These feisty little bass put up a fight, are plentiful and make great dinner guests. What more can you ask of a fish? (April 2009)
"They're about as cooperative as any sport fish and I catch a lot of them while not even trying," said noted Mississippi guide Roger Gant.
Since he divides his working time between Pickwick and Sardis lakes most years, he affirms the large number of white bass in both of these lakes.
"Some days they become downright pesky, not giving the crappie that my clients want a chance to get to a jig or jig-and-minnow combination," he added.
In terms of where to go this month for the hottest white bass action, a simple answer would be just about any major waterhole in the Magnolia State. Besides the two lakes mentioned above, anglers can head for Enid, Grenada, Arkabutla, or any of the oxbow lakes along the Mississippi River. If that list doesn't include enough space to suit you the Big Muddy itself has tremendous "stripe" runs, especially from Vicksburg northward.
Since white bass tend to head up the current before spawning it is a natural fact that you find them concentrated near any dam of even moderate size. That does not mean that they are all right there in the swift stuff. But during the pre-spawn period and after the spawn, you can bet that enough are on hand around the concrete faces and wing walls to provide you with a fine mess of fillets.
These fish also turn up around creek mouths just about anywhere. On a couple of memorable occasions I have bumped into them well upstream in a feeder creek, instead of the black bass that should have been there in the early spring to take advantage of warmer water temperatures. Whites are not bashful about hanging around in what looks like black bass cover if the bottom is sand or sand and gravel, which is their favored spawning terrain.
When it comes to catching springtime white bass, there are a few options. In my part of the country, there are still quite a few anglers who start dragging crawfish over sandy-bottomed river stretches while wearing enough clothing to look like multi-colored blimps. By May, the craws still work, but artificial lures are just as good and much easier to find and use. They also don't smell as bad as dead mudbugs after they've been in your boat for a few days!
Leadhead jigs have long been the springtime artificial lure of choice. Many years back, I helped my dad, granddad and cousin mold and tie bucktail jigs and am happy to report that, if you enjoy making your own, they still work just fine.
If possible, get leadheads with bigger hooks than the dinky ones used in most "grub" jigs. Other finny denizens than white bass gobble jigs, and a healthy black bass, striper or hybrid is very likely to straighten anything smaller than a quality 1/0 hook. I use a 2/0 hook that costs a little more than the cheap kind, but provides insurance against heartbreak.
Many anglers work jigs by simply casting straight out and retrieving. This catches fish at times, but for best results position yourself so that casts can be made at a quartering angle upstream. The force of the current should determine the amount of angle: the stronger the flow the greater the upstream angle. It won't take you long to get the right combination, which is one that allows the jig to make contact with the bottom periodically.
For spawning whites, you need to concentrate on the water closest to the bottom regardless of the depth. Under certain conditions, they may set up housekeeping in less than 6 feet of water. Conversely, I've taken quite a few while bumping sauger jigs on the bottom at more than 30 feet. White bass are where you find them and that takes in a lot of possibilities.
Jig bodies vary from the hair type to curlytail grubs or plastic shad bodies with blunt tails that wobble nicely during retrieve. All types have their supporters, but any of them work once you find fish.
Colors are too numerous to count due to the variations different makers incorporate. Old standby choices include white, yellow, black and chartreuse. All will get the job done most every time. You might want to have some blue, smoke, orange and pink ones in your gear as well. The first two of those are for clear water and the latter for murky conditions. By all means, get the metal-flake variety if possible. Stripes seem to like the sparkle.
For tossing jigs, you don't need heavy tackle, unless there is a real chance of hanging into something bigger and meaner. A medium to medium-light spinning rod teamed with a quality reel having a smooth drag has more than adequate muscle. It also allows for long casts, which are occasionally needed, especially when spooled with small-diameter monofilament of 6- to 10-pound test. I often use an old 8-foot steelhead rod set up like this and it will blast a 1/4-ounce leadhead farther than anything I've ever seen. If you're a shoreline wader in search of whites, this is a definite asset.
Speaking of the shoreline fishermen, they often have an advantage over boaters because they can keep throwing to the spot holding fish without having to worry about boat placement. It's also easier to keep your jig in contact with the bottom during the retrieve.
You can benefit by having a supply of jigs that includes 3/8- and a few 1/2-ounce weights. They can come into their own as depth or current increase.
"The 1/2-ounce leadhead is a really good choice where you find wing walls and other manmade current breaks," explained Paul Anderson, a veteran Mississippi River angler who lives near Southaven. "Lighter ones just don't get down where they need to be, plus in the turbulent areas you can't feel them as well as the 1/2-ounce ones. You can also use larger grubs like the fat-bodied 4-inch ones or 5-inch shad bodies. That can help a lot when the water is dingy or even downright muddy like it often is during the spring. The fish can't hit what they can't see."
Naturally, with the heavier leadhead, you may want to step up to heavier tackle, especially if you are in striper territory. Medium-weight rods and suitable reels get you by quite nicely in most cases.
Jigs are not the only lures you want on hand this month because during May you are apt to find white bass in pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn scenarios. That means the fish can turn up just about anywhere that they can find shad to fill their bellies and the type of bottom configuration that they like.
Crankbaits are a good choice and the middle- to deep-running ones in chrome, gold, shad and crawfish patterns are pretty well the standards. So is white or bone color with a splash of red on the belly. The flashy colors do well as "prospecting" baits s
ince the more aggressive fish readily grab them as they wobble past.
For over 30 years, my fishing partners and I have used a teamwork approach that is simple and effective. One of us throws a silver or gold medium-running plug while the other goes with a shad or crawdad pattern, unless the water is really murky. Then we both toss metallic colors. Once one of the more aggressive fish hits, we simply mark the general area and proceed to comb it until the school moves on or the action dies. That means cranking while it works, then switching to jigs or spinners to tempt some of the more reluctant whites.
Crankbaits are also great when used to locate schooled whites by trolling. Because these fish are highly mobile and apt to show up anywhere, it can pay dividends if you have the capability of covering lots of water. Several times in the past, I have tried conventional jig tossing at a favorite location only to find that the whites were not in residence that day. By dropping crankbaits behind the boat and motoring slowly upstream or down, we have usually found the "missing" fish within less than 100 yards.
Another benefit of diving lures that reach specific depths becomes apparent when a post-spawn situation is encountered, which almost certainly will be this month. After their spawning labors, the whites get serious about the business of eating and, if the shad schools are holding in open water, so will these predators. Troll while keeping an eye on your depthfinder. Schooled white bass usually show up as a ragged cloud-shaped mass of fish that can be several feet from top to bottom. That's unlike crappie that are also found in sizeable schools at this time of year. Crappie schools appear as being almost as flat as a rug with very little variation in depth.
The post-spawn sets up another wrinkle for anglers in that you may still find white bass hanging out close to where they spawned, but don't count on it. They are more likely to move in and out depending upon whether or not the shad do the same.
Also, after the spawn, they may completely change their habits, moving from the easy-to-find points, sandy flats and channel edges to more open-water hangouts.
One unforgettable day on Pickwick Lake, while chasing crappie with Roger Gant, he suggested that we reel our jig-and-minnow combos in "unless you want to fool with some stripes" as he put it.
I didn't know him well in those days and had trouble believing that he could predict what was going to happen 50 yards off a sizeable flat near the mouth of Yellow Creek. Since we already had quite a few dandy white crappie on ice, I suggested that we catch a white or two for photo purposes. We left the jigs in the water, drifted onto the flat, which was about 10 feet deep, and all five rods slammed down at almost the same instant. We were using two-jig outfits and put five white bass in his oversized net at the same time. So much for not believing your guide!
That same flat becomes at least a part-time haunt for white bass by the end of May. It is just as predictable as the places they go in the spring before the spawn. The fish may come and go based on the shad population, but show up if you are patient enough to wait on them. If not, drag out the crankbaits and go to prospecting, because they have seldom gone far.
Other lures that are pure treasure in May are the metal-bodied spinners, inline spinners like the Rooster Tail, or tail-spinner designs. They cast like bullets with their heavy, compact designs and look enough like minnows to tempt just about any white bass that is even considering a meal. They can be worked slowly to probe the bottom in the pre-spawn and spawn periods or you can speed them up to cover more water during the post-spawn.
The inline model is a personal favorite and there are always two or three different weights in white, yellow and chartreuse in my box. Also good, but harder to find, are those with a brownish-gold body and copper or gold blade. Maybe it looks like a shiner minnow or other baitfish: Who knows what a white bass really thinks anyway?
The spinner is probably the most idiot-proof lure that you can use, especially when fishing over sand or gravel bottoms where snags are not a problem. Virtually anybody who can cast can catch fish with them.
There is one oddity that I have noticed with these lures and that is simply that on every other lure used for white bass, stripers and hybrids readily strike them. In more than 50 years of fishing inline spinners for whites, I have never caught one of the big guys on them and, in fact, have never seen one caught.
May is also the month to start thinking shallow-running or surface lures, especially if the temperatures run reasonably high. It also bears remembering that whites hit on the surface during any month of the year if the shad are shallow enough. To illustrate that, some friends had a duck blind on a large offshore bar and white bass regularly ran panicked shad through their decoy spread all through duck season. It was a mild winter, but still the surface-feeding activity was not something one might expect in December and January.
Expect to see surface activity at any time. When you spot it, rig a couple of rods putting your favorite small to medium-sized topwater lure on one and a slender-minnow, wobbling, countdown plug on the other. Use the floater when the stripes are breaking the surface. If it is ignored or the action tapers off, cast the bogus minnow. Be forewarned that being in the middle of a school of whites that are intent on ripping apart a shad pod can be hard on one's nerves.
One bass fisherman, upon getting in on his first "jump," was in such a hurry that his first cast went straight up and the topwater plug landed right behind his seat in our boat.
Another first-timer, fishing buddy and noted country songwriter Jim Melton, got in such a hurry he threw my needle-nosed pliers in the river and tossed the white bass he had caught in the floor of the boat. He refused to believe it until his brother stopped laughing for a moment and pointed to the fish flopping around on the carpet.
Yes sir, white bass fishing has its moments, many of them fun and a few of them funny. You have to love a fish like that.