By Don Mulligan
May 18, 2003
Three-and-a-half years after 5 million fish were killed in the White River between Indianapolis and Anderson by a chemical discharge, the fishery is back. Restoration continues in some areas, but according to anglers who never stopped fishing it, the White River is as good, or better for bass fishing than it ever was. Instead of discussions about blame for the discharge or ways to reclaim damaged habitat, anglers are focused again on how and where to catch fish. As was the case before the fish kill, strategy generally revolves around access, and distinguishing between the White River's alternating shallow- and deep-water habitats. "My theory is that the river here was not hurt as bad as originally thought," said Brian Waldman, a local tournament fisherman. Waldman said he caught mature bass and bluegill immediately after the fish kill throughout the Indianapolis area. He acknowledged there was a massive die-off of fish but said lots of fish clearly survived. Three years later, he said the survivors, combined with stocked fish, have created a river full of healthy large- and smallmouth bass.
Because he has a heavy fiberglass bass boat, Waldman confines most of his fishing to the deeper stretches of river. The first bit of deep water he likes is the stretch of river locals call "Lake Indy." Around the public ramp at 30th Street, the White River is wide, slow moving and comparatively deep all the way downstream to the 16th Street low head dam. This area is currently predominated by large sections of milfoil. The weedbeds, as well as blown-down timber, are the best bets for bass in this stretch of river. Fishermen should expect to catch more largemouth than smallmouth in Lake Indy. "I like to work the down current side, or openings in the weedbeds with a four-inch rubber ring worm in black and chartreuse," Waldman said. Generally, largemouth bass should be anywhere there is a slight break in the current caused by an obstruction, he said.
For the best deep-water fishing, however, Waldman steered anglers to the Broad Ripple area. Boat traffic is much worse in Broad Ripple, however, than it is at Lake Indy, he said. Around the Broad Ripple ramp, there is excellent fishing, mostly for largemouth, with a few smallmouth thrown in. Fishing is good from the low head dam just downstream from the ramp, all the way up river to an area locals call "the pits."
Here anglers will find consistent action on largemouth bass around small patches of weeds and around the numerous docks and shallow water log jams. Smallmouth along this stretch of river can be coaxed out of the deeper holes, especially where there is current. "I like to search this area with a fire tiger-colored crank bait to locate smallies. Once one is caught, it is worth the effort to go back and work the hole with a four-inch tube jig," Waldman said.
While largemouths are mostly solitary fish, Waldman said smallmouths will congregate en masse if conditions are favorable.
To get big numbers of bass in the new White River, fishermen need to find a way to access the alternating stretches of skinny water. Unlike the deep-water pockets that are predominated by largemouth bass, shallow water on the White River is smallmouth territory. Ray Rigby, a 20-year veteran of fishing tournaments on the White River, says there is a large stretch of river starting near the I-65 overpass, running all the way up stream to the dam at Broad Ripple, that has recently produced 100-plus smallmouth days.
To get to this part of the river, boaters can head up river from the 30th Street ramp. Anything that runs deeper than a canoe, kayak or jet boat will quickly become grounded on the shallow sand and rock riffle. Rigby uses a jet boat to fish this section of river.
Another prime spot for shallow-water smallies is up river from the Broad Ripple ramp and the pits. Much like the area above I-65, this area requires a shallow vessel and a bit of portaging to find holes full of smallmouth. "In any shallow-water habitat on the White River, I almost exclusively use a quarter-ounce river bandit hair jig," said Rigby, who prefers his jigs to be brown with a little orange or solid black.