Some old-time anglers in Kentucky say the white bass run when the redbud trees bloom in spring. Others say they run when the dogwoods bloom.
Fisheries biologists say don’t watch the trees, watch the water temperatures.
“White bass begin their spring spawning runs when the water temperatures reach the low 50s,” said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It is just around the corner.”
Water temperatures are in the high 40s right now. This means white bass could be showing up in the headwaters of Cave Run Lake, Herrington Lake, Nolin River Lake, Lake Cumberland and in the Green and Kentucky rivers within a couple of weeks. White bass need warming water and good flow, not flood waters, to make their spawning runs.
When the white bass make their run, the water in the narrow headwaters of these lakes and the tailwaters below the locks and dams turns frothy. White bass pin schools of baitfish against the surface and rip through them, creating a situation anglers call the “jumps.” While in the jumps, any shad-imitating lure thrown into the melee usually gets crushed with a few moments.
This exciting fishing is the reason generations of Kentuckians look forward each spring to catch a limit of white bass. There really is no other fishing like it in the state.
The Kentucky River is one of the overlooked white bass destinations in Kentucky since a stocking program that ran from 2006 to 2010 bolstered their moribund populations in the river.
“White bass are reproducing in the Kentucky River when conditions are right,” Buynak explained. “That was a goal of the stocking program to get reproducing populations of white bass back in the river.”
The white bass fishing below the 14 locks and dams on Kentucky River may heat up a little earlier than other waters if we have warm days and rains in the next couple of weeks. White bass also have productive runs up the first few miles of major tributaries such as Elkhorn Creek in central Kentucky.
Nolin River Lake has arguably the best population of white bass in Kentucky. They congregate in the upper lake above Bacon Creek and run as far upstream as Wheeler’s Mill from early March to early April. Boating just upstream of Bacon Creek is nearly impossible as the Nolin River returns to its natural, rocky shallow state just upstream of this ramp.
The white bass runs up the Dix River from Herrington Lake drew anglers from near and far during their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Old Ford and Chevy trucks with huge white walled tires, stepside beds and rounded features lined the shoulders of KY 52 on both sides of the Dix River Bridge during that time. Anglers lined the bank of the Dix River in Rankin Bottoms in Herrington’s extreme headwaters, casting minnows suspended under brown cork bobbers with metal fishing rods and catching fat white bass after fat white bass.
The fishery bottomed out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like white bass populations across the southeastern United States. A return to more typical spring rains have Kentucky Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologists believing the glory days are back. They see many fish in the 14-inch range in their population sampling with larger fish present.
Anglers may access excellent bank fishing in Rankin Bottoms via the Rankin Bottoms Voluntary Public Access Area (VPA) near the KY 52 Bridge over Dix River between Lancaster and Danville.
Cave Run Lake has many white bass in the 12- to 14-inch range with many larger fish in the population. The headwaters area of the lake from Beaver Creek upstream offers excellent white bass fishing during the spring runs. Boaters must be careful in this area as both the main Licking River arm and the North Fork of Licking River arm hold tremendous numbers of submerged trees that pose a threat to a boat’s bottom and the motor’s lower unit.
The lower Green River from Lock and Dam #3 at Rochester downstream to its mouth at Henderson offers surprisingly good white bass fishing. The mouths of major tributaries such as the Pond River at Jewel City and the mouth of the Rough River at Livermore hold white bass from mid-March to mid-April. They also congregate below Lock and Dam #1 at Spottsville, below Lock and Dam #2 at Calhoun and below Lock and Dam #3 at Rochester.
White bass in the jumps during the spawning runs are as aggressive as any fish. Small silver or chrome shad-shaped topwater lures draw many strikes as do in-line spinners fished just under the surface. White bass are often present in these areas, but aren’t necessarily in the jumps. Allowing a 3-inch white curly-tailed grub rigged on a 1/8th-ounce ballhead, silver casting spoon or a tailspinner to sink a few feet before the retrieve will often entice strikes from white bass you may not know are there.
Get out this spring and enjoy the fishing that sent chills down your grandparents’ spine.
The license year expired Feb. 28, 2013. You’ll need to buy a new fishing license, available in the sporting goods section of department stores and tackle shops to fish now. Licenses and permits may also be purchased online from the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage at fw.ky.gov or by calling 1-877-598-2401. The entire Spring Fishing Frenzy series will be posted at this same website for future access to these articles.
Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.
Image courtesy Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources