Cold rain pelted our SUV as we turned onto the rock-studded road that led to the river below Taylor Bridge. One last swig of coffee and we separated to fish in opposite directions in search of the season’s first white bass. One prearranged hour later we huddled around the thermos to thaw frozen fingers and compare notes. It was a good start: six early male white bass between us.
Hundreds of streams that feed mid-South reservoirs host the white bass spawning run. The event is a welcome harbinger of spring as warming waters and longer periods of daylight beckon the whites to staging areas along the lake at the mouths of feeder streams. As the water continues to warm the males enter the rivers and progress pool by pool upstream where they are eventually joined by the larger females to spawn over gravel and rubble bottoms in 58- to 64-degree water. Despite their efforts and prolific potential (each female can deposit as many as a million eggs) the spawn is successful only once every 3 or 4 years. This causes the schooling species to develop a dominant year class that grows to maturity and eventually declines in numbers through its relatively short life span, about 6 years, when another spawn succeeds.
The reputation of white bass as great fighters is well-deserved. As a tight schooling fish they are competitive feeders so the strikes can be rod-wrenching and their sleek, muscular bodies and forked tails make for a strong fight. In the mid-south white bass usually reach 12 inches at age 2 and weigh just under a pound. Although mortality rates remain high (20 to 40% for each year of adult life) a 4-year old female will weigh 2 pounds at 16 inches and those few 6-year olds can be in excess of 3 pounds at 18 inches.
The fly box can be quite simple. White bass feed heavily on minnows so streamer patterns, particularly those with white and silver in sizes 4 through 8 are a good start. Marabou streamers and Clousers dominate our fly box. When the fish are active that’s all you need. When the action slows a favorite crayfish pattern, a sculpin, a leech or a simple woolly bugger that may represent any of the above can trigger hits.
Armed with information gleaned from local fly shops, and conversations with guides and fellow anglers we can drive to the most productive streams and best locations. If others are fishing there a quick quiz can determine recent encounters, whether there are females present or just male fish, and what types of structure have been holding whites. If we learn that only males have been caught, move to a location closer to the lake in anticipation of finding the larger females. Again interview fishermen and take the water temperature. If the water is below 50 degrees it’s likely that only males are present in the river and females remain at staging areas in the lake. If females are being caught at the location of our initial stop and water temperatures are approaching the mid-50’s it’s a good idea to check upstream as the fish near spawning time. On the most popular streams the best access points may be crowded with anglers, but a short walk or boat ride upstream or down will usually locate uncrowded water.
Once the general parameters of white bass location have been determined each prospective pool can be assessed and explored. Three distinct areas of fish location are possible: the head of the pool, the mid-pool, and the tailout. Weather, time of day, and stream conditions will determine not only the location but also the level of activity of the bass. That, in turn, enables the angler to choose a presentation and type of fly likely to bring success.
Early or late in the day, particularly if cloudiness accentuates low light conditions and warming or stable water temperatures exist the white bass will be most active. Conversely, midday with bright, sunlit skies and dropping water temperatures often cause the fish to be inactive. Active whites may move to the head of the pool to feed, those in mid-pool may actively chase a potential meal in open water, and some will take up feeding near the tailout. Bass holding tightly to mid-pool current breaks, such as larger rocks, flooded brush, deadfalls, undercut banks or deep troughs, are likely not aggressively feeding. While fishing for these less active whites can be slower and more challenging, these fish can be caught with careful presentations.
Let’s take a look at each section of the pool and discuss how and with which flies we might fish it. Assuming conditions indicate active bass; move to the head of the pool and evaluate the speed of the current. If it’s slow enough to permit an upstream presentation it’s the best option because it’s likely to disturb the fewest fish. Begin by casting floating line and a small, lightly-weighted streamer, such as a size-8 white or chartreuse over white Clouser, a white Marabou, or Woolly Bugger, into the lower section of the run where the water begins to slow. Strip only enough line to cause the fly to move toward the rod independent from the current. Each successive cast should probe another area across the width of the riffle before working progressively higher into the run. If the action is poor move toward shore so that an up and across cast can be made and repeat the progression up the run with successive casts. If the speed of the current precludes upstream presentations move near the top of the run and make down-and-across casts into progressively deeper, slower sections of the run until it has been thoroughly explored.
The pool tailout can be fished in the same manner. If the current allows an upstream cast it should be the first presentation. Unless the riffle is particularly wide and deep there will be few fish found at the tailout’s center as water is funneled toward the next pool. Instead of casting straight upstream, an up-and-across cast is usually the most efficient way to cover this area. Faster current may indicate a down-and-across presentation of the same flies in the deeper, slower areas before moving progressively shallower. Again, smaller lightly-weighted streamers cast on floating line work best.
Mid-pool fishing can be slower but often the larger fish are caught there. The key is determining the location of structural current breaks. If the bass are active, a down-and-across cast on floating line with a larger, more heavily-weighted Clouser is a good choice. Mend line as necessary to get the fly deeper into the water column and impart action by making short, 2- to 4-inch strips with the line hand. If unsuccessful, try a long, sweeping strip that pulls line from close to the rod to the thigh while steadily increasing the speed of the strip. This causes the bass to believe it can attack an escaping minnow and may trigger hits from otherwise lethargic fish.
If the whites aren’t chasing they are likely hugging structure such as bigger rocks, deadfalls or brush. If you suspect that to be the case, again evaluate the current speed and position yourself so that your heavily-weighted fly can reach the appropriate depth before it reaches the structure. The current speed once again determines whether an upstream or down-and-across presentation is possible. These tight-holding fish are not likely to chase a meal but they will grab something that comes directly into their fields of vision. Sink-tip line is usually best for these deepwater presentations, and crayfish, leech, or sculpin patterns should get strong consideration. Short leaders (4 to 6 feet) will prevent the flies from rising toward the surface. Dead-drifting combined with subtle strips is necessary here, and line watching is important to strike detection. One of the most overlooked bass hideouts in mid-pool is undercut banks. They can be difficult to fish but well worth the effort as the oldest and largest specimens often occupy the safest lies.
If your trip predates the entry of white bass into the river, look for staging areas where the stream enters the lake. Deep drop-offs like bluffs, deep humps, and standing timber can be good candidates for fishing with full-sinking lines. A boat is usually necessary and an electronic locator is very helpful in finding structure capable of holding these staging bass. Fish location depths are usually 6 to 15 feet deep, but fish can be concentrated in these areas. After scouting with a locator, trolling is an excellent way of finding the fish. Once located, anchoring and casting are usually most productive.
The spring white bass run can provide outstanding angling for hard fighting fish for 6 weeks or more. If this is the type of action you crave grab an area map of the lower Midwest, locate some major impoundments fed by one or more streams, pack your gear, and enjoy the fun.