By Brent Frazee
Les Jarman, a guide on Stockton Lake in southwest Missouri, doesn’t rely on the groundhog to tell him when spring is near.
He’d rather depend on the white bass.
When the first few warm days of March arrive, the hard-fighting gamefish often head up the reservoir’s tributaries and provide some of the season’s best fishing.
When that happens, you can bet on two things: 1. Les Jarman is going to be there. 2. He’s going to have plenty of company.
“When the whites start moving into these rivers, it doesn’t take long for the word to get out,” Jarman says. “These tributaries will just be packed with boats and people fishing off the bank.
“On weekends, there are times when you would think you couldn’t fit another boat on these rivers.”
That popularity is understandable.
At Ozarks reservoirs such as Stockton, Table Rock, and Bull Shoals, the white bass are big and they’re plentiful. And there’s no better time to catch them than March and April.
When the water temperature starts to rise each spring, the whites school up and leave the main body of reservoirs to head up the tributaries for their annual spawning run.
That run is dependent on two major factors: water temperature and the water level in the tributaries.
Jarman begins his search when the water temperature reaches the mid-40s. But he knows the best fishing doesn’t take place until it climbs into the mid-50s.
Even then, it takes good water levels for the white bass to even swim up the tributaries.
“In drought years, there isn’t enough water in these tributaries to even float a bass boat,” Jarman says. “A lot of times, they’ll stay on the main lake and spawn there along rocky banks.
“The fishing can be good, but I would rather fish in the rivers.”
Jarman likes fishing Stockton tributaries such as the Big and Little Sac rivers and Maize Creek. The water can get “skinny” in those waterways, but that offers advantages. That shallow water warms quickest and can offer plenty of places for the whites to spawn.
Jeff Fletcher, a longtime guide on Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri, knows the game.
He knows that Table Rock and its tributaries – the Kings, White and James rivers, and Long Creek – offer world-class fishing for white bass.
Fletcher and his clients have caught white bass as big as 4 ¼ pounds. And fish in the 3-pound range are caught every spring.
“Some of the people I guide say that they’ve fished all over and Table Rock is the best they’ve seen,” he says. “We’ve always been known for our big white bass, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Fletcher and Jarman looks for gravel banks, a hole at the end of a riffle, or a stretch of calm water that butts up against the current.
Fletcher likes to use a medium-action spinning rod with 8-pound test line to work small suspending jerkbaits. But he’ll also catch whites on Vibric Rooster Tail spinners, one-eighth ounce jigs (white with a pink head or solid yellow) and small plastic baits.
Jarman goes to even lighter tackle. He uses a medium-light action spinning rod and 4-pound test line. He often catches fish on small Swimming Minnow grubs or other plastic baits.
For as rewarding as the fishing can be, it can also be frustrating. The key is determining how far the whites have progressed in their run up the tributaries.
“Anybody can catch them,” Jarman says. “But not everybody can find them.”
Cold fronts can interrupt the spawning runs and lead to frustrating lulls in the fishing. But the whites often regroup and continue their journey upstream once the water warms.
The spawning run can stretch out over a long time period. Jarman often starts his search in February in warmer years and will continue to fish for spawning whites into May.
At Table Rock, Fletcher follows a similar schedule. He knows that not all of the reservoir’s whites spawn at the same time.
Creeks that warm up fastest can provide early action, but the spawning run is often delayed on tributaries such as the White River arm, which lies below Beaver Dam and receives cold water from the depths of Beaver Lake.
Whatever the case, spring is the time to catch white bass in the Ozarks.
During the summer months, the fish often spread out in the large reservoirs and relate to main-lake structure where they can be difficult to locate. In March, April, and May, they can be found in narrow tributaries where they are accessible by boat or from shore.
“It’s tradition down here in the Ozarks,” Fletcher said. “The locals can’t wait until the whites start running.”