The Hawkeye White Bite

The Hawkeye White Bite

It doesn't get much better than a summer afternoon on the lake tangling with hard-hitting, hard-fighting white bass. (July 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

It was a perfect fishing Saturday. The sun was bright, and the air was cool. Coralville Reservoir's crappies would surely be hungry and husky this September day.

I fish from a small rowboat, so I normally avoid Coralville and its legions of roaring powerboats. Some toss up wakes big enough to swamp my tiny boat, and they always make fishing frustrating. But this was a Hawkeye football afternoon, and I knew the vast bulk of speedboaters would be watching the game.

I had the big lake nearly to myself that perfect fall afternoon, but there was a problem: I couldn't find the crappies! They weren't in their normal mid-autumn staging areas. All the honeyholes were empty.

In desperation I switched to an old tactic taught me by my dad, also a rowboat angler. I rigged one rod with a simple hook and fathead minnow. The other rod had a medium weight twistertail jig. As I slowly rowed, they ran at different depths. From time to time I changed my rowing cadence to let the lines work different depths, and altered oar pulls to make the boat zigzag down the lake. Trolling this way made it likely that sooner or later at least one of my baits would pass in front of fish.

It worked! A half-mile down the reservoir my rod arched as a husky fish bulled its way toward Iowa City. An alluring part of fishing the big reservoir is the mystery generated every time a fish hits. It could be one of many species; at the other end of my line could be a white or black crappie, largemouth, channel cat, relatively rare mooneye, or one of several other species. This fish was a bulldog fighter that bored down. It was obviously bigger than any crappie I'd pulled from the lake.

I suspected a catfish until I was able to work it close to the boat and catch the silvery glint of its side reflecting the fall sun. Parallel lines on a white background could only mean two fish: a white bass or a wiper. The mystery was soon solved as I worked the 15-inch white bass close enough to hoist into the boat.

White bass are one of the most mysterious of Iowa's commonly caught fish. They are not well known, and are usually unpredictable. Perhaps that's because they're one of our few pelagic fish. Bass, bluegills, crappies and even trout are homebodies, predictable; when not making seasonal movements from deep-water wintering areas to summer habitat, they stake out turf and stay there, so the big largemouth that lurks near a stump in May is likely to still be there two months later. Find the right structure, and you've found bass, crappies and many other species.

Not so the wandering white bass and its huskier hybrid cousin, the wiper. Both are "pelagic," meaning that instead of relating to structure, they wander through the water column of big lakes and rivers, cruising, usually in schools, through hundreds of acres of water. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Most well-known pelagic species such as salmon, tuna and bluefish roam the oceans. Voracious, and constantly on the move, they spend their lives trailing mammoth schools of minnows, eating as they swim. Powerful athletes, pelagic fish constantly exercise. You don't catch tuna, blues or salmon -- you battle them.

Iowa lacks an ocean and the powerful pelagic game fish that live there, but we have white bass and wipers, close relatives of the powerful striped bass of both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Although smaller than the ocean swimmers, pound for pound white bass are just as powerful, and they're common in Iowa's large lakes and reservoirs and in its rivers. Not as common as white bass, wipers, a white bass/striper hybrid, also swim in some Iowa waters and can top 12 pounds! Their small cousin, the yellow bass, is also found in some Iowa waters.

I'll never forget the first white bass I caught. Living in Kansas, I took an evening trip to Kanopolis Reservoir. As the sun dropped below the prairie behind me, fish churned the surface just beyond casting range. I could see silvery shad jumping into the air in a futile effort to avoid the massacre below; maddeningly, the school stayed just out of range of my light lures. But I had a secret weapon: Deep in my tackle box was a rarely used Kastmaster, a dense, heavy lure that'll outcast just about anything. It splashed into the school, and a bass immediately snapped it; minutes later a 3-pounder was in my hand. I caught a few more before the school moved beyond casting range.

"White bass are a hit-or-miss fish," said Iowa angler Dave Novak. "You don't catch any or you catch a bunch of them."

Finding the school makes all the difference, and in an Iowa river or reservoir, that school could be a few feet or a few miles away.

Steve Krotz, manager of the fishing department at Cedar Rapids GOT outdoors store, spends his life in only two places -- in the store talking with anglers or out on the water fishing.

"There's great white bass fishing in Lake Macbride, Pleasant Creek, Coralville, and the Iowa and Cedar Rivers, but not too many people fish for them," he said. "Probably because they're hard to find."

Krotz has two secrets for finding these elusive fish. "The easiest way is to look for fish churning the surface as they feed on shad. Usually that happens in the last hour of daylight each evening, but on very hot days the fish tend to be more active when it's a little cooler just after dawn. You simply maneuver your boat near the school and cast. The other way is to troll. That can work anytime," he said.

According to Krotz an electronic fishfinder can help locate these fish. "Watch the screen for the dark blob that indicates a school of small shad and get ready. White bass are likely there, too," he said.

Sometimes getting into a school of white bass is a surprise. That happened to Pat Herron.

"I was fishing for smallmouth bass in a big pool in Indian Creek just above the Cedar River. Suddenly the water was alive with fish as a school of white bass moved in. They were only about eight inches long but fought hard. I caught a bunch of them before they moved on," he said.

White bass are generally a summer fish. They seem to vanish when it gets cold.

"I have caught them just after ice out below the Coralville Reservoir tubes in the Iowa River but most productive fishing happens during the warm months," said Krotz.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist Paul Sleeper

is partially responsible for Eastern Iowa's good wiper and white bass fishing, having stocked adult white bass in Pleasant Creek Lake in 1992. Prolific at spawning, the species thrived to produce outstanding summer angling.

Sleeper stocks wipers in Lake Macbride and Coralville. "We usually stock around 300,000 wiper fry that we get from Delaware into the two lakes. Last year I received 62,000 2-inch-long Nebraska wipers and split them between the two lakes. There are now several strong year classes in the lakes. I know of two 13-pounders caught last year. The bigger fish are harder to catch, probably because they are feeding on 5- to 7-inch long shad and don't pay much attention to the small crankbaits that so many anglers use," he said.

According to the biologist there are no wipers in Pleasant Creek. In the other lakes telling one from the other can be challenging, but a fish over a couple of pounds is likely a wiper.

White bass even perplex fishery biologists. Catfish, crappies, black bass, and trout have been extensively researched. Not so white bass. That, combined with the wandering habits of this fish makes it difficult even for biologists to help anglers predict where to find them. Like successful anglers, biologists recommend watching for schools of fish breaking water late in the evening.

Interestingly the white bass is a true bass. Better-known largemouth and smallmouth bass are actually in the sunfish family. White bass have two close relatives -- the smaller yellow bass that sometimes stunt in Iowa lakes and degrade fishing and the massive striper that they resemble. Stripers don't live in Iowa, although many Hawkeye anglers mistakenly call white bass "stripers." Fish culturists created a cross, called the wiper that grows rapidly and can reach 13 or 14 pounds, about half way between the size of a white bass and a striper. While white bass readily reproduce wipers don't. Populations must be maintained by regular stocking.

Big wipers are probably the fightingest game fish in Iowa, but they're not common. Because they don't reproduce, but do provide thrilling fishing, the IDNR currently plants them in Iowa's largest waters. These include Rathbun, Saylorville, Red Rock, and Coralville Reservoirs, Lakes Macbride and Manawa, and Pool 14 of the Upper Mississippi River.

According to IDNR fishery research chief Don Bonneau, yellow bass, the smallest of Iowa's true bass, usually stunt when stocked in small ponds and lakes. White bass don't. About the only good Iowa yellow bass fishery is in Clear Lake.

"This is the only Iowa lake where yellow bass consistently grow to a size acceptable to anglers," he said.

Stunted yellow bass have degraded angling for all species in several Iowa lakes and aren't stocked anywhere. White bass and wipers never stunt.

Another good thing about white bass is their abundance. There are big ones in many waters across Iowa.

"White bass exist in all large reservoirs, the Upper Mississippi River and the chain of Iowa Great Lakes," continued Bonneau.

An avid angler, the biologist feels some of the best white bass fishing is below the big reservoir dams. He feels slack water fishing is best in Red Rock, Saylorville, and Rathbun Reservoirs.

"White bass populations are cyclical, somewhat like crappies. The species provides outstanding angling during high cycles. They're prolific, and angling has little impact on their population. No angler should feel guilty about keeping them," Bonneau continued.

IDNR fisheries biologist Randy Schultz has sampled white bass in lakes as small as 100 acres but says they do best in very large bodies of water with high gizzard shad populations.

"They are common in Iowa's natural lakes. Storm, North Twin, Blackhawk, Okoboji, Spirit, Minnewashta, Upper and Lower Gar and Clear Lake are good bets," he said. "Lake Manawa near Council Bluffs has an excellent wiper population, and Three Mile Lake in Union County is another good bet."

Scott Gritters is an IDNR fishery biologist stationed on the Mississippi River, Iowa's largest body of water. "White bass are common on the big river," he said. "Our creel surveys show that they rank between the third and ninth most commonly caught fish. Any white bass over 16 inches is a good one, and the state record is a 20-inch fish that weighed 3 pounds, 14 ounces." Noting that he grew up near the Des Moines River near Pella, the biologist added, "I still fish white bass in the Red Rock tailwater and on the reservoir itself."

Walleye tournament angler Dave Nichols is also a savvy white-bass fisherman. "This is one hard fighting fish. In the Mississippi River I've noticed that a school of white bass will drive bait into the rocks and then go into a feeding frenzy. The water is churning with white bass gorging on shad.

"Very often walleyes will follow and be down below the bass feasting on wounded bait.

"Once you find a school of white bass they're easy to catch. Cast any lure that imitates a shad, and these aggressive fish will attack it. Sometimes I put on a very heavy jig and hope it will quickly sink through the bass to the walleyes waiting below, but often a white bass will grab it before it gets far beneath the surface," he said.

Biologist Gritters says gulls are often an indicator of white bass. They are a natural fish finder for any observant angler.

"Schools work as a team to trap and confuse minnows. The bass churn the water. Gulls key in and pick up the injured minnows for supper," he said.

With the exception of fishing smaller inland rivers when white bass move along shore, a boat is almost essential to find and approach schooling fish. "Anglers shouldn't approach too closely with the boat. A lot of motor activity will drive the school away, especially if they've been pressured," said Gritters.

White bass schools can be hard to find, but once a school is located, the fish are remarkably easy to catch. Spinning equipment is ideal, especially a rod-and-reel rig that allows long casts. They'll attack any lure that even remotely resembles a gizzard shad. Dense, heavy lures like Kastmasters, or heavy leadhead jigs help reach a long ways into a distant school.

Gritters likes using in-line spinners. If the fish refuse to take them, he switches to a floating silver Rapala. "Sometimes I loop the line around the front treble hook to keep the lure from diving at all. This makes it look like a wounded minnow on the surface," he said.

In reality, nearly any silvery spoon or spinner will work. I prefer using spoons or leadhead jigs dressed with white twistertails or hair. A plain jig with a live minnow works great, but when bass are aggressively feeding, artificials are just as effective, and don't require rebaiting.

Although biologists and seasoned anglers all agree that white bass are fu

n to catch, they don't agree on their food value. Some think they make good eating, but only if handled properly.

"White bass make excellent eating if prepared right," said well-known South Dakota angler Tony Dean, who also fishes the Hawkeye State. "They don't freeze well, and are best if eaten when very fresh. Fresh white bass fillets that have had the red bloodline removed are as tasty as walleyes. Most people can't tell them apart."

IDNR biologist Bonneau agreed. "This is a fish that grows fast and doesn't live very long. Anglers can't catch enough to deplete their numbers, and they are very good eating when properly prepared and eaten fresh," he said.

Bonneau also recommends removing the red bloodline, which will be easily seen once you've skinned the fish.

As midsummer's sultry heat hangs over Iowa, even bluegill fishing slows down. The hot season can make fishing for most species challenging, but it's the very best time for white bass. The formula for success is simple: Go to a large Iowa lake, reservoir, or river in the evening or early morning, look for fish churning the water under wheeling gulls, quietly motor over and cast a silvery or white lure into the baitfish massacre. Chances are good that you'll never experience more-exciting fishing.

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