White bass, hybrids, flounder and gar can make many an angler’s day
As soon as the grub floated through the gap in the rocks and fell on the deep side of the jetty, Sid Montgomery felt the slightest bump and saw the faintest twitch in the line.
A millisecond later, his light-action rod was bowed in a big arc, and the fight was on.
“Ooh wee, if that’s a white bass, it’s a big one,” he said, looking at the rod tip and enjoying its bend. “He’s using the current … to his advantage. Probably makes him feel bigger than he actually is.”
A minute later, the backbone of the rod had done its job, the 6-pound test monofilament line had withstood the abrasion of the rocks and the fish, about 15 inches in length was in the net — about a 2-pounder.
“Pretty good, not bad, can’t complain,” Montgomery said, singing the lyrics from a John Prine song. “And we can do this all-day long. It’s fall on the Mississippi River and it’s a fine time to be fishing.”
October is a great time to be a sportsman in Mississippi, and not just because hunting seasons have started to arrive. The transition between seasons is also a great time to be on the water. Fish know winter is coming and sense that it’s important to eat heavily before food sources become less available and expending energy to chase it less desirable.
“It cold water, they aren’t aggressive,” Montgomery said. “That’s what makes fishing in October so good.”
Autumn also opens a door to some fishing opportunities. With a little imagination and basic information, some exciting adventures are available on the water, some that put delicious fish on the table and some that just provide fun. Here are four of those October oddities that are worth the effort.
Montgomery’s love of the Mississippi River runs as deep as some of its waters, and white bass are a big part of it.
“I wish I knew why so few people find white bass so unappealing,” he said. “From a sporting standpoint, they’re as much fun to catch as anything swimming, and there is no limit. From an eating standpoint, if they are cleaned and prepared right, I’d put them up against crappie or any other freshwater fish.
“In eating the fish, the fact that there is no limit is important. Yes, they do have that red meat along the lateral line, but the white meat around it is perfect. You just cut out the red meat and trim the edges of the white flesh and you’ve got a fillet that will fry as nicely as fish can be fried. When you got about 100 fish in a box, you end up with a lot of it.”
Catching that many is not as difficult as one would think.
“It’s actually fairly easy,” Montgomery said. “They school-up pretty good, and they really do it in October. If you find one, you’re likely looking at a bunch of fish in one spot.”
Montgomery has two basic patterns he uses to find whites, and both involve current and current breaks.
“No. 1 is finding the breaks in the rock jetties or dikes that the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) built to control the flow of the river,” he said. “There’s hundreds of them up and down the river from Vicksburg north to Greenville and Vicksburg down to Natchez. The key is finding the ones that are closest to the level of the river that day. With so many jetties, there are going to be several that are perfect any given day.”
The perfect scenario, Montgomery explained, is a jetty a foot or two above the water level at some point along the rocks. Parts of the jetty may be 10 feet out of the water, but another part or parts will be lower, with water spilling through breaks in the rocks or running over the tops of the rocks.
“That’s what you are looking for, anywhere there is water coming through or over the rocks,” he said. “Sport fish will stack up in areas where that water is racing through because it comes with a force and brings all kinds of forage through the rocks with it. The fish, especially white bass, will sit there waiting to nab a quick meal.”
Montgomery uses several lures to take white bass, but his favorite is simple enough: a 1/8-ounce jighead with a 2- or 3-inch pearl white grub. It’s a bait he can use to most closely mimic the natural feeding process that occurs in the jetty breaks. He positions the boat close enough to the break to cast the jig above the jetty, and then holds his rod tip very high to carefully dance it through the rocks until it gets through a gap.
“Once it gets to the down side of the break, I lower the tip and let the bait fall,” he said. “That’s when they’ll hit it. You have to watch your line and have a finger on the line, because the hits are hard to detect.
“The jetties are used to guide currents and create deep water. The water will be deep on the downriver side of the jetty, so you can let the bait fall. All the time, you are trying to keep contact with the lure and keep it out of the rocks, but it’s going to happen. You break off a lot of jigs, but that’s why they make tackle boxes, so you can have enough with you.”
Montgomery uses the same technique with a small spinnerbait like a Road Runner or a Mepps inline spinner.
“Another good lure is a Bandit 200 or 300 crankbait in a shad pattern — it needs a white belly,” he said. “In between feeding, the fish will move over and hold in the eddy water along the current formed by the break in the rocks. I work those edges with a crankbait and pick up fish. You can also crank the edges of the rocks along the jetty, too.”
Close cousins: hybrids
Another hard-to-skip October opportunity — and one that fishermen have been forced to skip over the past decade — is chasing hybrid stripers on Barnett Reservoir, especially on the upper reservoir area on the Pearl River. Hybrids are kin to the white bass since they are a cross between white bass and striped bass bred in a fish-hatchery lab.
Hybrids are a mobile lot, fish that will swim miles in a day to pursue shad. In October, shad on Barnett are well into their migration from the main lake up the river. Hybrids, when they are stocked in The Rez, spend the summer on the open water and then follow the migrating shad. It creates a wild and crazy fish bite that hasn’t been seen in years.
That will change this month, since hybrids were heavily stocked in 2017.
“I’m looking forward to the fall this year,” said Jerry Thomas of Brandon. “We haven’t had the hybrids like this in years. I heard they stocked them good last year, and this summer I’ve encountered big schools of them in the 12- to 14-inch range. That’s too small to keep, but they are growing fast. They were like 10 to 12 inches in May when I first found them and were pushing 14 inches by mid-August.
“I bet they are over the 15-inch minimum by the time they reach the upper river area. I just hope these new hybrids act like ones they used to stock and go up there. The pure striped bass that they’ve been stocking didn’t make the big fall river run; maybe these hybrids will.”
John Alford of Fannin is a fisherman who used to chase the hybrids up the river in the fall, and he was delighted to hear the fish may be available to catch this month.
“Man, we used to kill them in October,” Alford said. “You didn’t catch them where you thought you would, or where you would catch them in the spring, but when you did find them, there’d literally be thousands of them in a stretch of the river. You could catch them until you got tired of it.”
One spot that Alford used to hammer them regularly is about as odd as you’d find: a long, deep (10 to 12 feet) flat that is completely devoid of cover between two bends in the river. It is located just as you leave the no-wake area at Flag Island.
“I never really figured out why they would get there, but they always did,” he said. “One day I was out looking for a good spotted bass hole, and I saw a school of fish blasting shad on the surface. I hadn’t throttled back up after the no-wake, and I was able to jump up and get a rod and make a cast. Bam! An 18-inch hybrid hit it immediately. I caught three in three casts on a Bandit 200, and then they went down. I switched to a 3-inch pearl grub on a jighead, smashed the barb on the hook, and I caught about 50 or 60 in the next hour to an hour-and-a-half. It was insane.”
Fortunately, Alford called me that night and invited me along the next day. We ran straight to the spot, and the insanity resumed immediately and was non-stop between 8 a.m. and noon. They were still biting on nearly every cast when we’d had enough.
In addition to the crankbaits and grubs, Alford also likes a tail-spinner, like the original Bob Ponds-made Whing-Ding.
“When they are down on the bottom, the Whing-Ding is the ticket,” Alford said. “They can’t stand that little flash and vibration that spinner throws off.”
Alford found two or three similar flats that all held fish.
“Go to the upriver end, kill the motor and drift back with the current,” he said. “Stop when you run out of fish and go back up the other end and start another drift. You will wear them out and you will get worn out.”
Flounder may not be the most-curious fish in the Gulf of Mexico, but they are sure odd with their flat bodies and both eyes on one side of their heads. Their bottoms are white, their tops a mottled dark-grayish brown.
They do top a certain list for many fishermen: ones they like to eat.
“Best eating fish in the Gulf,” said Columbia native Tommy Sutton, who has retired and moved to a fish camp near the mouth of the Pearl River. “In October, that’s when you are most likely to catch them, and a lot of them, in the shallows.”
Flounder move back inshore in the fall and feed heavily on the edges of bayous and coves, ditches and shell beds.
“They’ll get anywhere,” Sutton said. “They are flat so they can get extremely shallow, like a few inches of water. They like to be around structure, so if you have a bayou that has some pilings or old stumps, that’s a good place to look.”
Flounder rely on scent to eat and prefer live or cut bait. They will hit an artificial lure but are 10 times more likely to hit it if it is adorned with a piece of cut bait or a dead shrimp.
“A friend of mine I met after moving down here taught be a trick for catching flounder,” Sutton said. “That’s why I always buy a bunch of those small, Styrofoam crappie or bream floats with the peg that holds the line down the center of the float. I use 10-pound braided line from the reel tied to a swivel with a ¼-ounce or lighter slip sinker just above the swivel. Behind the swivel, I tie about 18 inches to 2 feet of fluorocarbon line with an Octopus or a circle hook. About halfway between the hook and the swivel, I put the crappie float and peg it. Then I put a shrimp on the hook.”
The rig allows the bait to float just off the bottom as it is retrieved slowly across the bottom.
“Right in a flounder’s strike zone,” Sutton said. “The beauty of it is redfish and speckled trout will also hit it.”
Gar-rilla by rope
Gar fishing is not for everybody, but for fishermen who like to live on the edge, it’s a blast.
“It’s strictly a hot- or warm-weather deal,” said Mark Beason of Jackson, a gar fanatic. “We do it more in August and September, but it’s so hot it can be miserable while fishing. That’s why in years that the weather stays hot or at least warm into October, we keep right on fishing. It’s more comfortable.”
Beason uses frayed rope for a lure. There’s no hook involved.
“We call it Velcro fishing,” he said. “The gar we’re targeting — long-nose, short-nose and spotted gar — all have hundreds of hypodermic needle-like teeth. When they hit that frayed rope they get hung up like Velcro. The more they shake, the more they roll, and the more they fight, the more they get caught in the rope.
“What’s great about it is that the more fish you catch on a piece of rope, the more effective that piece of rope becomes. The more it shreds or frays, the better it looks and the more effective it becomes in getting snagged in all those teeth.”
As long as the water is warm, gar will stay near the surface and continually rise to gulp air for their swim bladders. That is what Beason looks for.
“They will let you know where they are, just like schooling bass,” he said. “If you see or hear a gar rise and gulp, cast at the spot immediately and hang on. It could be a small 2- or 3-pounder but it could also be a 15- or 20-pounder, or even bigger. You get a big one on 12-pound line and you’ve got a long fight on your hands.”
The later in the summer or early fall that you get, the more likely you are to find big gar hanging out in big schools of the same size. Beason and I found a wad of them balled up inside a roped-off swimming area below Sardis Dam and caught about a dozen 15-pounders in a row.
“The spillway areas below dams, old oxbow lakes off the Mississippi River and old river beds now removed from the channel are all great gar holes.”
Warning: Take thick gloves and some long needle-nose pliers along on the trip. Removing the rope from teeth can be hazardous to finger tips.
“It’s not easy but it’s worth it,” Beason said. “If you like to fight big fish, and a lot of them, you’ve got to try it.”
Do you eat gar?
“I do,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how good and white the flesh of the shoulder loins of an 8- to 10-pound gar are. Cajuns love it in gumbos and in stews, but they usually use melon scoops and make balls out of them.”