There is no denying that spring is freshwater fishing’s most promising season, but many will agree that winter isn’t half bad, either.
There are plenty of games for us fishermen to play this time of year. Among the most enjoyable is one I like to call “River Rat.”
It’s a hallowed affair built around the white bass spawning run — an annual ritual that marks a grand opportunity for fun-loving recreational anglers to enjoy some of the fastest fishing action of the year at a number of prime hotspots around the state.
My good friend Shane Hale has been playing River Rat for decades now. Hale, 50, is a fan of hot rod, flat-bottomed boats who likes to fish for whatever happens to be biting best at the time.
Come January and February, he always turns his attention to the Angelina River that feeds Sam Rayburn Reservoir in eastern Texas. More specifically, the lengthy stretch of tea-colored water that divides a popular area known as Estes Lake from the State Highway 59 bridge between Lufkin and Nacogdoches.
It’s roughly 15 miles of winding, twisting river channel flanked by a maze of brush-cluttered sloughs, creeks, shorelines, mud flats and narrow canals. Navigating the jungle can be confusing at times, especially after dark with no GPS to guide the way.
Years ago, Hale and some friends waited too late to head back to the boat ramp after an enjoyable afternoon of fishing. They got lost in the maze after dark and spent much of the night trying to find their way back.
“We burned up the bulb in our spotlight and the batteries in our flashlight,” Hale said. “We were eventually down to nothing but a cigarette lighter. It was quite an ordeal. The Angelina isn’t a good place to be after dark, especially without a GPS.”
If there is a fishier-looking place around in these parts, I haven’t been there. The Angelina is one of those unique spots where it looks as though there should be a fish hiding around every bush, lay down or snag.
But there never is.
Anyone familiar with the rules of the game will tell you spawning white bass are only where you sniff them out. It’s not uncommon to make repeated casts for extended periods without a single bite, then stumble across a sweet spot so loaded with the thick-shouldered sport fish that catching one after another hardly seems like a challenge.
Hale has learned from experience how to read the water and pinpoint potentially good spots just by looking. The basics of his advice can be applied during white bass spawning runs that will occur in over the next 30-90 days on rivers and creeks that feed a number of major reservoirs across the state.
“They like to gang-up in little still water eddies caused by something that breaks the current,” he said. “It could be a log jam, sand bar, bend in a channel or the mouth of a slough — anyplace there is some slack in the current is worth a few casts. You’ll know it pretty quick if they are around.”
Hale made a pair of half-day trips to the Angelina in mid-to-late January that produced more than 200 white bass, many of them egg-laden females pushing 2 1/2 pounds. Female white bass are easily identifiable during the spawning run by swollen ovaries that cause their bellies to pooch out. Males are generally more slender.
Here’s how one of nature’s greatest shows plays out:
On the Move
White bass spend most of the year roaming in the deep, open water of major reservoirs. The fish are eating machines. When they aren’t making life miserable on pods of threadfin shad and other bait fish, white bass are likely thinking about their next feeding binge.
During late winter and early spring, the nomadic behavior changes as the itch to spawn spurs armies of the silver-sided fish to fin their way upstream from major impoundments in significant numbers. Males typically make the move first and the females start showing up a little later.
Fisheries scientists believe water temperature, photoperiod (the length of days and nights) and river flow are the main factors that trigger the urge to perpetuate the species. Spawning runs are generally the best when water temperatures nudge the mid-50s and there is some current to keep the water moving.
Spawning activity isn’t near as pronounced during abnormally dry years. Experts say slack current in rivers and creeks may cause some fish to spawn on windswept points, where wave action simulates the flowing water they prefer.
White bass aren’t the best housekeepers when it comes time to spawn. Far from it.
The fish don’t build tidy nests for spawning like black bass. Nor do they guard the eggs until the little ones hatch.
The females randomly spew eggs into the water column. A two-pounder may release more than close to 1 million eggs.
Males follow close behind and fertilize the eggs before they settle to bottom, harden and eventually hatch a few days later. Not all of the fry will survive the journey back to the lake proper and grow to maturity, but a bunch of them will.
Under optimum conditions, white bass will reach about eight inches the first year. Life expectancy is usually about 3-5 years.
Fish that reach 2 1/2 pounds are large ones, and those that grow beyond three pounds are whoppers. Texas’ current state record white bass has stood since 1977. The 5.56 pounder was caught from the Colorado River.
Right on Time
Spawning runs are always the most pronounced in major rivers and creeks that feed large reservoirs with abundant populations the prolific sport fish, but the timing of the big show usually varies with the region. Water temperatures in the southern Texas tend to warm up sooner than in North, Central and East Texas.
Likewise, the earliest spawning runs on southern hotspots like the Frio and Nueces rivers may get underway as early as December. As a rule, the heart of the action in the rest of the state will fall sometime in February, March and April, possibly lasting into May on some waters.
It’s been my experience that some of the best fishing will almost always happen before word leaks out to the masses. If you live near a popular white bass venue, it would be wise to keep an eye on boat ramps or parking areas frequented by bank fishermen. If crowds are consistently gathering, it’s a safe bet the fish are biting.
Fast and Furious
The fishing is always best when rivers and creeks are well within their banks and the current is moving along at a leisurely clip. Flood conditions allow the fish to scatter, making them more difficult to find.
White bass are voracious during a feeding binge. As earlier mentioned, it’s not uncommon for big numbers of fish to stack up in small areas when the spawning run is going full bore. Stumble across a sweet spot and the action can be so fast you might reel in a 25-fish limit without ever moving the boat.
Baits They Bite
White bass can be caught on a variety of baits, artificial or live. Probably the best artificial around is 1/4 ounce original Blakemore Roadrunner. It’s a lead head jig head with a marabou tail and small Colorado-style spinner built around a single wire hook.
The hook will handle some large fish, yet it’s light enough to bend and tear free from brush without snapping 10-pound test line. Color can be a huge deal at times. Pink/white with a black throat is among the best.
Small crankbaits, Rat-L-Traps, in-line spinners and live bait including shiners and small crawfish round out list of favorites. Dressing a Road Runner with a small shiner or crawfish tail is good trick to try if the bite wanes under fishing pressure.
Light on Tackle
White bass aren’t big fish, but the burly fighters are a blast to catch on tackle that doesn’t overpower them. Just about any lightweight rod and reel combo will work, including bait casting year.
A good quality spinning outfit matched with 10-pound line adds to the challenge of getting at those thick-shouldered titans that river rats love to catch so much.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texas' all-star white bass hotspots
Here is the run down some Texas hotspots for noteworthy spring spawning runs:
* Angelina River: Above Sam Rayburn.
* Neches River: Above Lake Palestine.
* Cedar Creek Lake: Kings Creek, Lacy Creek and Cedar Creek.
* Lake Tawakoni: Check out feeder creeks.
* Colorado River: Above Lake Buchanan
* Lake Somerville: Yegua and Cedar creeks.
* Frio River: Above Choke Canyon.
* Trinity River: Above Lake Livingston. Fishing can be good as far north as the Lock-N-Dam at the State Highway 7 crossing. Major creeks like Bedias, Harmon Nelson, Dillard and White Rock also can be good.
* Sabine River: Above Toledo Bend from the Logansport bridge north to Longview.
* San Jacinto River: Above Lake Conroe
* Richland Chambers: Target major creeks.
* Ray Hubbard: Rowlett Creek
* Lewisville: Trinity River drainages
* Cooper: Creeks and the Sulphur River
* Colorado River: Above Lake Buchanan
* Guadalupe River: Above Canyon Lake
* San Gabriel River: Above Granger Lake
* Nolan River/Brazos Rivers: Above Lake Whitney
* Bosque River: Above Lake Waco
* Leon River: Above Lake Belton