There are many ways to get catches while going white bass and fishing. No matter how it’s done, anglers will have a blast when one of these line-sided bulls decides to go the other way.
With practiced ease, Bob McVicker flicked a cast toward a submerged stump and instantly whipped his limber spinning rod into an arc, setting the hook as a fish slammed his offering.
“That’s a white,” McVicker said with the confidence accrued through dozens of years on the water. “That’s one of the sows that we’ve been looking for.”
He was referring to a white bass – also known as stripe and perhaps a half dozen other monikers within its range. This particular individual bored into the shallow stream, turned its broadside into the current, and ripped off a short run before succumbing to the steady pressure of the rod.
“Maybe a pound, pound and a half,” McVicker said. “That’s a good one, but they get a lot bigger.”
It’s a Spring Thing
McVicker and I were enjoying one of the grand traditions of freshwater fishing, the annual spring pilgrimage of white bass migrating upstream to spawning grounds. We were far up the stream portion of Cedar Creek Lake, a small reservoir in Northwest Alabama. What makes the event so grand is that we could have found the same action on a hundred other similar streams in Alabama.
The white bass is one of the state’s most prolific species, occurring throughout the majority of Alabama’s major river systems but especially plentiful in the Tennessee, Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Warrior drainages. Unlike black bass, which are actually sunfish, the white is a true bass, cousin to the saltwater striped bass.
The white bass contrasts with the larger saltwater stripe, which has bold lateral lines, while the lines on a white are more subtle. Stripes that have a pattern of broken lateral lines are likely hybrids – crosses between the white bass and striped bass – or yellow bass, a smaller relative of the white.
The white bass grows to almost five pounds in Alabama; the state record is a four-pound, nine-ounce catch from the Warrior River. A good white bass weighs two pounds, a trophy pushes three, and anything bigger is the exception.
“Now is the time to catch these big females,” McVicker said on a spring afternoon. “They’re loaded with roe, and you can easily catch a three-pounder or bigger at this time of year.”
McVicker’s words proved prophetic as moments later a bigger fish nailed a jig that I cast toward a log. Unlike the smaller males that had repeatedly inhaled the lure, this fish didn’t give, and for a moment I thought I had hooked the log. The fish, however, sailed into the open water and actually made the drag sing for a few precious seconds before turning. It swung in a wide arc toward the far bank, finally wallowing to the surface perhaps 40 feet downstream from the boat.
White bass don’t jump, but they do a lot of their fighting near the surface. This fish thrashed the water, using its weight and the current to contest the leverage applied by the rod. In a few seconds, the white lay exhausted boat side, and I managed to lip the big female, which appeared to be about 17 inches and weigh an estimated three pounds. The distended belly of the fish looked almost grotesque compared to the normally sleek lines of the typical white bass.
Nonetheless, the catch was fairly typical of fishing the spawning run. Scout around long enough and the bigger females will materialize at some point.
While McVicker does most of his fishing on Northwest Alabama streams and lakes, the patterns that he practices coincide with those found on most waters within the state. In late winter or early spring, the fish begin to appear on shallow flats at the mouth of main-lake tributaries. The white bass progressively move farther upstream as spawning time nears, sometimes cruising for miles looking for the perfect conditions to spawn.
The migration provides any number of opportunities to catch white bass, which are eager feeders and can be caught by using a variety of methods and lure or bait options.
On both the run upstream and later after the spawn, white bass rest and feed on shallow flats adjacent to main creek channels. As they near the end of their runs upstream, the whites can be found on just about any type of structure that serves as a current break.
The spring run is short, perhaps a two- or three-week window when the action is really hot. During milder winters and at different places within the state, the run may start as early as February. This year, when a colder-than-normal winter plagued North Alabama, the action waxed heavily well into April.
After the spawning run ends, the fish return to their summer territory, main-lake humps, and ledges that serve as ambush spots for feeding schools of whites.
“You are looking for those 14- to 25-foot spots on drops and ledges where the whites will hold during the summer,” McVicker said. “They will show up in that Christmas tree shape on your electronics. They will be found anywhere you can find those 1½- to three-inch schools of yellowtails. On these spots, they will herd shad and push them to the surface. That’s when your schooling action takes place.”
Pursuing schooling white bass is another classic pattern. At times, schools of whites churn literally acres of water in pursuit of baitfish. The schooling continues throughout the summer and fall as the fish again gear up for another spring run. The phenomenon can be experienced on most waters where white bass are found.
Most fishermen already own the equipment necessary to catch white bass. Just about any light to medium spincast, spinning, or casting gear suffices. An ideal all-around outfit is a 6½-foot, medium-light spinning combo spooled with eight-pound test line.
Lure choices vary from place to place. McVicker favors grubs and small tubes for whites in the spring. One of his favorites is the Slider Bass Grub, made by Charlie Brewer’s Slider Company in both three- and four-inch models. McVicker mainly uses a white grub on a small jighead and tips the tail in chartreuse dye. Jigs in 1/16th and 1/8th ounce weights are ideal for stream fishing.
“The secret is locating them. Once you have them pinpointed in an area, you can usually catch them.”
Another classic stream lure is the Warden’s Rooster Tail. The larger sizes of the venerable in-line spinner, up to ¼-ounce, allow for ease of casting and produce a fish-attracting thump on the retrieve.
For pre and post-spawn fish, McVicker tosses the grub on the flats but also makes use of lipless crankbaits, crankbaits, and jerkbaits at times. The lipless crankbaits – traditional Rat-l-Traps, XCalibur, and Strike King models in ¼ and ½ ounce sizes – provide good weapons for covering water in search of fish.
Finally, McVicker employees a not-so-secret weapon in his pursuit of whites, the jigging spoon. When the white bass schools retreat to their deeper-water, summer haunts, McVickers slays white bass, yellow bass, and a variety of other species by bouncing a Cotton Cordell jigging spoon around drops, ledges, and humps.
“Whites are easy to catch,” McVicker said. “The secret is locating them. Once you have them pinpointed in an area, you can usually catch them. For fish in shallow water, I will normally start with the Slider grub, but I also like to catch them on the spoon in deeper water.”
For schooling fish, a variety of lures work well. While grubs and Rooster Tails account for many fish, try a small surface lure when the whites are actively feeding. An excellent choice is the Rebel Jumping Minnow in bone color. Aggressive white bass will absolutely smash a slow-walking Jumping Minnow cast into a feeding school. A good alternative is a Heddon Tiny Torpedo, although the streamlined Jumping Minnow allows for exceptionally long casts on spinning or casting tackle. Opt for a slightly heavier outfit – a medium-action casting combo with 10-pound line works well – for casting the surface lures.
To optimize the fun of white bass fishing, also consider downsizing. A three-pound white bass is about all an ultra-light spinning rig and four-pound test can handle, and break-offs are common. McVicker always has an ultralight combo rigged and ready in his boat.
Another time-honored approach for “stripe” fishing involves fishing tailrace areas. The moving waters generated by electricity production attract stripes by the thousands, and numerous stripe fishermen as well. Of course, safety concerns are an issue in tailrace areas, and fishermen should always follow safe boating practices.
“The tailrace areas also provide perhaps the best opportunity for bank fishing for stripes.”
White bass can be found in the boils where veteran anglers account for a lot of fish. They motor to the edge of the heaviest current, drop three-way rigs – a three-way swivel tied to the main line with two leaders holding a heavy sinker and a jig and grub – and bump the bottom while being pushed downstream by the current. Whites also chase schools of shad around the perimeter of the tailrace area, often schooling on the edge or just off the current. These fish can be caught in much the same ways as fishing for schoolers in main-lake areas.
The tailrace areas also provide perhaps the best opportunity for bank fishing for stripes, which push baitfish along walls and rock-row areas and make them easy targets for those anglers without a boat.
These fish are easily caught when located on a white bass fishing trip, and this attribute makes them an ideal “first fish” for younger anglers. The fact that they can be caught from a stream or river bank is another bonus.
“You can teach a kid to fish around a school of whites,” McVicker said. “Put a lure in front of them, and these fish will usually bite. You can teach a younger person about fishing different lures and about different techniques when fish willingly bite.”
Stripe fishing provides fun for all. Whether during the spring spawning run or during schooling action later in the year, the overlooked white bass is one of Alabama’s fishing gems.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” McVicker said