June is a prime month for catching white bass at any of these excellent Oklahoma waters.
Conditions were right for a kid’s fishing trip except for one thing. The fish wouldn’t bite.
I had taken two of my young sons to Lake Lawtonka to fish with Larry Cofer, the now retired south-central fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Our objective was to catch a few of the big smallmouth bass for which Lawtonka is famous, but we couldn’t buy a bite. Largemouth bass weren’t interested in any of the games we wanted to play either, but as they often do, sand bass saved the day.
They came — as also they often do — by surprise. The first one slammed a jerkbait, followed by another. The game was on. The sandies jerked the boys out of their boredom, and as they often do, created an experience that helped forge a lifelong love of fishing for the boys.
SAND BASS ALMANAC
A white bass, or sand bass as they are known locally, is a sleek, deep-bodied fish that is recognizable by the dark horizontal racing stripes down its flanks.
In this way, white bass resemble striped bass, but they are considerably smaller than stripers and are distinguishably by their sharply arched backs.
You’ll often find them in the same waters as white bass/striped bass hybrids, which is a cross between a female striper and male white bass. A white bass is also smaller than a hybrid, which is also identifiable by the broken lines on its flanks.
White bass are widely distributed across the United States, inhabiting streams and lakes from the Great Lakes Region to the Midwest, where they are most common. They inhabit almost every natural water body in Oklahoma. Their willingness to bite and their pugnaciousness makes them very popular among Oklahoma anglers.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma anglers harvest about 1.5 million pounds of white bass annually. It’s no wonder the white bass is Oklahoma’s official state fish.
When water temperatures are between 54 to 68 degrees, white bass move into tributaries of lakes and major rivers to spawn. Great numbers of white bass concentrate in very thin water, and you can catch a lot of fish in a short time.
*After the spawn, they migrate back into lakes and major rivers, where they roam in large schools. You can catch them throughout the summer by locating schools and casting to them when they push schools of shad to the surface.
The action is sporadic but intense, and now is a great time to experience it.
McClellan-Kerr Navigation System
Although white bass have finished spawning by June, you can still find big concentrations of them on the Arkansas River, especially below the locks and dams of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation system. The dams block white bass from moving upstream, although some do advance to the pools above the dams when the locks open for boats and barges.
With their sandy bottoms, these tailwaters are ideal white bass habitat. They concentrate in great numbers and feed voraciously when current is running through the dams. If water is flowing, you can catch a lot of sand bass from the bank. The closer you are to the dam, the better.
Pro Tip: Terry Scroggins Says Have a PMA
For me, the most effective way to catch them is on a light-action setup with a dropper line. Depending on conditions, I tie a 1/8-ounce lead ball jig to the main line and a 1/16-ounce lead ball jig to the dropper. In really heavy current I might use a 1/4-ounce jig on the main line and a 1/8-ounce on the dropper.
I put a white curly-tail grub on one line and a yellow curly-tail or the other. A Go-Go Minnow is an excellent choice because it is so versatile. Its tail vibrates on the slowest retrieves, which can provoke strikes from lethargic fish in slack water conditions.
Sometimes I use a chartreuse curly-tail instead of yellow, but it is important to use two colors. I get far fewer bites if I use two of the same color grubs.
Most anglers use light spinning tackle for this kind of fishing, but I prefer a medium-light baitcasting rig with 8-pound test line. You can handle most white bass with 6-pound test, but 8-pound gives you a better chance of landing a striper. They run in the same water, and they’ll hit the same baits.
One of my most memorable white bass trips was on the Neosho River backwater below Fort Gibson Lake. The water was low, and I saw big shadows gliding across the sandy bottom. I might have mistaken them for cloud shadows, except that the sky was clear.
To my astonishment, the “shadows” were big schools of sand bass roaming the flats. I couldn’t get them to hit anything. They were close to the bottom and unresponsive to anything on the surface. They had no use for small crankbaits, and they didn’t want inline spinners.
My companion finally broke out a fly rod and caught them on Hare’s Ear Nymphs. The trick was determining which direction the schools were moving and positioning well in front of them. My friend made long casts with his fly rod, and the nymph sank into the strike zone right about the time a school reached it. Because of the time it took to subdue and land a sand bass on fly tackle, he usually caught just one before having to reposition the boat.
LAKE OF THE ARBUCKLES
Another of my more memorable sand bass trips also came as a surprise bonus when the primary objective went bust.
It happened at Lake of the Arbuckles with a friend named Dave from my Sunday School at Nicoma Park First Baptist Church. He worked at Tinker Air Force Base, and we devoted each Saturday to a bass-fishing trip at a different lake.
Our goal was to duplicate the fantastic smallmouth fishing I had experienced at Arbuckles with another friend the week before.
The smallmouths disappointed us, and we didn’t get a bite for several hours. Our luck changed when we pulled into a shallow cove not far from the dam. A vast school of sand bass roiled the surface from bank to bank.
At first, we ignored them. Schooling sandies can derail a mission. One detour can cause you to blow the rest of the day chasing them around a lake.
It was finally more than we could stand. When fish beg you to cast to them, it’s utterly selfish to let your misguided loyalty to faithless smallmouths deny them the pleasure of a good fight.
Lead spoons did the trick on those fish. The best thing is that the sand bass seemed to be committed to that one cove, and they didn’t leave. They sounded after a few minutes of surface activity, but they always came back. From our position in the middle of the cove, we could cast into a school wherever it surfaced without having to move very much.
We had been in a bit of a sour mood when we entered the cove, largely because all my grand predictions about great smallmouth fishing failed to materialize. As they often do, sand bass saved the day.
Instead of subjectively picking out a few hotspots, we’re going to lump all of the state’s big reservoirs into the hotspots cauldron this month.
First, it’s appropriate. The white bass fishing is great at any lake right now.
Second, they are all two-tiered white bass fisheries this month. You can catch them in the main lakes, but you can also catch them in the tailwaters below lakes Fort Gibson, Hudson, Tenkiller, Skiatook, Grand, and even Broken Bow, just to name a few.
In fact, one of my most remarkable sand bass trips was — again — accidental. I was trout fishing with guide Ethan Wright below the re-regulation dam on the lower Mountain Fork River. Wright walked across the top of the re-regulation dam to get to the other side. I am terribly acrophobic, and I lost my nerve about a third of the way across.
Instead, I fished among the big rocks on the left side of the river and caught an impressive collection of some very large white bass.
I was very surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Even though it is miles below Broken Bow Dam, the re-regulation dam is the farthest fish can migrate upstream on that section of the lower Mountain Fork River. It was early June, and white bass were packed in like sardines.
You’ll find them like that at every other tailwater in the state, as well. You don’t need anything fancy to catch them. The same tandem rig I described in the Arkansas River section will work here, as well.
It does help, however, to have an electronic graph to help you find white bass schools. You’ll know it when you see one because on a graph a white bass school looks like a snowstorm in a snow globe.
On the lakes, the spawn is going to be about finished. With your graph, look for sand bass at the mouths of the tributaries. I start looking below the first set of shoals where a tributary enters a lake and then start working downstream. Schools often concentrate around secondary points where they can corral shad, and they’ll continue in this fashion all the way back to the main lake.
This is when they start the schooling action for which they are famous. For reasons unknown, giant schools of sand bass will suddenly roil acres of surface as they slam into shad. This activity usually lasts a couple of minutes, and you can catch a fish on every cast.
If you see a school surface in the distance, don’t charge into the school, because the boat commotion will frighten it down. Get in front of the school and let it come to you.
My favorite lure for schooling sandies is a bone-colored Zara Puppy. A clear Zara Puppy is good, too.
Remember that the biggest sandies are at the bottom of the school waiting to pick off isolated shad. You can catch them with a small deep-diving crankbait or with the tandem curly-tail rig.
The weather is very nice in Oklahoma this month, and it is very conducive to a good time on the water. Get out there and catch a mess of our state fish!