Sometimes overlooked, white bass fun to catch

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White bass
White bass are considered one of the "true bass" species, while the more common smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass are actually in the sunfish family. They're known for their spawning runs in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers this time of year, but can also make for good fishing in the Ohio River and other inland waters. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

Even before the pandemic, anglers on the Sandusky and Maumee rivers had to observe social distancing just so they didn’t get their lines tangled. Every spring, they line up along the banks of the rivers to take advantage of spawning runs.

Passersby probably assume all of them are after Lake Erie’s famed walleye. However, some are actually there for a different and perhaps less appreciated fish: the white bass.

“The Maumee and Sandusky rivers have really large white bass runs every year,” said Mike Wilkerson, fisheries management supervisor for Ohio Division of Wildlife District 2, which covers Northwest Ohio.

On the Sandusky River, the white bass spawn takes place near downtown Fremont and on the Maumee, near Perrysburg.

“The white bass are coming out of Lake Erie into those rivers to spawn, sometimes traveling as far as 20 miles inland,” he said. “They’re looking for good spawning habitat, which involves rocks, small stones and gravel on the bottom.”

The white bass runs usually peak about the time the walleyes’ are starting to wane. White bass anglers and walleye fanatics may be indistinguishable in their waders, but their fishing goals are different.

“People usually fish for one or the other,” Willkerson said. “The difference is that walleye anglers don’t keep the white bass they catch, but white bass anglers will keep walleye.”

Well populated

Lake Erie has a consistently good population of white bass, which is not considered a highly targeted fish outside of the spawning season, he said. That’s why there is no bag limit or minimum size on white bass in the Lake Erie region, or the Sandusky or Maumee rivers upstream to the first dam.

After that, the regulations switch to those of the inland region, which is 30 white bass per day and no more than four over 15 inches. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great opportunities for white bass runs inland.

Fun to catch

Just ask Don Swatzel, a fisheries biologist for Ohio Division of Wildlife District 4, which covers 19 counties in Southeast Ohio, plus the Ohio River.

“They’re popular because they’re readily caught and fun to catch,” Swatzel said. “They’re aggressive and put up a good fight.”

They’re also good to eat, though some special care may be required. White bass have a little stronger taste than the popular walleye and yellow perch, but there are ways to combat that fishy taste, Swatzel said. They have a muscle that is used for speed, to power them through the water, and it’s reddish in color.

Trimming that muscle helps lessen the fishy taste. “So does getting them on ice right away,” he said. “It’s all in how you handle them.”

White bass school when they hunt, and tend to do the same when reproducing. In Ohio, they spawn when the water is between 54 and 68 degrees. The female can lay half a million tiny eggs, which settle to the bottom and adhere to rocks and gravel. There are usually plenty of males around to make sure those eggs are fertilized

“They like to spawn in moving water, making runs up the tributaries from lakes and reservoirs,” Swatzel said. “If they’re already in rivers and streams, they go to spawning areas.”

To catch them, know that they go after “anything flashy,” he said. Minnows are their main diet, so twister tails, spoon and spinners that imitate minnows will work. Remember, white bass chase minnows in schools, which is often how anglers know where to find them.

“You can see that activity on the surface of the water,” Swatzel said. “Look for minnows jumping, or gulls taking advantage.”

Inland fisheries

District 4 has some of the better inland fisheries, including Seneca Lake, where anglers target white bass around its large dam; Piedmont Lake in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, and Salt Fork Lake.

“Often you’ll see anglers concentrating on the feeder streams that flow into the inland lakes and reservoirs,” Swatzel said.

On the Ohio River, any of the large navigation dams are places to target white bass, he said. Some have designated fishing areas where anglers can access the tailwaters. The Hannibal lock and dam has access on the West Virginia side, “where there’s highly agitated water coming off the tailrace,” Swatzel said.

The Willow Island dam also has access on the West Virginia side. The Racine dam has it on the Ohio side, while the R.C. Byrd dam has good fishing access on both. The Greenup lock and dam between Ohio and Kentucky has access with “nice walkways and railings, so you can get to the water easily,” he said.

The historic locks and dams on the Muskingum River were built in the 1800s to accommodate steamboat traffic. If you want to get a boat through nowadays, you have to call the ODNR Division of Parks and Watercraft for an appointment. Because the locks are seldom opened and the dams are all low, concrete structures, it makes for excellent fishing, Swatzel said.

“Since there are no active gates to change the water level, when the water gets high, it just spills over,” he said. “It congregates fish of all species, so there’s boil action on the downstream side. It makes for better places to fish all year round.”

Most small reservoirs don’t have large populations of white bass, at least not enough to create a good fishery. But anglers have been known to have some luck at Jackson City and Dillon reservoirs, along with Lake White near Waverly, Swatzel said.

True bass

White bass — the state fish of Oklahoma — is in the temperate bass family that includes white perch, striped bass and the hybrid striped bass, which is a cross between the white bass and striped bass.

Temperate bass are regarded as the only “true bass” species. The more common black bass, like largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, are technically in the sunfish family. White bass are silvery in color with six or more dark lines, and most closely resemble their cousins, the white perch. They have dorsal fins with spines, but the flaps that cover their gills are also sharp.

“It’s like handling a fish with razor blades and needles, so you have to be careful,” Swatzel said.

White bass are usually between 10 and 14 inches long, but some reach 17 inches, he said. The Ohio record is 21 inches and four pounds.

The Fish Ohio Recognition Program has a category for white bass that are over 14 inches for inland lakes and the Ohio River, and 15 inches for the Lake Erie region.

Visit ohiodnr.gov to post your entries for the 2021 Fish Ohio awards and perhaps receive a lapel pin for catching the first qualifying fish.

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