A new Texan discovers the excitement of chasing the white bass run.
Words & photos by Kirk McDonnell
Shortly after my move to Texas last year, I began to hear about an annual white bass run that anglers mark on their calendars each spring. My interest was piqued — I wanted to learn more about this beloved fishing event.
White bass, sometimes called “sand bass,” are popular sport fish in Texas reservoirs. The action really heats up from January through April, when white bass make their annual spawning migration up rivers and tributaries.
At a party to meet my fiancée’s family, I struck up a conversation with a soon-to-be family member, Mike, who lives in East Texas. I told him about my love of the outdoors in all the places I’d lived (Ohio, Mississippi and Michigan) and about my new career at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The run on the Neches River every spring is a family tradition, Mike said, and he invited me to join them on the next one. As the season approached, we finalized plans to hit the river on our kayaks. I couldn’t wait to spend a Saturday in March pursing loads of white bass with my new family.
Ready for the run
We woke up early that spring morning and headed to Chandler River Park, a leased public access site (through the TPWD River Access and Conservation Area Program) just upstream of Lake Palestine. The place was already bustling with anglers lining the shorelines and launching their kayaks when we arrived.
I backed the truck down to the small ramp where we unloaded our kayaks and gear to get in line to hit the water. Mike knows that section of the river like the back of his hand, so he had some potential hotspots picked out. To get to them, we’d have to do some challenging paddling.
We launched our kayaks and started the upstream journey, which would carry us about two miles up the narrow Neches River. We paddled past numerous anglers on the bank, but as we made our way upriver, the crowds thinned out and we had more room to operate. We reached our first fishing spot, and the battle to anchor the kayaks and set up the first cast began. Fighting the current, I managed to tie off my kayak, wrapping a rope around a large root on the side of the bank.
Mike soon reeled in the first fish of the day. Though it wasn’t a white bass, at least we were off and running. After a few casts, I felt a tug and saw the end of my pole bending down toward the water. I began reeling in the line to find the first white bass of the day, my first-ever white bass catch. The fish was a good-sized male that I placed it on the stringer. I couldn’t wait to try again.
After a few more casts, we decided to pull up stakes and head to the next spot. The kayak adds a unique element to the white bass run. Bank fishing can certainly bring plenty of excitement, but navigating the river adds even more to the adventure.
On the surface, the Neches appears to be moving slowly, but on the water, paddling against the current, it’s quite the opposite. In addition, the narrowness of the river and several downed trees required some good maneuvering and navigation to get to the intended destination. For me, that just added to the feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction at the end of the day.
We kept landing fish at each spot we went, white bass and some yellow bass. The yellow bass have no bag or size limits, so we kept those we caught, along with our white bass. Bag limits for white bass are 25 per day, with a minimum length of 10 inches.
As the day progressed, we began to suspect that the white bass run hadn’t quite hit its peak; we weren’t near our 25 per day limit. Although there was a female here and there, most of the white bass we caught were males, meaning the females hadn’t made it upriver for their spawning run yet.
That was the story we heard from other anglers we encountered along our journey, both on the bank and in kayaks. I didn’t care because I was having a blast, but I could sense a little disappointment from the Neches River regulars. Around midafternoon, we decided to head back to Chandler River Park and call it a day. We couldn’t resist stopping again a couple of times at previously visited spots, but we didn’t linger long.
Once we paddled back to the launch area, we counted the fish and put them on ice in the cooler. We wrapped up the day with 35 total fish, a mix of white bass with a few yellow bass. Luckily, both are good table fare.
We still had work to do, so we loaded up our kayaks and gear to go to our next destination — a cleaning station at nearby Lake Palestine.
A youth bass fishing tournament was wrapping up when we pulled into the cleaning station. Excited young anglers were sharing stories about the day, and some proudly carried their trophies. At the cleaning station, we met some other anglers who had been on the Neches that day and came out with a good catch. We shared fishing stories and exchanged tips on cleaning and preparing the fish.
Anglers of all ages and from all walks of life joined us at the cleaning station. A couple of anglers who had fished Lake Palestine for many years had reeled in some catfish and crappie. Another had caught five catfish and was excited to get them ready for a family meal later that night.
We cut the fillets and used the water provided by the station to clean them off. The pile of fillets continued to grow as we went from fish to fish. My hunger was growing as well. The quicker we could get those fish cleaned, the sooner we’d be at the table enjoying the fruits of our labor.
When finished, we loaded up and made the 20-minute drive back to Mike’s house, where his family, along with my wife, who had made the trip with me, were waiting. The plan going into the weekend was to make fish tacos for the whole crowd; thankfully, we had plenty of fillets to accomplish that feat. After a quick cleanup, Mike put a pot of cooking oil on the outdoor grill burner to heat up while we soaked the fillets in buttermilk.
We talked about our day on the water — and our family filled us in on what we’d missed at the house — while the fish were cooking in the background. We put together some side dishes, including coleslaw, a must for every fish fry, and fresh guacamole. When it all came together on the plate, it was an amazing meal.
When we packed up from our wonderful weekend and said goodbye, we happily promised to return every year for the family white bass run on the Neches River.
The story could end there, but I was still curious about the impact of the full bass run. Mike told me he went out to the Neches again the following weekend with another family member, and together they caught 60 fish, keeping 46. The haul included a personal best for Mike, a 25-inch, 7-pound hybrid striped bass. They moved up the river, just as we did the weekend before.
The first weekend in April, I got a text from Mike: “They’re still biting!” Sure enough, he and his son combined for 60 fish, keeping 40 of them. Mike broke yet another personal best with a 26.5-inch, 7.71-pound hybrid.
While I hated missing all that white bass fun, I had moved on to another pursuit. That same April weekend, while turkey hunting with a friend, I harvested my first wild hog. Mike sent me pictures of his record fish; I sent him a picture of the wild boar.
I’m enjoying every minute of what Texas has to offer in terms of the outdoors. Fishing, paddling, hunting and hiking adventures abound throughout the state — I’m counting down the days until the next one.
Easy East Texas White Bass Tacos