The annual spawning run of white bass upstream into the tributaries of Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes follows a bell-shaped curve — a few individuals spawn early, typically in late February and early March; then, the spawn peaks as the majority of the fish spawn over a roughly three-week window from mid-March to early April. Finally, the late spawners arrive near this time of year and finish out the annual ritual.
By the time the last of the spawning fish arrive upstream, the majority of the spawning white bass population is returning to the lakes and they arrive ready to feed, partly because food is more scarce in the tributaries they have just descended, and partly because increasing water temperature is increasing their metabolism, thus increasing caloric demand.
As the white bass return to the main bodies of our reservoirs, their favorite food fish, the threadfin shad, are just beginning their spawning behavior which plays out most mornings in the shallow, shoreline waters so long as the weather and overnight temperatures are mild.
Spawning shad can most easily be seen when the surface is calm. Their frenzied movements and sheer numbers in such shallow water make the water seem to boil or become “nervous,” imparting a light ripple where there otherwise is none caused by wind.
This spawning typically takes place in the hour prior to sunrise and, on cloudy days, just beyond sunrise.
Gamefish and nongame species alike take advantage of the plentiful bait by herding the baitfish against the bank. White bass, hybrid striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, blue catfish, channel catfish, freshwater drum, several species of gar and white and black crappie all join in looking for an easy meal.
This is definitely a case of “the early bird gets the worm.”
If you arrive on the water after 7:30 a.m. this time of year, you will have missed this entire scenario playing out.
For anglers wishing to cash in on this, a few fundamentals should be understood.
WATCH THE WEATHER
Currently, our surface temperatures are around 64 to 66 degrees. Whenever overnight lows are higher than the water surface temperature, the chances for a morning shad spawn and the resulting gamefish activity is highest.
Cloud cover also helps to extend the spawning and feeding activity by reducing the light level and extending these behaviors further into the morning hours.
Cold fronts and the calm, bright, dry, cool days which follow a cold front’s passage are to be avoided.
WATCH THE WIND
If the wind has blown from the same direction for more than a day or so, those banks impacted by the wind tend to have a higher likelihood of seeing spawning and feeding activity present.
If the wind is still blowing in the morning, spawning activity can be hard to spot. Idling slowly and parallel to the shoreline while watching for movement will aid in spotting fish activity.
Mornings with winds from the southeast, south, southwest, or west tend to be better than those with winds from a northerly direction.
WATCH THE BIRDS
Although most of our helpful, migratory gulls have departed by this time of year, other fish-eating birds like osprey, egrets, and blue herons reside here year-round. These birds have keen eyesight and will congregate on banks where spawning activity is occurring. Additionally, and especially on Belton Lake, crows will even join in on the feasting, looking for shad which have stranded themselves on the bank after leaping from the water to escape the jaws of pursuing gamefish.
IMITATE THE SHAD
Using lures with the same size, shape, and color of threadfin shad is a must. Lure weight should increase with depth. If fish are shallow (less than 3 feet of water), I will use a popping cork rig (which floats) equipped with a 2½-foot leader made of fluorocarbon and a shad-imitating fly or streamer attached to the end of the leader with a loop-knot to allow for freedom of movement.
If the fish are in 4 to 10 feet of water, I will opt for a 2- or 2½-inch paddletail grub with a ¼-ounce unpainted jighead delivered with spinning gear.
If the fish are in greater than 10 feet of water, I will opt for a bladebait. My favorites are the Cicada, made by Reef Runner, and the Binsky, made by Fish Sense Lures. I choose these based on the size of shad I see, and try to match size the best I can.
For the Cicada, the silver/silver and threadfin shad colors are my favorites in 3/8-ounce and ½-ounce.
Both are the same length and are shorter than the Binsky.
For the Binsky, the Sexy Shad color pattern is my favorite, and the ¾-ounce version is my go-to option.
Regardless of what you catch your fish on, be observant for shad in the gullet (back of the throat) of the fish you catch, or for shad being regurgitated at boatside just before landing your fish.
If these forage fish are larger or smaller than what you are using, change your presentation accordingly to enhance your success.
MIND YOUR DEPTH
When fish are seen crashing bait on the shore or on the surface, the retrieve should begin as soon as the lure enters the water.
When action is taking place only sporadically, or just after a frenzy has occurred but seems to be settling, allowing the lure to fall all the way to bottom and retrieving it nonstop back to the boat at a moderate cadence works well.
When action slows down or appears to be ending, allow the lure to sink to bottom, then give about eight handle turns to bring the lure toward the surface. Next, open the bail (on spinning gear) to allow the lure to return to bottom, then give another eight handle turns, and so on, thus bringing the lure back to the boat in a sawtooth pattern.
In just about all cases, spinning gear is more appropriate for white bass than is casting gear, primarily because lighter lures can be cast longer distances with spinning gear.
My best all-around setup for white bass (and I use this for slabbing, for fishing grubs, for fishing bladebaits, and more) is the Fenwick Eagle 7-foot long, EA70ML-MFS one-piece spinning rod coupled with a Pflueger Supreme SUPSP25 spinning reel.
I use 10-pound test Sufix Advanced Superline braid with a 20-pound test Sufix fluorocarbon leader and attach my presentation with a VMC Touch-Lok #2 snap (not a snap-swivel).
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
If history is any teacher, the fast fishing offered by shallow, post-spawn white bass will persist for the next three weeks or so, then, like the spawn, it will slowly taper to nil. Of course, one major flooding event can wipe all of this out, as has happened several times over the past five years. So enjoy it while we have it!