The small white jig settled quietly in the clear water flowing out of Bull Creek a minor tributary of Lake Taneycomo. The year was 1969.
A guest of the local conservation agent, I was fishing Lake Taneycomo for the first time. As the state’s new trout biologist, I was getting acquainted with Missouri’s trout resource, We were doing more sightseeing than fishing; we certainly weren’t fishing for white bass.
Suddenly my ultralight spinning rod bucked, and I set the hook. The fight was fast and furious, and because I was thinking trout, the 12-inch white bass surprised me.
The agent explained that although the lake didn’t have a large white bass population because of the extremely cold water cascading out of Table Rock Dam, it still supported a few of these feisty fish.
Although small, that first fish caught in Missouri ignited my interest in this wonderful native fish — an interest that 36 years later still burns hotly.
In some circles, white bass, like the late Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get no respect, placing a distant fourth behind largemouth bass, crappie and catfish in popularity with Missouri anglers. Yet they inhabit most major streams and large lakes, provide ferocious bite and fight, especially in spring, and readily attack jigs and spinners. And they’re really good eating. What more could you ask for?
While found in most Missouri streams and lakes, white bass do best in the state’s southern clear-water lakes. Beginning in February and March, and continuing through April, they migrate out of the lakes’ deep-water holding areas, used during summer and winter, to tributary streams where they stack up preparing to spawn near major riffles.
Unlike largemouth bass, crappie, and sunfish, which build nests and then guard the nests and the developing fry, white bass, yellow bass, and striped bass broadcast their eggs and sperm in moving water.
Once fertilized, eggs sink and tumble along the bottom, lodging in the gravel where they develop and hatch. Although white bass produce millions of eggs each year, probably less than 20 percent survive to hatch and grow to a catchable size.
Join me now as I highlight a few of the better lakes to find those catchable fish, suggest some tried-and-true methods for spring fishing and fishing later in the year, and provide my favorite white bass recipe.
WHERE TO FISH
A significant portion of Norfork Lake, located in southern Ozark County on the Arkansas border, actually rests in Arkansas, but the Missouri side may arguably be the best white-bass lake in the state. Management of this 22,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake is a joint project between Missouri and Arkansas fisheries biologists. Norfork’s great white bass population and fishing is augmented by annual stockings of striped bass and hybrid bass (a hatchery cross between white bass and striped bass) from Arkansas hatcheries.
Like other White River lakes, Norfork is governed by a fishing regulation that reflects its status as a border water: An angler with a reciprocal fishing permit can fish both the Missouri and the Arkansas portions of the lake, which supports one of the best and most consistent white bass spawning runs.
Norfork Lake’s two major tributaries in Missouri — the North Fork of the White River and Bryant Creek — join at the head end to form the impoundment. These two clear Ozark streams provide ideal spawning conditions for white bass, and, in the spring, white bass stack up at the Junction Hole just upstream from Highway 160 Bridge west of Tecumseh. Anglers can access this section of the lake from the southwest side of the bridge.
During high-water years, white bass migrate further upstream to Dawt Mill Dam on the North Fork and Warren Bridge on Bryant Creek.
I talked with fisheries management biologist A.J. Pratt, who’s responsible for managing Norfork Lake as well as Bull Shoals Lake. Although he hasn’t sampled Norfork’s white bass in the last couple of years, he says that the population looks good this year — unlike that at Bull Shoals Lake, which has been struggling because of low spring water flows.
Pratt recommends 1/8-ounce marabou jigs, small crankbaits such as silver Rapalas that imitate minnows, and silver-bladed spinners. Later in the spring, Norfork Lake anglers have good success fishing under lights at night with small shad or minnows at depths of 20 to 25 feet. Also, as water warms in summer, the lake stratifies, with the lower, deeper water becoming low in oxygen. When this happens, Pratt suggests, move downlake and fish near the dam in Arkansas.
Also during the summer, local guides look for shad schools breaking the surface as a result of being chased by white bass, stripers and hybrids. Once the guides locate a school, they ease in quietly using a trolling motor and fish under the schooling shad with deep-running crankbaits and white jigs tipped with white curly tailed grubs.
Lake Of The Ozarks
I could have highlighted a host of other Missouri lakes other than Norfork; however, one lake stands out above the rest. Lake of the Ozarks is Missouri’s second-oldest lake, constructed on the Osage River in the 1930s to supply electricity for central Missourians. In terms of scenic beauty, it’s butt-ugly; however, when it comes to producing white bass, it rates right near the top of my list.
Lake of the Ozarks consistently produces great white-bass fishing throughout the year. In spring the lake supports several notable white bass spawning runs up Gravois Creek, Linn Creek, the Niangua river arms, Cole Camp Creek, Turkey Creek, and the Osage River to Truman Dam.
My favorite, and the favorite of many anglers in the know, is the Osage River downstream from Truman Dam. The dam restricts upstream migration of white bass and concentrates a lot of fish in a relatively small area.
You can fish from the bank or use a boat here; both methods are very effective. However, the size of the river, especially during spring flows restricts the amount of water you can cover from the bank. I recommend using a boat and drifting through with the current as you fish. This allows you to cover more area, and when you encounter a white-bass school, you can return for the next drift.
Although smaller, the other lake arms also provide great spring fishing, allowing easier fishing from a boat or by wading.
FISHING TECHNIQUES TO MAXIMIZE FISHING SUCCESS
White bass aren’t shy; they strike furiously and fight hard. White jigs or small minnow-colored crankbaits work great in spring.
I use a light- or medium-action spinning rod lined with 6- or 8-pound line, depending on water clarity. In the clear water the lighter line works better; however, Lake of the Ozarks and northern lakes are relatively dingy, allowing anglers to use a heavier line.
Later in the year, the key to catching white bass is locating shad schools. White bass hang under the shad, off rocky points or ridges in the lakes. When you locate a school by observing birds or fish breaking the surface, ease up quietly and then fish below the school using deep-running crankbaits or jigs.
If you can’t locate shad, troll using crankbaits over rocky points or ridges. When you locate white bass, throw out a marker and troll the area again.
At Lake of the Ozarks, many anglers fish too deep during the summer. All of our lakes thermally stratify by June at between 15 and 30 feet. Once they’re stratified, dissolved oxygen levels drop in the bottom water layer, and fish won’t use water with low oxygen levels. By midsummer, Lake of the Ozarks has little or no oxygen in the lower layer. Fish above this depth, usually around 15 feet.
WHITE BASS COOKING
The key to great white bass eating is in the catching and cleaning. Don’t drag your fish around on a stringer or in a hot livewell; place them in a cooler filled with ice immediately after catching. When you fillet white bass, remove the lateral line, indicated by the red meat, from the fillets.
I like simple cooking. Salt and pepper your fillets to taste and then dredge them in potato flakes and pan-fry quickly in olive oil. Once you have cooked your white bass fillets, deglaze your pan by adding a tablespoon of real butter and the juice of half a lemon. Pour this over your fillets and serve hot. Quick, simple, and, oh, so good.
Give Missouri’s white bass fishing a try this year. You’ll be surprised at how much fun it can be.