The Pursuit of Joy
White bass head upstream in early spring, pursued by an angler with a lifetime of memories and a zeal for creating new ones.
By John Jefferson
The little boy sat on the damp cypress log staring into the dark water, imagining a fish it would take both hands to lift out. Except for trips to his grandmother’s house on the river, this was the only place he had ever fished. His world was bounded by that meandering East Texas creek.
He caught perch on a bamboo fishing pole Uncle Josh Munro had given him. Once he caught a small catfish. It was his biggest fish up to that time, but he had seen a big bass an old man had caught. They said it weighed 3 pounds. He had heard of a lake where there were bigger bass, but he had never seen a lake. The only bass he had ever heard of were black bass.
In the late 1940s, the only lake in East Texas was Caddo, in the far northeast corner. Dam B, which created Steinhagen Lake, was under construction. The little boy grew up and went off to college about the time the explosion of dam building peaked. He took time off from his fishing to get education and settled in Central Texas.
The new dams formed lakes, and brought change: more fish, new fish, new equipment, new methods. During law school, he heard people talk about white bass (Morone chrysops). Older, established Central Texas lakes already had whites, or sand bass as they called them in North Texas. East Texas was just getting them, although he didn’t know that. He heard white bass spawned in the springtime and were exciting to catch. The Austin newspaper told of people catching as many as 100! There were no size or bag limits back then, as there are today.
Catching them, though, proved to be a challenge. They didn’t just jump out on the bank. Experts such as Russell Tinsley and Floyd Clearman taught him that it took thin line and small lures — usually white or chartreuse — and that he had to be where the whites were when they wanted to bite. That meant going often. After seasons of trudging the banks of the Colorado and its tributaries in the springtime, he began to understand. Some trips were futile, but the empty stringers were becoming less common. When he finally began catching white bass regularly, he felt he had discovered the Silver Chalice.
Last spring he became confident enough to tell Shannon Tompkins, an outdoor writer for the Houston Chronicle, about his success. Tompkins responded politely that he had caught some whites north of Houston that week, too. The Central Texan said he didn’t know there were whites in East Texas. Tompkins shrugged off the man’s ignorance by saying, “Our white bass would eat your little Hill Country whities!” That sounded like a challenge — or at least a good excuse to go fishing.
They met near Madisonville on the bank of Bedias Creek, a tributary of the Trinity River above Lake Livingston. Scottie Davis, an accomplished white bass guide, went with them. A thin veil of mist hung over the creek, prolonging the early morning dimness. As the boat left the landing in the clammy dawn, the water was dark brown and still. The only disturbances were ducks taking off ahead of the boat or an occasional carp rolling. Once, an alligator surfaced in front of them and bumped the boat. The motor drowned out conversation, contributing to the meditative mood of the half-hour boat ride up the winding creek.
Although it had been decades, he had never forgotten his days spent fishing in East Texas, nor the kind gentleman who took him to the creek and taught him to fish. Later in life, when the deadline demons came around to rob him of sleep, he would go back in his mind to the sandy shores of Beech Creek and sit on that wet cypress log. He would listen to the woods and the creek as he had as a little boy. It held a special place in his soul. It was his refuge.
Bedias Creek was like that, too. Only this time, the very real possibility of catching a stringer of nice fish in the dark water was not just a dream. He didn’t even care whose fish were bigger.
Scottie Davis killed the motor and drifted past a sandbar to a narrow riffle caused by a bend in the creek. He suggested a white or chartreuse Roadrunner jig for a lure. Good choice. Within a couple of casts, Tompkins let out a yell and began playing the first fish. As he brought it into the boat, he looked over his glasses at his doubting friend. He had a healthy, 15-inch fish that might have well considered eating the average 10-inch Central Texas white bass. Each angler steadily landed similar fish for the next couple of hours. The cry, “Uncle!” echoed off the creek bank.
Only after a respectable live-well’s worth of fish and an appropriate amount of “I told you so,” did they call it quits.
Somewhere in East Texas today, there is a little boy, perhaps standing by a cypress log, awkwardly casting a minnow into a flowing stream with a Snoopy rod, reeling intently, hoping a white bass will strike. Little does he know how precious this time will become to him later on.
And somewhere in Central Texas is a man who treasures memories of East Texas and white bass fishing that helped him rediscover another little boy along a winding creek of dark water.
Where the Bass Are
In the spring, look for white bass in any tributary stream feeding into lakes Conroe, Livingston, Toledo Bend, Palestine, Wright Patman, Cooper, Richland Chambers, Tawakoni and Sam Rayburn, says Dave Terre, inland fisheries regional director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Tyler.
Fishing guide Scottie Davis, (512) 755-1375, looks for a sandbar right at or below a bend in the stream. “They’ll pile up just past a turn, and then as the sun warms up water over the sand, they’ll move closer to the sandbar,” he explains. “But they may be there today and gone tomorrow. They’re the most unpredictable fish in our waters.”
In February, Davis fishes Bedias Creek, south of Madisonville off the Trinity River above Lake Livingston. “Most people take a johnboat or canoe and put in where FM 247 crosses over Bedias,” he says. Other hotspots off the Trinity that Davis recommends are Keechi Creek and Boggy Creek. “Lock and Dam is on the Trinity at Highway 7, halfway between Centerville and Crockett, and is a good place to catch them in January,” Davis advises. “PT’s bait camp is the place.”
Fishing from a canoe can be risky, but John Burk, TPWD turkey biologist in Nacogdoches, says the current is not bad in the slough where he launches in the Angelina River bottom above Sam Rayburn Reservoir. Take FM 1275 out of Nacogdoches and turn right several miles past FM 225 at Saint’s Rest Church. Go 300 yards and take the Forest Service road to the left, which dead-ends at the river. Fishermen also wade this area. Burk launches at the Shawnee Landing at the end of FM 225 when conditions permit, but cautions that the area floods at times.
Rayburn guide and fishing instructor Will Kirkpatrick, (409) 584-3177, recommends the Marion Ferry boat ramp on the Angelina River off FM 1669 near Highway 103. There is another public ramp on the river off Highway 59 between Lufkin and Nacogdoches. For access to Attoyac Bayou feeding Rayburn Reservoir, he says to use the Ralph McAllister Park ramp off Highway 103. For Ayish Bayou, there is a state ramp on Highway 83 between Pineland and Broaddus. Lake Conroe guide Butch Terpe, (936) 856-7080, recommends a public boat ramp providing access to the San Jacinto River off FM 1375 at Camp Cagle on U.S. Forest Service land.
Toledo Bend guide Mike Wheatley, (318) 426-7901, says there is a free ramp on Highway 84 where it crosses the upper Sabine near Joaquin. Fish upstream or down. He also says there is a privately owned ramp at River Ridge RV Park and Campground off FM 699 north of Highway 84 and south of Carthage.
White Bass Strategies
Light spinning tackle works well, but the fish aren’t picky about which rod and reel you use. Line size does matter, and a lot of fishermen use 6-pound-test line. Fly rods are becoming more popular, especially when rigged with a white Clouser minnow and sinking fly line.
When white bass are in the lakes, they dine on shad. When they move up the tributaries in the spring, they probably switch to river minnows, since shad are not as prevalent. Either shad or medium-to-small minnows work well as natural bait.
For artificial lures, use something that resembles a shad or minnow. Fishing guide Scottie Davis says his favorite is a 1⁄4-ounce chrome Rat-L-Trap with a blue back, but acknowledges that many other lures put whites on the stringer. Mike Wheatley, another guide, says his first choice is a 1⁄4-ounce, white Blakemore Roadrunner jig with a red head. But he quickly adds that the 1⁄4-ounce, chrome Rat-L-Trap is a close second. For other successful lures, see the accompanying photographs.
Davis says there are different opinions about how the East Texas white bass got there. Historically, whites were in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River drainages. The first place anyone knows of their being in Texas was in Caddo Lake. Floods may have spread them from one drainage to the next. Some think fishermen helped move them around in a freelance stocking scheme that would be illegal today. In 1932, biologists from the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission (now TPWD) caught 13 whites from Caddo and transplanted them to Lake Dallas, now Lake Lewisville. By 1938, anglers were catching white bass by the thousands. Because of this success, white bass were stocked into most of the river drainages in Texas.
White bass live in open water lakes and spawn in the spring, migrating upstream from the lakes to release their eggs in swift, flowing water. The males fertilize the eggs before they sink to the bottom and attach to a hard surface. That gives a clue to when and where to find whites.
Davis fishes for whites from mid-January through mid-April. The spring run usually begins when the water warms to near 60 degrees.
Wheatley fishes the Sabine River and says the weather doesn’t have as much to do with it as the water conditions. “The worst weather is a flood,” Wheatley says. “But if the river conditions are clear or off-colored, it doesn’t matter whether it’s raining or sunny.”
So what is the intrigue of catching white bass? Wheatley explains it this way: “The action. For their size they are as sporting a fish as you can find if you match the tackle to the fish — plus, the numbers you can catch and they are good eating!”
Is there any trick to the retrieve? “Just a slow, steady retrieve,” Wheatley answers.
Technique does not seem too important; anything from a slow, steady retrieve to one with erratic jerks will work. As Phil Durocher, TPWD director of inland fisheries, says, “You don’t have to be good, you just have to be there!”