Sackin' Up The Sandies

Sackin' Up The Sandies

That's exactly what you could be doing this month if you follow this expert advice for fishing any number of prime Oklahoma waters.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

They're called "white bass" just about everywhere else in the country, but we Okies know the species as "sand bass" -- and we like 'em so much that we made 'em our official state fish!

I realize that the term is used elsewhere to designate other species -- in one area back East, for instance, it denotes a type of green sunfish -- but when you say "sand bass" around these parts, everybody gets the reference: a hard-fighting, fast-growing and highly prolific open-water roamer that provides thousands and thousands of hours of angling fun (not to mention thousands of tasty filets) to Oklahoma anglers every year.

You can catch sand bass at any time of the year, but spring -- when the "sandies" are spawning in Oklahoma's rivers and creeks -- and summer -- when they school up and chase shad to the surface in many reservoirs -- are the times that see most anglers pursuing sand bass.

May is usually a kind of in-between period -- after the spawn, but before the real hot-weather surface-feeding frenzies begin. That doesn't mean that you can't catch sandies now, however: You just have to know where to find 'em. And you have to be on alert, as schooling sandies can appear at any time. In April and May, I've had schools of both sand bass and white bass/striped bass hybrids appear out of nowhere while I was fishing for largemouths.

That happened to me at Grand Lake a few years ago in late April. My buddy and I were probing a sloping shoreline in a cove with Carolina-rigged lizards when, suddenly, it sounded as if a hailstorm had erupted behind us: An acre or more of splashing, churning water was frothing from the frantic activity of feeding sand bass that had chased schools of shad to the surface.

I spun the nose of the boat around, picked up a rod that had a shad-colored crankbait tied on, and caught six sand bass on seven or eight casts before the fish seemed to disappear. My friend missed that first flurry of action, but while I was catching sand bass, he was tying a silver jigging spoon on the line of one of his rods.

We went back to fishing for largemouths for a while, but, about 20 minutes later, the splashing resumed in the middle of the cove. This time, while I got a couple of additional sand bass on my crankbait, my buddy took first a sand bass and then a hybrid bass weighing about 5 pounds on his jigging spoon.

That 5-pound hybrid kept my friend busy for quite a while, pulling so hard that he was struggling to lighten his drag while his rod tip was bent sharply toward the water beneath the boat. I was sure that the force would either break his line or pull the hook from the fish's mouth, so aggressive was the fight. He landed the hybrid, though, and put it in the livewell along with the sand bass.

The schooling sand bass returned once more before we left the cove to fish in another part of the lake. We left with about 15 nice sandies, plus the hybrid, and that provided a sack of filets.

In a number of lakes in Oklahoma anglers may find hybrids and sand bass together; in a few, you might find sand bass, hybrids and stripers. Let's look at some of the lakes that offer the best chances for sand bass action in particular.

When it comes to choosing a sand bass lake in Oklahoma, the bigger the better -- that is, it seems that the state's largest lakes are also among the best producers of sand bass. That's not to say there aren't some small reservoirs that yield good results, too, but lakes Eufaula, Texoma, Grand, Keystone, Kaw, Robert S. Kerr, Oologah and Fort Gibson are all celebrated for yielding up masses of sand bass.

Eufaula and Texoma are not only the two largest reservoirs in Oklahoma but also, arguably, the state's preeminent sand bass fisheries. Many would dispute that point, admittedly, as just about every part of the state is home to some quite respectable sand bass fisheries, and legions of loyal anglers are prepared to assert that their favorite fishing holes are, if not the best, at least better than the next guy's.

Lake Tenkiller is one of the state's most widely recognized sand bass fisheries. Its reputation is based chiefly on its superb springtime sand bass spawning run fishing in the Horseshoe Bend area, and after the spawning runs are over, Tenkiller doesn't feel nearly as much sand bass fishing pressure as do some other lakes.

Smaller lakes -- especially in the western half of the state, where water is sometimes scarce and lakes tend to be smaller -- also foster some noteworthy sand bass action, however. Canton, with 9,000 acres, and Foss, with 6,800 acres, are both topnotch sand bass lakes, for example. Both draw anglers from the Oklahoma City area as well as from smaller Western Oklahoma towns for spring and summer sand bass fishing. A friend who went to college at Weatherford recalls that money was tight when he was in school, so the stringers of sand bass that he wrested from Foss' waters afforded him and his roommate many a meal.

Let's talk about techniques for catching sandies during the next three or four months.

By mid-April, the spawning runs are finished just about everywhere in Oklahoma. After the spawn, the sandies move back downstream into the lakes. They may perhaps spend a few days resting from the rigors of spawning, but they're hungry, and aggressive feeding activity is soon in evidence.

The first step in catching any kind of fish consists in figuring out where they are. Sand bass are often less difficult to locate than are some other species, as their tendency to school can make it easier to find them on sonar. However, their mobility is considerable, and as they roam open water freely and swiftly, it can take some doing to stay on the fish after you've found them.

A sonar unit will accordingly be your best friend if you're seeking sand bass in open water on a large lake. You may see the fish near the bottom, or near the top, or anywhere in between. You develop a knack after a while for identifying schools of fish likely to be sand bass.

You can also troll to locate schools. In fact, many anglers use trolling as their primary method for taking sand bass. I myself prefer casting lures to dragging them behind a boat at idle speeds -- but I won't knock trolling. At times, it can be the technique you need to get results.

There are those who troll with in-line spinners -- Rooster Tail, Mepps, Abu -- and I know some who troll with Road Runners (horsehead spinner jigs) or other jigs. But most trollers use crankb

aits in silver, white, pearl or some other shad-like color.

An old striper fisherman's trick -- tying a jig on a dropper line to follow along below and behind a crankbait -- can also fool the sandies; the idea is to give the fish a choice of lures to strike. Back in the early days of striper fishing at Lake Keystone, trolling a big-lipped Bomber or Hellbender plug with a 1/4-ounce white or yellow jig behind it was perhaps the method in widest use at the lake. I remember noticing that on some days we'd get nearly all of our fish on the crankbait, while on others most of the fish would come on the jig. Both the sand bass and the stripers seemed to show a marked preference for one or the other, but I could never correlate the preference to any condition such as water temperature or sunlight.

If you'd sooner cast than troll, you can still use trolling to locate schools of sand bass or to determine whether those fish you're looking at on sonar are sandies. Keep a floating marker buoy handy to toss over the side whenever you see a school of fish on your screen, or whenever you hook up with a sand bass. This will enable you to keep an eye on the school's position. It's easy to lose sight of a spot in open water without a reference point like a floating marker.

Remember, though, that sand bass are roamers. Unlike, say, crappie -- which tend to orient themselves to a structural feature or some kind of cover, around or within which they'll stay put for hours, or even days or weeks -- sand bass in search of food get around a lot. Yes, sand bass and their relatives will also orient themselves to structure from time to time, but they spend a significant amount of time during the year's warmer months traversing the lake from shore to shore as they harry the schools of shad.

Another way of determining the whereabouts of sand bass involves watching for feeding activity among the seagulls that often soar above Oklahoma lakes or ride their surfaces, bobbing on the waves. When they're in the air, they're watching for signs of shad on the surface, and when sand bass chase shad to the surface, the gulls are usually the first to notice. So if you see gulls diving toward the water -- not just gliding in for a landing, but descending rapidly and practically vertically -- head for that spot, because there's a decent chance that a school of hungry sand bass will be chasing shad to the surface in that area. I've spent summer afternoons at several lakes just waiting for the gulls to guide me to some furious sand bass action.

One likely spot at which to find sand bass will lie on the downwind side of the lake on windy summer days. This is a pattern that both boaters and non-boaters can exploit. Over the years, I've caught literally thousands of sand bass at Keystone, Eufaula, Grand and Fort Gibson by fishing right against wind-blown shorelines, especially shallow, flat-bottomed shorelines that deepen only gradually.

In such spots, bank-walkers, waders and tube fishermen can sometimes catch more sand bass than they can carry away. There's no creel limit on sand bass in much of Oklahoma, but check the regulations in your area, as the authorities often impose a creel limit at fishing venues harboring both hybrid bass and sand bass.

Along one shoreline near Fountainhead Lodge at Lake Eufaula, I've caught many sand bass when south winds blow straight against that bank. I've seen the sand bass chase shad right up onto the "beach" on that shore, feeding in water so shallow that their backs were sticking above the surface as they grabbed shad. The water was so shallow in spots that I couldn't even use my trolling motor where the fish were feeding. We'd raise the motor and let the boat blow into the shallows until it was stuck, and then either fish from the boat or get out and wade. Then I'd have to push the boat back into deeper water by hand.

Another technique to use on sandies schooling in open water: casting or vertical-jigging with structure spoons -- those heavy-bodied lures that are often called "slab spoons" or "jigging spoons." Take the former approach when you're working a school feeding near the surface, the latter when you're floating above them.

When I've been angling for striped bass and largemouth bass with structure spoons, I've had by far the best luck with Hopkins Spoons or similar hammered steel spoons with a chrome or silver finish. But when white bass have been my quarry, I've gotten far better results with lead spoons either left bare or painted white or chartreuse.

I believe that a jig is the most effective and versatile kind of sand bass lure, but I'd have to rank slab spoons a strong second. I used to buy slab spoons by the card -- a dozen at a time. Then I'd borrow a friend's spoon mold and pour a couple of hundred of them with lead I keep on hand for molding jigs. With slab spoons, you never know what you're going to catch next. I've caught largemouth and spotted bass, channel and flathead catfish, walleyes, stripers, hybrids and crappie -- even trout! -- on jigging spoons.

But my favorite lure for catching just about any species of fish is a jig. I don't think there are many species of game fish that can't be caught on a jig of some size or style, and sand bass too take jigs readily. It's a wee bit early yet, but it won't be long until it's time for nighttime jig-fishing for sand bass.

I like to tie as many as five small jigs -- usually all white, but sometimes with a chartreuse or pink jig thrown in for variety -- spaced 12 to 15 inches apart on a single line. I use 1/16-ounce jigheads either tied with chenille and feathers or dressed with small plastic shad or grub bodies. I anchor on the edge of creek or river channels, sometimes near or beneath bridges, and fish the jigs vertically beneath both sides of the boat.

If the bugs aren't too thick, I'll keep a gas-mantle lantern burning in the boat. On summer nights, a constantly burning light can attract so many insects as to make the fishing uncomfortable. On nights like that, I'll use an electric lantern instead, and just turn it on when I need light.

Some nighttime sand bass anglers use floating lights that shine directly down into the water beneath the boat, the concept being that such lights summon microscopic aquatic creatures that in turn draw in baitfish to attract the sand bass and crappie. I've caught just about as many fish, though, without a light shining in the water as I have with one. I think at times the light actually spooks the fish, and may in fact increase any reluctance to bite.

Either way, it can be a pleasant way to spend a summer night -- anchored over a river channel in a big lake, pulling sand bass and crappie up from the depths beneath your boat. Remember though, that if you're out on a lake in a boat after dark, keep your running lights lit at all times, even if you're anchored. And keep some sort of flashlight or spotlight handy so that you can signal approaching boats that might not see you.

We in Oklahoma have lots of places for catching sand bass, and lots of methods for doing it. You can find the sandies, which are some of the most widespread of fish in state waters, in every major river system, many small creeks and, as I said earlier, virtually every major lake, as well as in several sma

ller lakes.

You can catch sand bass year 'round, day or night, if you employ the right techniques (a category comprising a variety of lures and methods) in the right places -- but I believe that the summer months get the best out of both. No matter whether you put 'em all back in the water or keep 'em and fill your freezer with filets, you can have a ball catching our Sooner state fish.

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