White Lightning in the Lakes!
September 30, 2010
No, we are not talking about a moonshine still overflowing into public waters. Rather, it is the often-frenzied action for springtime white bass that is cause for excitement!
By Robert H. Cleveland
For acres all around us, the water seemed to be boiling. It didn't matter which way we looked on Grenada Lake; there were fish feeding on the top of the water. Usually, the boils on the surface were accompanied by a ka-sploosh sound!
"This," James Thornton of Jackson said, powering down the outboard and smiling from ear to ear, "is why I insisted we bring our light bass tackle along. This is the bonus I was talking about. Get ready for some fun."
We were rigged and ready, with 1/8-ounce jigheads and 2-inch pearl curly-tailed grubs on the light spinning gear. The boat hadn't even settled to a stop when we began casting into the feeding melee around us.
"Got one!" I shouted, almost immediately hooking up.
"Then it's a double," said Thornton, who was also holding a bent rod and reeling in a fish.
Both of the fish made our reels sing, pulling the 6-pound line hard enough to engage the drag gears. But the two 1-pound white bass eventually came to the boat and were pitched into the extra ice chest that sat in the middle deck of Thornton's boat. The livewells were already full of a double limit of crappie, the product of a morning of jigging around the trees in the Redgrass area of Mississippi's largest manmade impoundment.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Everything was coming together and beginning to make sense. Now I knew why we had the light spinning tackle and why we had been carrying around an extra 48-quart cooler that held nothing but a big bag of ice.
I liked the way Thornton was thinking. We were having a little "white lightning" - as in white bass - chaser to add to our crappie-fishing morning.
"They won't stay up long, and to be honest I didn't know if we'd see them busting on top at all, but they are usually here on this point every day," Thornton said, using his rod to point at the main-lake point formed by the two rivers that merge in Grenada Lake - the Skuna to the north and the Yalobusha to the south. "They come up on top every day from mid-April through May here, but usually not until the last hour or 30 minutes of daylight.
"The thing about it, and what most people don't realize, is that you can still catch them here even when they aren't up, once you locate the biggest concentration of the schools."
That was done easily for us, since the fish gave their location away. Because of another Thornton trick, we were able to keep catching them until we had all we wanted to clean. We quit before the box was full, but we could have easily filled it and at least one more.
His other secret was the jig-and-grub lures we tossed.
"I learned a long time ago the hard way that you can spook a school and stop the bite if you throw an obnoxious bait at them all day," Thornton explained. "I don't know, but it seems to me that they get leery of a rattling or wobbling crankbait. All that vibration must wear on them. You can catch a lot of fish on them, and it's a great way to locate the fish, but you can catch them until you get tired of it if you use the grub.
His usual plan if the fish aren't up on top is to use a lipless rattling crankbait to find them.
"I use a 1/4-ounce chrome and blue back to find the fish. If I catch two in one spot, though, I switch over to the grub," Thornton noted.
Thornton also has two different ways of working the grub. When the fish are on top, he just makes his cast and reels like crazy. When the fish are down, he slows down and jumps the bait up and down off the bottom.
"You can get away with bouncing jigs on the bottom in just about any white bass fishery because white bass love to hang around clean bottoms," Thornton said. "They are not like largemouth or crappie in that they are not hard-structure-oriented. They may relate to points like the other fish do, but they would rather be on a sandy point than on a point with a lot of standing or lying timber.
"But even if you do hit a snag with a jighead and 6-pound line, you can just break it off real quick and re-tie and not be out of much money or lost fishing time."
Grenada is just one of several white bass hotspots in Mississippi, thanks to the fact that whites are native to two of Mississippi's three major river systems - the Mississippi and the Tennessee (Tenn-Tom Waterway). All tributaries off those systems, including the ones used to impound reservoirs, hold big numbers of white bass. Along the Mississippi River, the hundreds of oxbow lakes are home to white bass, including the oxbows that are no longer connected to the river.
Like Grenada Lake, Enid and Sardis lakes are two good white bass fisheries because they are impoundments of tributary rivers to the Mississippi. Grenada is the best of the three because the whites seem to turn on earlier in the year there than at the other two.
"You can go upriver off the main lakes at any of the three, as well as at Arkabutla, and find schools of white bass in April and May," said Ron Garavelli, the chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) and a former biologist who worked the four north Mississippi reservoirs. "They hold on the big sandbars and points in the spring, and usually, if you can find one or two, you can find a bunch of them. They are schooling fish."
At Grenada, the southernmost of the four north Mississippi lakes, the fish return to the main-lake area earlier in the season.
"I usually start finding the big schools on the main-lake points around the end of the crappie spawn," said Thornton, who makes the 90-mile trip up to Grenada at least two or three times a week during the spawning month. "I know the white bass go up the river in March and April, but I don't chase them up there. I do my crappie fishing and then check a few points for the white bass. If I find them, OK. If I don't, I just take my box of crappie home and am happy because I know that sooner or later I'm going to hit them."
Enid Lake has a fair white bass fishery, but it can produce some good action later in May and throughout the summer with the fish schooling on the points late in the afternoon. But unless you see the fish at Enid, the shallowest of the lakes, you have a hard time finding them.
is not the case at Sardis, however, which rates close to Grenada for productivity.
"We see them busting on top all the time up there," said Bruce Browning of Oxford, a musician who often sings the praises of white bass fishing at Sardis. "My dad and I will be out on the lake trying to find some crappie and have to stop and start throwing at the white bass. We can't resist it when they start blasting shad on the surface. It's too easy. What's amazing to me is that we rarely see anyone else fishing for them."
All the main-lake points on Sardis hold white bass, but the points up the lake away from the dam seem to hold the most in the spring. As the summer progresses and temperatures heat up, the fish move down the lake toward the deeper points near the dam. Late every afternoon, the surface of the lake comes alive with white bass feeding on top.
The reservoir white bass usually average about a pound, although a few up to the 3-pound range may be caught in a day's time.
That's not the case at Pickwick Lake and some of the oxbow lakes along the Mississippi River. There, fish average about 2 pounds and a 4-pounder is not rare.
"You can see huge schools of white bass on the surface in the late spring near the mouths to both Bear and Yellow creeks," said fishing guide Roger Stegall of Iuka.
Bear and Yellow creeks form the two major coves on the Mississippi shoreline of the huge impoundment of the Tennessee River.
"When I say huge, I'm talking acres upon acres of them," Stegall noted. "A lot of people confuse them with hybrids and stripers because they (white bass) get pretty big around here. They catch a 3- or a 4-pounder and think they have a hybrid when it's just a big white bass."
My luck with whites at Pickwick has been very good in April and May in Bear Creek during the middle of the sunniest days. The fish surface and the schools will feed for several minutes and then go back down. We move into those areas and bounce the jigs on the bottom and get bit with almost every cast.
As good as the Pickwick fishing sounds, or the fishing at Grenada and Sardis, none of it compares to the white bass action that the Mississippi River oxbows can provide. If there's better white bass fishing anywhere in the country, you'll have to prove it to Sidney Montgomery of Tara Wildlife Inc., who fishes for whites regularly in oxbows and the river itself.
"There's a never-ending supply of them," he said. "People just don't understand how productive the Mississippi River can be, how fertile a fishery it is. Plus, people don't appreciate the white bass and the fun they can produce."
That information is not lost on Montgomery, who has mastered the white bass that swim in many of the oxbows and cutoffs off the river. Well into his 50s, Montgomery giggles like a kid with every bite.
"I love them," he said of white bass. "The thing is, they bite when nothing else does."
In the spring, when most of the river-connected oxbows, like Chotard and Albermarle, near Vicksburg, and Ferguson and Whittington, near Greenville, are too high and still too cold to produce any other sport fishing, Montgomery is steadily catching white bass.
"At Chotard, for example, when the snow melt comes south down the river each spring, you can forget the crappie and the bass. The water will get high enough to cover the boat ramps and sometimes even the parking lots," Montgomery warned. "That's when you want to be white bass fishing.
"Just like any other fishery, the oxbow white bass will be looking for a good, clean hard bottom. That's exactly what they get here on high water levels. They stack on the boat ramps and flooded roadbeds, but when it really gets high and gets into the parking lots, look out. You can find them by the thousands. The state's 50-white-bass daily limit is not unrealistic. You can catch that many easily."
On the river itself, Montgomery targets the washouts in the many jetties that the Corps of Engineers has built to control the river's flow.
"You try to find the jetties where the river level is right at the crest of the jetty and there are a few low spots where the water is running over the top. The white bass stack right in there behind those flow-throughs," he said. "Doesn't really matter what you throw in there - grub, slip-up or a crankbait - they knock the fire out of it. Cast after cast, they hit it like there may never be anything else for them to eat."
Montgomery's favorite bait is a slip-up, which is a common name for a number of lures made of molded lead that the line is threaded through and tied directly to a treble hook. The term slip-up comes from the heavy lure's natural movement up the line away from the fish when the hook is set. The fish looses the leverage of the weight in its attempt to toss the hook.
There are several on the market, most of them direct descendents of the original Whing-Dhing, designed by Bob Ponds of Jackson for use on schooling bass at Ross Barnett Reservoir.
"Bob created that lure for fishing for largemouth, never realizing that he had created the perfect white bass lure," Montgomery said of his good friend and fishing partner. "We have spent many a great day together on the river and the oxbows catching whites on his baits."
At Ferguson Lake, the white bass school on the big sandbar point on the north side of the lake near the mouth of the lake to the river. A lot of bass fishermen have become white bass fans when the largemouths won't cooperate but the white bass are exploding on the sandbar.
Probably the best oxbow for white bass is Eagle Lake, near Vicksburg, which is no longer connected to the Mississippi River. The old lake is still full of the white bass that streak through the water and thrill hundreds of fishermen.
"There are mornings and afternoons when you can stand on the bank, anywhere on the lake, and everywhere you look in all directions the water will be boiling on top with white bass schooling," said Montgomery. "The mouth to Muddy Bayou is probably the key spot to look for them in because of all the old rocks that are under the water and form the mouth to the bayou. When they get there, it's awesome. You can get hit every time you throw in there. I suggest you clip the barbs on your treble hooks, unless you plan to keep them. You won't want to waste the time of having to dig the hooks out of the backs of their throats. They hit the slip-ups that hard. The whites here are 3 or 4 pounds."
Don't overlook the white bass. Their meat is white, flaky and contains only a small streak of red meat that can easily be removed from each filet.
"They eat pretty darn good," Thornton said. "A lot of time, we mix them right in with our crappie at fish fries and people never know the difference. That's another bonus, but the main bonus is that we sure do have a lot of fun catching th
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