April 19, 2023
By Lee McClellan
- Note: This is an installment of the "Spring Fishing Frenzy" series of articles by Kentucky Afield, from the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife. "Spring Fishing Frenzy" articles detail productive fishing techniques and opportunities across the state, through the early summer.
The rapid cast-and-catch of springtime white bass fishing strikes a deep nerve within Kentuckians—and has for many decades. Catching white bass during their spring spawning runs is as white-hot and full of fun as any fishing found.
When the redbuds are blooming and the white bass are running, it's a sign that winter is nearly over and fishing season is upon us. Not only do white bass strike with abandon, but they also make excellent table fare.
Kentucky's white bass fishing frenzy inspired lure innovations such as the plunker and fly. This lure was originally made from a piece of broomstick with eye screws attached to one end.
Anglers tied their main line onto the front eyelet then attached an 18-inch piece of 6-pound monofilament line to the rear eyelet. A small white doll fly—an old-school hair jig invented by Elmer "Doll" Thompson of Nashville, Tenn.—went on the business end of the piece of monofilament. A properly tied hair jig imitates a baitfish in the water.
A quick tug of the rod tip produced surface commotion from the broomstick, or "plunker." That attracted the attention of white bass, which then hit the doll fly.
Eventually, commercially-made plunker-and-fly lures replaced the broomstick with a topwater body with propellers on each end and an eyelet on the belly to tie line to the fly. These first appeared in the Danville-Lancaster area of Kentucky, the locus of early white bass fishing in Kentucky because of its proximity to the headwaters of Herrington Lake.
While the plunker-and-fly lure is no longer in widespread use, the Dix River (which forms Herrington Lake) still produces fat white bass, with Rankin Bottoms a favorite spot for anglers. Jeff Crosby and David Baker, Central Fisheries District biologists for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, gave Herrington Lake and its headwaters a four-star rating in the department's 2023 Fishing Forecast. The fishery holds many chunky 12- to 15-inch white bass with a chance at a trophy.
Nolin River Lake has arguably the strongest spring white bass run in Kentucky. The white bass in Nolin River Lake received a five-star rating in the 2023 Fishing Forecast. "Kentucky Afield" television host Chad Miles recently enjoyed a stellar day of white bass fishing in the upper reaches of Nolin River Lake while videoing an upcoming segment for the show.
"White bass fishing is all about finding the migration pattern, where the fish are located in their run," Miles said. "Every fish we caught was from Bacon Creek and back down into the lake."
The white bass fell for leadhead grubs in three color combinations: pearl and chartreuse, plain pearl and pink.
"If it is a lure that can catch crappie, you can catch white bass on it," Miles said. "I believe locating the fish in their stage of the spawning run and using the right weight is more important than the choice of lure."
Miles said he would now focus on the Nolin River upstream of Bacon Creek, as the fish have likely moved further up the headwaters. Boaters should exercise caution in this stretch of the Nolin River, however, as it contains numerous shoals and submerged rocks that could damage a boat engine's lower unit.
Bank anglers will find excellent fishing at Broad Ford at the KY 1214 bridge over Nolin River. Broad Ford is a traditional white bass fishing spot on Nolin River, enjoyed by Kentuckians for decades. During this recent trip, Miles noted the angler who covered the most water caught the most fish.
"Use the rod and reel combination that allows you to cast the farthest," he advised. White bass spawning runs occur elsewhere in the state as well.
The Salt River above Taylorsville Lake is nearing its peak with the recent warm weather pushing fish upriver. More than two miles of bank access to the Salt River is available along River Road in Taylorsville Lake Wildlife Management Area. This fishery earned a four-star rating in the 2023 Fishing Forecast.
Access is walk-in only during turkey season. Gates at River Road close to vehicles from April 15 through May 7. Two gravel parking lots at the intersection of Palmer Road and River Road remain open during turkey season, providing anglers and hunters a place to park. Not only is the extra walking good for you, but the closure of River Road deflates the high fishing pressure this area normally sees during the spring white bass run.
In east Kentucky, the Levisa Fork headwaters of Fishtrap Lake is home to an impressive spring white bass run. Expect good numbers of fish in the 12- to 14-inch range. The best fishing is around the Lick Creek Boat Ramp. The fishery earned a four-star rating in the 2023 Fishing Forecast.
Lure selection for white bass is simple – just don't over think it. A 2 1/2- to 3-inch swimbait or curly-tailed grub works well. Use a quality ball head from 1/16- to 1/4-ounce to rig these lures. Use enough weight to keep it near the bottom, not on the bottom.
Leaving the hook barb exposed provides you with the best hookset on white bass, but this style of rigging especially shines in the headwaters of Taylorsville, Herrington and Fishtrap lakes. Here you may hook into a feisty hybrid striped bass running with the white bass.
Another productive presentation for white bass is suspending a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce feather jig under a pear-shaped bobber. Simply let the offering drift in the current. Adjust the depth of the jig until you find fish.
Feather jigs, commonly called a Popeye jig in Kentucky, in combinations of white and black, chartreuse and black, and pink make good choices. Replacing the feather jig with a live crappie minnow rigged on a size 4 baitholder hook out fishes everything in your tackle box. It is the way your grandfather and great uncles caught them; any white bass that sees a wiggling minnow in its midst will strike it.
Look for the white bass fishing segment with Chad Miles to air in the next couple of weeks on the "Kentucky Afield" television show on Kentucky Educational Television (KET). Remember to purchase a 2023-2024 fishing license if you have not already. Licenses and permits are sold online via fw.ky.gov and in person at various locations throughout the state.