By Gerald J. Scott
Believe me, I hate to begin a magazine article with bad news, but to quote my hero Festus Hagin, “Facts is facts.” In this particular case, the fact is that Missouri’s white bass are facing a crisis of heretofore unparalleled magnitude. No, it isn’t loss of habitat. It isn’t pollution either. It’s a pandemic of low self-esteem.
Stop snickering, you politically incorrect hill persons. Those of us who’ve had sensitivity training understand that low self-esteem is just about the worst thing that could happen to a fish.
As you might have expected, this sad situation is entirely the fault of the state’s anglers. Black bass and crappie – both of which are actually modified green sunfish – are locked in an endless too-close-to-call battle for first place in the hearts of Missouri’s warm water anglers. Catfish have a death grip on third place. That leaves white bass and walleye to compete for fourth-place honors.
At first glance, fourth place doesn’t sound that bad. Unfortunately, fourth place falls somewhere between less and way less than 10 percent of the angler hours spent on the state’s waters that harbor white bass. It’s by no means condescending to say that the utter unfairness of this situation was simply more than the white bass – which, by the way, really is a bass – could stand.
Even as you read this, millions of the state’s ego-deprived white bass are joining gangs. Mob mentality being what it is, many of these heretofore gentle-natured fish have become vicious bullies, taking out their frustration on everything even slightly smaller than themselves. I must repeat that none of this is the white bass’s responsibility – it’s yours. Fortunately, there is something you can do to help. Sacrifice a portion of the time you’d otherwise spend fishing for black bass, crappie and catfish to toss a lure in a white bass’s direction. Be forewarned: The white bass will pretend to hate being hooked, but deep in its fishy little heart, it’s thanking you.
Within reason, line type and test can be dealer’s choice. For what it’s worth, I’m partial to thin diameter monofilaments in 8- to 12-pound test.
The only lure any white bass angler truly needs anywhere or anytime is an 1/8-ounce jig tipped with a white 3-inch curlytail grub. But then going fishing with only one lure is even sillier than going fishing with only one rod. Carry jigs in every size from 1/64 ounce to 1/4 ounce, and have a variety of types, sizes and colors of soft-plastic baits at the ready. Lipless crankbaits in shad-imitating colors are every savvy angler’s version of a “necessity” for both casting and trolling. Never leave home without “several” topwater plugs. Flyfishermen will want a selection of popping bugs and weighted streamers.
There’s no question but that having a boat is a tremendous asset for a white bass fisherman.
Furthermore, white bass are – or at least should be – the reason 20-foot hulls powered by 225 hp outboards are called “bass boats.” If you’ve got hankering for a big boat, feel free to tell your spouse I said that. However, if – when? – he or she says “no,” it’s possible to catch white bass both while you’re wading and while you’re standing on dry land.
This type of habitat is virtually unusable by black bass and crappie, but it’s ideal for pelagic (open water) species like white bass and their favorite prey, the threadfin shad.
As a result, Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfork have the fastest white bass growth rates in the state. The current state record white bass – a 5-pound, 6-ounce behemoth – was pulled from Table Rock on March 19, 2002. It replaced a fish from Bull Shoals.
Mid-April is the peak of the white bass spawn throughout Missouri, but it’s an especially good time to fish the White River lakes. That’s because white bass here make full-fledged runs out of the lakes into tributary streams.
Many anglers are confused by the mechanics of the white bass run, and this confusion often leads to disappointing results. Male white bass begin arriving at the tributary mouths around the middle of March and continue to do so until late April. Many – but by no means all – of these fish enter the flowing portion of the stream and congregate over or near the first three to six riffles above the lake. The often much larger female white bass arrive in “pulses” beginning in late March or early April. The females remain in the streams only long enough to spawn before returning to the lake.
From a tactical standpoint, this means that anglers who concentrate their efforts in the flowing water above the lakes can count on steady action from male fish. However, adding lunkers to the stringer requires that the timing of their trip coincide with the arrival of a group of female white bass. Everyone has a theory on how to do that, but apart from those advocating fishing at night, none would seem to be significantly more useful than my grandfather’s adage “The best time to go fishing is when you can.”
A far more consistent way to locate female white bass is to cast near the first few points below the mouth of a stream. Trolling up and down the last mile or two of submerged stream channel is also worthwhile. This is feast or famine fishing to be sure, but the feasts are worth the effort.
On Table Rock, the James, Kings and Roaring rivers and Long Creek usually attract the most and the biggest fish. The upper end of the main White River arm is worth a look-see. During wet springs, most of the lake’s smaller streams draw at least a few white bass.
White bass anglers on Bull Shoals should try Beaver and Swan Creeks near the upper (western) end of the lake or the upper reaches of the Theodosia arm. It’s possible for a reasonably fit ang
ler to hike to white bass action on any of these creeks.
Only about 10 percent of Norfork Lake is in Missouri, but that 10 percent includes Bryant Creek and the North Fork of the White River. Both have good to excellent white bass runs. Norfork’s white bass don’t average as large as those at either Bull Shoals or Table Rock, but don’t make the mistake of “undersizing” your tackle. Norfork is home to hybrids and pure strain stripers, either one of which may decide to take you on.
Don’t delay making your trip to Missouri’s southern border. Interest in white bass drops to virtually nothing after the spawn, primarily because locating enough fish to make things interesting is tough, to say the very least.
Central Missouri has four white bass reservoirs worth noting: Stockton, Pomme de Terre, the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman. White bass fishing in each of these reservoirs has its own unique quirks.
During March and April, Stockton’s white bass behave much like their White River cousins. Significant runs of white bass occur into the Big Sac River, Turnback Creek and the Little Sac River on nearly an annual basis.
The run up the Little Sac is especially popular with anglers who prefer wading or fishing from the bank. Access to the river can be gained from the Orleans and Taylor bridge crossings. Most anglers use spinning gear to pitch jigs, but the Little Sac may well be the best white bass fly-fishing stream in the state.
Angler interest in white bass plummets after the spring runs are over, which is understandable, considering Stockton’s superb largemouth, smallmouth and walleye fisheries. Nevertheless, the lake does see some white bass schooling action off points and along windy banks from early summer through late fall.
Contrary to what many anglers believe, white bass do not need running water in which to spawn, they merely use it when the mood strikes. Pomme de Terre’s white bass prove this point by making unpredictable, non-annual runs up the Pomme de Terre River and Lindley Creek. An April white bass angler’s odds on this lake are higher if he concentrates on rocky points and rip rap.
The Lindley Creek arm can provide exciting topwater white bass action throughout the summer months. Dusk and dawn are the best times, but the only real key is finding schools of shad.
Talk to two bona fide experts on white bass fishing in the Lake of the Ozarks, and you’ll get three opinions as to whether or not the lake’s white bass make spawning runs. If and when they do, Gravois Creek, Linn Creek, the Big and Little Niangua Rivers, Cole Camp Creek and Turkey Creek are among the most likely possibilities.
Significant numbers of the lake’s white bass do make three distinct “runs” up the Osage River to within, at most, a few river miles of the Truman Dam tailrace. The first of these runs peaks in February, the second in August and the third in November. Casting double jig rigs is the most popular technique in the no-boat zone. Trolling billed crankbaits gets the nod farther down river.
White bass can be found “busting” shad off points and over submerged humps in the lower half of the lake throughout the summer months. As the water cools, look for action along windy shorelines.
Perhaps we’re just venting our own frustration, but neither the biologist who manages Truman Lake nor I – a lake veteran since day one – can believe that there are significant white bass runs into any of the lake’s many seemingly suitable tributaries. That’s not to say it isn’t possible to catch at least a few fish in or near the lake’s streams in April, because it is. Even so, the odds are much better in the lower end of the lake near riprap or rocky points.
Truman’s white bass fishery comes alive in late May, and then keeps getting better and better until cold weather forces most anglers off the water. As is the case in every Missouri reservoir, shad are key to finding white bass. While it’s always wise to keep a topwater handy for those glorious times when the fish are feeding on the surface, there are other options. Depending primarily on personal preference, vertical jigging, casting crankbaits or spoons or trolling will put Truman white bass in the livewell.
North of the Missouri River, anglers with a yen to battle white bass have three viable options: Smithville Reservoir, Mark Twain Reservoir and the Mississippi River.
There’s usually a small run of white bass up Smithville’s Little Platte River, but, frankly, fall is the time to fish for white bass here. As the water begins to cool, large schools of white bass hunt shad off of the lake’s main points. On windy days, white bass often trap shad against the shoreline, making fishing from the bank a viable option. There’s good bank access in the “Wood Henge” area, but the wind must be from the south.
White bass are slowly growing in popularity with Smithville anglers, which has led a few enterprising folks to experiment with non-traditional white bass tactics. One of these is to fish at night beneath submerged lights. Crappie anglers have been doing this for decades, but the tactic works just as well for white bass, if the lights are suspended over good white bass habitat.
White bass abundance at Mark Twain is rated “low to moderate,” and angler interest in the species is a reflection of that fact. Nevertheless, a determined angler can find catchable numbers of white bass in or near the upper limits of both the South Fork and the Elk Fork of the Salt River from late March through early May. Don’t expect the fish to be as large or as numerous as those on any of southern Missouri’s lakes, but at least you’ll have them pretty much to yourself.
Because of their relatively low numbers, white bass can be difficult to find during the summer and fall at Mark Twain. Pick a day with a moderate wind and run-and-gun points until you find fish.
White bass are present throughout Missouri’s portion of the Mississippi River, but the complex of locks and dams upstream from St. Louis is by far the odds-on choice for anglers from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. Key areas include below dams, all sides of wing dikes and swift runs.
Jigs are a mainstay on the river. The combination of depth and current demands that river anglers add half-ounce and full ounce jigs to the tackle recommended earlier in this article.
Most Mississippi River white bass spawn in the river proper, but checking our tributaries can be worth the effort. The Salt River and the North River are prime examples of what a potential white bass spawning stream should look like, but there are other possibilities. Check the stream at least as far as the first riffle and work on up to the third riffle if possible.
As you can plainly see, there’s no good reason that anglers all across Missouri couldn’t – and shouldn’t – do their part for the poor benighted white bass. And not just this month either, but throughout the year. Be that as it may, I know a few of you still need convincing, so here’s the clincher: S
ince white bass have the word “bass” in their name, they can be caught and released, thus freeing the angler of the need to clean fish at day’s end. On the other hand, white bass are neither green nor brown. Ergo, they can be kept and eaten whenever the angler has a hankering for a fish dinner. Now that’s what I call a perfect fish!
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