Matthew Bates put the hammer down on the gas, and his boat popped up on plane and we were cruising up lake past the casino in search of an action-packed day at school.
A day of white bass schooling activity, that is.
Lake Ferguson, an old Mississippi River oxbow outside of Greenville, has long been known for its great bass fishing, but the fantastic white bass fishery has been kept a closely held secret by the locals. During past trips to the Delta fishery we’ve caught quite a few white bass as a byproduct of bass fishing.
Actually, Ferguson’s white bass offer some of the best angling action to be had anywhere in our state, as there are thousands of schools living there that are virtually untouched by anglers.
Bates was joined for this trip by his tournament team partner and fisheries biologist father Terry. Team Bates routinely finishes high in the money in local bass tournaments, and they keep up with the white bass population, as well.
Although many anglers catch the voracious white bass while fishing for largemouths, they miss most of the fantastic fishing to be had. The Bateses were confident they could locate and catch several schools of the small stripers on this mild day.
8 a.m. — Grain loading docks
The younger Bates veered off to the right and pulled up just short of the grain loading docks, and our day began.
“We’re sitting in 12 to 14 feet of water, and the white bass usually school up on this shallow ledge,” Matthew Bates said. “There’s a creek flowing out of there, and the current from that and the river bring baitfish over the ledge, and the white bass will be there too if the shad are present.”
Terry Bates tossed me a 2-inch jigging spoon, and we started jigging for the white bass.
“Just pitch that spoon out and let it go all the way to the bottom, and jig it straight up off the bottom and let it flutter back down,” Terry Bates said. “They’ll usually hit it on the fall, so you have to watch your line close — and if the line stops, go ahead and set the hook ’cause they’ve got it.”
After a few minutes of jigging, I hopped the spoon off the bottom, and the line just stopped. I set the hook and thought I’d gotten hung for a split second, but then it started to move. I had a giant fish, certainly not a small white bass, and the battle was on.
The fish made runs like a striper or redfish, and I held just enough pressure on it to keep it from breaking the line. I took in line when the fish let up and then it would make another run.
It took 20 minutes to get the fish close enough to get a glimpse of it in the clear water, and the silver fish looked like a tarpon under the water. Once it got a glimpse of the boat, it was gone like a torpedo.
Another 15 minutes went by before I finally wore it down and brought the “flying fish” into the boat. As it turned out, the fish was a monster-sized silver carp, also known as “flying fish” by locals up and down the Mississippi River because they are prolific jumpers, even injuring people on skis and in boats.
“That’s about as hard-a-fighting fish as you’ll catch in freshwater; kind of like a big redfish,” Bates said.
After that escapade, I had to rest a few minutes, and then it was time to go to our second spot, as the white bass were nowhere to be found.
“Usually you can catch them sometime during the day on this spot; you just have to time it right,” Matthew Bates said. “But they’ll be here sooner or later.”
Bates fired up the Yamaha, turned left and roared back down lake past the landing, stopping along a sandbar in search of our first school.
“We caught some white bass here the other day,” the younger Bates said.
Matthew Bates started casting a deep-diving crankbait about 50 yards out from a sandbar, while his dad and I switched to Wing Dings. It didn’t take but a few casts for the young angler to nail one on the big crankbait, and we quickly took a picture of the white bass and released it into the supper well. While they usually release all the largemouth bass, the Bateses had decided to keep a few of the white bass to eat and give the bass some relief from their competition.
Terry Bates worked the Wing Ding off the bottom in a jerk-and-retrieve pattern, and nailed his first white bass of the day. Matthew followed up with a casts to the same spot, missing a hard strike. We continued to work this end of the sandbar and got bites off the sandy bottom.
I caught my first white bass of the day right in the same spot that Team Bates caught their fish, and we were in business.
Another hard-fighting fish struck my lure and put up quite a battle until it got to the boat. To my surprise, it was a gaspergou — a freshwater drum. The ghoul, as we call them, was quickly released.
Matthew Bates spotted some shad at the other end of the sandbar about 125 yards away in a shady area.
“I see something chasing shad over there under that tree; it might be those white bass chasing them,” he said.
We moved over near the tree, and worked the area over thoroughly without getting a bite.
9:40 a.m. — X marks the spot
Bates turned the boat around and headed out a little deeper, and his dad Terry pitched a Wing Ding out and promptly caught another white bass.
I followed up to the same spot, nailing another fish. The white bass were schooled up tight; we had finally found them.
We continued to catch and miss fish on almost every cast. They were really tearing up the Wing Dings. If we got a hookset, they couldn’t spit the lure out because the lead body of the Wing Ding would just slide up the line, leaving the hook firmly in place, in no danger of getting spit out.
Matthew Bates also found another school of the white bass about 40 yards farther out. We were catching the fish from both schools, and the action was red hot.
Matthew Bates made a long cast farther out and nailed a white bass, while I pitched the Wing Ding to the closer school. Wham — another one nailed my lure, and we had on a double.
The action was heating up even more, with hits on almost every cast. Matthew made a cast to the school that was farther out, followed by Terry to the right and me to the closer school.
Wham, bam, thank you ma’am — we all got strikes and hookups at the same time after alternately catching singles and doubles. In fact, on most casts we either had hits, or two on at a time.
The Bates team had scored on the first couple of schools of the day.
After catching fish almost constantly out of two schools for over an hour, the action slowed just a bit and it was time to move on. With Matthew Bates as captain, we moved to another sandy flat and hump, and tried it for a few minutes without a bite. It was time to move again.
11:15 a.m. — Power plant discharge
This time we moved down to the lower end of Ferguson, and went just south of the entrance to the river and stopped at the mouth of the power plant discharge, where warm, clear water was mixing with the muddy Mississippi River. There were plenty of shad, but no whites so we picked back up and moved back north.
We stopped at the mouth of the river and fished awhile without a bite and moved on again.
“We’re going back to the upper end of Ferguson, where we catch them schooled up occasionally,” Matthew Bates said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll find them somewhere up there.”
After a pretty good run to the upper end of the lake, we stopped at the split and started graphing the long underwater point while casting for fish. After about 25 minutes it was obvious there were no white bass in this area.
“We’re going to move farther up into the chute and see if we can locate another school of white bass,” Terry Bates said. “If the shad are up in there, we’ll find them.”
We turned northwest and drove up into the lake’s upper end, stopping short while looking for surface schooling activity or shad. Find the shad and you’ll find the fish.
Terry Bates nailed a white bass on his Wing Ding, and promptly pitched out a buoy marker.
I followed up with a cast of my own, and wham — another white bass struck my lure.
We’d found a few more white bass. Matthew Bates followed up a few casts later with his chartreuse-colored Little N and nailed another one as we continued to comb the area for the main school.
Occasionally, one or two fish would bust through the surface, but we were yet to catch them like we’d hoped.
12:45 p.m. — Money spot
As we continued working the area to the north in open water measuring about 9 feet deep, Terry Bates set the hook and nailed a fish. I quickly pitched to the same spot and caught one on a Wing Ding. We boated the double, quickly releasing them to the livewell.
Matthew Bates also nailed another on the crankbait as we cast back out. Wham, bam: This time Terry Bates and I nailed another double while Matt unhooked his. As it turned out we’d found a huge school of whites.
Standing shoulder to shoulder and casting in the same direction, we continued catching fish. Doubles and triples were the rule, and we were getting bit on every throw. Occasionally, they’d hit and miss our lures as multiple whites would knock the lead to and fro in their feeding frenzy.
We were on a school that had to have been 40 yards wide and 40 yards long, as we kept getting bit as far out as we could throw while also catching them right at the boat.
2 p.m. — White-hot action
“There he is,” Matthew Bates said.
“We’ve got a double; I’ve got one on too,” his father said.
“Make that a triple!” I chimed in.
We were having a school of dreams, and it looked like we’d found the mother lode of white bass. They were fat, sassy and eager to strike almost anything we threw at them. If you don’t like fast-paced action from these diminutive dynamos on a hot summer day when the bass bite is almost nonexistent, then something’s wrong.
It was rare that we didn’t have at least one fish on at any time, and more common for us to have doubles in play.
“If you miss one, just pump that Little George or Wing Ding right up off the bottom again and get ready, because they’ll keep right on chasing it until one of them eats it,” Terry Bates said.
The younger Bates said the fish aren’t picky, either.
“A lot of times they’ll hit anything that looks remotely like a shad,” Matthew Bates said.
Terry Bates agreed, but said he does have a favorite lure.
“For me, I like to keep a big-lipped, chanteuse-colored crankbait tied on because they’re so aggressive when they’re schooling and there’s more competition for it, and they can see the larger crankbait better,” he said. “But if they’re really schooling and feeding hard, it won’t usually matter: Just rear back and chunk that lure and hold on.”
Time after time we spotted as many as five white bass chasing the fish that had a lure in its mouth. And occasionally you could drop another lure right down amongst them and they’d eat it, too.
The action was almost unbelievable.
“The thing about fishing for white bass is that you can be sure that, once you locate them, they’ll be schooled up together pretty tight and you may never have to move the rest of the day,” Bates said.
All an angler has to do is keep fishing the area and occasionally fan out to follow the school. The white bass aren’t shy, and you can’t scare them off like schooling largemouths.
As it turned out Bates was right on the money about the white bass schooling activity. We’d finally found a huge school of fish, and the action was red hot right up until 3 p.m. when we decided to call it a day.
We’d finished our day with around 100 white bass, and they were still biting.
If you’re looking for a fantastic fishing trip, where the fish are hungry and not picky about what they’ll eat, contact Terry Bates at 662-390-3886 and try your hand at white bass. Bates will have the right equipment and lures, if you need them.