In open water, white bass flock to the shallows in spring, crushing small crankbaits, lipless cranks, suspending baits — anything the right size that moves. Anglers who run across large schools of big ones at that point in the season know whites are surprisingly tough, aggressive, and not picky.
What few folks realize is that all those factors apply to whites under the ice, too. Ice anglers pursue white bass in the lakes and river backwaters of Ontario, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Ohio, and other states, but it's not well-documented. Whites range north to Lake Nippissing, Ontario, and are found in good numbers around river mouths of northern Lake Ontario. They're widely dispersed through the ice belt and make fine table fare.
But the best reasons to pursue white bass is their power and speed. On light tackle, they're some of the toughest customers on the ice scene. Cousin to the mighty striped bass, they're similarly endowed with powerful red muscle.
"They are so much fun to catch," says Nathan LaFleur, who often plies the waters of Devils Lake, North Dakota, one of the top destinations for Midwest white bass. "They bend your rod to the handle and cut giant circles on the way up," LaFleur says. "You can have some serious tangles when guys get doubles.
"You can find a few white bass in 20-foot depths, but never in huge schools," he says. "They concentrate in deeper water, sometimes so thick you think the top of the school is the bottom on sonar. The biggest schools hold 40 to 60 feet deep most of the time. At times, schools move through 30-foot depths, but those schools are never as big. It's wise to concentrate in deep basin areas. They prowl about but don't move far and they're never connected to structure. White bass are out there wafting around over deeper holes."
White bass are historically a river species, inhabiting flowing water north to the Winnipeg River, Manitoba. A winter fishery exists in some river backwaters of the Mississippi River, like North Lake in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. In those environments, bass often occupy water no deeper than 10 or 15 feet.
In big lakes, the process starts by drilling holes in a grid over deeper water. White bass are rarely where you found them yesterday, so it's a matter of time. "The search is identical to hunting schools of perch," LaFleur says. "You find white bass mixed with perch in Devils Lake. Plan to drill a lot of holes. It's easier to do with a group, hopscotching past each other, drilling, scanning, and covering water systematically. When you find them, the sonar lights up. They're schooled 8 feet thick.
"On Devils Lake, whites typically run 2 and 4 pounds. The biggest ones are 19 inches with most 15 to 16 inches. They're so fat and full of eggs you can barely get them through a 6-inch hole. Biologists tell us the biggest ones are over 11 years old," he says. "The bad part is, we catch them in such deep water they develop barotrauma. They put up a heck of a fight, but don't survive. They are, however, my favorite fish to target through the ice. So, while we practice catch-and-release for other species throughout the year, we practice limit-your-catch with winter whites. The good news is, they're extremely tasty if you cut the red meat from the top and sides of the fillet. It's firm, white meat that looks like walleye."
More good news: White bass are prolific spawners. "We had a big hatch last year," LaFleur says. "Devils has a ton of 3- to 7-inchers right now. They reproduce almost like baitfish, which they are in here. Bigger pike and walleyes feed on them."
LaFleur oftens travels to Canada to catch lake trout through the ice. "Winter white bass move fast like lakers — missiles coming up out of the school. Present your lure above them and it may take some time to get them to go. But once you get a fish to strike, the school gets activated. Get them revved up and once you jump start the school, they go nuts."
At last year's White Bass Bash on Devils Lake, 20 people iced 147 white bass in an afternoon. "Just a few hours, actually," he says. "We have a trophy that looks like the Stanley Cup with a white bass on top. It's a one-day annual event and it's become popular. You often catch big perch with them, too. Everything has to be kept that time of year because they're so deep. Limit the number of times you go out and fish this deep."
Anglers across the Midwest catch white bass on a variety of small ice spoons and jigs. Small Jigging Raps, Salmo Chubby Darters, Rippin' Raps, and similar lures all work, too. The most popular lure is a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce spoon with a rattle. No need to carry a load of lures. White bass aren't fussy. Though most people tip hooks with waxworms, minnow heads, or maggots, a feathered hook or straight piece plastic suffices.
"We use Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, Acme Kastmasters, Clam Rattlin' Blade Spoons, and Lindy Flyers most of the time," he says. "Lures in the 1/4-ounce range work best in these depths. You can catch fish with a minnow on a plain hook and a couple big split shot 8 to 9 inches above the hook. But I favor rattling lures as they seem to trigger that first fish. Once you get them going, there's no stopping it. Once you try this it's all you want to do."
Getting that first white bass to charge out of the school may not call for aggressive jigging. LaFleur says you may to have to try various lure actions to get the school snapping, but subtle noise and action combined with long pauses finally trigger a reaction most days. Lifting a rattle spoon 6 inches to a foot, dancing it slightly to activate the rattle, then dipping it back down on a semi-tight line often does the trick. Sound is critical, but don't overdo it until nothing seems to be happening. After somebody finally bends a rod, it won't matter what you do with the jig. Curious, greedy, and jealous, whites need but a glimpse of something moving once the feeding frenzy starts.
The tackle is light and simple — small spinning reels spooled with 4-pound Berkley Transition on medium-light sticks. "My favorite rod for white bass is the 32- or 34-inch Thorne Brothers Sweetheart," he says. "It has a fast action for working a spoon, but a forgiving bend that protects light line. They give that rod all it can handle."
Like the rest of us, LaFleur wonders why so many people bypass white bass. "They represent an overlooked fishing opportunity" he says. "You want to see kids get excited about fishing? Put them on a fast white bass bite. When the sonar lights up, it's like a video game but with real interaction at the end of that line, pulling like crazy. Indeed, white bass make kids of us all."