Whitney After Dark
Look for smallmouth in the lake's shallow flats after the sun goes down.
By Paul A. Cañada
Countless crickets and a solitary loon announced my arrival at Lake Whitney for a nighttime fishing mission. Stepping out of the truck into the North Texas humidity, I greeted my host, smallmouth bass expert Ron Gardner. It wasn't long before Gardner and I were cruising along in his 20-foot bass rig.
Lake Whitney, a 25,560-acre impoundment on the Brazos River, 30 miles north of Waco and 65 miles west of Fort Worth. Anglers visiting Lake Whitney for the first time are often stunned by the lake's natural beauty.
In Lake Whitney, prime trophy smallmouth habitat is somewhat limited to the extensive flats and creeks near the dam. Rocky bluffs, stair-step ledges, extensive flats and points, and relatively clear water characterize the lower end of the impoundment.
Gardner caught me off guard when he positioned the boat over open water, a good distance from the bluffs. I thought that we would be throwing topwater baits and crankbaits along the bluffs. However, my guide planned to slow-roll a short-arm spinnerbait near the bottom, along a 14-foot-deep shelf.
After 30 minutes, we had a couple of hard jolts, but no hookups. Believing the bite was slower than it should be for the peak feeding period, Gardner wasn't willing to wait around. We secured our rods and sped off to the flats, near Lake Whitney State Park.
Once again, I was surprised when we pulled up to a gently sloping bank. Gardner exchanged our heavier spinnerbaits with lighter versions of the same lure. He uses a heavier 3/4- to 1-ounce bait for deep water, a 5/8-ounce bait for depths between 5 and 12 feet, and a 3/8-ounce lure for depths shallower than 5 feet.
Gardner whipped his spinnerbait to the bank. I followed his instruction, trying hard to maintain contact with the bottom. His double black light illuminated both my fluorescent monofilament fishing line and the far bank.
"There she is," Gardner shouted.
A smallmouth charged the surface, launching free of its liquid environment. The broad-shouldered predator crashed the surface three times before turning toward the deeper water. True to our luck, the bass pulled free of the lure's hook. I remained quiet.
Gardner collected his bait, massaged the wire-arm back into position, and again whipped the bait back to the shallow water. He turned the handle four or five times and, again, the rod yielded to the unrestrained fury of a bronze predator.
"Oh yeah!" declared Gardner. "This is a good-un."
Three, four, five times the bass jetted out of the water, slapping the surface as it returned. Gardner's hook set held and he landed the 4-pound brute. Before our evening was complete, he had landed more than a dozen bass. While I had nearly as many bites as Gardner, I never landed a single fish.
Although Lake Whitney lost its stronghold on the state record smallmouth, Gardner proved that the central Texas impoundment still regularly produces big bass. Strangely, as good as the nighttime bite is on Whitney, very few anglers target the powerful predator in summer. According to three of Lake Whitney's more renowned bass fisherman — Charlie Cypert, Ron Gardner and Chris Shaffer — sizable smallmouth are still caught during the impoundment's hot water period.
Location is Crucial
Despite my poor angling performance, I learned a great amount about Lake Whitney's smallmouth that night. Prior to my trip with Gardner, I assumed that smallmouth were found in deep, clear water in summer. I thought they preferred steep bluffs and quick-dropping rocky banks. But as I learned, the fish will utilize long flats in fairly shallow water.
According to smallmouth guide Chris Shaffer, my assumptions are partially correct. During the heat of the day, Lake Whitney's smallmouth do relate to deep, offshore structure. The bass suspend off the edge of near vertical structure and over deeper water.
"When the bass are suspended offshore and in that deeper water," explains Shaffer, "the average angler has a heck of a time locating them. And if you do find them, nothing is harder than trying to catch suspended bass. It's difficult to find their strike zone and keep a lure in that zone."
Thankfully, conditions favor the angler at night. As the sun sets in the north Texas sky, Lake Whitney's smallmouth bass move to shallow flats, adjacent to deep drop-offs. Shaffer believes the bass use bottom features — like a wash, arroyo or rockslide — to move between the deeper offshore structure and the shallow flats.
Shaffer finds that trophy-sized smallmouth roam Lake Whitney's extensive flats and ledges at depths between 5 and 14 feet at night. In fact, it's not unusual to catch a number of good fish from the same areas at night. Because of this, it's important to thoroughly test an area after hooking up with a sizable fish.
"On nights of a new moon phase or with a strong wind blowing, the smallmouth bass will get surprisingly shallow," says Shaffer. "They will even move into the back of the many main lake coves and cuts. You can often catch them as shallow as 3 feet when they're actively feeding.
"And because Lake Whitney has so much deep water close to the shoreline, it's an excellent impoundment to fish from the shore. This is especially true at night. The bank fisherman will find plenty of smallmouth habitat within easy reach, particularly down near the dam."
Like Shaffer, retired Lake Whitney guide Charlie Cypert excels at locating and catching smallmouth bass from the impoundment's shallow environs. When other fly anglers were switching to conventional gear, believing the fish were too deep and out of reach, this fly-fishing pioneer was consistently catching smallmouth from shallow water in summer. The keys to his success were location and timing.
"For years I thought smallmouth were too deep to catch in summer," admits Cypert. "However, I learned that by targeting key points and flats, you can indeed catch a ton of smallmouth with fly-fishing gear. Of course, you have to fish for them in the very early morning or evening hours of the day."
When it comes to finding the best locations for this early and late "fly fest," Cypert agrees with Shaffer's point of view. He suggests trying one of the following five areas: for fly and bank fishing, the flats located near Lake Whitney State Park, Lofers Bend Park, McCown Valley Park, Walling Bend Park, and the extensive flat between Whitney and Towash Creeks.
"I have a friend that wade-fishes the extensive flats off of Walling Bend Park," explains Cypert. "He has caught smallmouth bass weighing up to 6 pounds off of that shallow flat, during the darkness of early morn. The secret to that area is the extreme drop-off, on either side of the point extending out to the island. On Lake Whitney, shore-bound anglers can find smallmouth in 6 to 8 feet of water, and often as shallow as 3 to 4 feet."
Sight and Sound
Lure selection is critical to success when targeting bass at night. Although smallmouth rely greatly on sight to locate and identify prey, under low-light conditions the fish must also depend on sound and water displacement to locate potential food sources. Lures displacing a lot of water, creating a noise and possessing a large profile are going to provide anglers with the greatest success.
Understandably, Cypert recommends that fly anglers fish surface patterns, like hard-bodied poppers, producing a tremendous amount of surface disturbance. Likewise, when fishing below the surface, Cypert prefers patterns with large profiles and rattles. The bulky patterns give an approaching smallmouth a larger target and displace a greater amount of water.
The low-light conditions require that anglers use a moderate, rhythmic retrieve. The normal quick and erratic retrieves that work well during daylight often make it tougher for the bass to locate a distant lure at night. In dim light, bass initially rely on sound and vibration to detect potential prey. After moving close to the object producing the sound or disturbance, the predator uses its sight to locate the object's silhouette.
The three traits of a good nighttime fly pattern — displacing water, making noise and presenting a large profile — are equally important when selecting a conventional lure. Like Cypert, Gardner selects lures that create the greatest amount of disturbance and are effective when fished slowly.
He says that smallmouth bass seldom hesitate to take big baits. Gardner recommends large spinnerbaits with number 5 or 6 Indiana or Colorado blades. Also, large wide-wobbling crankbaits and hair jigs with pork or plastic trailers are equally effective at night.
He recommends matching lure color to available lunar light. During a full moon phase, Gardner chooses lighter colored lures, including pink, brown, red and purple and nickel spinnerbait blades. On dark nights surrounding a new moon or during cloudy nights, he fishes color combinations that include black and purple, and prefers copper or dark colored blades.
For big smallmouth, anglers should hit the lake during the early and middle phase of the moon cycle. Although big fish are occasionally caught near the bank, Gardner finds the better fish typically come from areas near breaks in water depth. Lake Whitney's trophy-sized smallmouth are usually found deeper than the 2- to 3-pound fish wandering the bank.
"Smallmouth either hit a bait like a freight train, often hitting the blade but missing the hook altogether, or they inhale and quickly exhale the lure," Gardner explains. "You can't do anything about the first scenario, but you can increase your hookups during the second event by simply paying attention to what's going on."
Anglers skilled at managing unwanted slack and at reading telltale signs in their fishing line greatly increase their odds at night. Gardner believes a black light and fluorescent-colored fishing line are mandatory equipment when bouncing a plastic grub or hair jig along the bottom. He recommends that anglers use fishing line with very low stretch and an extremely sensitive rod. Both increase the angler's ability to detect the subtlest of strikes.
Cypert, Gardner and Shaffer agree that the sheer excitement associated with hooking, fighting and landing a Lake Whitney smallmouth bass at night is enough to keep most anglers going back for more. Whether the bass' strike is a barely detectable bite or a rib-jarring hit, the ensuing fight is always memorable.
Beginning in 2000, golden alga has been responsible for a number of fish kills on Texas reservoirs. Some of the hardest hit impoundments have been those along the Brazos River, including Lake Whitney. Until the winter of 2005, the two hardest hit impoundments on the Brazos River have been Lake Granbury and Possum Kingdom Reservoir.
According to Joan Glass, a pollution biologist with TPWD, the fish losses suffered this winter to golden alga are the largest ever experienced on Lake Whitney. She found the largest kill occurred between the upper reaches of the impoundment and down to the White Bluff area. Although the greatest numbers of fish lost were forage fish, all species did experience some kills.
Understandably, many of Whitney's smallmouth bass anglers have voiced concerns regarding the 2005 fish kill and its impact on fishing opportunities.
"The golden alga bloom and associated fish kill are normally winter phenomena," says Glass, "and so we don't see many bass in our surveys. Lake Whitney's smallmouth bass population is fairly deep, 20 to 30 feet, at that time of year and so don't normally suffer much loss."
Still, anglers remain concerned about the bass' main food sources — shad and crawfish. According to Glass, the shad's prolific nature — the female gizzard shad can produce 30,000 eggs three times a year — allows the shad to quickly recover from the winter kills. Also, most crawfish escape the toxic golden alga by moving into deeper water, seeking out fresh inflows, or by burrowing in the mud until the danger has passed.
"Bass anglers may tell you the fishing has slowed and many will blame the poor fishing on the golden alga," explains Glass. "But the smallmouth are still there. The fish are quick to adjust and escape unfavorable conditions. Anglers will have to adjust and change their angling patterns."