Its no great secret that anglers across the U.S. can catch a lot of white bass, even at night, using a variety of tactics. Over the last few years, I have been working on a system that targets both numbers and bigger whites beneath the tailraces of dams at night during late summer and early fall.
On the Missouri River where I do most of my fishing, whites commonly start running about July, depending on water temp, moving upriver until they are stopped by the Dam. Here the tailrace groups large numbers of whites in many different areas, mostly in eddies and backwashes. If the gates remained closed as is common on the lower dams, these groups roam freely in packs, herding the abundant minnow populations to the surface or into any suitable corners they find and then feed in short spurts throughout the day.
The action can be fast but it doesn’t stop when it gets dark. It only gets better, and dare I say easier?
As night falls, the floodlights come on. Most dams I know of have a few lights located along their face that cast some strong illumination across the water. Those nearest to the waters edge or water level draw in insects, which in turn attract minnows, usually large schools of small shiners, or fatheads.
These lights are the key to this presentation, because in all its simplicity, this factor alone determines the location of the white bass and the presentation(s) the angler must use to make this technique work effectively.
The artificial light shining out, over and upon the water provides predators easy targets, as any baitfish swimming close to the surface are silhouetted. The light falls out over the water in a circular halo, providing an edge effect the bigger fish can relate to. It also creates an additional edge effect beneath the waters’ surface at a point based on water clarity, where the light is diffused into a negligible factor. (See diagrams one and two)
From my observations, the whites use this to their advantage. They will smash into the vast schools of shiners from the shadows edge in random and directions, using the darkness of the lower depths for ambush opportunities
Now that you know where to look, its time for presentation tactics. Pretty simple really. Small silver or bronze spoons work well, as do smaller thin bodied cranks like Rapalas. I recommend both the floating and countdown models in the two smallest sizes available, but more on that in a minute. Rattletraps and in-line spinners are good to. Black jigs up to a 1/4 oz with twister style tails are a good bet in the 2”-3” sizes. Beetle spins are another prime choice. Keep in mind that available current might warrant using a heavier jig. Bring along some marabou jigs as well. Whites can be pretty finicky at times
Getting back to the smaller crankbait sizes. The white bass are feeding primarily on the available baitfish, which is usually shiners or small fatheads. While they will be going ballistic all around you, if you place an out-sized bait into this situation, it is going to stand out like a bad suit at a Sunday morning church service. Smaller in this case is better, as you’ll get more strikes.
Having a couple of rods pre-rigged with different presentations is a must unless you like tying knots at night. Spinning rods seem to work the best here, as lighter lines and lighter lures are the standard. Quality lines like Stren or Trilene XL are tops in line sizes of 6#-10# test. I haven’t come across the need to fish line rated any higher and definitely not any lower. You never know what else is looking for an easy meal. We’ve caught walleyes, smallmouth, catfish, drum and crappie in the same areas where the whites were actively feeding.
I like to break the water down into zones based on water clarity and work certain lure types in certain zones. (See diagram 3). This makes it easier to target where and how deep the fish are holding.
If you’re after the bigger bulls, you might want to consider using the countdown crankbaits or letting the rattlebaits sink about two to three seconds before you begin your retrieve. This will allow your lure to sink into the desired depth zone and draw bigger fish. However, this results in fewer, if not bigger fish and the action usually isn’t as fast.
FINESSE OR RUN AND GUN?
You have the arsenal, now you just need the techniques. Here’s an area that is wide open. Experimentation is the only way you are going to find out what is needed to trigger the fish to strike, so don’t be afraid to try a new style of retrieve when the bite wanes.
Early in the evening, medium but steady retrieves have proven to work best, but as the night and darkness increase, the retrieves tend to need to pick up in speed and sometimes, even become more erratic. Pumping, jigging retrieves with rattlebaits work wonders when spoons and other cranks beginto lose effectiveness, and believe me, after about 30 minutes, the white bass will have gotten used to them and will begin to ignore them. When the rattlebaits stop working, its time to hit another area that has the same similarities.
Fishing bigger dams should provide at least a few other areas like this. This will give the area a breather and by the time you make your way back to it, its almost as if the fish had never seen the lure before, or new fish have moved in to take their place.
The lighted areas should be worked over with well-placed fancasts, starting from the edge where the darkness meets the light and steadily working inward to where your cast is placed into as much lighted water as possible. Vary the retrieve methods and speeds. After a few fish, you should be able to discern a retrieve that is picking up the bigger fish, and/or more fish. Its will be your call. Fast action or bigger fish.
While an angler should cast into the lighted areas, under no conditions should they enter the lighted area with their boat. Do that and fishing completely goes dead . Move back out of the area, wait a few minutes, and bam! Fish are back.
THE LIVEBAIT OPTION
I would be remiss if I didn’t include livebait options with this method. They have a place and time, and are relatively simple to use when circumstances dictate, but will slow you down considerably.
First option is the simple split shot minnow rig. Simply place a small shot about 6 inches above your hook. Hook the minnow, preferably the species the whites are actively feeding on, through the lips and lob it gingerly into the middle of the lighted area. Let it sink about a second and begin a slower retrieve, jiggling your rod tip. By doing this, the rod tips makes the split shot wobble erratically and the minnow skitters in response.
The strikes on this setup will be fast and the rod sweep should be immediate or as quick as possible. Waiting to set the hook will result in the white swallowing the bait, and if you are into selective harvest and catch and release as much as I am, this is simply unnacceptable and nearly always preventable.
Jig/minnow combos work much better and are quicker and offer a versatility that the other options lack. Jigs can be swam back quickly, counted down to desired depths, and retrieved in numerous ways. Whites love jigs and they love minnows so the jig/minnow combo is a marriage made in heaven if you find the need to use it.
While lights alone can be a major draw for whites at night, certain elements should also be present. Current, no matter small, is a major factor in determining their presence. Even in an inactive spillway, or rather, a spillway where no gates are open, there is almost always a circular flow of current that results from water going through the dams turbines.
Structure, is always a plus, but not always necessary. Whites are commonly known for their suspended, open water behavior. The walls of any dam spillway beneath the waterline provide the basic structure they use. Corners or concrete edges provide another form of basic structure. The light provides the edges.
You’ll find over the course of time that the action rarely stops at night for whites using this method. You can fish from sundown to sunup and catch hundreds of nice fish, just by going from lighted area to lighted area. You might even find other methods to complement the system but be responsible and practice not only selective harvest, but catch and release.
re: This is really cool!
This is really cool! Reminds me of my youth, cchtaing creek chubs in the creek in my backyard in Georgia. I never had tackle this small, though. I must revisit this. Thanks for the helpful info!