April 13, 2021
By Alan Myers
I love fishing for bass in the South and just about any bass will do the trick for me, but there’s one that really gets my attention, especially during the cooler times of the year—the white bass. Whether on the fly or conventional spinning gear, white bass (Morone chrysops) are worthy adversaries and excellent table fare to boot.
White bass, aka "sandies," are prolific freshwater finfish closely related to striped bass, and can be found throughout the South on lakes and reservoirs. Although they can be caught year-round, there is no better time to fish for them than during spawning runs, when thousands of fish swim upstream into feeder rivers and creek tributaries.
The saying "ladies first" doesn’t apply to white bass, as the smaller-bodied males swim upstream first. The larger females–plump with eggs—follow several weeks later.
During the run, it’s possible to catch sandies until your back aches and muscles quiver, and I’ve done so. But I’ve also gone home with only 1 or 2 bass on the stringer after hours of pounding the banks with every lure in my tackle box. If you’re fishing a creek with no white bass in it, you will never catch any white bass. Needless to say, finding spawning sandies can be trickier than one might think.
Although the adage "when the redbuds are blooming the white bass are running" generally holds true, you can get in on the action sooner. Jaime Meaux, a Louisiana native and Texas transplant, has been white bass fishing for decades. Meaux believes that water levels are the single most important factor to triggering the run, because "spawning white bass like to migrate in flowing water," he says.
When there are plentiful rains in winter, the males will run upstream to their usual haunts, long before the redbuds bloom. Other white bass enthusiasts watch closely for changes in water temperatures, moon phases and/or increasing daylight hours. Regardless of your fancy, there is still is no established formula to precisely time the run, as prime conditions in the South generally occur from mid-March into April.
Modest rain events draw scores of white bass into the tributaries, but when the creek levels drop, the fish swim back downstream. Keep in mind that 90 percent of them will reside in 10 percent of the creek. So, it pays to be flexible and mobile to cash in on the action.
Key areas are bottoms and tops of runs, along with log jams and undercut banks. Additionally, look for deep pools near sand bars, and don’t forget about pools under and around bridges. White bass, by nature, are schooling fish, so it’s not uncommon to catch multiple fish in the same spot. Make a mental note of the spot, as sandies return to the same locales year after year. Keep in mind that the run is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and migrations occur in phases. If you strike out on an outing, try returning a week or so later.
HOW TO CATCH THEM
One of my favorite ways to fish for spawning white bass is from the bank using lures. I like to get on the action quick, and not be bogged down with the extra time and effort that comes with using watercraft. On a typical outing, I pack two rods. One is spooled with 6-pound test, which allows me to better control the lure action and feel bites more quickly, especially when I’m throwing 1/32- to 1/16-ounce lures.
The other rig is spooled with 8-pound test to fish 1/8- to 1/4-ounce lures. Meaux and many other sandie experts swear by fluorocarbon line rather than monofilament, especially in the heavily pressured areas. Once the word gets out, it’s not long before it’s elbow-to-elbow fishing.
THE JIG IS UP
Jig heads rigged with soft-plastic grubs (curly tails) are among the top lures used by white bass anglers. Often, curly tails rigged with a flashy jig head-and-spinner combination, such as a Johnson Crappie Buster Spin’R Grub or Blakemore Road Runner, works best. Top grub colors may differ by region, but a rule of thumb is to pack yellow, chartreuse, black/chartreuse (especially for muddy water), white and other shad-like colors.
Longtime white bass angler Doug Blackstock prefers feather jigs. His single most effective lure?
"Without a doubt it’s a 1/32-ounce marabou-style crappie jig. It works every place I’ve fished for sand bass," he says.
Blackstock uses 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line and fishes the jig slowly and as close to the bottom as possible. Remember, they aren’t called "sandies" for nothing.
TAKE A SPIN
Another lure staple is Worden’s Rooster Tail spinners, which come in a variety of colors and sizes. White and metallic silver color variations are deadly on white bass when they’re chasing baitfish. Many other brands of inline spinners work, like the Panther Martin Deluxe Fly, Luhr Jensen Shyster and Blue Fox Whiptail.
Pink-colored spinners were not a staple in my tackle box until last year. I was fishing a heavily pressured run and had struck out after four straight hours of fishing my best lures. Around lunchtime, I met another fisherman and vented my frustrations. He generously offered me one of his spinners with pink/gray coloration. I caught a feisty 12-inch keeper on the first cast, and within the next hour I had filled my stringer.
For smaller creeks and tributaries, 1/32- to 1/8-ounce spinners often are the trick. However, consider a heavier 1/4-ounce spinner when fishing deeper pools. The additional weight drops the lure more quickly to the creek bottom, often the best strike zone for these fish.
Carey Thorn is a well-known white bass fishing guide in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When the water temperatures reach the upper 50s, especially a few days after a modest rainfall, he opts for soft jerk baits, such as Zoom Tiny Flukes fished finesse style and sometimes on a jig-and-bobber setup.
Fly fishing for white bass is also a thrill, as a 1- to 2-pound fish can put up a good fight on lightweight tackle. Similar to artificial lures, any number of different flies work for these bass.
Minnow-imitating flies (Clouser Minnows, Lefty’s Deceivers, etc.) in various color combinations can entice the most finicky white bass. I prefer size-6 to size-8 Clousers. Remember to pack small split shot, as sometimes it takes extra weight to reach the strike zone. A basic fly-fishing setup is also handy when fishing 1/32-ounce or lighter feather jigs, as it provides for a more natural presentation, which leads to considerably more strikes and fish on the stringer or in the live well.
White Bass Strongholds
Best Bet: The Dallas metroplex is surrounded by big lakes loaded with white bass, and no one knows the area better than Dallas fishing guide Carey Thorn (whitebassfishingtexas.com). Check out the 4-mile stretch of Rowlett Creek upstream of Lake Ray Hubbard between Miller Road and Pleasant Valley Road. Carey keeps a tight lip about his other spots, but will readily admit that sandies can be found upstream of almost all lakes in the region during the Spring.
Top Technique: Try an albino-colored Zoom Tiny Fluke fished on a pink jig head under a small bobber.
Best Bet: The state fish is found in every large reservoir throughout the Sooner State. The Upper Mountain Fork River upstream of Broken Bow Lake is a hot spot for springtime runs. Anglers can readily access the river in the Broken Bow Wildlife Management Area, and at various points along US-259.
Top Technique: For fishing the crystal-clear water of the Mountain Fork River, Carey Thorn’s go-to is a Zoom Tiny Fluke (Baitfish or Smokin’ Shad color) hooked to a red sickle hook and fished finesse style.
Best Bet: One of Arkansas’ best runs occurs on the Maumelle River, less than an hour drive from downtown Little Rock. A special walk-in-only access point (Bringle Creek Access)is located several miles west of where Hwy 10 crosses the lake’s upstream end.
Top Technique: For fishing along the bank, you can’t beat a 3-inch white/pearl curly tail rigged on a 1/8-ounce jighead steadily retrieved along the bottom half of the water column.
Best Bet: White bass run up many tributaries of the mighty Mississippi, but one of the top spawns occurs on Bayou Pierre. Most spawners can be caught upstream to the Highway 61 bridge in the town of Port Gibson (about an hour’s drive from Jackson), but some do swim farther upstream.
Top Technique: Fish blade baits, such as 1/4- to 1/8-ounce Reef Runner Cicadas, in silver/silver and silver/glow color patterns.
Best Bet: The white bass spawn in northern Alabama, amidst the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is prolific. Phil Ekema of Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries points fishermen toward the Tennessee River and its tributaries. In early April white bass congregate below Wheeler Dam (about 16 miles east of Florence).
East of Huntsville, white bass travel up the Flint and Paint Rock rivers, which can be bank-accessed at bridge crossways but better navigated with small watercraft.
Top Technique: Drifting threadfin shad below Wheeler Dam is a deadly technique. Rig the shad on a plain shank hook from the bottom lip up through the top, then add just enough split shot to keep the shad above the river floor and occasionally tapping the bottom. Also try walking the dog with a Heddon Zara Spook Puppy.