Prince of Bass
When the redbuds bloom, the white bass run.
By Larry D. Hodge
There are two sure signs of spring in Central and East Texas: redbud trees in bloom and rows of vehicles parked where highways span creeks and rivers.
“When the redbuds bloom, the white bass run,” says Mike Ryan of Marshall, a retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist. That largely invisible spawning migration draws anglers to flowing water to fish for — make that catch — the hard-fighting, tasty fish. If you see cars and pickup trucks clustered around a highway bridge in early spring, break out a fishing rod and join in the fun: The white bass are running.
Perhaps nowhere do white bass run better or bigger than on the Sabine River above Toledo Bend Reservoir. Ryan and I experience that on a sunny March morning. The run is tailing off, but there are still plenty of limits being boated. We catch up with guide Jane Gallenbach and her party at the mouth of Socagee Creek. Greg Griffin, Andy Bissonet and Fredrick Brown enjoyed great success before we arrive, but they are still catching white bass on nearly every cast.
Fishing perhaps 20 feet away, Ryan and I catch fewer fish, though most of them are large for white bass, between 16 and 18 inches long. Ryan is using ultralight tackle, and his fun meter is pegged out. “White bass are a lot of fun to catch, and the best way to maximize that fun is to catch them on ultralight gear,” he says. “You really have your hands full with a three-pound fish that fights like they do. There’s a lot of action — you can be entertained for as long as you want.”
Ryan was the TPWD biologist in charge of the Sabine above Toledo Bend Reservoir for nearly 20 years, and he thinks the lake is the key to the fishery in the river. “The thing about Toledo Bend is that it’s so big and can hold so much biomass,” he explains. “We have a kind of inland sea there, with tremendous numbers of white bass, and they have lots of food available, mostly shad, though they love crayfish. White bass in Toledo Bend grow to 10 inches or better in one growing season, and that’s as good as I’ve seen.”
While largemouth bass are the most sought-after game fish in Texas, I would argue that white bass, also called sand bass or sandies, provide more sheer fishing fun. The largemouth may be the king, but the sandy is the crown prince.
Prior to 1932, white bass were known to occur in Texas only in Caddo Lake. That year the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission transplanted 13 brood fish from Caddo Lake into old Lake Dallas (now Lake Lewisville). In 1938, lakes Kemp, Buchanan, Medina, Eagle Mountain, Waco and Wichita were stocked, and today white bass can be found in almost every drainage system in Texas.
White bass live in lakes, but they require flowing water to spawn. Wave action across windy lake points can provide sufficient water motion for spawning, but millions of sandies make their way into creeks and rivers when water temperatures begin to rise. White bass are incredibly prolific: A 2-pound female can produce nearly a million eggs. Hatched fry form schools and migrate downstream to lakes. All their lives the fish travel and feed in schools, making fishing for them as exciting as it is productive. If you catch one sandy, you’ll probably catch a bunch. And because they are so prolific, the limit is a generous 25 fish per day, with a 10-inch statewide minimum length limit.
Voracious sight feeders, they will gobble just about any small white, chrome or chartreuse lure. “There are three standard lures I use,” Gallenbach reveals. “One is a 1/4-ounce Roadrunner with a red head and a chartreuse or white body. Or I’ll use a solid chartreuse or solid white. I don’t think the tail style matters much. I tip it with a piece of crayfish tail. Presentation is important. Sometimes you can throw it and let it sink to the bottom, sometimes you have to slow crawl it or bump it on the bottom. See who is catching fish and do what they do.”
Ryan says white bass fishing is an excellent way to get youngsters interested in fishing. “All you have to do is locate the fish, and there will be plenty of action,” he says. “To find fish, I key on sand bars and creeks. You can fish the mouth or up in the creek. Also look for eddies, where water is calm or backing up. If the river is on a rise, I don’t think the fishing is as good — the water is more turbid. I have more success when the river is on a fall and is clearer.”
Queen of the Sabine
If white bass are in the Sabine, Jane Gallenbach will know where to find them. She guides from River Ridge, the campground she and her husband Tom, a TPWD game warden, operate a few miles south of Carthage.
“When we first opened our campground, catfishing was the thing, but in the last five years, white bass fishing has gone crazy,” Gallenbach says. “Before I started guiding, I fished every day, because I wanted to be able to tell campers where to go. I was also telling guides where to find fish, and I finally asked myself why I was doing that when I could be guiding myself.”
When Toledo Bend water levels are high, fish can go everywhere, but at normal levels fish search out pockets of habitat and congregate in large numbers in very small areas. One prime place is Black Shoals, where a coal seam crosses the river upstream from the U.S. 59 public boat ramp south of Marshall. “When the river is at the right level, the fishing is awesome there, because the fish reach that point and can’t go any farther,” Gallenbach says. “They stack up, and you’ll catch a fish every cast.” However, Gallenbach warns that there are rapids in the area that prevent using a boat with a regular outboard; she recommends using a Go-Devil.
Normally, however, Gallenbach fishes the Sabine within 5 or 6 miles upstream or downstream of her home. She knows every hole and likely spot. “Since I live on the river, I have the advantage of being able to go out during summer when the water is low and locating sand bars and washouts,” she says. “I take notes or draw maps to see where to fish when the water gets up.”
Where depends largely on water level. “If the water level is half-bank, in the early season look for deeper places with eddies,” she advises. “When spawning begins, look for sand bars, points and clearer water coming into the river from creeks. Fish at the point where the water changes color.” When prospecting for a place, don’t give up without fishing it carefully. “They concentrate in really small areas,” Gallenbach says. “Sometimes you have to throw into an area the size of a coffee table.”
Twenty-five fish limits are the rule rather than the exception for the white bass run. “Most people have never caught that many fish in their life,” Gallenbach says. “They’ll come down saying if they can just catch a mess to eat they will be happy; then when they catch a limit and see the size of them, they are just amazed.”
While the fishing is great, just being on the Sabine is its own reward. “I’m amazed at how natural it still is,” says Fredrick Brown. “You see turtles diving into the water as you pass, fallen trees cascading into the river — it’s very serene and beautiful.”
“I could probably fish all my clients within half a mile of the boat ramp, but I want them to have the experience of going up or down the river,” Gallenbach says. “We see eagles, beavers, raccoons, fog on the river, the sun rising. That’s a lot of the experience for most people.”
As Mike Ryan and I motor back to the boat ramp, we pass boat after boat, and we confirm that almost everybody is catching fish. As we round one bend, we see a boat pulled up on shore with a man and woman lounging inside. Two barefoot preteen boys fish a few yards away, and when I tell them I’m writing an article for a magazine, they race to the boat to hoist a heavy stringer for me to photograph. It’s a Huck Finn-meets-Kodak moment, and while Mark Twain’s Mississippi dwarfs the Sabine, I can’t imagine any river furnishing more pleasure for more people, at least while the white bass are running.
While white bass can be found in creeks and rivers during the spring spawning run, they spend the rest of the year in reservoirs. Many lakes in Texas support healthy populations of white bass, with Benbrook, Buchanan, Cedar Creek, Corpus Christi, E.V. Spence, Falcon, Fort Phantom Hill, Lewisville, Livingston, Palestine, Possum Kingdom, Ray Hubbard, Richland-Chambers, Tawakoni, Toledo Bend, Whitney and Wright Patman being best known for white bass .
White bass school in large numbers, and when feeding on shad, their favored food, they push swarms of baitfish to the surface. Frantic shad trying to avoid becoming a meal swim at or just beneath the surface and attract birds. Anglers targeting white bass scan the lake with binoculars and go to birds diving to catch shad.
“Watch for seagulls, common terns, great blue herons and great white egrets,” says Bob Holmes, who guides fishing trips on Richland-Chambers. Holmes uses the trolling motor to approach within casting distance. “About the first hour of daylight, there will be a top-water bite. Throw top-water baits until the bite stops, then start fishing structure such as humps and points in 15 to 30 feet of water. The fish will often suspend about 3 feet off the bottom.” After using sonar to locate fish, Holmes fishes straight down using a 1-ounce chrome and silver slab spoon. “Crank the lure off the bottom a couple of turns, then slowly raise and lower the rod tip,” he advises. “When a fish takes it, just lift the rod up and start reeling. If you try to set the hook like you would with a largemouth bass, you’ll often take it away from the fish.”
White Bass Are for Eating, Too
White bass are feisty fighters, but most people fish for them because they’re tasty. Herbed potatoes, french fries or corn on the cob make great side dishes.
Fredrick Brown, executive chef for the International Hotels Group in Houston, recommends a traditional Southern method of preparation, the fish fry. “I season the fillets with freshly cracked black pepper, kosher salt, paprika and a little cayenne pepper,” he says. “Then I roll them in cornmeal and deep fry them in peanut oil until the outside is crisp and the middle is moist.”
Tom Gallenbach leaves the skin and scales on when he fillets the fish. Then he bastes the fillets with Italian dressing or olive oil and grills them over charcoal until the meat flakes easily.
Jane Gallenbach makes up a batch of powdered milk, beats in an egg until the mixture is frothy, then soaks fillets in it for 15 minutes. She rolls the fillets in flour and deep-fries them. “As soon as you take them out of the fryer, sprinkle kosher salt on them,” she advises.
Isn’t it time to eat?
Contact Jane Gallenbach at (903) 693-7234 or visit <www.riverridgetx.com>.
Bob Holmes can be contacted at (214) 728-3310 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about white bass fishing on Richland-Chambers Reservoir, visit <www.bobholmesguideserviceonrichlandchambers.com>.
Boat ramps on the middle Sabine River are located where Texas 43, U.S. 59, U.S. 79, and F.M. 2517 cross the river. A Sabine River Authority primitive campground and boat ramp at a spot known locally as The Yellow Dog are at the end of Panola County Road 455, off Texas 31 south of Deadwood. For information on public access to streams statewide, see <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/habitats/rivers/access/access.htm>.
For statewide white bass fishing information, go to <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/recreational/wheretofish/>. Fishing reports by water body, updated weekly, are at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/ recreational/fishreport.phtml>. The Texas Fishing Forum, <www.texasfishingforum.com/>, has a section devoted to white bass that offers angler tips on where fish are biting and how to catch them.