Fishing for White Bass
April 01, 2015
Few, if any, panfish on the planet offer chances to catch voracious slabs until your arms ache with a fury anywhere close to that of white bass during their annual spawning run. Each spring, opportunities to battle hundreds of hard-fighting whities a day running 1 to 2 pounds and up erupt on fisheries from the eastern seaboard west to Texas and north into Manitoba — with additional hotbeds of activity scattered further west.
Primetime begins during prespawn, when water temperatures rise into the 52°F to 54°F range, luring fish onto shallow main-lake shoals and into tributaries, and can last a month or more, as procreation may extend until the water warms to nearly 80°F. Timing varies from midwinter to March in southern fisheries through May in the Upper Midwest and early June in Canada.
During the run, you can sometimes throw everything in the tackle box at these remarkable predators and get bit. But as with so many fishing situations, dialing in the right presentation can often make the difference between a good day and one to write home about.
Oklahoma is blessed with a number of fine white bass fisheries, and legendary Grand Lake ranks high among the options. Tucked in the Ozark foothills, the scenic impoundment is a favorite of longtime Guide Ivan Martin. With the chance at 200- to 400-fish days on simple and reliable programs, who could ask for more?
"Every year we fish for them the same way," Martin says. "The first of the year we start catching them around rivermouths in depths of 6 to 20 feet. By the end of February we start getting them on the banks and in shallow areas of the river. As the water warms, they travel upstream to spawn, and usually are done by mid-April."
Three decades of connecting clients with scads of sand bass have taught Martin much about top tactics. His favorite is a jig-and-grub combo that mimics Grand's pint-sized gizzard and threadfin shad forage base. "I mostly use 1/8-ounce heads, sometimes 1/4-ounce depending on the depth," he says. Unpainted round designs are fine, though options abound.
Preferred tippings include a 2-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad and 3½-inch Gene Larew Rally Grub. "Any kind of shad color is usually good," he says. "But chartreuse catches them too, no matter the water color, and is better in murky water than shad patterns." Martin gears up with an ultralight spinning outfit spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test Mr. Crappie Line. "It swings a 3-pound white bass in the boat just fine," he says.
Martin's technique is straightforward. "Cast and let the jig fall to the bottom," he says. "In cool water, a slow retrieve is best. Raise the jig slightly and let it fall back down; they hit when it's falling — and the bite is extremely light. As the water warms, speed things up. Increase lifts up to 8 inches in height, keeping a semi-tight line on the drop."
High Plains Whites
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has called North Dakota's Devils Lake "white bass Heaven on Earth," and anyone who's experienced the spring run here is apt to agree, thanks to nonstop action with fish topping 3 pounds possible.
Stange's favorite primetime presentations on Devils and elsewhere include 3/16- to 1/4-ounce Doctor Spoons, with the treble replaced by an Eagle Claw #210 single hook. While spoons are deadly, he often sweetens the pot with a 2- or 3-inch softbait trailer such as a Berkley PowerBait Power Minnow. Retrieves range from a straight and slow to a snappier pop-drop approach that's punctuated by a series of short rod tip snaps and slack-line flutters. If whities are in a fickle mood, he often adds a jig tipped with a 4-inch swimbait to the mix via a short dropper on a tiny three-way or standard swivel.
Veteran Devils Lake Guide Jason Feldner, of Perch-Eyes Outfitters, also slings two-fisted rigs for the big lake's line-sided bounty. "I run a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jighead tipped with a Lindy Watsit Grub on a 12-inch, 8-pound mono dropper off a three-way swivel, and an 1/8-ounce jig and Watsit on a 2½-foot trailer," he says.
He also favors single setups such as a 1/2-ounce Lindy Slick Spin, mostly fished solo but sometimes tipped with a 2-inch YUM Wooly Curltail or 3-inch Walleye Grub. He also likes Lindy's Watsit Spin, which has a #1 Indiana blade and 2-inch Watsit body.
Feldner casts all three presentations over fresh vegetation. "May is typically the best time to catch the run, with the third week of the month being the best of all," he says. "Cabbage patches start growing in 6 to 8 feet of water in the bays, and white bass spawn over the emerging weedtops. Make a long cast and start reeling at splashdown. Keep your rod tip around 10 o'clock, so there's room for a hook-set, and play with the retrieve. Sometimes steady is best, but other times they like slow-rolling with a lift-fall cadence."
When fishing a two-jig rig, Feldner scores doubles by hesitating before reeling in the initial striker. "When a fish hits, keep the line tight and let it thrash around," he says. "The commotion attracts other fish, which often hit the second jighead."
While Feldner cultivates the cabbage-patch program at every opportunity, he notes that areas of current, such as incoming culverts and bridge bottlenecks, can be hot spots during springs with heavy runoff.
Wisconsin's storied Lake Winnebago system is a hotbed of white bass activity each spring. Veteran Guide Jason Muche reports the Fox and Wolf river runs typically fire up the first week of May, as water temperatures warm into the 48°F to 50°F range. "The earliest waves of white bass show up just as postspawn walleyes are moving out," he says. "Since white bass have a much wider spawning window than walleyes, the run usually lasts a solid three weeks."
During peak prespawn action, half-day trips commonly yield 200 fish, and catches topping 500 are possible on longer outings. Muche's record stands at 564 fish in six hours. Not surprisingly, the white bass run is among his busiest times of year. And the rivers are abuzz with a flotilla of fish-hungry anglers from across the Midwest. "Some days there are so many boats you could walk bank to bank without getting your feet wet," he says.
While the system's walleyes venture into marshes or off-channel rocky areas to spawn, Muche says white bass often seek out hard-bottomed, main-river sites offering rocks, sand, or gravel. "Current is king," he says. "If you can find a bank getting hit with moderate flows, or where an incoming feeder stream meets the main current, you can't make a cast without getting a fish."
Depths range from 10 to 14 feet during prespawn to 3 feet or less during the spawn. To target whites on the deeper end of the spectrum, he trolls crankbaits on three-way rigs. His setup consists of 20- to 30-pound braid mainline, a three-way swivel, 12- to 18-inch 25-pound mono dropper, 2-ounce egg or pencil sinker, and a #3 Lindy River Rocker tethered to a 4-foot lead of 10- to 14-pound fluorocarbon.
"Troll upstream at .8 mph, pumping the rod parallel to the water in foot-long increments to make the bait surge forward," he says. "Work up and down the break until you dial in the key depth."
Muche favors a 6½- to 7-foot rod, and says medium-light power is key, "because you don't want the fish to feel you when you pump the rod." He pairs it with a casting reel featuring a flipping switch, for simplified line-flow management.
Bright-colored baits are the rule. "Firetiger, pink lemonade, pink chrome, anything loud is what you want," he says. "On dark days, black-gold works well, too. When the sun's shining, the brighter the bait, the better."
As white bass move toward the bank, he adopts casting tactics. He switches to a 7-foot, medium-light spinning outfit with 6- to 8-pound mono. Reels lean toward the small size, to balance the blank and keep weight to a minimum. "A small reel makes for a far more comfortable day of casting than a big clunky setup," he says.
While a moderate retrieve that keeps the bait above bottom is Muche's bread and butter, he advises experimenting with speeds and added animation such as jerks and twitches until you match the fish's aggression level at the moment.
Not all white bass action occurs in tributaries. Noted fishing expert and veteran television fishing show host James Lindner targets vast schools of whites cruising large main-lake rock flats and riprap banks on Upper Midwest hot spots in western Minnesota and northeast South Dakota.
"Systems lacking appreciable inflows are top destinations for lake-run white bass," he says. "If you have a river system coming in, the fish also pile up on riprap banks near the mouth."
Lindner favors expansive near-shore structures. "I like the way the whities move on larger shelves, plus these areas can hold more fish," he explains, noting that classic structure lies in 4 to 6 feet of water and may extend hundreds of feet from shore before dropping off to a secondary flat lying in 7 or 8 feet. "White bass run baitfish into pockets, depressions, and other collection points that serve as bait traps," he says. "They're highly mobile and constantly on the hunt, so covering water with casting presentations is the best way to contact them."
Wielding a 7-foot, medium-action Quantum spinning rod strung with 6- to 10-pound Sufix 832 Braid capped with a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader, Lindner fires small hardbaits into promising lies. "I fish fast with little jerkbaits like #4 and #6 Rapala X-Raps, which are 1½ and 2½ inches long and perfect from just under the surface down to 4 feet," he says. Shades of shad and bright patterns such as firetiger and other hot colors often get the nod.
He favors a high, popping retrieve achieved by snapping the rod tip from nine to 11 o'clock while reeling the bait nonstop. "This imparts a lot of right-to-left, triggering motion," he says, adding that an erratic retrieve is key to appealing to the white bass' competitive nature. "Drag a jig through them and you might not catch anything, but rip a small jerkbait in their midst and whities swarm it like piranhas."
Lipless rattlebaits are also top white bass options, and Lindner likes #5 and #6 Rippin' Raps and similarly sized Rattlin' Rapalas. "I fish these baits with more of a sweeping retrieve, reeling and ripping the rod tip in 3-foot sweeps, then letting the bait drop before sweeping again," he says. "They sink like rocks, so you can fish them deeper, too, when white bass are pushing down off the shallower flat. Try counting them down and reeling fast, with intermittent stops."
Lindner's pattern excels in prespawn, from just after ice-out to the beginning of procreation. "You have a 15- to 20-degree window of water temperatures to take advantage of the absolute best bite," he says. â–
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Jason Feldner, 701/351-1294; Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Jason Muche, 920/210-0181.