September 30, 2010
The spring's the best time of year for getting into a little "white lightning" in Mississippi. But you don't need to know a moonshiner to get in on this action: tangling with white bass!
By Ronell Smith
It’s a thrill almost too exciting to describe: the water beginning to boil all around the boat, fish thrashing about everywhere, shad getting pummeled — many thrown a foot or two out of the water.
In the boat, the scene’s not less frenetic: anglers stepping over themselves to pick up rod and reel, to tie on a small inline spinner or curlytail grub, or to make a cast at what seems like a sea of individual boils. Once the lure does finally hit the water, it’s not long before a hard thump is felt at the end of the line and the sharp squeal of the reel’s drag brings a touch of reality to the situation.
Such is the scenario played out whenever anglers fishing one of the lakes in Mississippi that’s known for having a strong population of white bass join battle with their quarry.
Though their average size of about a pound is relatively small when compared to that of their relatives, striped and hybrid bass, white bass can, pound for pound, outduel just about anything that swims. With a largely flat, wide body and big fins, they’re strong fighters, making them a treat for anglers using light tackle. What’s more, these fish aren’t that hard to find or catch, being in nearly identical locations year after year.
In early spring, a perennial journey, prompted by warming waters that elicit behaviors related to the white bass’s reproductive biology, begins once again. The fish move out of the main body of their lake home and head upstream, eventually making their way into tributaries to spawn. Once in these areas, the whites look for a sandy bottom on which to lay eggs. These spots are generally found near points, coves or pockets protected from strong current. But the bass don’t shun hard artificial bottoms. In fact, at numerous lakes and reservoirs around the state, the fish will spawn on hard, recessed bottoms near docks, sunken roadbeds — even inundated parking lots.
The white bass stay shallow during this period of the year, making themselves easy pickings for anglers. A variety of lures will work, a few of the most common being small white spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs; many anglers troll along the tributaries with these lures. After the spawn, which is usually sometime in late April, the fish once again make their way back into the main body of water. After the rigors of procreating, they’re usually ready to gobble up just about any live or artificial offering placed in front of them.
BACK TO SCHOOL
White-bass anglers working a point or mouth of a creek will often see the water all around erupt with activity — feeding behavior similar to that of stripers or hybrids schooling in the fall. When white bass school up like this, their turbulence can eerily mimic the sight of a machine gun being fired into the water from above.
Just about any small topwater or subsurface bait can get results during this spell. Ideal picks: small topwater poppers or prop baits, white hair jigs or an inline spinner having one treble hook. Other smart choices: 1/4-ounce lipless crankbaits and casting spoons.
But no matter what you’ve tied on, the excitement of seeing all that energy and the thrill of being able to catch fish on every cast are sure to make for a splendid day of fishing.
By late spring, the fishing typically tends to even more consistency, with the fish being in their usual places on the main lake or river. On the river, many anglers target the chunky bruisers along the many dikes used to break up the current along the stream. The fish stack up along this cover, where they can ambush baitfish and find respite from the current.
Another dynamite place for finding white bass during this period is on boat ramps. When no hard, sandy bottom is present, the fish hover over these slabs of concrete, which are also havens for baitfish such as shad and small panfish. You can fish boat ramps all day in late April or May and likely catch more white bass than you’ll feel like taking home to fillet.
“It’s probably some of the hottest fishing you can do in spring,” said Garry Lucas, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks fisheries biologist for the section of the Mississippi River between Helena, Arkansas and Vicksburg. “You just run down the lake and cast out at the boat (launches) and you can catch white bass.”
In late spring, the fish also provide for some great action at night. At docks having lights, which serve to attract baitfish, white bass can be found hovering in anticipation of ambushing unaware prey. Here, a 1/8-ounce spinnerbait or small shallow-running crankbait can get the end of your line yanked quite reliably.
Throughout the northern part of Mississippi lie numerous reservoirs and sections of river excellent for finding white bass. Some of the most promising bodies of water are the flood-control lakes Enid, Grenada, Arkabutla and Sardis. Other noteworthy locations are oxbows such as Flower Lake, Horn Lake, and Tunica Cutoff, along with Whittington, DeSoto and Ferguson lakes.
But probably the heartiest action for white bass comes directly from the Mississippi River itself. Expansive and fast-moving, the river’s waters are home to some of the top white-bass angling to be had in the country. The fish here are not only plentiful but grow large as well, many running in the 2- to 3-pound range.
Rounding out the top selections in the state is Pickwick Lake, part of the Tennessee River System shared by Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. As with the Mississippi River, the fish here can be very large and the bite can be quite aggressive as well.
This portion of the state definitely has the most locations at which to catch white bass in the spring. Chief among these is the Mississippi River, reports Keith Meals, District 2 fisheries biologist for the MDWFP. In this area, the fish usually begin their annual migration upriver when the surface temperature moves from 50 to about 55 degrees. Then, once the temperature hits 60 degrees or so, the whites enter a spawning pattern, and should easily be found in any shallow area along the Big Muddy having a hard, sandy bottom on which to lay eggs. Small crankbaits, spinnerbaits and 1/8-ounce jigs are quite effective lu
res when fish are present here.
After the fish have spawned, look for them to move out of the backwater areas and tributaries along the Old Man River and return to the main flow itself. Here the dikes play a pivotal role in catching these fish, which orient themselves to this cover. Use small topwater baits near the dikes to see if there is any activity; if there’s nothing doing on top, use jigs and small crankbaits to draw strikes.
As good as the Mississippi River is for white bass, Meals says, the catch rate is currently on a downward cycle, owing largely to several years of high water in that portion of the state. According to the MDWFP biologist, white bass typically do better during years of low water, so the increase in the water has been a boon for crappie and largemouths, but not white bass.
“The fishing for them is up and down,” Meals noted. “Going out and getting skunked is as easy as going out and catching so many that your arms hurt.” And anglers fortunate enough to locate feeding fish here will indeed find it well worth the effort, as the white bass along the Mississippi River average better than 2 pounds each.
Another great spot for white bass action this month is Tunica Cutoff, an oxbow just west of the town of Tunica. Like many of the other oxbows along the Mississippi River, this one has multiple points, many of which have sandy bottoms. After the spawning activity’s over, look for the white bass to pull up along the points all through this lake. A savvy technique here involves trolling over the face of the points using small jigs bounced off the bottom. It’s likely that several of those jigs will be lost to snags, but the rewarding fishing you’re apt to find here makes it worthwhile.
Three other oxbows that stick out in this quadrant of the state are Whittington, DeSoto and Ferguson lakes. Though not very large in size, each of these waters has the essential ingredients for good white-bass fishing — a strong forage base and plenty of areas with shallow, sandy bottoms. In early spring look for white bass to spawn all along these lakes’ many sandbars.
Later in the year, the main body of water will be the most important part of the lake, as these fish revisit their late-spring and summer haunts around boat ramps. At these sites the fish can actively forage for food such as shad — “They use these locations to trap prey,” the MDWFP’s Garry Lucas noted — while making themselves easy targets for anglers.
At these lakes, try driving from ramp to ramp, hitting each with lures like spinnerbaits, casting spoons and small crankbaits. “It’s an easy and quick way to catch the fish,” asserted Lucas.
In the north-central part of the state the flood-control lakes of Sardis, Grenada, Arkabutla, and Enid are the standard-bearers for anglers chasing white bass. On just about any one of these lakes, the fishing is fairly good in spring and then again in summer.
During most years, Grenada Lake, the southernmost of the group, yields the most consistent action for white bass; Sardis runs a close second. But this year, Enid will likely close the gap and join the top tier of the Magnolia State’s flood-control lakes.
Grenada’s and Sardis’ much-deserved reputations as topnotch fisheries depend in part on their tendency to turn on earlier than do other such lakes and their reliability in terms of the fishing. The main-lake points on these reservoirs have always been viewed as great areas to fish. But, according to Keith Meals, Enid should be the strongest this spring, as its wealth of sandy bottoms makes it highly attractive to fish looking to spawn. In the summer months, Meals says, the main-lake points should be hot for white-bass activity.
The fertile Yacona River, the main tributary entering and exiting the lake, fortifies the fishery, but several creeks branching off the river should be the keys this spring. The mouths of Branch and Otoucaloufa creeks are ideal for spawning activity this month. “Where those join is a white-bass hotspot,” the biologist remarked. “The area is mostly sandy.”
Along the Alabama border is found another of the best white-bass lakes in the state. Though Pickwick Lake is known far better as a smallmouth fishery, the white bass that can be caught there in late spring are no slouches. Fertile, with plenty of creeks and lots of areas with hard bottoms, the reservoir can be dynamite for white bass, especially through late spring.
In early spring, the white bass on the lake move back into tributaries such as Little Cypress Creek, where they can be found in shallow water spawning on the area’s plentiful rock and sand bottoms. But in late April and early May, these fish move up to the headwaters near Wilson Dam. Along with the stripers and hybrids, the white bass get near the dam, where they can pick off the myriad threadfin and gizzard shad.
To catch numbers of 2-pound-plus whites, you can do no better than to fish the areas near the dam. For the best success, target the areas on the outside edges of the boils formed by the turbines. Use small plastic shad bodies on a 1/2-ounce leadhead, or, if the current permits, throw 1/4-ounce spoons and spinners right at the turbine and then slowly reel the baits back with a steady retrieve. Often the larger white bass — up to 4 pounds — are right in the middle of feeding hybrids and stripers.