About the time West Virginia’s forests awaken with showy white dogwood blossoms, the state’s rivers come alive with scrappy white bass.
When water temperatures rise above 54 degrees, the bass gather to spawn, sometimes in great numbers. To anglers’ delight, they feed eagerly and aggressively. Jeff Hansbarger, a district fisheries biologist for the Division of Natural Resources, expects those conditions to exist by early to mid-April.
“Some fish will begin to congregate before the water hits 54 degrees,” he said. “Spawning activity usually peaks somewhere between 58 and 60 degrees. To have a better idea of what’s going on, it’s a good idea to carry a thermometer.”
When white bass spawn, they tend to move upstream into shoal areas. On the Mountain State’s major rivers, they queue up near the bases of navigation dams.
“Any of the lock-and-dam complexes on the Ohio or Kanawha would be good places to fish,” Hansbarger said. “I’ve heard really good reports about the Hannibal, Belleville and Racine locks on the Ohio.”
Not all the fish gather at dams. Some head up tributary streams to spawn, where they congregate at the first shoals they encounter. The Coal, Guyandotte and Mud rivers all experience spawning runs.
A few lakes also boast good early-season white-bass fishing. Hansbarger said R.D. Bailey, Cheat and Tygart lakes are all consistent producers.
White bass don’t enjoy the widespread popularity of their black-bass cousins, the smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass, probably because they don’t grow as large.
“In our rivers, white bass max out at about 2 pounds,” Hansbarger said.
They fight hard for their size. Their broad, slightly flattened bodies push against the water like a sunfish’s or bluegill’s. When hooked, they pull hard. Hansbarger said two of the more memorable fish he ever caught were white bass.
“Right after I finished one of the first rods I ever built, I drove down to the Verizon ramp in Charleston to test it out, throwing a small crankbait,” he recalled. “It was early spring, and there must have been a school of white bass right off the ramp. Within 30 seconds of one another, I caught two really nice white bass, each about 16 inches. I’m 51 years old now, and that memory has stayed with me since I was in my teens.”
Most anglers who target white bass use light spinning tackle and relatively small lures.
“White or silver lures seem to work best,” Hansbarger said. “Anything that would imitate a small minnow would appeal to a white bass. They’re definitely fish-eaters.
“Blade baits, spoons, spinners, jigs, small crankbaits — they all work. Keep in mind, though, that these fish are fished over pretty frequently. If you can find something a little bit different or unusual, you might do a little better than the last angler.”
Live minnows also work. Hansbarger warned, however, that anglers should purchase minnows from reputable dealers rather than capturing their own, and to prevent the introduction of invasive species by killing any leftover minnows instead of releasing them.
With the right bait and the right delivery, action can be, as Hansbarger put it, “fast and furious.”
“White bass are a lot of fun to fish for,” he added. “When you get into a nice school, you tend to catch quite a few. They’re a great way to introduce a kid to fishing.”
Anglers may keep up to 15 white bass a day. There is no closed season for the species.