Terrific Trio: Our Best White-Bass Fishing
September 24, 2010
These little underwater locomotives aren't for the faint of heart. But if you want your string stretched and your angling acumen tested, the Natural State's white bass might just be for you.
By Keith Sutton
Sunrise that spring day was enough to take your breath away. Broad strokes of pumpkin orange splashed across the flowing waters of the lower White River in southeast Arkansas. Ol' Sol was a scarlet orb on the horizon.
Little whirlpools danced past the anchored johnboat. The air was cool and still. My fishing companion, Bill Peace, cast a pair of jigs toward the mouth of a small tributary flowing into the larger river, and I followed suit.
"Get ready," Peace said. "The fun is about to begin."
He was right. The instant my jigs touched down, I felt a vicious strike. Peace was quickly battling a hefty white bass, too.
The two fish fought furiously, but we brought them to the boat in short order, shook them off the hook and cast again. The response to every cast was almost instantaneous, and each time we savored the powerful run of a sizable white bass.
The action went on cast after cast for an hour. I would like to tell you exactly how many fish we caught during those 60 minutes, but in all honesty, I cannot. We released every one, and in my excitement, there was little chance of keeping count anyway. We caught scores of them, though - of that I have no doubt.
If you'd like to experience such action yourself, now is the time to try, for spring offers some of the year's best fishing for white bass. During this season, whites seek tributaries of major rivers and reservoirs for spawning runs. It is during these spawning runs, when thousands upon thousands of whites are concentrated in small creeks, rivers and dam tailwaters, that the vast majority of Arkansas white bass are caught. In fact, for some white bass aficionados, there is no season but spring. When the spawning runs end, so does the fishing.
There are literally dozens of great places in Arkansas where you can enjoy this seasonal bonanza. Among the best of the best, however, are the three bodies of water detailed below. Follow the tips given here and you're sure to enjoy fish-a-minute fun with these pugilistic panfish.
Fat white bass like this one are the hallmarks of topnotch white-bass waters such as Beaver Lake, the Arkansas River and the lower White River. Photo by Keith Sutton
LOWER WHITE RIVER Bill Peace of Jonesboro has shared with me the pleasures of bottomland river white-bass fishing several times during the two decades we've been friends. At one time, he owned a shanty boat moored on the lower White River, just a few miles above the river's confluence with the Mississippi. With that houseboat as home base, we could be fishing for the lower White's plentiful white bass in no time flat. And Bill Peace darn sure knows how to catch them.
"The junction of two big rivers, like the confluence of the lower White and Mississippi, is a great place to catch whites," said Peace. "But it's not the only place. Anywhere there's water coming into the river is good - a creek mouth or a river run that connects an oxbow to the river. The whites will be most active where's there's some clear water. For instance, when water is dropping out of the oxbow lakes, it runs across the woods and into the river. The river itself may be muddy, but the whites are usually where the clear water from the oxbows is flowing in."
Another location for first-rate white bass action is the tailwater channel immediately below Norrell Lock and Dam south of Tichnor, where the migration of spawning whites is interrupted. Barges and other boats enter the lock, and then the water is raised or lowered so the craft can continue its travel.
"When they're releasing water out of the locks, white bass really go crazy," said Peace. "The water is swift - stirring up baitfish - and the whites come up in there to work over the schools. Anytime that water starts running, the action heats up."
Peace hooks most white bass by throwing tandem-rigged lures into their midst, as often as not catching two fish per cast. He uses two basic lure combinations, his favorite being a tandem rig with two 1/32-ounce tube jigs. Both jigs are tied to the main line, one above the other, and worked through areas where schools are likely to hold.
"In clear waters, lots of fishermen prefer shad-colored lures," he noted. "But this isn't necessary in a big delta river like the White because of a lack of water clarity. Darker colors are better, because fish can see them better in dingy water. Black and blue are two of the best colors in this situation."
Another combination Peace favors is a 1/32-ounce jig tied above a 1/8-ounce jig with a small safety-pin spinner. The heavier jig stays well beneath the upper lure at a level where larger whites are often holding. Double hookups are common.
"This is a killer rig, especially when you use black-and-chartreuse tube bodies," he said. "Bring it in with a steady retrieve, and you can catch a boatload."
BEAVER LAKE Big bottomland rivers provide thrilling spring action for ready-to-spawn whites, but large artificial reservoirs fed by one or more major tributary streams are the preferred fishing waters of many Arkansas anglers. Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas falls into this category.
Covering 28,220 acres in the Ozark Mountains, Beaver has a white bass population that's in excellent shape with respect to numbers and population structure. The White River, which feeds Beaver, and major tributaries like the War Eagle are well known for fantastic white bass runs. Until late spring you can find spawning whites in these streams. Then they move back into the open lake chasing shad in large schools.
In 1968 and 1969, Larry Olmsted of the University of Arkansas conducted a study to determine the feeding habits of Beaver white bass. According to his study results, which are as applicable today just as they were almost four decades ago, shad were by far the most important food of Beaver's white bass no matter what the season. Consequently, baits and lures that imitate shad are the top producers no matter when you fish - spring, summer, fall or winter.
Olmstead also determined that Beaver Lake white bass show daily peaks in feeding intensity that vary only slightly through the year. Peaks occurred at 2:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. The evening (8:00 p.m.) feeding period was the most important peak, so to enjoy the best action, you might want to plan your fishing time so you can be on the
Beaver Lake is fed by one fork of the White River that goes back south and east as far as Crosses, Delaney and St. Paul. The West Fork of the White ranges southwest as far away as Winslow, West Fork and Greeland, while the Middle Fork travels northwesterly about halfway between and paralleling Arkansas Highway 16 and U.S. Highway 71. These three forks add up to many miles of prime water where you can always find springtime action.
War Eagle Creek, the fourth-largest tributary, flows in from the lake's east side. In this stream, whites can travel only as far as the dam at War Eagle Mill, where they congregate in huge numbers to create an excellent fishing site. You'll find spawning whites from mid-March through April and sometimes into early May both here and on the forks of the White.
Most locally popular lures are sub-surface models that include spinners, crankbaits and spoons. Favorites are Worden's Rooster Tail spinners (1/16 to 1/4 ounce), Norman's Little N crankbait, Rapala's Shad Rap, Bagley's Killer B and Luhr-Jensen's Crocodile spoon. Folks in the know say shad patterns and chartreuse work best in Beaver Lake's clear water.
Veteran anglers here often fish with two types of fishing combos - a 6-foot medium-action rod and a baitcasting reel spooled with 12-pound-test line for casting heavier lures, and a 6-foot spinning rod and spinning reel spooled with 6-pound-test line for smaller lures. White bass usually will be a consistent size within each school. Some schools will hold mostly big ones; some will hold mostly small ones. Either way, with the two types of fishing combos, you're ready to tackle whatever starts hitting. The heavier gear may also prove useful if you stumble into some of the schools of black bass, hybrid stripers and stripers that often run in or near the schools of whites in Beaver Lake. You never know when you could end up with something really big on the end of your line.
ARKANSAS RIVER White bass have long been an angling staple in dam tailwaters on the Arkansas River. These scrappy sportfish seem ever-present and always hungry, and if you can pinpoint their feeding and schooling areas, get ready for some Katy-bar-the-door fishing. Schools of whites containing hundreds of 1- to 3-pound fish often stack up in the roiling waters when the locks and dams block their upstream spawning migrations.
At one time, it was possible to bank-fish for whites below the 12 dams scattered across the state on the Arkansas River. Since the World Trade Center tragedy, however, access areas immediately below each dam have been closed for security reasons. You can still fish the portions of the tailwaters where white bass congregate, but you'll have to reach them by boat. This means launching at a ramp downstream, then motoring up to the tailwater.
No matter which tailwater you're fishing, the biggest white bass schools are likely to be found in those portions of the tailwater I like to call the whitewater reach (the uppermost portion of the tailwater near the dam and adjacent structures) and the middle reach (that stretch where churning water from the dam starts smoothing out and slowing down).
During the spring runs, most whites will stack up in the whitewater run. Current velocity and oxygen content reach their highest levels here - conditions that big whites find much to their liking. Best of all, these areas harbor lots of shad, the white bass' favorite food. As upstream spawning migrations progress, whites crowd into the food-rich water below the dam in ever-increasing numbers. Motor as close to the dam as regulations allow and cast around rip rapped banks, lock wall edges, wing dikes and other structures until you find a school.
Moving downstream from the whitewater reach, you'll soon enter the middle reach, a stretch of calmer water where artificial structure such as wing dikes and riprap is still prevalent. White bass tend to be plentiful in these areas, too, especially when water flows through the dam are reduced. If one or several gates are closed, white bass feeding in the whitewater reach often move to middle-reach structure that attracts schools of shad and other baitfish. They continue feeding here until water flow is restored to higher levels, drawing them away.
Wing dikes are the predominant white bass structure in this part of the tailwater. These long, narrow rock structures direct current into the main channel to lessen shoreline erosion. Work each one thoroughly, fishing both sides and from one end to the other. Deep scour holes near the end of each dike are especially attractive to schools of white bass.
Humps and boulders in the middle reach also merit attention. Those with shallow crowns may be visible or at least apparent, thanks to the boil-line above them. Sonar may be needed to find those in deeper water. All are likely to harbor schools of feeding whites.
Three of the best tailwater fishing locales on the Arkansas are those at the Ozark/Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam (L&D) at Ozark, the Dardanelle L&D at Russellville and L&D Number 9 near Morrilton. These areas offer exceptional fishing for spring whites.
Ozark/Jeta Taylor L&D is in Franklin County, just south of Interstate 40 at Ozark. White-bass fishing is very good here, both in Ozark Lake, above the dam, and in the tailwater area below the dam.
Normally, there's a good bit of water flow below the dam in spring, and whites are up against the rocks along the banks. If the water is moderately but not excessively high, cast around riprap, wing dikes, and other rock structure to find fish. On the rare occasions when spring water releases are low, try locating fish in the deeper water of the spillway.
Moving downstream, we come to Dardanelle L&D. Because it's situated on the outskirts of the Russellville metropolitan area, this is perhaps the most popular and heavily used of our three hotspots.
Big boulders, shoreline riprap and old pilings in this area all attract white bass at times. But some of the best fishing is around drops along the main river channel.
Lock and Dam 9 near Morrilton is the next hotspot downstream. The tailwater below this structure is also popular with white bass anglers, but not as much so as the Dardanelle and Ozark tailwaters. Consequently, you're not as likely to encounter heavy angler traffic here during peak fishing times.
Bank stabilization structures like wing dikes and riprap are where whites often hold. Here, as anywhere on the Arkansas River, you should carry plenty of lures and terminal tackle. Breakoffs are common when you're working rigs across the rocky river bottom.
In my experience, you'll rarely go wrong using live minnows, leadhead jigs or a combination of the two when fishing for the Arkansas River's abundant white bass. For minnows, use a heavy sinker tied to the end of the line to drag the bait to the bottom where whites often hold in spring. The minnow is lip-hooked on a small single hook attached to a dropper line tied a few inches above the weight.
Leadhead jigs must also hav
e enough weight to carry them to or near the bottom. For shallow water, lighter jigs (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) work well; in deeper or more turbulent water, some anglers go as heavy as an ounce.
Allow your bait to bounce along the bottom with current. If you're bank-fishing, an upstream cast will let you keep your rig in the water longer. Keep a tight line so you can feel striking fish, but be sure the bait remains on or near the bottom.
Watch the water conditions, too. I've never done much good when the river was high and muddy, as it will be following a heavy rain. The water needs to be fairly clear, and low-water conditions typically prove best for catching loads of spring whites.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $28.25 to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders, log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.)
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