Bucket List Big White Bass
April 21, 2017
If there was something like a White Bass Appreciation Society, I'd join in a New York second. Actually, in a North Dakota second. Blame my admiration for the overlooked species on Devils Lake, where years ago I was first introduced to 100-fish days that left my upper body and mitts feeling like I'd done a few rounds with Leon Spinks. Thing is, when you're in a school of big Devils Lake white bass, it's like tagging into big gamefish — probably the closest thing to saltwater fishing in our part of the world.
Devils Lake may be the best white bass fishery in the country, with significant numbers and big fish. There are other good white bass factories out there, but you'd be hard pressed to design a better one than Devils — at nearly 170,000 acres with 450 miles of shoreline — it has the ideal wind and current for the prolific batch spawners. As white bass mate higher in the water column, Devils' conditions allow proper mixing of roe and milt. Fertilized eggs then fall and cling to gravel, rock, or vegetation. As a result, yearly hatches are typically strong.
North Dakota Game & Fish fishery biologist Randy Hiltner studies trends in white bass age, body condition, and abundance. "We've aged white bass up to 10 years old. Abundance peaked between 2006 and 2008. Since then, we haven't had as many large hatches until 2015, which means they'll be coming back to peak in the next several years." Given Devils' current white bass fishing you wouldn't think it could get any better.
Devils also offers favorable salinity for the temperate bass. "Devils Lake is a closed basin, so freshwater runoff in the west end of the lake sets up a general salinity gradient of higher salinity in the east and less in the west," Hiltner says.
Salinity is also responsible for a buffet of forage in the form of saline-loving freshwater shrimp (scuds): "White bass utilize invertebrates as forage and we have a heavy biomass of these amphipods. Opening up numerous white bass stomachs over the years, they're usually stuffed with them."
With all of these factors aligned, Devils Lake white bass routinely eclipse the 3-pound mark, even reach 4 pounds. The lake record stands as 4 pounds 10 ounces, caught by Minnesota angler Charlie Vang on June 10, 2012, in the north end of Six Mile Bay near Channel A. The record fish measured 19 inches.
Minnesota-based Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl is practically an expatriate these days, spending his off-time fishing Devils Lake throughout the year. "Devils is great for walleyes, perch, and pike, but the white bass fishing is premier, probably the best in the world. There are many year-classes and some real magnums to be had — big, girthy bass and a lot of in-betweens. It's not just the perch that are getting fat on the freshwater shrimp. Often, the white bass are too heavy to hoist in; you have to net them," Brosdahl says.
The Spring Run
Not long after the ice melts in April or May, white bass begin staging for their annual spawning run, which typically starts when water temperatures rise to the low- to mid-50s, and ends by the low-60s.
"Probably the biggest and most well-known white bass run is up Channel A in the north," says longtime Devils Lake Guide and TV host Jason Mitchell. "They push up the ditches where there's moving water, which can be 6 to 15 feet deep, depending on water levels. It's a fanatical bite, one fish after another of enormous, never-ending schools. But it's a short window and completely dependent on flow and water temperature. It's hard to plan ahead. You have to be willing to travel and fish at the drop of a hat to capitalize on that peak run."
At the same time of the year — but on a different part of the lake — Perch Eyes Guide Service owner Jason Feldner cruises windblown shorelines with Humminbird Side Imaging, looking for sand-to-gravel transitions with emerging cabbage. Like flowing water in ditches, wave action and proximity to weeds can also be optimal for white bass spawning.
Summer Through Fall
Following the spawn, Mitchell says fish fall into consistent patterns when the water warms. For starters, many move shallow and gravitate to a few predictable locations that produce from early summer through the first freeze.
The first of Mitchell's patterns involves working ribbons of water between the inside weedline and shore. "Look for shallow bays that aren't weed-choked. For example, go over to East Devils Lake and back into any of those bays and cast the shorelines. The fish are typically between the inside weedline and the shoreline, even shallower than early-season walleyes. You can cast jigs and soft plastics, small cranks, or spoons. Make sure to keep the boat back as far as you can and make long casts. White bass are a lot spookier than walleyes and pike."
Mitchell's other high probability spots include embankments, boulders, riprap, bridges, and causeways. "There's some natural rock in the lake such as on Cactus Point and Bird Island where we catch fish at times, but for whatever reason, they prefer embankments and riprap. Even the rock at the base of The Towers sometimes holds nice schools of white bass. Bridges and causeways make for great shore-fishing," Mitchell says.
Years with high-levels of rain and running water equate to the best shore-fishing around Devils' bridges and bottlenecks. Not only do white bass migrate through these areas, many school up and become residents if the forage situation is favorable.
For the best shore bites, Mitchell urges anglers to venture off the beaten path. "Popular shore-fishing spots like the Hwy. 20 and 57 bridges don't produce the numbers they once did. Used to be you could cast out a jig and minnow or softbait, let it drop to the bottom of a 20- to 30-foot hole, and stay busy with white bass all day. With so much pressure, you have to work harder now."
Although some of Devils' community shore spots may be losing luster, Hiltner says the impact of shore-fishing on the white bass population — even with large bag limits and throngs of visiting anglers during peak periods — is probably negligible: "Most of Devils Lake is surrounded by private land and shore anglers only have access to about 3 to 5 percent of the shoreline. Plus, white bass are pelagic at times, so I can't see how shore anglers are overharvesting the population."
Like Mitchell, Brosdahl is a fan of riprap, especially if there are submerged small-diameter trees nearby. "The combo of riprap and small trees is a white bass magnet. But they'll be offshore in different areas, too, especially if there's a bottleneck, saddle, or connection to shallower water. Or where an inside turn meets an old roadbed. Even areas where it gets shallow on top — areas you'd think were smallmouth water on any other lake. Don't be afraid to try the edges of still-water areas; there can be bass back in those bays and channels," Brosdahl says.
Brosdahl recommends that anglers investigate Minnewaukan Bay's treelines, Graham's Island, Fort Totten, Skadsems, East Bay, Creel Bay, the north end of Six Mile Bay, and shore-fishing opportunities around Mauvais Coulee. "Some of the bays around Mauvais Coulee can be good, too. The whole lake can be good — you never know where you're going to find them"
Historically, white bass anglers have gravitated to the higher salinity of the lake's east side. But Mitchell says that's changing: "Traditionally, the east part of the lake has had the highest density of white bass, but now we're starting to see tremendous schools of white bass in Pelican Bay, the west end of the lake, and even up into Lake Irving. From an historical context, the east end was better, but that's changing. You can get on great white bass throughout the system. There are big schools of bass that are roaming, too."
In a nutshell, when looking for white bass in Devils Lake, concentrate on shallow water from early-summer through the first frost. But catching them after that is one of Devils' biggest puzzles. "You'd have to work hard to catch 5 or 10 white bass in a day through the ice. Their winter behavior is a lot different from what white bass do in rivers, where you can catch them in shallow backwaters. Here, white bass migrate to deep structure like off Lost Jig and Bird Island for wintering. And even if we do find them, they don't always want to eat."
Hiltner says there are a couple primary motivators for this movement to deeper wintering habitat: first, at depths of 40 to 50 feet, the water can be a bit warmer near bottom; secondly, many of these areas provide ample food. "They're out there feeding on bloodworms, the larval stage of the midge, living in that organic mud. Of course, white bass energy requirements are not that high in winter and they can get by with less food."
With the exception of winter, getting Devils' white bass to bite isn't difficult. If you find white bass — and don't spook 'em — they hit just about anything tossed in their direction — especially if the bait combines vibration and flash. Rattlebaits, small crankbaits, jig and paddletail combos, spoons, and in-line spinners are all solid picks.
"Although we find freshwater shrimp in their gullets, you need to mimic their other preferred forage, young-of-the-year fish and minnows. When I'm in shallow water often see huge schools of minnows that are an inch long. That's a big part of their diet," Mitchell says.
Similarly, Brosdahl keys on areas where minnows get trapped: brush, harbors, bays, or irregular-shaped shoreline. "I use jigs with safety-pin spinners on top to mimic prey," Brosdahl says. "The safety-pin turns any semi-quiet jig into a loud jig. Sometimes I even pop the stock blade off the split-ring and upsize to make it even noisier. I like a silver blade for clear water and gold for dirty. It works great with Northland's Mimic Minnow. You get the blade flash and noise, plus the paddletail's thump."
Mitchell is also bullish on the Northland Mimic Minnow, as well Kalin's Sizmic Grub or Shad. "Variations of silver and white seem to work best."
Now take that thump and multiply it by two, which is legal in North Dakota. "Using a tandem jig setup works well — and you can catch two bass at the same time," Brosdahl says. He ties a safety-pin spinner or Thumper Jig and Mimic Minnow combo a foot up his line via a loop knot with another Mimic Minnow on a plain jighead or Thumper Head at the bottom.
Jason Feldner has spent the past few years throwing a Yumbrella Rig, with two white 3-inch YUM curlytail grubs and three blades. "Hooking two 3- to 3½-pound white bass on one rig is insane," Feldner says. "It's like fighting a striper." He's found the lightweight baitcasting combo of a Revo MGX matched to a medium-heavy power Fenwick Elite Tech rod with 14-pound FireLine the key to avoid fatigue.
Small rattlebaits and crankbaits produce, too, but require more effort to keep from snagging wood and other cover. Also, when you get into a big school of white bass, it's a lot easier to unhook a jig than two treble hooks. But if you spy fish a little deeper — say mid-depths of 5 to 10 feet — it's hard to beat a #5 Rapala Shad Rap, #5 Berkley Flicker Shad, #5 Salmo Hornet, Countdown Rapala, or my new favorite, Rapala's 1.5-inch 3/16-ounce Ultra-Light Rippin' Rap.
As white bass stack vertically in deeper waters later in summer and fall, bladebaits can be hard to beat. "Thin-profile bladebaits in silver and gold are must-haves," Feldner says. "And for stained water, purple, orange, and black help fish key in," Brosdahl adds. "But don't overwork them. White bass like steady little ripples of vibration. Give it a little rip and pause, following the rod top as the lure falls down so you don't tangle the trebles."
Sticks & Stuff
Brosdahl's rod of choice for pitching paddletails and blades is a 6-foot 6-inch medium-light extra-fast action St. Croix Legend Elite or Legend Xtreme. When vertical fishing blades, he goes down to a 5-foot 9-incher. He almost always fishes superline like Northland Bionic Bass 15/4 with an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. "You want good break strength and be able to snap your line hard to get unhooked from snags. It also allows me to follow the bait up and down."
Mitchell prefers 6- to 61â„2-foot medium fast-action spinning rods, 10-pound braid, and a foot-long section of Knot2Kinky titanium leader to prevent bite-offs by pike. "If there are a lot of white bass in an area, you can bet there's pike, too. The biggest pike in Devils Lake are keyed into them as a high-protein food source. So, if you're catching a bunch of white bass, sooner or later you're going to catch a trophy pike."
And what's not to love about bonus mixed-bag fish, especially big, toothy critters? Not to mention the bonus walleyes one inevitably catches while fishing white bass on Devils and other top white bass fisheries in the north. Devils Lake is one of those legitimate bucket-list destinations with a bite best described as diabolical. The tactics described here also should find the big bite on white bass waters north to south. â–
Jim Edlund, Becker, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and freelance writer who contributes to many In-Fisherman publications. Guide Contacts: Jason Mitchell, fishdevilslake.net, 701/662.6560; Jason Feldner, percheyes.com, 701/351-1294; Brian Brosdahl, brosguideservice.com, 218/340-6051; Devils Lake Tourism, devilslakend.com.