In early spring they swim upcurrent, out of the South's reservoirs and into its rivers, then its creeks. Their number is vast, a seemingly endless procession of fish that are silver in shade and streamlined in form. Their powerful tails push tirelessly against a flow that is oftentimes strong and swollen from late winter rains.
Still, white bass doggedly nose up the tributaries, driven by the instinct to reproduce. First come the smaller males, looking for the right combination of depth and current where spawning can take place. Then follow the females, fat-bellied with roe and anxious to find a partner with which to share these fish's peculiar mating process. It is a true rite of the warming season. It is also a time when anglers can catch white bass until their muscles quiver from exhaustion.
"I've had days when I've literally caught so many of 'em my arms ached," avows Bill Hoy of Fredonia, Tennessee. Hoy is quick to add, however, that this is one agony wherein ecstasy truly lies. "If you just like hooking and playing fish, it's hard to beat white bass when they're running. And another good thing: Methods and locations for doing this are simple; these fish are easy to catch. Anybody can do it with some basic know-how and tackle and a fair measure of persistence."
Following are reliable patterns for finding and catching stream-run white bass. First, however, a look at their spawning habits through a biologist's eyes.
John Riddle: "Spawning Run Depends on Water Temperature, Light Intensity, Current"
John Riddle is a fisheries biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and he's worked extensively in white bass management. He says many mysteries remain about when and how these fish spawn. Still enough is known to provide anglers with general information which will help them understand the basics of the spawning run and utilize it in terms of fishing.
Riddle begins, "Timing of the white bass run is determined by 3 factors: Water temperature, light intensity, and current. Of these factors, water temperature is probably the most important factor, and current is probably the least important. Still, there needs to be some current, or the spawning effort seems to suffer."
Riddle says white bass collect in staging areas before spawning. "They school up and wait for the right conditions, then they move into the tributaries to drop their eggs." These pre-spawn fish provide superb angling opportunity because of the dense concentrations they form.
When the water temperature reaches the high 50's, the run begins with the males moving up the tributaries first. They are followed in 1-2 weeks by the females. "Now this is a generalization," Riddle explains. "Not all fish spawn at the same time, and fishermen should understand this. Spawning for white bass and other fish may stretch out over a several week period. However, within that time span there's usually a distinguishable period when spawning activity peaks, and this is when fishing is best."
White bass spawn just above or below riffles, and for a very specific reason. When the females drop their eggs and the males fertilize them, the eggs then settle to the stream bottom and stick to rocks, debris, brush, etc. During incubation, these eggs need oxygen to remain healthy. Faster-moving water around riffles carries more oxygen than does slow water in deep, quiet pools. Eggs deposited in these latter areas are likely to suffocate.
Under ideal spawning conditions, white bass are extremely prolific. Riddle says one adult female regularly lays more than 500,000 eggs. However, for reasons unknown to biologists, white bass populations sometimes fluctuate broadly from year-to-year. It is known that unstable weather during peak of spawning can cause females to cease egg-laying, thereby causing a sharp reduction in the number of that year's age class of young fish.
Bill Hoy: "Follow White Bass As They Migrate Upstream"
Bill Hoy mostly fishes for white bass in the Cumberland River and its tributaries in west-middle Tennessee. Late each winter these fish migrate up the Cumberland from Lake Barkley. They stage in current voids, and they feed ravenously until the water temperature climbs high enough for them to resume their migration up feeder rivers and creeks to spawn.
"These fish start showing up in the big river in February," Hoy begins. "On my first outings of the year, I look for 'em in eddies along the banks. I'm talking about spots like little run-ins; bank cave-ins, rockslides, debris buildups, riprap around bridge pilings, pipelines, or powerlines. I look for places where some type of structure deflects the current and forms a small eddy behind (downstream from) it. Early in the year the white bass gang up in these holes to watch for shad."
Hoy continues that these eddies don't have to be large or deep to attract fish. Prime depth this time of year is 5-8 feet.
"I just cruise down the river and look for these places, and when I see one, I stop and cast to it," Hoy explains. "It doesn't take long to see if the fish are there."
Hoy fishes these eddies with a 1/4-ounce leadhead jig rigged with a 2 1/2-inch plastic curltail trailer (white or pearl in clear water, chartreuse in stained water). He casts this bait on medium-action spinning tackle rigged with 8- to 10-pound test line. He adds, "I keep another rod rigged with heavier line (14-pound test) for those holes that have a lot of cover and where the likelihood of hanging up is high."
Hoy catches most of his fish near bottom. "I throw my jig right into the hole, then let it fall until my line goes slack. Then I start reeling it back in, sort of jigging it to maintain bottom contact.
"When a white bass hits, it'll usually bust it," he continues. "And when I catch a fish from a spot, I'll stay there and work it hard. It's rare to catch just one white bass in a place. It's not uncommon to catch 8-10, and I'll come back to this hole 2-3 times per day and normally catch'em each time."
On some days though, for reasons known only to the fish, they move out from the banks, and casting to the eddies fails to produce. "If I try several of my favorite spots without any success, then I move out and vertical jig the same bait along deeper dropoffs, usually along the lip of the old river channel in 12-15 feet of water," Hoy continues.
"Now I work fast and cover a lot of different drops to find the fish. Sometimes I can see 'em on my depthfinder. Also, since the current is stronger in the river, I normally switch to heavier jigheads (1/2-3/4 ounce), and I work these on casting tackle and 20-pound line because hangups are more frequent."
By early to mid-March, the white bass start shifting to tributary mouths to stage for the final leg of their migration. Specifically, they collect along bars across these mouths, just upstream in the creeks or just above/below the mouths of the tributaries along the banks of the main river.
"Now I have better luck on crankbaits," Hoy continues. "My 2 favorites are a (Rebel) Deep Wee R and a (Bill Lewis) Rat-L-Trap. Also, sometimes I throw a (Mann's) Little George. I just alternate these baits and cast them randomly and try all the places the fish can be."
By the end of March, the white bass begin swimming up the tributaries, and Hoy follows them. He does so in a smaller boat than his big river rig. He needs something that will negotiate sharp turns and motor over snags and shoals.
"The fish move up in stages. You might go up a couple of miles and not get any action, then you'll hit a stretch where you'll catch fish in each likely spot.
"So I just spot-cast up a creek until I hook a fish or two, then I'll slow down and work that particular stretch more thoroughly."
Again, Hoy looks for small eddies where the white bass can hold without expending much energy. "Log-jams and fallen trees can be very good. So can mouths of gullies, points of islands, and banks on inside channel bends. And I've even caught a lot of fish along straight mud banks where the current runs slow.
"So I just try all the different options until I discover the right pattern, then I concentrate on fishing that one best structure."
Hoy says the females start showing up in the creel a week to 10 days later than the males.
"They seem to come up in waves, and this best fishing lasts 2-3 weeks. When you hit 'em right, it's no trouble to catch the limit (in Tennessee, 30 white bass). Average size will be 1 1/2 pounds, and there'll be several over 2 pounds. I've even caught a few over 3."
Hoy adds that once the white bass start running up the tributaries, stable weather, average rainfall and moderate currents yield the best fishing. "Cold fronts can turn'em off, and floods and strong currents will scatter'em. You want some current, but not too much."
In Tennessee, the white bass run is normally over by the first of May. Hoy explains, "The females head back downriver first, then the males follow. When they do this, you can almost see the difference in fishing from one day to the next. When it shuts off, it does so in a hurry."
Dave Harbin: How to Catch White Bass in Tailwaters
Besides tributaries, other good areas to catch spawning run white bass are in tailwaters below dams on the South's major rivers. Dave Harbin guides fishermen on Pickwick Lake and on the Tennessee River below Pickwick Dam in south-central Tennessee. He says the tailwater stretch just below the dam is white bass heaven.
"Huge numbers of 'stripes' (white bass) migrate up here out of Kentucky Lake, then they run into the dam, and it's like a roadblock," Harbin says. "So they just spread out and spawn right there in the tailwater in whatever spots they can find. Sometimes they build up into huge schools. I've caught as high as 50 from one spot."
The pattern for finding and catching white bass in tailwaters is virtually the same as in tributaries. "They hold in eddies, just about anywhere the current is deflected. These spots can be mouths of creeks or ditches, entrances to boat harbors, downstream ends of islands, or downstream points of riprap banks.
"And one of our best patterns is to fish behind treetops that have fallen down the riverbank. The trunk and branches block the current enough to satisfy the 'stripes,' and sometimes they'll be on 'em hot and heavy. I've had days when I've filled the live well by fishing from one treetop to the next."
Harbin's primary bait for tailwater white bass is a 1/4-ounce leadhead jig with a 3-inch Harville grub on the back -- white or lime green.
He adds that one key to catching these fish is to hold the boat out from the bank and to cast at a 45-degree upcurrent angle into the hole. "This way you're retrieving the bait with the current, and I think this is critical. These fish stay down close to bottom, and you have to get your bait down to'em. You can do this if you're pulling with the current. But the bait won't get down if you're pulling it against the current."
One other note: When Harbin says "tailwater," he's talking about the stretch up to 10 miles below the dam. "When the 'stripes' get in here, I'll put in at the dam and run-and-gun and hit all the likely places for several miles downstream. There's nothing difficult about catching these fish, and when the run's in full swing, they're a lot of fun. You hook up a big old sow 'stripe' on light tackle, and let me tell you! You've got all the fight you want. This is something anybody with a boat and some basic tackle can get in on. They've just got to get out there and try it."