August 25, 2015
Sunrise that summer day was spectacular. Broad strokes of tangerine orange painted the White and Mississippi rivers at their juncture in southeast Arkansas. The sun was a crimson orb on the eastern horizon.
Little eddies of water danced past the drifting johnboat. The air was still and hot. My fishing companion, Bill Peace, shaded his eyes with a hand, as if saluting the dawn.
“There. There they are,” he said, pointing to starboard.
A fountain of inch-long shad spritzed from the water, flashing like silver coins skipped across the smooth surface of the river. I glimpsed a fin beneath the fountain, and the swirl of a predator’s tail.
Bill flipped on the trolling motor and moved us quickly toward the breaking fish. “Get ready,” he said. “The fun is about to begin.”
The surface of the water now churned like a boiling cauldron. Perhaps half an acre was so disturbed, as marauding hordes of white bass began a feeding frenzy unlike anything I ever saw. Shad spurted from the water in all directions, struggling to escape the ravenous predators below.
I fired a cast into the melee, and the instant my lure touched down, I felt a vicious strike. Bill was ready now, too, and in less time than it takes to tell it, he, too, was battling a hefty white bass that smashed a jig. The fish fought furiously, but we brought them quickly to the boat, shook them off the hook and cast again.
The action went on for most of an hour, then the school dispersed, and the river was once again calm. I would like to tell you exactly how many fish we caught, but in all honesty, I cannot. We released every one, and the adrenaline surge I experienced precluded any possibility of accurate mathematics. There were scores, though—of that I have no doubt. And that hour of ultralight fishing encompassed some of the most mind-boggling fishing action I’ve ever experienced.
Few things are as fun as “jump fishing” for surface-schooling white bass. One writer described it as a “sensory overdose.” You see strikes. You feel strikes. You hear strikes. And the action continues minute after minute until the fish disperse or you surrender to exhaustion.
If you’d like to experience it yourself, now is one of the best times to try, for summer offers some of the year’s most consistent topwater action for white bass. Young shad, the principal prey of white bass, are feeding on plankton near the surface, especially early and late in the day. White bass follow, making periodic raids to gorge on the baitfish. Casting to these surface-feeding schools is called “jump fishing” because the bass, baitfish and anglers are jumping here and there during the course of these feeding frenzies.
“The junction of two big rivers is a great place to catch summer whites,” said Peace. “But it’s not the only place. Anywhere there’s water coming into a river is good—a creek mouth or a river run (chute) that connects an oxbow lake to the river. The whites will be most active where’s there’s some clear water. For instance, when water is dropping out of the oxbow lakes, it runs across the woods and into the river. The river itself may be muddy, but the whites are usually where the clear water from the oxbows is flowing in.”
Another location for first-rate white bass action is the tailwater channel just below the lock in a navigation structure. Barges and other boats enter the lock, then the water is raised or lowered so the craft can continue its travel.
“When they’re releasing water out of the locks, white bass really go crazy,” said Peace. “The water is swift, stirring up baitfish, and the whites come there to work over the schools. In this situation, you’re also likely to catch some skipjack herring, and even some striped bass and black bass that are feeding with the whites. Anytime that water starts running, the action heats up.”
The type of lure you use is not important—as long as it resembles a shad. Peace and I fished with tandem-rigged jigs, often as not catching two fish per cast. Many topwater plugs work great, too, as do spinners and spoons.
Many jump fishermen use a run-and-gun technique to get within casting range of surfacing fish. When they spot fish surfacing in the distance, they gun their outboard and head for the action, cutting the engine at the last minute, cocking the boat to one side and drifting in on bass before they have a chance to go down.
“Most anglers want to move as soon as a school goes down,” Peace said. “But I’ve found it’s better to stay in one place until I know for sure the fish are gone. Often, the action will start up again in a few minutes, sometimes within casting distance of your boat. Patience pays off.”
For pure, out-and-out, fish-a-minute fun, nothing beats jump-fishing for summer whites.
Peace is even more to the point.
“You’d have to be legally dead for this kind of fishing not to excite you.”
Amen to that.