as big there. White bass are real bottom-huggers in winter. When I see them 4 or 5 feet off bottom, it’s generally because the school is so thick they’re literally stacked that high off bottom.”
“I like to start above the school,” Jackson says. “The biggest white bass in the bunch tend to be the most aggressive. Just hover the lure and occasionally lift it slowly. Catching a lot of fish is not a problem, but it’s not an aggressive bite. It’s a neutral bite, so lure size and jigging action have to be neutral, too. Just lift slowly and jiggle it slightly. Even in winter, white bass seem to prefer rattles. I like the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, the Lindy Rattl’R, and the Hopkins Smoothie, all in the smaller sizes.”
Most white-bass enthusiasts tip with minnow heads. Jackson and his frequent companion, Paul Fabian (another Power Stick), tip jigs with minnow heads, too, but often prefer maggots. “I tip each tine of the treble with a few maggots,” Jackson says. “The action of the spoon is cleaner with maggots, and all a white bass needs is a little flash, a little scent, and a little taste. No need to go overboard when tipping jigs or spoons. A rattle spoon, like the Blue Fox Rattle Flash Spoon, which has good flutter on the drop, is deadly.”
Fabian lists the size #5 Jigging Rapala as one of his favorite white-bass lures in winter. “With 10-pound braid or 4‑pound mono, I can get a Rapala back down quickly on a hot bite, and it has that natural profile,” he says. “For some reason, white bass really respond well to orange-gold. I like the Lindy Rattl’R, too, and that’s about all I need. I’ve never had to dig very deep into my tackle selection when fishing white bass. They always seem to be going when you get there.”
Both Jackson and Fabian like medium-light-power, fast-action ice sticks from Thorne Brothers, or the new Dave Genz signature series from Nature Vision, coupled with light spinning reels and 4-pound mono or 8- to 10-pound braid.
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Deep Holes, Some Current
Jackson says he has nothing against white bass in natural lakes, but thinks they run a little bigger in backwaters. “Last year we caught a few that were a shade over 20 inches and a shade under 4 pounds,” he says. “That’s a big white bass up north, and last year was one of the worst years we’ve had, because the backwaters froze late, remained unstable, then the ice left early. I know Devil’s Lake has some big ones, too, but the average size is biggest in river backwaters, in my experience.”
“In backwaters, white bass need current, even in winter,” he says. “The best bites tend to occur in holes 23 to 27 feet deep. But they won’t be there without current. No current, no fish. In that case, we look closer to the river. Even in low-water years, white bass appear to need some current flowing through the area, which seems strange because the shad will be there anyway, and shad are the main forage. We might find them in areas with a maximum depth of 15 to 20 feet in that case, or even as shallow as 8 feet.”
One of the most overlooked ice-fishing options in North America has to be the white bass, a tough fish with the right attitude and wonderful on the table. Almost forgotten by anglers, tasty white bass often bite when crappies, walleyes, and bluegills are getting pressured and finicky. White bass are little feeding machines, and some aren’t so little. A 5-pounder isn’t out of the question, and a day-long affair with 2-pounders is almost a guarantee. Find out where they’re living in your area by calling your local state fishery office, and take advantage of some untouched angling this winter.