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Good Things in Small Packages: Fishing for Yellow Bass

Good Things in Small Packages: Fishing for Yellow Bass
Yellow bass, relatives of white bass and stripers, can provide endless hours of angling entertainment in waters where they are abundant. (Keith Sutton photo)

When a friend of mine hooked his first yellow bass last year, he was in for a surprise. The hookset provoked extraordinary resistance. Line zizzed off his ultralight reel. His rod doubled over. “I’ve hooked a good ‘un,” he proclaimed.

The outcome was never certain. The angler gained line. The fish took it back. The angler reeled. The fish resisted. I watched, grinning, as the 200-pound man struggled to land a fish the size of an aspirin bottle.

Persistence and skill paid off. Two minutes into round one, my heavyweight buddy KO’ed his flyweight opponent. As he swung his “good ‘un” into the boat, a puzzled grimace jumped on his face.

“What the heck is that?” he asked.

“Yellow bass,” I replied.

“Do they get any bigger than that?” he queried.

“Bout twice that size.”

“Are there many of them in here?”


“Then the crappie fishing’s over.”

A hundred yellow bass later, my friend proclaimed it “the most fun day of fishing I’ve ever had.”

If you require hefty fish for your angling jollies, read no farther. Yellow bass won’t interest you. Most weigh mere ounces. Record-class fish barely exceed 2 pounds. There are unsubstantiated rumors of 5-pounders snatched from Louisiana waters, but a 2-pound, 9-ounce specimen from Tennessee’s Duck River is the International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record.

If you enjoy fish-a-minute fun on ultralight tackle, however, these scrappy little fighters can keep you happy for hours on end. Yellow bass are so abundant in some waters, catching 100 or more a day is a snap. Their small size belies their militant fighting ability, and when glamor fish get lockjaw, yellow bass can turn a potentially dismal fishing trip into a delightful one.

Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis) are true bass, close relatives of white bass and striped bass. Whites and yellows are sometimes confused but easily distinguished by examining the two dorsal fins. On yellow bass, the fins are slightly connected by a thin membrane; the fins are separate on whites. Both species have distinct black stripes on the sides, but on yellow bass, the lines are broken and offset above the anal fin.

The common name is appropriate yet understated. The fish have a rich golden hue about their sides, which transforms to glistening topaz on prespawn males. Colors are less pronounced on juveniles and fish from turbid water.

Yellow bass nicknames are colorful as well.In the rivers and oxbows of the South, they’re barfish, an appellation said to have originated from the species’ tendency to congregate on shallow sandbars near dawn and dusk. In other parts of their range, anglers use such monikers as brassy bass, yellowjack, stripe, gold bass, yellow perch, striped jack, streak and streaker.

Yellow bass range from southern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to Louisiana, southeast Oklahoma and east Texas. They reside principally in the Mississippi, Tennessee, lower Arkansas and Red river drainages, where they inhabit quiet pools and backwaters of large rivers, reservoirs and natural lakes. They are scattered in occurrence. A lake here, a river there, offers good yellow bass fishing, but many others in the same area may not.

Should you read the scant literature available on yellow bass fishing, you’ll gain the impression that yellow bass are always caught in deep water near the bottom. This is hearsay perpetuated by misinformed reporters. It’s true that yellow bass rarely exhibit the surface-feeding sprees for which white bass are famous, but studies indicate they often feed on small crustaceans, insects and fish in mid-depths or near the surface. Deep, open water is a common haunt, especially at midday, but adults feed in shallow water early and late in the day and are often caught around stumps, weedbeds, riprap, cypress knees and brush.

Many lures and natural baits are productive. One of the best is a small leadhead jig—1/100- to 1/32-ounce—dressed with a marabou, tinsel or tube skirt. Live worms, crickets and small minnows are also effective, and fly fishing with small streamers or wet flies will produce outstanding catches of yellow bass in prime fishing waters.

Fishing with ultralight tackle heightens the enjoyment of catching these neglected panfish. Yellow bass fight like big bull bluegills, and when you’re playing one in on a whippy spinning rod or jigging pole, its scrappy, circle-and-run fighting style may sucker you (like my buddy) into thinking you’ve hooked a much larger fish. Two-pound-test line would seem appropriate, despite their spunk, but barfish often streak round and round underwater cover like cypress knees and snags. I usually opt for 6- to 8-pound mono and can account for more of my lures, and more fish, at the end of the day.

There’s no off-season for yellow bass. In spring and early summer, adults spawn over gravel bars, sandbars or rock reefs in water only a few feet deep. Huge schools may congregate in small areas at this time, and a properly placed bait rarely goes untouched. During summer’s heat, the biggest yellows often follow schools of young shad. Watch for tiny baitfish skipping near the surface, and cast to them with small lures. Near dawn and dusk, shallow structure produces, especially rocky edges and bars.

Trolling or driftfishing with small jigs are first-rate methods for pinpointing schools during cool months. Start by using a variety of jigs rigged at different depths. For instance, use four poles, setting two jigs 2 feet deep and two at 6 feet. Use various sizes and colors—some 1/32-ounce, some 1/64, some black, some yellow, some silver. This allows you to test different baits and depths until a pattern is established. When you ascertain that yellow bass favor a certain depth or jig style, then rig all poles to conform to that preference.

Considering their sporty aggressiveness and their abundance in some waters, yellow bass would seem to demand more respect than they usually get. Nevertheless, most anglers pay little attention to these fish, preferring instead to fish for largemouths, crappie, bream, catfish or other popular species.

Obscurity can’t efface the first-class sporting qualities of these spunky gamefish, though. Yellow bass offer a wealth of entertainment value. Before you pass them by, remember the old adage, “Good things often come in small packages.”

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