Are the sand bass in your area of the Sooner State spawning still, or have they passed that stage? Here's where and how to catch them this month in either case. (May 2010)
Where are they now?
In March the sand bass in Oklahoma lakes were crowding into the headwaters and tributary streams and moving upstream to spawn at riffles and falls.
In July and August they'll be splashing on the surface of most big lakes in the state as they chase shad around the open water.
But where do you find 'em in May or even in June, that in-between time?
The answer is: It ain't that hard to catch the "'tweeners."
Most Oklahoma reservoirs of more than a few hundred acres hold plenty of sand bass.
No, not all of them do. There are quite a few smaller lakes and municipal reservoirs that have never been stocked with sand bass and still don't have them. But most major reservoirs, and quite a few medium-sized ones, hold sand bass by the millions.
And at this time of the year they are roaming open water, hungrily foraging on shad, fattening up again after the rigors of spawning back in March and April.
Finding them can be as simple as trolling at medium speeds with a crankbait or spinner, or at ultra-slow speeds with a few jigs. Cruising the lake while watching your sonar display can be a good way to locate schools of sand bass, too.
Sand bass are a very cooperative species when it comes to angling. They're aggressive and nearly always in a feeding mood.
The biggest problem at this time of year is that, most likely, you'll need a boat to get to them, for they may not be concentrated along shorelines or in the shallows where bank-fishermen can access the big schools.
The exception to that is night-fishing under lights. From now throughout the summer, anglers can sometimes sack up lots of sand bass, as well as crappie and other fish, by working minnows or jigs beneath bridges or in deep river holes or along bluffs where deep water comes to the shoreline.
Many anglers don't even begin fishing until after dark. But once darkness settles in, they anchor or tie their boats to bridge pilings and hang lanterns over the side of the boat or drop those floating lights overboard. The lights attract plankton, which, in turn, attracts plankton-eating baitfish, which draws in the predator fish. It can be a pleasant and productive way to catch sand bass, crappie or catfish on an Oklahoma summer night -- although nights in May can still be a wee bit chilly for that kind of fishing.
But let's talk first about daytime fishing.
If I had to pick, say, five lakes where sand bass fishing can be great, I'd pick Eufaula, Texoma, Grand, Keystone and Robert S. Kerr. That's because each of those lakes consistently holds big populations of sandies throughout the year and has done so for decades.
And there are many other reservoirs, including, I believe, all of our state's 10,000-acre-plus lakes, where sand bass are abundant and where it's possible to fill a boat up to the gunwales with sand bass on a good day.
On any of those big lakes, it is possible to troll and catch lots of sandies. I have never been a big fan of trolling, but I can't argue with the fact that it is a very effective way to catch these fish that spend so much of their time roaming open water.
I have almost always trolled with crankbaits, usually with the silver- or shad-colored deep divers. But I have an acquaintance who has a cabin on Fort Gibson Lake and has consistent success trolling with small in-line spinners or spinnerbaits equipped with treble hooks. He says that silver, white, yellow or pearl-colored spinners are his top producers, but that occasionally switching to a pink or chartreuse bait picks up the action.
When trolling for some species of fish, an angler must keep his baits near the bottom. When trolling for others, he must sometimes pick a narrow range of depth where fish are suspended but active. But when trolling for sand bass, anything goes. That's because these fish tend to move up and down and cover wide distances at seemingly random times, and it's hard to say exactly where you might find them.
Later in the summer, you may find big numbers of sand bass crowding the shores, especially on downwind shorelines on windy days. On such days, schools of sandies may chase shad right up to where the waves lap the shoreline soil. But at this time of year, I would spend most of my time searching water with a little depth to it, especially areas near major river channels or large creek channels.
You may notice when watching your sonar as you navigate across the lake in May or June, clouds of baitfish suspended at all sorts of depths, as long as there is sufficient oxygen at those depths. The sand bass may also be moving at different depths.
When trolling, if you begin catching sand bass at a given depth -- say 8 or 10 feet beneath the surface, then it's probably a good idea to keep trolling at that same depth. But until you find active fish, it might be helpful to pull baits at different depths -- say one bait that runs 6 feet deep and another that runs 12 or 15 feet deep.
And keeping an eye on the sonar display, then watching to see if your baits draw results when they pass through the groups of fish you are seeing on the screen, can help you home in on active fish.
Since I am not a troller at heart, I sometimes locate schools of sandies by trolling, and then throw out a floating marker buoy when I catch a fish. Then I prowl the area and cast with a crankbait, spinner or jig. Sometimes I'll work four or five small jigs tied on a single line; that's to catch more sandies before they move and I must go searching again.
Another tool my friends and I sometimes use, especially later in the summer or in the middle of winter, is a slab spoon or structure spoon. Those heavy little chunks of lead or steel sink fast and can be fished effectively in deep water or shallow. They'll catch just about any kind of fish in the lake, but they're very good tools for locating or catching sandies.
I probably use them less in May or June than in July or August, because it has always seemed to me that the schools of sandies move more quickly and more frequently now than they do later in the summer. But when you've got a school of sandies that seems to be hanging out in one spot for a long time, using a slab spoon can sometimes produ
ce many, many catches.
I always remember a trip years ago on which two friends and I were at the lake for a weekend, fishing for a little of this and a little of that. One of my friends had just retired and was just learning to fish. He was one of those guys who had always worked two or more jobs and kept his nose to the grindstone while he raised his family and socked away his earnings.
Then he retired and suddenly had time to play.
He wasn't skilled with a baitcasting reel and didn't know much about bass fishing. So when my other friend and I were catching largemouths on jigs, he spent his time frustrated by the difficulties of using his equipment.
We decided to try something a bit easier, and I rigged a rod for him with one of those big spincast reels and a slab spoon. Then we went to a spot where a river channel made a wide bend out in the middle of the lake and where I had often caught sand bass.
All three of us began catching sandies. I dropped the anchor and soon we had 60 or 70 nice-sized sand bass in the livewells. My other friend and I decided to stop and eat a sandwich and drink a soda. My newly retired buddy was having the time of his life, catching sand bass on nearly every cast. He'd never experienced such angling success before.
While we ate, he caught perhaps 40 or 50 more fish by himself. Soon the livewells were full to the brims and he began filling an ice chest.
I knew that we had well over 100 fish in the boat and began commenting that perhaps we should move on to try some more black bass fishing, or perhaps go try and locate some crappie.
"Just a little bit longer," he said, several times, as he continued to battle and reel in sand bass after sand bass.
Finally, when the tally was well over 150 fish, I called a halt. He was reluctant to quit and he continued to cast even as I pulled up the anchor and prepared to move. We spent a couple of hours with our electric fillet knives that afternoon, stuffing multiple bags with sand bass fillets.
Oklahoma is one of those states with no statewide blanket creel limit or length limit on sand bass, or white bass as they are known in most places. But before you go and load your livewell or fish basket with dozens of sand bass, please check the current fishing regulation booklet, or go online to the Web site www.wildlifedepartment.com, for specific regulations that apply to the body of water on which you plan to fish. There are some reservoirs, populated by hatchery-produced white/striped bass hybrids as well as sand bass, where there is a daily creel limit or length limit.
For example, at Canton Lake in northwestern Oklahoma, the regulations state that the limit is this: "Striped bass hybrids and/or white bass: 20 combined per day, of which only five may be 20 inches or longer."
So you don't want to run afoul of the law by keeping too many sand bass if you're fishing on a lake that has an area-specific limit.
A few of our big lakes, and a couple of smaller ones as well, especially those navigation pools on the Arkansas/Verdigris Rivers Navigation System, have some long stretches of riverlike water that is technically impounded, but where currents and flows tend to affect the movements and feeding patterns of the game fish, including sand bass.
On Robert S. Kerr Lake, Webbers Falls Lake, and the smaller navigation pools above Webbers Falls and below Kerr, it is possible at any time of the year to locate actively feeding sand bass by fishing those places where currents are blocked or channeled by wing dams or islands.
Over the years, I've used those structures and islands to help me catch walleye, catfish, largemouth and spotted bass and stripers. But I've probably fished those spots more for sand bass than for any of the others.
When the upstream gates are open and there is significant flow in the riverlike portions of those lakes, game fish sometimes congregate just below the tips of those wing dams or jetties. The water swirls around the ends of those structures and, there may be fish waiting in the downstream eddies created by the current.
Maybe I've read too many other "tips" about why fish do what they do, but I believe those spots allow the fish to hold without expending much energy while the currents bring baitfish to them in the swirling currents.
I've used crankbaits, jigs and topwater plugs to catch sand bass in those kinds of spots on Kerr Lake, all the way from the mouth of the Illinois River downstream to the mouth of the Canadian River. Those, too, are places where you might find active fish at any time of the year, depending on water flows.
One final place I should probably mention is tailrace waters below dams both large and small. When water is flowing from the dams, game fish often move up from the streams below to feed in the tailrace area where injured shad or sunfish are sucked through the dams and ejected into the tailwater area. Many of those spots, especially at the smaller dams, can be fished effectively from the shore. At others, boaters tie their boats to the cables below the dams to fish those areas unreachable from the shorelines.
So even though the sand bass may not be crowded against the shoals in spawning mode, and even though they may not yet have begun to churn lake surfaces into acres of froth with late-summer feeding frenzies, there are many places and ways to find and catch them in those in-between times of late spring and early summer.
And no matter whether you live in Eastern Oklahoma where big reservoirs abound in or near just about every county, or in Western Oklahoma where big lakes are fewer and farther between, you shouldn't have to drive far to find some water where sand bass are plentiful.