Fly fishing for Springtime White Bass in the Ozarks

Posted by Bill Butts on September 6th, 2011
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The availability and catchability of White Bass is very well-known by thousands of anglers across the country, but particularly in the Great Plains, Midwest, South and Southeast regions of the U.S. Their reputation as a hard striking and fighting gamefish has been experienced and documented for many decades. The Ozarks Region of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma is one of the very best overall regions for quantity and size for these great fish.

Fly Fishing for White Bass, along with their larger Striped and Hybrid Striped Bass cousins, has been a personal fishing passion of mine for over 30 years. For years it was a seasonal pursuit mostly in the spring and a little in the fall, but now it is my focused pursuit year-round.

History and Biology
So, how did these prolific fish find their homes in so many lakes, reservoirs and rivers for us to enjoy? White Bass are members of the Temperate Bass family and are native to the Mississippi River and virtually all of its tributaries. Stop for a moment and think about how geographically widespread that made them even prior to the construction of many dams on river systems that include the Illinois, Des Moines, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, White, Arkansas, Red and others. Yes, they once inhabited only rivers.

Today, these rivers still contain resident populations of Whites as do nearly all the lakes and reservoirs that have been constructed along their flowages and tributaries. White Bass are so prolific that some fisheries management biologists have stated that from their perspective the White Bass is about as close to the perfect gamefish as they could hope for.

In the spring, White Bass that inhabit impoundments make their annual spawning run up into the primary tributaries. In the Ozarks, the timing of a run is dependent upon a number of factors including water temperature and daylight hours. You can sometimes find Whites in the mouths or lower stream channels as early as January and February particularly during stretches of unseasonably warm sunny weather. However, when the air temperatures drop back down the Whites will retreat back to deeper, warmer lake water temporarily ending the fishing excitement. This activity is not part of the spawning ritual, but purely the result of White Bass constantly seeking forage. This “roller coaster” of excitement and water temperature fluctuation continues until the water temperature reaches the upper 50’s which is suitable for spawning to begin taking place.

It is very important for fishermen that pursue White Bass in the spring to always carry a thermometer and monitor the water temps. The peak of the spawning run will occur when water temps consistently reach the 60 to 65* range.

Years ago, an elderly fisherman on Beaver Creek told me that he always judged the peak of the run by when the dogwood trees in the area reached full bloom. At the time, I thought that was just a good story, but that story proved to be true every year that I intentionally compared the timing of both. My advice is still to carry a thermometer.

For fishermen that are familiar with the spawning habits of trout or bass and panfish species that dig and clean a spot in the gravel called a “redd” to lay and fertilize their eggs, White Bass spawn quite differently.
A female White Bass that is ready to spawn is surrounded by a small group of males as they swim over a clean gravel area together. As the female releases her eggs the males release their sperm and the eggs become fertilized as they sink to the stream bottom. The eggs contain a slightly sticky substance that causes them to adhere to the gravel and stay in place as they continue their development to hatch. The adult fish have no further involvement in the process or in protecting the eggs.

White Bass will continue to actively feed up to the very hour they begin the spawning act, but many fishermen have experienced the frustration of trying to entice a strike from a group of spawning fish that are totally oblivious to anything but sex.

Where and How-to

If you live in or near the Ozarks Region you are not far from an excellent White Bass fishery. This region is covered with lakes that have wonderfully healthy populations of not only White Bass, but also their larger sometimes tackle busting cousins, Hybrid Stripers and Stripers.

The best known fisheries in this region, with their respective available species are as follows:

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Beaver Lake (all 3 species)
Norfork Lake (all 3 species)
Greers Ferry Lake (Whites and Hybrids)
Bull Shoals Lake (White Bass)

Table Rock Lake (White Bass)
Bull Shoals Lake (White Bass)
Stockton Lake (White Bass)
Truman Lake (Whites and Hybrids)
Pomme De Terre Lake (White Bass)

Grand Lake (Whites and Hybrids)
Hudson Lake (White Bass)
Ft. Gibson Lake (White Bass)
Tenkiller Lake (White Bass)
(Note: These OK lakes are either just inside or outside of the Ozark Region, but are included for their excellent quality fisheries and accessibility.)

This is not a comprehensive list of White Bass fisheries available in the Ozarks. However, if you will pick just one or two of these fisheries and invest the time and effort to learn how, where and when to find these fish in the Spring you will be rewarded for your efforts and maybe catch yourself thinking about and fishing for them all year, too.

White Bass are not usually difficult to catch once you locate them. Over the years, I have developed a network of contacts with a variety of tackle shop staff, fellow fishermen (including local “good ole boy” minnow dunkers), landowners, fisheries biologists and game wardens for each specific fishery I pursue these fish. This process takes time in order to have the right combination of sources for accurate timely information. I take the time to meet and keep in contact with as many of these folks as I possible can, always taking and compiling notes from every important conversation.

This “network” is absolutely critical unless you hire the services of a guide or know someone that has already developed a local knowledge of a fishery that will take you with them.

Additionally, I use a variety of maps and online resources to continually educate myself. County road maps, DeLorme Gazeteer topo maps (by state), Google Earth satellite photos, and several websites for water flow and temperature data are constantly utilized for their valuable content.

If you will concentrate your initial efforts on fishing just below the first two or three shoals/riffles above lake water, that is always a great place on which to focus. In low water years, the majority of White Bass will do their spawning in the lower stretches of a tributary. In years with strong and fluctuating flows from spring rains, you may find Whites in scattered groups literally miles up the river and not as concentrated.

White Bass do not like to stay in the fastest moving current in the river, but rather to hold just off the edges of current in deeper holes.
If you happen to catch them in faster water it is because they are moving up or down through that water or chasing baitfish for a short time. They also seek a moderate current flow when the time comes to begin the spawning ritual.

So, what does a great White Bass fishing day in the spring look like?
All the Temperate Bass species are highly photosensitive (sensitive to bright sunlight). Most of the very best days of fishing for these species for me have occurred on either cloudy to very dark cloudy and rainy days, or the first and last two hours of daylight on a clear day.

Water clarity is also a factor that fishermen need to consider. Some tributaries are extremely clear during normal flows, but many are never very clear. I have always found that White Bass that spawn in very clear streams are even more sensitive to light and to leader size due to the optimum visibility. I’ve also observed that these fish do not spend much extra time feeding in a clear water stream before or after spawning. This makes timing your fishing efforts even more critical because the total time they spend in that particular stream is very limited. It should also make sense that fishing on low light days or at night are even more important for success. Another excellent time to fish these clear streams is after a good rain raises the flow of the stream and turns it off color. Just as the stream is clearing up but is still just a little murky is one of the best times to fish these waters.
Examples of clear water streams are Beaver and Swan Creeks, and the James and North Fork Rivers in MO.

Murky water streams, though perhaps not as picturesque or easy to wade, hold White Bass longer before and after their spawning ritual is completed. I believe it is purely due to their comfort level of not being as visible as in clearer water. The streams that I fish that have the longest lasting quality fishing during the spring are all murky water streams. Some examples of these are the Sac and Pomme de Terre Rivers in MO, and the Upper White River above Beaver Lake in AR.

Of course, spring rains can keep a stream murky to muddy for extended periods of time sometimes even ruining the fishing for weeks. One of best examples of a stream that seems to incur this factor is the Spring River near Miami OK. Though it runs quite clear when normal, it seems to stay at elevated flow levels and murky during the spring. I’ve caught Whites in virtually muddy water on this and other streams, but the lack of visibility for the fish becomes a limiting factor for success. I’ll come back to this factor, later.

Fly Tackle

A lot of fly fishermen attempt to use their light trout rods when first learning to fish for these strong fish and I think that is a mistake. The tackle that I suggest is recommended based on many years of experience and helping others learn to catch these awesome fish.

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Fly Rods:
The best overall fly rod I would recommend is a 9 foot 7 weight with a fast tip (not soft like many trout rods). If you fish a stream or lake where you never catch a White Bass over 2# and there aren’t Hybrids or Stripers in that fishery a fast action 6 weight will work for you. Since a number of Ozarks fisheries also contain Hybrids and Stripers, you don’t want to hook a five to ten-pounder of either specie and not have the rod strength to land it or fight it so long you can’t release it.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money for a good rod of the specifications I’ve outlined. It is amazing how many great fly rods there are on the market in all price ranges from less than $100 to $700. Buy the best total outfit you can afford and know that it will perform well if you have followed these basic guidelines.

Fly Reels:
A large arbor style fly reel with a disk drag, capacity for your fly line and about 100 yards of backing, and enough combined physical weight to properly counterbalance your rod is my suggestion.
Your loaded fly reel should balance equally or teeter slightly to the reel end of the rod when you balance your rod near the top of the cork handle with your index finger. If your rod teeters to the rod tip end, you will fatigue much more quickly during a day of fishing.

Fly Lines:
Using the right combination of fly line and leader for White Bass fishing is what I believe gives the fisherman the best chance for success. I’ve seen fly fishermen with very similar rigging to what I suggest and fail miserably in their efforts in very productive water where others are catching fish.

For most spring White Bass fishing in this region, the most important fly line you should have is a 10 to 15′ type 3 sink-tip. The most important factor in this line is “type 3″. I use a 15′ version but the reason I say 10-15′ is that different brands and qualities of fly lines are available and some of them are 10 and 12′ which will work very well, too. Most economy priced sink-tip lines that I have seen have 10′ sink-tips.

For the past several years, I have experimented with a wide variety of fly lines from full floating to full sinking and I still spend at least 80% of my fishing time using the type 3 sink-tip for White Bass.

Additional fly lines that I still find valuable include a floating line with a heavy front taper like a Rio Clouser or Bass Bug Taper, and a faster sinking tip like a type 5 or 6 for deeper holes that can’t be effectively fished with the type 3.
If you want to cover all levels from floating to deep sinking without having to buy several spools and lines for your reel, I would suggest considering a Rio Versi-tip or Scientific Anglers/3M Quad-tip fly line. These lines have 4 interchangeable loop-to-loop tip sections that can be quickly changed to fish the required depth. The lines retail for over $100 for a set, but the savings over buying multiple reel spools is considerable.
I think this is the best overall approach to rig for White Bass fishing, whether it is for river or lake fishing.

Leaders and Knots:
With a sinking tip fly line, the leader system I’ve found perfectly adequate and effective is very simple.
On a 7 weight line, I attach an 18″ butt section of 15-20# mono and tie a 1.5″ Perfection Loop in the end. The connection of the butt section to line is done in one of two ways. Either with a needle nail-knot or a braided loop splice using 35 or 50# Gudebrod Braided Mono.

To this butt section I attach 2.5′ of 3x to 0x tippet with a double-surgeons loop knot. I rarely use fluorocarbon tippet for this type of fishing, though I know some do. If you decide to use fluorocarbon, you can definitely use 1x or 0x since it is stronger than mono in the same diameter. I don’t usually find that tippet diameter is much of an issue unless the water is extremely clear. In very murky to muddy water, or at night, the tippet size should not be any issue. Use the heaviest size you can.
I attach the fly to the tippet with a Lefty Kreh Non-slip Loop Knot to allow the fly the most natural and enticing action.
Note: When you are constructing this rigging at home, including making up some extra pre-tied tippets, I highly suggest that you carefully apply a drop of Zap to each knot just as you draw it tight. Even if your knot is not perfectly tied (visibly symmetrical as you draw it down), the addition of the super glue with make it virtually a 100% knot. Nice insurance, if you take the time to do this.

The most important forage foods for White Bass, and all Temperate Basses, in this region are Threadfin Shad and Gizzard Shad. Threadfins reach a maximum adult size of 3.5″, and Gizzards about 14″.
Sure, Whites do like a variety of other baitfish (including small suckers, trout, chubs, darters, sculpins, perch and sunfish) and crawfish, but Shad account for the vast majority of their total forage.

With these forage factors in mind, I tie and fish a variety of baitfish patterns and color combinations including the following:

*Clouser Deep Minnow
*Half & Half Deep Minnow
*Cowen Baitfish
*Blanton Flashtail Whistler
*Woods SeaDucer
*Bill’s Mylar JigColor Combinations (top/mid-section/belly color)–
*Bright Pink/White
*All White
*All Tan
*All Black or Purple (for nighttime and muddy water)

It is more important to have the correct size (length) baitfish than a specific hook size. If I meet another fisherman on the water who is really catching fish, I always ask what length and what color of lure or fly they are using.

In the patterns I have outlined, I tie them mostly 2 to 3.5″ long for White Bass, except for my jig pattern which I tie only 1 to 1.5″ on 1/80 and 1/64th oz. jigheads. However, I always carry some the same baitfish patterns in larger 4 to 6″ lengths for opportunities to catch a nice Hybrid or Striper. Always remember that you don’t really need large baits for White Bass since they have relatively small mouths for their body size and rarely consume large prey.

For hooks, I have tested and continue to experiment with a variety of styles and brands. Overall, if you have a quality general-purpose saltwater hook (regular or 1x long) in sizes 6 thru 2 they will work well for these patterns.

There are several good brands like Tiemco and Gamakatsu that have super-sharp chemically sharpened points, but understand that they are quite pricey. The best value in this category of hooks is the Mustad Signature Series #S71S-SS (chemically sharpened). Probably the most economical quality hooks in this category are the Mustad #3407 and 34007 (neither are chemically sharpened).

These hooks are more expensive than regular bronze hooks, but they are much stronger for the times that you are lucky enough to hook a larger Hybrid or Striper. If the fishery you are targeting has only White Bass you can use the Mustad #3366 bronze hook, though it is not nearly as sharp or strong.

I highly recommend that you bend down the barbs on all your White Bass flies, and be sure to sharpen the points on any hooks that are not chemically sharpened. Barbless hooks facilitate a quicker penetration hook set, as well as an easier release that saves wear and tear on the fish and your fly.

Retrieve Techniques

It’s important to point out the need for variety and experimentation with retrieves for White Bass. There is not one best magical technique, but one thing I would definitely suggest to keep in mind is not to get into a rut with the same technique all the time.

It’s important to have an intentional plan for why and how to modify your technique on the stream. There are a few basic guidelines I will share with you, most of which will make sense. Simply, if one technique isn’t working, try a different one until you find what produces strikes.

In clear water that is above 60* you have conditions for White Bass to aggressively track your fly by sight, and optimum water temperature for this baitfish-eating machine to actively and regularly feed. These conditions allow for moderate to very fast retrieves, when necessary.
In clear water, I will use an erratic technique of short, fast strips, followed by a long strip or dead pause. Other times, a moderate pace of long strips (roughly 24-30″) followed by a pause with a couple of rod-tip twitches drives Whites crazy.

Toward the other extreme, reasons for a very slow to moderate retrieve include water that is colder than 55*, particularly in the high 30’s and 40’s which keeps these fish in a sluggish mood; and murky to muddy water which impairs visibility. Another condition for slower retrieves is when you fish at night.
In poor visibility water and at night, you want to be sure your retrieve is steady and consistent to allow the fish to home in on your fly. If the fly is jigged up and down erratically it makes it more difficult for the predator to accurately strike.

It is also important to have the proper rod and line control as you make these retrieves. I keep my rod tip at or just above the water and pointed almost straight at my line as it swings in the current. My strip retrieves are controlled by never allowing any slack line between my casting hand and where the line touches the water near my rod tip. I maintain tight control of the line with either my index finger or two fingers on my rod hand, as well as with my opposite hand, so that I can instantly and aggressively set the hook. The angle of the rod at hook-set is about 30-45* which utilizes the more powerful butt and mid-sections of the rod for a solid hook-up.

If you want to kick off your spring fishing with some hot action catching a great gamefish, do your homework and get prepared for some awesome White Bass fishing in the Ozarks with your fly tackle, this year. See you on the river!

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