Colorado Water Wolves

Many of us are fascinated with giant fish. Some pay thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles around the country to search out a trophy Northern Pike or Muskie we here in Colorado actually don't have to. While big northern pike are plentiful here in Colorado we don't have a muskie fishery. We have a fish called a Tiger Muskie. It is a sterile cross between a northern pike and a muskie which has vertical stripes like a tiger.

I have always been memorized by this fish and have chased it for years. I have caught a few here and there and lost some that keep me up at night just thinking about them. Some say the tiger muskie is the fish of ten thousand casts and if you have ever been out chasing them you know they are not an easy fish to catch. I have had many frustrating days on the water chasing tiger muskies and I have many friends who feel the same way. Just like me they still chase them whenever the opportunity arises knowing someday they will finally be successful in landing a trophy tiger muskie.

So an opportunity presented itself for me a couple of weeks ago. I had a great friend of mine tell me about a couple lakes down south that he and his father went to that had giant tiger muskie in them. I have heard of them before but have never taken the time to go out there. They made the trip last week and although they didn't land one they had a story that got my attention really quick. Tyler called me up and said that his father Andy had hooked into a giant tiger muskie and had it all the way up to the shore and he couldn't get his hands around it to land it before the teeth broke the line and the fish swam off....fish story, I thought, we all tell em. I said really how big was it. He said giant. No lie. I laughed and thought maybe? He is really excited about this. Later he called me up and said that he is coming back down from college next weekend to go back and he and his dad wanted me to go with them. OK. To drive down from Ft. Collins just to go back to a lake that is near Walsenberg to try and catch this giant muskie it must be true. I know Tyler. Now I am very interested.

I thought, I am going to bring my arsenal. I have certain boxes with giant baits in them specifically for pike and tiger muskie and I just picked up a new Victory Carbon swim bait rod from my good friends at Eagle Claw matched it up perfectly with a Johnny Morris Carbonlite Reel from Bass Pro Shops and spooled it with Seaguar 20# ABRAZ X fluorocarbon line. I was ready.

I was up before the alarm went off and was working on downing a pot of fresh coffee when they pulled up. Lets get this show on the road. I wanted to have a shot at these fish. I was excited. We talked about the lake and I was trying to picture it in my head and think about the conditions and the weather we were going to have in the afternoon. Needless to say when we pulled up I thought no way. This is nothing like I had pictured in my head, there can't be giant fish in here.

We walked up to the lake and I saw a few small bass on the shore and a trout rise now and then as we walked to the spot. I thought well I am here better start fishing and see what this is all about. A few minutes into throwing a chatter bait Tyler said, hey come over here and look at this tiger muskie. I walked over and saw a good sized fish up in the shallows not a giant but a good one. I threw my chatter bait past it and swam it to it just to have him swipe at it and miss it. It's on now. That's all I needed to get my blood pumping.

Five hours into the morning and all my bait boxes spread out with lures everywhere I was running out of ideas. I threw chatter baits, swim baits, jerk baits, buzz baits, crank baits, spinner baits of all colors and sizes and I was starting to feel like this wasn't going to be the trip I was hoping it would be. After all it was tiger muskie fishing. Chunk and wind., I switched back to a six inch swim bait and threw it three quarters across the cove thinking this set up is an awesome combination. I looked at my bait admiring the action it had and then I saw the torpedo following closely behind it. That is a giant....

It followed my swim bait up and then turned as it got really shallow. I quickly reeled in my bait and threw it about twelve feet past her. I reeled it towards her and gave it a twitch. She swam up and engulfed it. I set the hook and the fight was on. I couldn't believe it what a beast. She came out of the water entirely twice and stripped line every time she hit the water this was incredible . This is a fish of a life time. She made a few more runs and Tyler was down with the net getting ready and then asked me how do I net this fish it won't fit. I screamed just get her head in it and then grab her. It was truly a trophy. The biggest tiger muskie I had ever caught in my life. 46'' from tip to tail.

I was truly blessed to be able to hold such a magnificent fish and take a few photos with her. I was happy I was able to share my catch of a lifetime with Tyler and his dad and apologized for ever doubting him. It must have been my day for all the years chasing them because a few hours later I was blessed with a second one on a top water buzz plug that was no slouch either.

Tiger Muskie are truly a trophy fish. They can be found in several lakes here in Colorado. Clear Creek Reservoir, Lon Hagler, Evergreen Lake, DeWeese Reservoir, and Horseshoe Reservoir are just a few. Please practice "CPR" Catch, Photo and Release. so they can be enjoyed by others. They make great photos and memories for everyone. Now is a great time to go out and chunk and wind and have the thrill of posing with one of many Colorado water wolves. Take a kid fishing.

                                                                                              Best of Luck,  Sam Heckman /46'' Tiger MuskieTiger MuskieSam Heckman and Tyler HasslerReleaseLength photosecond tiger muskiesecond tiger muskie length photosecond tiger muskie release Pro Staff

                                                                          

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Ice Fishing 2013 - Reels

There's a chill in the air this week! For ice fishing fans, weather like this gets the itch going. We asked Bass Pro Shops Altoona Fishing Lead Jamie Renshaw to show us what's new this year in ice fishing gear, while you're waiting for the ice to form.

This post will focus on reels. Future posts will tackle rods, jigs, shacks and augers.

_____________________

What's new this year in ice fishing reels is fly-style reels. Many ice fisherman use fly reels anyway, but these reels are specifically designed to use for ice fishing and have gears.  

Two new reels at Bass Pro Shops Altoona come from 13 Fishing - the Teardrop and the Black Betty, which is a fly-style reel. The fly-style reels eliminate line twist as the jig goes down, which is what often happens with a spinning reel. Having gears allows for faster line pickup and better for deeper waters.

Fish 13 TeardropTeardrop:

6.2:1 gear ratio

13 lbs ultra-smooth carbon drag

 

 

Black Betty

Black Betty:

2.7-1 gear ratios

Smooth carbon drag system

Anti-reverse and bait alarm

 

 

Ice Fishing

Also new is the Eagle Claw Inline Reel and the Frabill 261 Ice Reel. 

Don't forget to start going through your gear NOW, instead of an hour before you head out to the ice. There may be residual water in your plastic storage cases and you may have rust. It happens to the best...check your augers, too. 

 

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Memories of a Lifetime

Big BassBig Bass 2Big Bass 3When I was a little kid I always wanted to just go fishing. I didn't care what it was I was fishing for as long as I could catch it I was happy. Now that I am much older that feeling is still going strong today. I have fishing on the brain 24-7. I had been taken back by one of my greatest experiences to date and I will share it with you.

I remember the days when my dad would take me out to a pond on Fort Carson I would get up early pack a lunch and grab a few rods and spend the entire day trying to catch fish before my dad would pick me up after he got off work. I spent countless hours trying to figure out each species of fish that were in the lake, where they hung out, how do they react to my baits, how spooky they were, watching them feed on minnows and bugs on the top of the water and all the crazy things they did throughout the day.

I pretty much had the bluegills figured out. A small piece of worm on a #10 eagle claw hook under a small bobber was all it took and after seeing the trout hit a grasshopper I scared off the bush as soon as it hit the water it didn't take me long to whack a bunch of them also every time I went out. It was that bass that would always get to me. The little green fish with the black stripe that continues to drive me crazy today. Not to mention its cousins the spotted and small mouth bass. 

The bass seemed to mezmorize me, They would hit that grasshopper I threw in the water but refused to hit the one on my hook.The trout didn't seem to mind it. I flipped a few rocks and threw crawdads at them and they would eat em up but not on my hook. Every now and then I would get a smaller bass to take a whole night crawler but those big ones crusing would just come up and look and just swim off. Stressful for a little kid.

Through the years I studied about bass. I read every book I could find in the library about them and would read every issue of Bassmaster magazine I could get my hands on. Now we have every resource available just by the touch of a button from the internet or a phone call to a buddy. The kids sure have it easy now it seems like.

I still go back to that lake that has been there for forty plus years. it's just ten minutes from my home in Fountain, Co. so a short after work trip is always good for the mind, body and soul. I have seen pictures of giant bass being caught at that old lake and I have yet to catch a good one for myself. I went out with a few of my youth club kids that have held some 4# plus and one 7# in the years earlier and this was more than enough to peak my intrest. Giant bass close to home is like a dream come true.

This year the weather has put the spawn behind and the bass are just now starting to come up. I was out in my Stealth 2000 duck boat looking for active fish and when I saw them I beached it and tried to sneak up on them from the bank. I told my buddy that I had just seen the biggest bass of my life, he laughed and said, "like the ones in the tank at Bass Pro Shops" exactly I said. I knew that was a giant bass I just needed to figure out how to catch it and take a picture with her.

I mentally marked the spot and snuck up to find her and another smaller male on a bed. I covered myself with dead bulrushes and settled in with my rods. I threw a drop shot rig with a BPS teaser tube and the male whacked it instantly. I set the hook and landed him and quickly put him back in the water and right back to the bed he went.

I worked those fish for over two hours and the male kept pushing that big girl back and holding his ground. He picked up my baits several times and I just let him spit them out. The female kept coming closer and closer and as soon as she looked like she was going to hit my bait the male would chase her off. We played this game over and over. I decided I was going to stick the male again just to shake him up a little more and threw in one of my hand tied football jigs with a Lazer Trokar 3/0 hook and as soon as it hit the bed he came up and sucked it in and I swung and missed. I regrouped and pitched back in and he spun around and then just grabbed the tail of my YUM Money Craw trailer and spit it out. I hopped it back on the bed and the female bolted in from the side and crushed it.

I set the hook and the fight was on. I yelled over at my buddy and he and a few others came running over to check out what all the fuss was about and when I finally lipped her I started to shake. I have caught big bass in my travels and my biggest to date was an 8# 2oz.. I didn't have a scale and there was no way I was going to keep or hurt this majestic fish but I know it was my biggest bass ever. I had a few photos taken and put her back in the water and watched her swim away. I always preach "CPR" catch, photo and release. I hope someday she will be caught again and be much bigger.

I have been truly blessed to have landed such a giant bass so close to home.This is one I will never forget. I am glad I have the opportunity to share it with all of you. I thank my dad for teaching me how to fish and I hope all my youth club kids share their knowledge and teach kids how to fish so they can have their own memories of a lifetime....

                                                                           Best of Luck,

                                                                                                   Sam Heckman / Pro Staff

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Ice out Lake Trout

Marty's Lake TroutMarty and Me w/lake troutThe high mountain lakes are starting to become ice free and now is the time to catch your lake trout of a lifetime. I have been waiting for the days when I could make the trip over Monarch Pass to Gunnison and finally chase ice off lake trout at Blue Mesa Reservoir with the best of friends. This trip was a trip to remember.

I knew we were heading out on Friday and I have been in another state for a business conference during the week, not a good time to concentrate with lake trout on the brain. I have made the trip from Fountain to Blue Mesa several times to meet up with my buddy Robby Richardson owner of Sport Fish Colorado and we have put a great number of fish in the boat. He has landed several lakers over 20# and I have yet to get one in the boat. I was going to land a giant on this trip for sure I just knew it.

I picked up my good friend Marty Riddle who is the Pro Staff Manager for Eagle Claw and we headed out with smiles and anticipation of a giant lake trout. Marty has never been to Blue Mesa before and I hoping for the best for the both of us. Robby had been on big lakers the entire week on guide trips. Perfect, everything was lining up for this trip to be successful.

We headed out early on Saturday and trolled some baits along the points. The fish were showing up on Robby's Lowrance graph and we were in the right areas. I had to chunk and wind a swim bait off the front to work the areas from the shore to the boat.It seemed like the lake trout had other plans than to take pictures with us. Then I got whacked and the fight was on. This one felt like a big one. It headed straight to the bottom and head shaked. I got a few cranks on it and back to the bottom it went head shaking and then the heart break happened the line went limp and there was no weight on the end of my rod. Wow. not again. Just my luck with the lake trout so far for the last couple of years. the big ones seem to always get off.

The day was long and we were not on the board with any big lake trout so far. Marty got whacked and the fight was on. This was a great fish it dove to the bottom and wasn't going to give up easy. This fish fought him for a good ten minutes and we saw a glimpse of her before she made another dive. She came up again and blew bubbles and Robby was able to get the net under her and in the boat she came. This was an incredible fish. Marty was as excited as I have ever seen him. She choked the bait it was completely gone. Robby quickly removed the bait and we took a bunch of photos of Marty's first Blue Mesa fish a 24# lake trout. Not too shabby.

Sunday was a different day there were several boats on the water and the lake was getting some pressure as luck would have it Marty's rod was loaded up with another giant early. This beauty had a much larger fish come up from the depths with her that had at least another ten pounds on her and spooked when she got closer to the boat. Marty's second lake trout of the weekend weighed 20#. I never got bit until it was time to head back to the ramp. I had a sympathy 3# German Brown show me some love. Although I have yet to land a laker over 20# I had the one of the best times on the water that I will never forget. My stomach still hurts from all the laughs we shared and what better way to spend the weekend with the best of friends.

If it is giant lake trout your looking for this spring give my buddy Robby Richardson a call with Sport Fish Colorado (719) 649-3378 He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. Check out his website www.sportfishcolorado.com

 

Best of luck,

                     Sam Heckman / Pro Staff

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The Why of Fly Fishing

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Mention fly fishing and many think of mountain streams and scenic vistas.  Movies like The River Runs Through It perpetuate the imagery. In a series of posts, we are going to explore the art of fly fishing and several things to consider if you'd like to get started in it.

Bass Pro Shops Altoona Fly Fishing expert Scott Sickau has been fly fishing for years. 

"I got started in fly fishing 15 years ago when a neighbor was telling me how fun it was to catch panfish on a fly rod. After searching through the attic of my parents' garage, I found an old Eagle Claw fiberglass fly rod and reel. I asked my dad if I could have it. Well, he told me that he didn't have a fly rod that he knew of...and after much persuasion, he told me if I could find, I could have it.

I found out what was needed for fly line and proceeded to teach myself how to cast.  It was an old school method of casting, and I later attended my first state fly fishing convention, picking up some tips. As time went by I learned more about how not to cast. The rest is history.

Fly fishing has been very rewarding for me. I've spent parts of two summers working as a fly fishing guide for Legend Lodge in Illiamna, Alaska. I've had the opportunity to serve in numerous fly fishing and conservation-related organizations, such as the Hawkeye Fly Fishing Association, North Bear Trout Unlimited, State Leadership Council Representative for Trout Unlimited, National Leadership Representative for Scott SickauIowa for Trout Unlimited."

But WHY fly fish?

"It is one of the oldest forms of fishing known to man. There have been items found in ancient tombs indicating man wrapped different materials onto hooks to imitate some of the aquatic creatures he saw in the water.

It's a very pure form of fishing. You create flies or patterns, then fish them to see how well a job you have done. Most of the time you are casting to a specific fish that may be located behind a log, rock, or obstruction where it is lying in wait to ambush its prey.

But, most importantly to me, is that I can fly fish in places where you have the serenity of the sounds of nature...and nature only. I've spent much time in places like the Alaskan bush and the Rocky Mountains, where you hear nothing but the peace and quiet of nature in its purest form. Some parks, like Yellowstone, only allow fly fishing because of its non-invasive impact on the environment."

Rod Woten Bear CreekBass Pro Shops Altoona Pro Staff member Rod Woten is not only a serious ice fisherman, but also a long time fly fisherman. He adds:

"Fly fishing has a rhythm that’s much slower than almost every other type of fishing.  From the cadence of the cast to achieving the perfect dead drift with your fly, it forces you to slow down and work through each step thoroughly and methodically. To those unaccustomed to fly fishing it seems like slow motion, but for those who practice the art, it’s therapy."

In fact, fly fishing is used as therapy for cancer victims and veterans suffering form PTSD through organizations such as Project Healing Waters and Rivers of Recovery

Think you might like to try it?  Every Saturday now through September 2013, you can find out how to fly cast or just learn more in general, on the front lawn of the Bass Pro Shops Altoona location.  Scott will be on the front lawn, weather permitting, demonstrating fly casting, answering questions, and Fly Casting providing hands-on opportunities for anyone interested in finding out more about fly fishing.

Interested in a free private appointment?  Call 515-957-5500 and ask for Scott in the Fly Fishing or e-mail cssickau@basspro.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Emerald Coast Surf Fishing

Pompano seems to be the theme this time of the year for surf fishing all along the panhandle.  Locating the deeper holes and troughs along the beach is the key to success.  Incoming tide is ideal, and with north winds the surf is calm.  Getting to those deeper spots might require wading out to get that extra distance when casting.  Look for the cuts in the sandbars.  These are indicated by the darker blue color between sandbars where everything is getting flushed back out to the Gulf, and fish, including pompano, whiting, and redfish will populate these spots to feed.  Live sand fleas can be found on the beaches or purchased at local tackle shops.  Fresh frozen shrimp are also a good choice for bait.

Use a two hook dropper rig.  They are also called pompano rigs and are available at Bass Pro Shops.  These are rigged with or without floats.  Depending on the size rod and line you want to use 2 - 4 oz. pyramid weights.  Spider weights are also available that have extended prongs that help to anchor into the sand.  PVC or metal sand spikes are essential if you want to set up multiple fishing combos.  FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission) regulations for Pompano are between 11" and 20", measured to the fork, with a limit of 6 per person and only one allowed over 20".  Redfish must be between 18" to 27", with a limit of 2 per person (only in the NE and NW regions).

Essential gear should include:
  • 8' - 10' Rod (Offshore Angler Power Stick)
  • 5000 - 8000 Size Reel (Ocean Master)
  • 14 - 20 lb Monofilament (Offshore Angler Tight Lines)
  • 20 - 50 Braid (Bass Pro Premium Excel Braid)
  • Pompano Rigs or Gulf Coast Rigs
  • Size 1 or 1/0 Circle, Kahle, or J Hooks (Owner or Eagle Claw)
  • Live or frozen Sand Fleas (Gulp! or FishBites)
  • PVC or Metal Sand Spikes (Offshore Angler)
  • Needle Nose Pliers (Bass Pro Shops XTS)
  • Sand Flea Rake
  • Beach Cart
  • Cooler (Igloo Marine or Yeti)

Have fun and go fishing!

By Dave Lockett
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Ice Fishing: Then & Now…

Ice Fishing: Then & Now…

New to the Ice Fishing scene, I am asking questions, learning some history, and exploring tactics, past and present.  Thanks to our local experts and the continued appreciation of the sport, which in some cases remains sustenance-harvesting, I am being enlightened and sometimes entertained by this fascinating topic.  If ice happens this winter in Central New York, I may even try my hand at it.  Please enjoy my facts and findings…    

 

Fishing associate, John Grace, knows his ice fishing history.  He comes from generations of ice fisherman who have handed down the pasttime and history for some three hundred years of living on the Chemung River-meaning “Big Tusk” in the Seneca tongue, for the many mammoth tusks found on the river banks.  With access to ice used for refrigeration in by-gone years, fish for sustenance, and lately, sport, John is a great wealth of information on the Then & Now topic of ice fishing.  

Cutting Ice and Skating on the Chemung, pre WWI

Cutting Ice and Skating on the Chemung, preWWI

Photo (above) provided by Joyce M. Tice’s Tricounty Collection

 

On Jan. 3rd I sat down with John who was kind enough to provide a brief historical
 
perspective. One main theme became obvious during our discussion
Ice Fishing has evolved to say the least!

Ancient Ice Fishing

Its beginnings are estimated some 4,000 years ago when Native Peoples used stone tools and axes to dig through the ice in the Bering Strait, spearing their prey with barbed bone tips which sometimes even included strings for pulling in their harvest.  Most fresh water fishing occurred on rivers and streams and shallow perimeters of lakes in order to gain access to panfish and top feeders like Pike.  Deep water species like trout were not practically feasible.

Centuries later, after the European-Scandinavian migrations, North America adopted new tactics using chisels and saws to gain water access.  Poles became “fishing rods” and spinning reels replaced wooden thread spools.  In effect, specialized equipment was developed.

Man Fishing
Pieces of plank and cotton string were the extent of the fishing technology, as late as fifty years ago.  The “pole” was thrown down and the catch was hand- lined.

 






Some countries like Russia still employ old school tools as preferred standards.  
Fish biologist, Mikhail Skopets points out… [The] ice-auger is not very useful at Amur River ice - the ice has lots of sand in it, so the blades of a drill get dull after 2-3 holes.  Ancient tools - ice-pikes - are still popular in Khabarovsk.Amur Ice


Chisels remain a modern ice fishing asset, especially when using a power or hand auger is not feasible.  These are simple, but effective.  Our Auburn store carries several sizes and brands including, the
Eskimo® Redneck Dual Headed Bucket Ice Chisel and the Eskimo® Redneck Economy Ice Chisel.  Frabill and Eskimo each make short chisel options as well.


Modernity has altogether revolutionized ice fishing, making the odds more favorable at a time of species decline and optimized feeding habits (prey selection).  This is largely due to the advancements in mobility, and technologies like sonar and temperature probes.  Once found, bringing in the catch is less of a gamble, at least from an equipment perspective.  And that’s because rod manufacturing has come a long way.  The first productions were steel, (Horton Manufacturing, 1913); and then fiberglass followed in the 1940’s; boron fiber had a short run in the 70’s, and now we’re in the era of graphite and carbon fiber hybrids… with seemingly endless choices to sometimes confuse the consumer…

Rods today are specialized to target species and personal tastes.  The general idea is to have something with both sensitivity and the best suited action.  It is all a custom fitting process these days, but many rods will deliver success for a number of various species at a time.  This is the case especially with non-casting rods like the shorter ice fishing rods.

Bass Pro Shops, Auburn carries eleven different brands of ice fishing rods, many with multiple series options.  Popular choices include:

Ice Team and Ice Busters series by CLAM

Fenwick                                                                                             South Bend

North Star                                                                                     Uglystick (multiply series)

Frabill, Bro Series and Panfish                                         St. Croix (multiply series)

Uglystick (multiply series)                                                      Berkley (multiply series)

Eagle Claw                                                                                    Frost Bite

 

Getting started doesn’t have to break the bank, with affordable combo options from Clam and Shakespeare®. One of our Leads here, Frank Doll, has used an inexpensive rod like one of these for years fishing professional tournaments.  Much like the car industry, it’s as much about personal preference-your particular tastes, or in this case, fishing style (more on this later) as it is about finding a rod that you have confidence in.  It doesn’t take a seer or a magical connection; I recommend the help of our fishing experts to outfit you for your next (ice) fishing adventure.

Maybe I’ll see you on the ice?

 

Anita Michels

In collaboration with John Grace, Ryan Hyde and Frank Doll


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Heavy-Metal Crappie

By Don Wirth

Harold Morgan

Doubles! Harold Morgan's heavy sinker rig is one of the deadliest crappie methods ever devised. 

Listening to Harold Morgan play those sweet, fluid sounds on his pedal steel guitar, you wouldn't think he'd be too fond of heavy metal. Harold played steel on the road for years with some of Nashville's most legendary country music stars, and has swapped licks with the hottest pickers on the Grand Ole Opry.    

But it's a fact -- Morgan's a metalhead.

No, he hasn't traded in his axe for a Les Paul and a stack of Marshall amps. Harold, you see, is as skilled at catching crappie as he is at coaxing those shimmering notes out of his steel guitar. And he has a system for probing structure and cover that'll be music to any crappie angler's ears. It's based around sinkers -- big sinkers. The weights Morgan relies on are heavier than those used by most catfishermen, let alone panfishermen. But once you understand why they work so well, we think you'll become a metalhead, too.

Just Shy of an Ounce

No question, crappie fishing is viewed by most folks as an ultralight sport. Tiny minnows and jigs, buggywhip rods and wispy lines are favored by the vast majority of crappie anglers. They leave the heavy stuff to the bass and catfish crowds, believing that in the world of the papermouth, the light touch reigneth supreme.

But Harold Morgan doesn't buy into that line of thinking. The friendly Nashville crappie guide is a legend in the Southeast for his uncanny ability to find and catch these scrappy gamefish regardless of season or conditions. I've shared a boat with him on many occasions, and can promise you his approach is anything but light.

Morgan routinely uses heavy sinkers when hunting slab crappie. No, I'm not talking about a couple of BB-sized split shot pinched on 4-pound line -- I'm talkin' magnum-size sinkers, ones that weigh, as he puts it, "just shy of an ounce."

Harold Morgan1

Morgan keeps plenty of sinkers on hand -- breakoffs in deep brushpiles are common. 

"Most crappie anglers would never dream of using sinkers as heavy as mine," Harold said with a chuckle as he idled his boat into a creek arm on Priest Lake, a 14,000-acre impoundment close to Nashville. He circled around one of the hundreds of submerged brushpiles he's sunk in the lake over the years, noted the presence of a big school of crappie on his graph, and shut off his outboard. Then he proceeded to pulled a tray of lead that looked like it weighed a ton from beneath the boat's console.

Morgan selected a pear-shaped bell sinker with "7/8" stamped on its side. "If you took all the split shot in the average crappie fisherman's boat and melted it together, it wouldn't weigh as much as this one sinker!" He then took out a spinning rod that appeared stout enough to do battle with one of the Priest Lake's big smallmouth bass, and tied the hunk of lead to the end of his line. He next baited up two tuffy minnows to leader lines dangling stiffly off the main line -- an unorthodox-looking rig if ever I'd seen one. The weight caused the tip of his rod to sag. "Let's see if we can hit one over the head," he joked as he lowered the ungainly-looking setup over the side of his boat into the tangle of brush below.

The rod tip relaxed, indicating the sinker had hit bottom. Morgan engaged the reel spool and began s-l-o-w-l-y turning the handle. In a matter of seconds, the rod buckled and he lifted not one, but two  slab crappie into the boat! "Love those doubles," he smiled, dropping both fish into his livewell. He rebaited and handed me the rod, urging, "Here, you try it."

The heavy sinker swinging from the end of the line reminded me of some bottom-fishing rigs I'd used for stripers in the past. I flipped the bail and THUNK! the sinker dropped to the bottom like a Buick falling off a bridge. Following Morgan's instructions, I held the rod steady and turned the reel handle slowly. When the weight lifted off bottom, I instantly felt one, then two fish on my line.

Harold and I fished for a little over two hours and caught over 70 crappie -- all from the same brushpile, all on his heavy metal rig. Hmmm . . . so much for ultralight fishing!

"The first time I saw the heavy sinker rig used was on Kentucky Lake years ago, long before there were any depthfinders," Morgan said.    "After the lake was formed, we fishermen needed a way to find submerged structures such as creek channel drop-offs, humps and ditches. Many of us started sinking brushpiles for crappie, and we needed a way to locate these as well."

Harold Morgan3

When combined with tube jigs, Harold Morgan's heavy sinker rig is pure dynamite on big crappie. 

Lacking sonar units, Morgan and his Kentucky Lake cronies started tying heavy sinkers to the end of their lines so they could literally feel their way along the bottom. "We'd hold the rod with one hand and work a sculling paddle with the other, moving slowly along, tapping the sinker on the bottom. When we'd locate likely structure, we'd anchor the boat and start fishing. At first, the sinker was nothing more than a crude depthfinder."

But even after Morgan got his first "green box" sonar unit, he kept relying on that magnum chunk of lead. He experimented with the heavy rig and eventually refined it into a deadly crappie fishing tool. "The way I use it now, it's a combination bottom probe and presentation device," he explained. "No other crappie technique I've seen gives you more precise control over your bait or lure, especially in thick cover and deep water."

The Setup

Morgan's heavy-metal crappie system is unusual and ingenious. Here are the elements that make it work:

  • A heavy bell sinker, from 1/2 to 1 ounce. After years of fishing the rig, Harold has grown most comfortable with a 7/8-ounce weight. The sinker is tied directly to the end of his fishing line.   
  • Abrasion-resistant monofilament for the main line, normally 8-pound test.   
  • Two 6-inch leader lines of stiff, heavy monofilament -- Morgan recommends bargain-basement 20- to 30-pound catfish line for this application. "Don't use premium line for your leaders -- it's way too limp," he cautioned. "You want the leader lines to be stiff and springy so they'll stick out at right angles from the sinker line. This will present the bait or lure more effectively to fish in thick cover, and will help prevent the leaders from wrapping around the main line."      
  • Two 1/0 or 2/0 Eagle Claw lightweight gold crappie hooks baited with tuffy minnows, or two 1/32-ounce tube or twister jigs. Tie either to the stiff leader lines.       
  •  A 6- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod. This is a much heavier stick than most crappie anglers are used to fishing, but necessary for handling the heavy sinker. "I don't like an ultralight rod with this setup because of the sinker's weight, and because the rig often catches two fish at a time," Morgan noted.       
  • A standard-size spinning reel, not an ultralight. "The spool of an ultralight reel is too small to hold a good quantity of 8-pound mono," he said. "You need some line capacity because when you fish thick cover like I do, you have to constantly check your line for abrasion and retie often."

Morgan attaches the first leader line 18 inches above the sinker, and the second 18 inches above the first. This gives his presentation a 3-foot spread, ideal when crappie are suspending. The leaders are attached to the main line with loop knots so they will not slip.

The Approach

Crappie Grubs

Tube jigs and heavy metal -- a winning combination for crappie. 

Morgan surveys the fishing area with his LCR until he locates structure, usually brushpiles he has set out earlier in the year. "I set out cover at various depths to attract crappie in all four seasons," he explained. Once the cover has been pinpointed, he pitches a marker buoy over the side and lowers his heavy sinker rig to the bottom. Most crappie anglers anchor when they're on a honey hole, but not Harold -- he works slowly around the target area with his electric motor on a low-speed setting. "The sinker tells me better than any depthfinder when I'm in the right spot," he emphasized. "Because it's so heavy, the line is straight down over the side of the boat at all times, and I can feel the weight tap against brush and submerged trees. If I bump wood, I reel up line. If I don't feel anything, I let out more line until I do."

The best part of Morgan's unorthodox sinker rig: it's amazingly tangle-free and user-friendly. "Unlike standard crappie rigs, this one is very cover-intensive," Harold said. "It bumps, knocks and crawls over brush and branches without hanging up, letting you present your bait or lures right where the fish are. The sinker gives even a novice angler a positive feel of what's down there, so they can react quickly and lift the rod or reel in the line to stay out of trouble. And if you do happen to get hung up, it's easy to get the rig out of the brush -- just tighten down until there's a bow in the rod and release the reel's bail. The line will pop off the spool and nine times out of 10, the sinker will flip off the branch." 

Movin' on Up

Morgan demonstrated a deadly tactic he's developed with his heavy rig. He bumped the sinker along the bottom near a submerged creek channel in 23 feet of water. Soon he encountered a deep brushpile; he slowly circled this while keeping an eye on his LCR. When the graph revealed fish suspending in the 18-foot zone above the brush, he shut off his electric motor and slowly began reeling the sinker rig straight up. About halfway to the surface, the rod bowed and two fat crappie came aboard. 

"Suspended crappie are hard to catch on conventional rigs," Morgan said, "especially when they're deeper than 15 feet. You invariably lose touch with your bait or lure in deep water on a standard split-shot rig. But with the heavy sinker on the very end of your line, everything's tight and your line is straight under the boat. Bites are easy to feel since the hooks are above the weight."

Morgan continued, "By reeling straight up from the bottom, you'll eventually reel your bait or lure through the fish, and when you do, multiple bites are common. This technique is also conducive to catching the biggest crappie in the school, which often hang out at the bottom of the pack. By using the conventional approach of lowering a bait down through a suspended school of fish, the smaller, more active fish usually bite before the big boys even get a chance to see your presentation." 

Year Long

Morgan uses his heavy sinker rig throughout the year. Here's how he alters his approach to meet changing seasonal conditions:

Spring --   The heavy rig is not intended for shallow spawning areas -- Morgan opts for a conventional float rig when fishing for spawners in 7 feet of water or less. "But not all fish will be on the beds at once -- many will be in the pre- and post-spawn mode; these fish will be suspending on drop-offs adjacent to the spawning areas," he explained. "Look for a ledge that falls from around 10 to 20 feet, drop the sinker rig to the bottom, then reel up slowly until you contact fish. These drop-offs are usually ignored by other anglers in spring, but they can hold a ton of fish."

Summer --    "This is usually the hardest time to catch crappie, but you can load the boat if you locate suspending schools. Follow the edge of a channel drop-off with your electric motor on low speed, and troll several sinker rigs at various depths. When one of them gets bit, quickly mark the line with a marking pen and adjust the other rigs to that depth. I often have better luck using jigs in the summer than minnows."

Fall --    "Crappie will return to spring bedding areas, but don't go as shallow as they did when spawning. The 12- to 15-foot zone is often loaded with fish, and the sinker rig lets you put your bait or lure right in their faces."

Winter --    "Crappie can be super-deep -- I've caught 'em in 56 feet of water in January! Keep the sinker very close to the bottom and try to be extra careful not to bang into brushpiles too much -- for some reason, these fish are extremely spooky in cold water, and the entire school can vanish in a heartbeat."

J. Percy Priest Reservoir guide Harold Morgan can be reached at (615) 227-9337. 

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Lazy Days, Small Streams and Southern Catfish

By Wade Bourne

Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.

"No business; no plans; no worries; no money; no future.  Too healthy to beg; too lazy to work; too old to steal.  Ain't got much; don't want anything.  Ain't mad at nobody.  Ain't running for nothing.  Waiting for the 3rd of the month." 

 

Joe B. Sweeney, Retired.  Lobelville, Tennessee.

     

Actually, Joe Sweeney's "business card" lacks one additional, important inscription:  "River rat, specializing on catching catfish."

     

And so he does!  This laid-back angler took early retirement a few years ago to fish and enjoy life.  This morning he's on the Buffalo River, across the highway from his house, doing what he does three to four times a week from late spring through mid-fall:  Rod-and-reel fishing for cats.  Shafts of sunlight are shining through sycamore and maple trees along the east bank.  In a few hours the morning will turn hot, but for now the air is fresh and cool.  A light breeze and a swaying current soothe Sweeney's soul as he watches his rods and waits for a bite.

     

"Isn't this the life?" he muses.  "This is what fishing ought to be, quiet and peaceful.  And I can pretty near always catch a mess of fish.  Just give me three fiddlers, some french fries and hushpuppies, and I'm in hog heaven!"

     

Suddenly, the tip of one of Sweeney's rods begins jerking.  The angler picks up the rod and waits.  Now his mood has changed from relaxed to ready.  He's like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.  "Gotta let'im take it," he coaches himself.  "Gotta let'im nibble 'til he pulls the rod down.  Go on, big boy, take it all..."

     

As though following Sweeney's command, the fish pulls the rod tip down with a decisive thump, and the angler quickly sets the hook.  Then a brief fight ensues, the fish wallowing in the current, then burrowing under the boat as Sweeney takes line.  However, the catfish's evasions are fruitless, and soon this squirming one-pounder is airlifted over the gunnels.  After a brief moment of admiration, the angler deposits the fish into a bucket holding two similar-sized members of its kind.  "Get the grease hot, mama!" he laughs.

     

Joe Sweeney has had plenty such chuckles on the Buffalo River over the years, because he's done this so many times before.  He's lived - and fished - here all his life.  When he was little, his father and grandfather taught him where to find smallmouth bass; how to gig for suckers, buffalo and carp; and how to catch catfish as a matter of routine.  "I used to specialize on fly fishing for smallmouth," Sweeney explains.  "But as I've gotten older, I've turned more to catfishing.  It doesn't take as much effort, and I can just about always count on getting a few."

     

And so can other southern fishermen who apply Sweeney's simple methods in creeks and rivers near their homes.  Channel, flathead and blue catfish abound in many of this region's small running waters, and they are vastly overlooked by anglers more attuned to big lakes and such "glory species" as bass and crappie.  Fishermen armed with minimal tackle, bait and knowledge can enjoy this almost-untapped resource with pleasing consistency.  The fish are abundant, and bites are frequent.  As Sweeney says, this truly is fishing like it should be.

 

Small Stream Catfishing:  An Overview

     

The Buffalo River in central Tennessee is typical of many streams in the mid-South:  Moderate in size, depth and current.  It meanders through quiet fields lined by rolling hardwood ridges.  The river course is a continuous series of shallow, swift riffles, deep pools below the riffles, then runs of medium depth and speed.  The Buffalo's water quality is good enough to support ample populations of smallmouth and rock bass, a variety of other sunfish, several species of rough fish, a hodgepodge of creek minnows, and catfish, which grow in surprising number and size.

     

"My biggest catfish from the Buffalo weighed 38 pounds, but I've hooked fish I know were bigger," Sweeney narrates.  "Also, I've heard stories about yellow cats (flatheads) up to 80 pounds.  Most of these bigger fish were taken on trotlines or limb lines.

     

"I catch mostly smaller fish -- 1/2-3 pounds.  There are a lot more of these, plus they're better to eat.  In fact, if I catch a catfish much bigger than this, I pitch him back in the river.  He won't be nearly as good as the little ones."

     

Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.  Catfish can live in any but cold streams at high elevations.  These fish are adaptable to a broad range of current and turbidity conditions, thus their abundance.  Also, they are extremely hardy, and they will eat virtually anything organic.   

     

Sweeney begins fishing for stream cats in late April, and action picks up as the weather warms.  "My favorite months are June, July and August," he notes.  "This is when the fish bite the best."

     

Though catfish are known as night feeders, Sweeney goes after them only during the daytime.  "I catch all I want in early morning and late afternoon," he continues. 


"However, when the sun starts shining in over the trees, the action slacks off.  I think the bright light drives the fish back under logs and into holes, and they quit feeding until the shadows reappear."

     

For this reason, Sweeney prefers an overcast sky to a clear one.  When clouds block the sunlight, catfish may feed right through the day.  "I especially like a still, humid morning following a night of lightning and thunder.  I don't know why such a morning is better, but it is."

     

A crucial element in Sweeney's stream-fishing pattern is location of the fish.  "Most people think catfish hang in deep, quiet holes.  This may be true of the bigger ones, but smaller cats feed in shallow, swift areas.  I'm talking about runs that are 2-3 feet deep and exposed to direct current.  Also, a spot is better if it has a clean gravel or clay bottom instead of a mud bottom.  Catfish hold around cover (logs, treetops, rocks, etc.) in these areas and move out into the current to find food.  In fact, they feed a lot like a bass."

 

Tackle, Rigging, Baits, Boat

     

Joe Sweeney's tackle for stream catfish is both elementary and inexpensive.  He uses two 6-foot medium action fiberglass casting rods fitted with spincast reels.  (He notes, "It's hard to beat the old Zebco 33 for what I do.")  He spools 8-12 lb. test line onto these reels.

     

To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.  "I prefer smaller hooks than most catfishermen do," he remarks.  "I use #4 Eagle Claw wire hooks.  I'll tie the first hook directly into my line with a granny knot some 18 inches above the end.  Then I'll tie on my second hook 8-10 inches below this.

     

To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.

"Last, I add my weights.  I'll run two or three egg sinkers up the line, then clamp a small split shot on the end to keep the egg sinkers from sliding off.  For fishing the Buffalo in the summer, I like about an ounce of lead.  This is plenty weight to hold the bait on bottom in swift current.  Fishermen on other streams may add more or less weight as differences in depth and current require."

     

Sweeney says catfishermen can bait with any of a range of cut-up fish pieces, crawfish tails, stink baits, worms, insects, etc.  However, he has narrowed his bait choice to three top performers:  Red worms, chicken livers and catalpa worms.

     

"I raise my own red worms; they're always good for catfish.  Fresh chicken liver is also a standard, and it's one of the cheapest baits you can use.  A box costs around 75 cents.  Chicken livers are messy to handle and hard to keep on the hook, but that blood and liver smell sure attract catfish.  When I use liver, I'll cut off a thumb-sized piece and run the hook through it two or three times."

     

However, Sweeney says his favorite bait for stream catfish is a live catalpa worm.  "I planted three catalpa trees in my yard in 1956 just so I'd have a supply of these worms.  I get two crops a year, one in June and the other in August.  When I notice the leaves starting to disappear off my trees, I can collect catalpa worms by the dozens.  They're big and tough, and they stay on the hook well.  Catfish absolutely love'em."

     

Sweeney routinely fishes different baits on his two rods to see if the catfish have a preference.  "One day they might want worms, the next day livers.  But they'll eat just about anything. 

     

"For instance, one of my neighbors lives on a bluff overlooking the Buffalo, and a couple of years back he cooked a country ham and trimmed off some fat and skin and threw it in the river.  The next morning I was fishing under the bluff, and I caught a cat that weighed about 3 pounds.  When I cleaned it, there was that ham fat and skin rolled up in a ball in its belly."

     

Sweeney's boat/motor combo is as simple as his taste in fishing.  He runs a 14-foot aluminum johnboat powered by a 15-horse outboard.  He outfits his boat with a bucket or cooler to hold his fish, seat cushions, paddle, and two anchors - one attached to the bow of the boat, the other to the stern.

 

Streamfishing Methods

     

Thus rigged, baited and boated, Joe Sweeney is ready to begin his quest.

     

"Again, most people fish the deep holes, but in summer I catch a lot more in the shallow, fast runs," he reiterates.  "I look for logs, rocks or undercut banks in direct, moderately strong current.  Then I anchor just upstream from this cover and cast downstream beside it.  When the weight hits bottom, I reel up slack line and set the rod in the boat with the tip sticking over the gunnels.  Then I just sit back and watch for a bite."

     

When fishing alone, Sweeney anchors only one end of his johnboat.  The other end swings downcurrent, and his lines extend beyond into his target area.  However, when accompanied by a partner, Sweeney anchors his boat across the current with anchors on the bow and stern, then both anglers fish the downcurrent side.

     

Sweeney likes to anchor approximately 20 yards upcurrent from his target area, and he casts as close to his target cover as possible.  Then, with his first rod propped up, he casts his second line a few feet out from the first, and he sets this rod up in a like manner.  Then the waiting game begins.

     

When a catfish starts nibbling, the line pulses, and the rod tip jumps.  Sweeney picks up the rod, slowly reels his line tight and waits until the fish takes a big bite.  When the rod tip dips convincingly, he sets back and plays the hooked fish to the boat.

     

In the course of a morning, Sweeney will fish several different spots.  "I don't stay at one place more than 15-20 minutes," he says.  "If catfish are there, they'll usually bite right away.  The normal routine is to catch two or three fish from a spot, then the bites quit coming.  So this is sort of a hit and run method.  I don't wait in one place for very long hoping to get a bite."

     

One nemesis to Sweeney's technique is hangups.  "It's very common to hang and break your rig off, but that's just a drawback that goes with the fun.  I keep the hook and sinker people in business," he notes.

 

Philosophy of Stream Catfishing

     

Joe Sweeney and his methods typify the casual approach that goes along with small streams, catfishing, and lazy summer mornings.  There is none of the hustle of the big lakes, no fast boats, crowded ramps, expensive gadgetry or sophisticated techniques.  Rather, this is old-fashioned fishing-for-dinner and a chance to shift into low gear......

     

"See how the current's eating this field away?" Sweeney observes at one particular turn where a high bank shows five feet of topsoil.  "The river's always changing.  There's something different every year, new trees in the water, old ones gone, a fresh cut, an island washed away."

     

In a way, the river resembles the lives of those who fish it.  They, too, are always changing.  "A lot of people just don't go fishing anymore," Sweeney muses.  "My grandsons used to go with me, but now they're into the two G's:  Girls and golf.  So mostly I fish alone, or sometimes I'll take a neighbor."  He threads a fresh worm on his hook.

     

"There are a lot of canoeists on the river in the summer, and sometimes all the boat traffic interferes with fishermen.  I usually fish early and late and leave the water to the paddlers during the mid-day hours.

     

"And while I'm talking about canoeists, I don't think some of them have as much respect for the river as they should.  They throw cans and Styrofoam cups and other trash in the water.  I hate that."  Sweeney casts his freshly baited rig downstream, waits for the weight to hit bottom, then sets his rod against the gunnels.

     

"I used to raise red worms to sell.  Whenever I'd be away from the house, I'd leave several boxes of worms out where people could find them, and they'd drop their money in a cigar box.  This business ran on the honor system, and I never knew it if anybody beat me out of a cent."

     

In a few minutes Sweeney gets a bite, and he quickly lands a channel catfish the size of a large corncob.  "Big enough to bite, big enough to keep," he judges, dropping the fish into the bucket. 

     

In the next hour, Sweeney talks about whatever enters his mind.  He explains how his father and grandfather built flat-bottomed boats out of poplar planks, then sunk them in the river so they would swell and seal.  He talks about old friends and favorite fishing spots.  He laments the fast pace of life and the fact that modern parents spend so little time with their children.  He says, "My motto is, 'Don't send'em.  Go with'em.'  In this age you've gotta spend time with kids to keep'em out of trouble."

     

That's the way it is with small rivers and catfishing; there's plenty time to think.  You can ponder whatever is important in your life.  You can remember yesterday, reflect on tomorrow, share an opinion or tell a tale. 

     

The only trouble is, all too often a sneaky fish will snatch your bait and steal you away from your meditations.  You have to stop and reel the vagrant in, but putting up with such a "nuisance" is a fair price to pay for the pleasures of this summer sport and setting.

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Spawning-Run Stripers

By Don Wirth

Late last April, I was giving my new aluminum boat a test run in a nearby tailrace. After running several miles upstream, I decided to try out the trolling motor. Just as I lowered the troller into the clear, cold water, I heard an explosion near the bank, the familiar percussive thud of a wolfpack of hungry stripers annihilating a school of shad.

Spawning-RunStripers1

Like walleye and white bass, stripers undertake an annual upstream spawning run, a trek set in motion by rising water temperatures.

If you've never seen big landlocked stripers feeding on the surface, trust me, it's an awesome sight, the most primal display of predatory power you're likely to encounter in fresh water.

The good news: although this outing was intended to be a boat shakedown, I had brought along one striper rod. The bad news: I had only one lure in the boat, a big soft plastic jerk bait.

I eased within casting distance of the surfacing fish and flung the jerk bait into the melee. Immediately a striper snatched it, nearly jerking the rod from my grasp. The powerful fish surged into deeper water; after a 5-minute battle, I boated the 40-pounder. This striper was much shorter and squatter than those of equivalent weight I normally catch later in the season, a female loaded with eggs and bloated with body fat. Its outlandish proportions convinced me it was nearly ready to spawn. I slid the big girl back into the river, and she slapped a gallon of water in my face as she swam away.

The jerk bait was torn at the head, so I trimmed a couple of inches from it, rehooked it and made another cast toward shore, where wakes from cruising fish were still visible. I retrieved it quickly, alternately skipping the eel-like artificial over the surface, then killing it so it sank lazily through the water column. When the bait was halfway back to the boat, I saw a sight I'll never forget.

Two stripers had followed the jerk bait off the bank, swimming below and slightly behind it. I guesstimated the smaller fish at 25 pounds; it was as long, but not nearly as rotund, as the one I'd just boated -- probably a male. But it was the second striper that brought me to my knees.

I've caught, and seen, my share of giant stripers over the years. But this fish was so outlandishly huge, it looked like a mutant, a piscatorial version of those giant ants and grasshoppers from cheesy Fifties horror flicks. Its eyes were as big as tennis balls, and it's girth -- well, maybe it's because I'd spent the previous Saturday shopping with my wife for a new refrigerator, but when the monster came into full view, my initial reaction was, "Wow! It's as big around as a Frigidaire!" I've photographed stripers over 65 pounds, and there's no doubt in my mind that this beast weighed 75 to 80.

The lure was 15 feet away when the gargantuan striper rose for it. I braced myself for the strike that never came. Instead, it turned, sloshing a wave big enough to surf on against the side of the boat, then disappeared. Nearly hyperventilating from excitement, I managed another cast, and a 30-pounder instantly grabbed my jerk bait. I reared back with the rod, the fish shook its head violently, and the only lure I had with me ripped off the hook. The stripers kept busting shad for another hour, but all I could do was watch.

I lucked onto that school of prespawn fish, but if you play your cards right, you can pinpoint giant stripers before, during and after their annual spring spawning run. We've enlisted the advice of two legendary Tennessee striper guides, Ralph Dallas and Fred McClintock, to put you on the biggest striper of your fishing career this spring.

Goin' Through the Motions

According to Old Hickory Reservoir guide Ralph Dallas, landlocked stripers, unlike their saltwater cousins, do not usually spawn successfully due to lack of consistent current. "Once laid, the eggs of the striped bass must tumble and suspend in current up to 72 hours before they'll hatch," Dallas explained. "This means stripers living in slackwater impoundments have no chance of completing the spawn because there's little current flow. Even in rivers and river-run reservoirs, the eggs typically drift in current for several hours until generation from the upstream dam stops, and then they drop to the bottom where they're covered by silt or eaten by predators. Biologists have recorded successful striper spawning in a few inland waters, but it's rare."

But this doesn't stop these bruisers from answering Nature's call to reproduce, Dallas said. "Even if there's no chance of their eggs hatching, stripers will usually go through the motions of spawning. This opens an incredible window of opportunity for the trophy striper hunter."

Dallas ought to know -- he and his clients have boated hundreds of giant stripers from March through May, the prespawn/spawn period he regards as prime time for recordbook rockfish. He's caught not one, but two Tennessee state record stripers, a 62-pounder in '97 and a 65-6 in 2000, during this time frame. "Stripers can gain as much as 10 pounds in eggs alone, plus additional weight in body fat, prior to spawning. The same fish a week after dropping its eggs may easily way 15 pounds less, so it's easy to see why the period prior to spawning is prime time for giant fish."

Driven by Degrees

Like walleye and white bass, stripers undertake an annual upstream spawning run, a trek set in motion by rising water temperatures. Fred McClintock, who guides for stripers on the Cumberland River system in Tennessee and Kentucky, finds prespawn movements begin when the water reaches the high 40s to low 50s, typically early to mid March in his neck of the woods. "The duration of the spawning run changes from year to year," he emphasized. "We had a cold spring in 2001, and the run didn't get underway until April. After a mild winter, stripers could start moving toward the headwaters as early as late February."

The temperature at which stripers actually attempt to spawn also varies. "Biologists will tell you that the ideal water temperature for landlocked striper spawning is 65 degrees, and this can indeed be the case in many reservoirs. But some striper haunts, like the Lake Cumberland tailrace in Kentucky, never get that warm all year long. I've seen stripers spawning in water as cold as 55 degrees. There is no absolute spawning temperature; these fish will adapt to existing conditions."

Both McClintock and Dallas have witnessed stripers spawning many times, and agree it's a mind-boggling sight. "Last year I watched their spawning ritual for two days in the headwaters of Cordell Hull Lake, Tenn.," Fred indicated. "A big female, 30 to 60 pounds, would rise slowly toward the surface with an 18 to 25 pound male on either side of her. The males butted the female with their heads and crashed into her sides until she released her eggs, which they then sprayed with milt. This all took about 30 seconds, then the fish swim off into deeper water.  I'm not sure whether a big female releases all her eggs at once or over several spawning bouts; a huge fish can carry buckets of eggs."

Following the Fish

Since many reservoir systems span great distances between dams, it may seem like an impossible task to locate stripers during prespawn. But our experts offered some tips at locating fish during their spawning run.

"During the winter months, many stripers locate in deep water in the lower end of a reservoir, and may be nearly dormant," Dallas noted. "Then once the water temperature rises into the prespawn zone, they begin moving toward the headwaters, a process that can take several weeks."

As stripers undertake their upstream journey, they stop and 'stage' in key places, including the following:

  • Shallow points -- "Long, slow-tapering points that drop into the old river channel are often the first places stripers stage when moving toward the headwaters. When the water is in the upper 40s to mid 50s, run your graph over the ends of long points 1 to 5 miles up from the dam and you'll probably find concentrations of staging fish."
  • Humps --  "Common structures in flatland reservoirs; stripers stage on 10- to 15-foot humps surrounded by deep water."
  • Holes --  "Excellent staging areas in shallow rivers and tailraces. Look for 10- to 15-foot holes with lots of snaggy wood cover -- river stripers love wood as much as largemouth bass do."
  • Bars -- "These structures offer ample forage opportunities and a quick access to deep water."
  • Bluff banks -- "Stripers often hold around rock slides and boulders at the base of bluffs, probably because shad are drawn here by the thick coating of algae that forms on the rocks."
     

Unless you're on the water every day, it can be tough staying on prespawners, Dallas noted. "You never know how long they'll stage on a specific spot before taking off upriver. If you were on fish Saturday and can't find 'em Sunday, try checking some of the staging areas I've mentioned a half-mile to a mile upstream."

Back-to-back weather fronts typical of spring can further complicate locating fish, Dallas indicated. "The worst-case scenario is a big rain that makes the reservoir or river rise quickly and turn muddy. Stripers hate high water and mud; they'll park in a sunken tree off a point or in a deep hole and wait until conditions improve before moving or feeding. I've found these fish virtually impossible to catch."

Actual spawning activity takes place in a wide array of locations, McClintock said. "Some fish run all the way to the upstream dam to spawn, others spawn further downlake. The first shallow shoal the stripers encounter as they progress into the headwaters is a common spawning location, as is a 'run' or straight stretch of river with a depth of 6 to 10 feet. I've also seen 'em spawning in shallow feeder creeks. In reservoirs with little current, spawning activity is not nearly as pronounced as in river-run reservoirs. Here, stripers may try to spawn on long points in the upper end of the lake."

The bite is usually much slower during and immediately after the spawn than in prespawn, Fred indicated. "The females may not be interested in feeding at all. Males will often chase your shad, but not eat it."

Post-spawn stripers quickly disperse throughout the system; many head back downlake. McClintock often finds fish in the first deep hole below spawning runs and shoals. 

Live Bait Methods

Live bait is always the most consistent way to catch stripers, and at no time is bait fishing more exciting than now. In spring, Dallas and McClintock use large gizzard shad and skipjack herring for most of their trophy-class stripers. Fresh-caught bait is absolutely essential. Shad are gathered on shallow bars and shoals with a cast net; skipjack are caught below dams on small tube jigs. Both guides carry 50-gallon shad tanks in their boats; these have rounded interior walls so bait doesn't "red-nose" by running into corners. Tank water is treated with Shad Saver (Sure-Life Labs, 830/372-2239) to keep bait in tiptop shape.

Our sources recommend these bait rigging/presentation methods:

  • Planer boards  -- Open-water walleye trollers use these devices to spread out their lures; they're a godsend when you're hunting roving packs of stripers during prespawn. Planer boards let you cover big structures such as bars, points and shoals quickly and efficiently.
  • Three-way rig -- A "rifle" approach for targeting huge stripers in prespawn staging areas, especially river holes. Can be fished with either live or "cut" (pieces of dead) bait. Anchor and cast the baited rig into the hole. Excellent technique during cold fronts and mid-day, when stripers are typically less active.
  • Float rig -- Easily the most exciting way to catch a striper. When searching for prespawners, run two to four planer boards off the sides of the boat and a baitfish on a float rig down the middle. Also a superb backup method when casting artificials: if a striper rolls on a topwater lure but doesn't strike, go back to the spot later and cast a float rig into its lair. Often you'll get an explosive hookup the second the bait smacks the water.

Use stout tackle with live bait. Dallas prefers 7- to  8-foot G. Loomis saltwater rods with a medium tip, coupled with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 reels spooled with 130 pound Bass Pro Shops Magi-Braid line. McClintock likes 8 to 10 foot St. Croix planer board rods and Shimano Charter Captain Special reels loaded with 50 pound Ande mono. Both anglers use Eagle Claw 084 bait hooks, size 7/0 for shad, up to 10/0 for skippies. This gear probably strikes most anglers as overly heavy, but remember, our experts fish where the big 'uns live, in snaggy rivers and tailraces. In slackwater reservoirs with a minimum of submerged cover (and smaller fish), use bass flipping gear and 14 to 20 pound line. 
      
The Lure of Giant Fish

Spawn-time stripers will plaster artificials, too. Both Dallas and McClintock have caught fish approaching 60 pounds on Cordell Red Fins during this period; retrieve this big minnow plug s-l-o-w-l-y in the places we've talked about so it makes a wake on the surface. You can also hang a monster striper now on a big prop bait like a Luhr-Jensen Woodchopper, and on a magnum soft jerk bait like Lunker City's 10-inch Fin-S Fish. Other good lure choices include oversized shallow-diving crankbaits like the saltwater Rat-L-Trap, musky plugs, and those humongous California jointed lures like the A. C. Plug. Stripers show a strong preference for shad, white and rainbow trout color patterns.

Whatever artificial lure you choose, you'd best be on the water early (or stay late) to throw it. Stripers are most active in low-light periods, and your shot at a big one on an artificial lure, especially a topwater plug, diminishes quickly once the sun gets high. Use artificials at daylight and dark or on cloudy days, then switch to live bait once the sun is overhead.

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Planer Board Stripers

By Don Wirth

Planer Board StripersThe Cumberland River Boys. Sounds like a bluegrass band, but that's what I call my inner circle of compadres who prowl the Cumberland River system of Kentucky and Tennessee for giant landlocked stripers. Ralph Dallas, Fred McClintock and I, three members of this rag-tag band of river rats, have been messing around with planer boards for stripers for over 20 years. The results have been pretty amazing. Dallas, of Goodlettsville, Tennessee, has logged not one, but two Tennessee state record stripers, and holds the current mark with a 65-6 behemoth. McClintock, of Celina, Tennessee has boated scores of 50s and a handful of 60s with boards. And every time I drop a baited line and a board in the river, I get goose bumps thinking of that refrigerator-sized striper that spooled me last summer.

We're dealing with big, incredibly powerful fish here. Stripers in the Cumberland River system, especially the choice section stretching from the Lake Cumberland dam in Kentucky downstream to the Old Hickory dam north of Nashville, commonly run 20 to 35 pounds. Forties aren't unusual, 50s are rare but possible, and 60s, 70s, and bigger exist. Without question, this water holds world record fish. The hair stands up on the back of my neck every time I replay an interview tape of Dallas, who is a taxidermist and a good judge of fish weights, describing his encounter with a striper he estimated at close to 100 pounds.

Conditions are near-perfect in the Cumberland for monster stripers: cool, highly-oxygenated water (even in midsummer), plenty of current and an abundance of gizzard shad and skipjack herring. Hooking up with a big fish is pretty easy; landing it is a challenge, due to the amount of snaggy wood cover in the river. We always cringe when we see newcomers to the river using bass tackle, because super-heavy lines (40 to 50 pound mono, up to 130 pound braid) and light saltwater gear are needed to consistently bring these bruisers to the boat. Our livebaits are big, too: 8- to 10-inch gizzard shad, skipjacks weighing two pounds or better. So much for angling as a gentle persuasion -- this is industrial-strength fishing!

Adapting Planer Boards to Stripers
Planer boards are nothing new -- saltwater fishermen and walleye anglers have been using 'em for years. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, planer boards are surface-running directional devices that attach to your line and "plane" sideways, moving your lure or livebait away from the boat. They allow you to cover a wider swath with your presentation while preventing boat-shy gamefish from spooking. Planer boards come in left- and right-handed versions, and have a release at the front that pinches and holds your line. Most anglers rig their boards so that when a fish strikes, the line pulls out of the clip and the board pops free, allowing them to fight the fish unencumbered.

Most popular brands of planer boards like Offshore and Yellow Bird have a second line-attachment device at the trailing end, either another line release or a cross-lock swivel. Pop-up flags come with some boards; these help you see the devices more easily in choppy water and foggy conditions.

  1. You'll find several differences in the way we use boards for river stripers: 
    We often modify our boards to be more compatible with heavy lines and big baits.
  2. We use livebait behind our boards much more frequently than lures. I've experimented with trailing big swim baits like the A.C. Plug behind my boards, and have caught fish, but there's simply nothing more enticing to a big striper than a shad or a hyperactive skippy.
  3. We vary the distance from the board to the bait a great deal and often run our baits much closer to our boards than you'd expect -- sometimes only 4 or 5 feet.
  4. We often use our boards tight to cover, not merely to spread out our presentations in open water.

Advisory Board
I queried Ralph Dallas and Fred McClintock for specifics on their planer boards:

Dallas: "I use Offshore boards; they're bigger and heavier than others I've tried, and can handle larger baits. However, they require some modification to work with the 1- to 2-pound skipjacks that I use exclusively for bait. Neither the standard nor the heavy-tension line release clips are strong enough to consistently hold under the pull of an active skipjack, so I fashion super-heavy release clips from aluminum stock, stout springs and plumber's washers. These grab and hold the line firmly, even when you've got a huge skippy back there carrying on. I also cut a strip of aluminum the length of the board, bend it to match the contour of the board's wedge, and screw it to the side. This acts as a keel to keep the board vertical in the water so it'll plane better when using a big bait.

I've experimented extensively with various line attachments on the trailing end of the board as well. Ideally, I want the board to pop free when a fish hits so I can fight it without extra weight and drag on the line. I run a brass screw-eye into the top center of the back-end of the board, attach a heavy brass split ring to this, and then run the ring through an extra-light snap swivel, which I'll attach to my line. A striper usually creams the bait when it strikes, then takes off running. The light-gauge snap straightens out when the line suddenly pulls tight, and the board pops free -- about 75% of the time, that is. I'm still searching for the perfect line attachment system.

McClintock: Offshore boards equipped with heavy tension releases will handle large gizzard shad with no problem. I also use the smaller Wille boards with built-in rattles, which are effective in murky water. I replace the stock release clips on the back ends of my boards with a corkscrew buckle swivel from Evans Manufacturing (360/332-9505).
     
Tackle & Equipment
You'll need heavy tackle for his system. Dallas uses 7-foot G. Loomis saltwater rods with roller guides, Ambassadeur 7000 reels,130 lb. Bass Pro MagiBraid line and Eagle Claw style 84 hooks from 7/0 to 9/0. McClintock favors 10-foot St. Croix planer board rods, Penn 320 trolling reels, Ande 50 pound clear mono, 10/0 circle hooks and Mustad #9174 hooks from 6/0 up. Both guides will also use stout treble hooks such as the Mustad #3551 with large skipjacks.

Your boat must be equipped with an aerated shad tank. Dallas supplements his with an onboard bottled oxygen system, necessary for keeping skipjack herring alive. A cast net is needed to gather gizzard shad; skippies can be caught in the fast water below days on a spinning outfit baited with a tube jig or small spoon.

Neither Dallas nor McClintock use a landing net, which would break fins and knock scales off these heavy fish. Ralph uses a musky cradle; Fred hand-lands his stripers. Cold, highly-oxygenated water means live release is possible and is heartily recommended.

Early Spring Pattern (March - April)
March typically signals the beginning of the Cumberland River striper season. The water is cold (often 44 to 50 degrees) and many fish are positioned in the wide, deep, slackwater Old Hickory and Cordell Hull reservoir pools. They're often suspending 20 to 30 feet deep around big schools of shad in the larger tributary arms.

Dallas: "The classic reservoir presentation for stripers suspending in deep, open water is to fish vertically with weighted down-lines, but planer boards allow a more natural presentation with much bigger baits. Plus, when using boards, there's no weight on your line to restrict the movements of the bait. When a striper moves closer, you want your bait to be free to run; this excites the fish into hitting.

When fishing with clients, I locate baitfish schools or suspending stripers on my graph, then, using my trolling motor, work around the bait/stripers with up to five baited lines. Two are attached to left-hand boards, two to right-hand boards, a fifth is run without a board about 100 feet behind the boat. Each pair of boards is staggered: one 25 feet from the boat, the other 35 feet.

I normally run my baits 20 feet in back of my boards in spring -- this allows it enough freedom of movement in the water column to draw the attention of a suspending fish. Proceeding slowly down the middle of a tributary arm, close to a channel bluff or off a point, I'll frequently turn the trolling motor to the right or left, causing the boards on the opposite side to speed or slow down so their attached baits move shallower or deeper.

McClintock: The name of the game now is covering as much water as possible. With customers aboard, I run seven lines off a trolling board which I've rigged on the back of my boat. The center rod is run 100 feet straight back with a bait positioned 10 feet below a balloon. Normally I'll put the biggest bait in my shad tank on this rod. Then moving out from the center, I run two lines with planer boards 60 feet from the boat; the bait is 10 feet behind each board. Continuing out from center, the next two lines have boards set 30 feet from the boat, again with baits 10 feet back. The two outer lines have boards set 10 feet from the boat; these are down lines with 15 foot leaders, weighted with an ounce of bead chain lead placed 5 feet above the hook. This setup lets me cover a swath of water over 120 feet wide on each pass, ideal when fishing big tributary arms for suspended stripers.

I'll move very slowly, around 1 1/2 mph, using the trolling motor to pull the boards between two opposing points, along steep channel bluffs, up onto mud flats, anywhere I see clouds of bait on my graph. Often you'll go three or four hours without any action, then suddenly you've got one, two, three or more stripers hooked up at once. This is a great time to catch a giant fish, because they're fattening up prior to their annual spawning run.

Summer/Fall Pattern
Once our air temperatures reach the stifling point, stripers seek the coldest, most highly-oxygenated water they can find, which inevitably leads them into the upper third of the reservoir. Here they orient to undercut banks, logjams, shoreline deadfalls, gravel bars, eddies, bluff holes, shallow shoals -- all the structures you're already familiar with if you've fished rivers much. The extreme upper end of the system, from 1 to 10 miles below the dams, commonly has water temps in the 60s even when nearby slackwater lakes are in the high 80s. 

Stripers are low-light feeders, and will actively roam now at dawn and dusk, all day if it's cloudy or rainy. Often you'll see hellacious explosions as a wolfpack of monster stripers decimates a school of shad on the surface. Big topwater plugs and soft jerkbaits are deadly now, but nothing is more consistent than good ol' live bait.

Dallas: River stripers are going to be shallow and oriented to the bank, and to wood cover in holes off shore. How I fish now depends on current generation. If the current is strong, I'll point my boat downstream, use my trolling motor to move slightly ahead of the current, and run all my planer boards off the same side of the boat, staggering them as follows: the board farthest from the boat (maybe 45 feet) is extremely tight to the bank; the next board is 35 feet away; the next 25 feet, and so on. Spacing the boards out this way helps decrease the likelihood of a hooked fish gathering up other lines as it makes a run for deep water. I hold the rod with the board running closest to the bank in my hands, directing the board around wood cover with the rod tip. The rest of the rods are hand-held or placed in holders.

In slow or slack current, it's not so important to fish tight to the bank or cover -- sometimes stripers will be hanging out in the middle of the river, relating to nothing at all. I'll run up to two left- and two right-handed boards now, plus a bait rigged under a balloon 50 to 75 feet straight back.

Stripers can be very reluctant to bite in high, fast water. Try pointing your trolling motor into the current, holding the boat steady and running one or two boards downstream so they're practically bumping into an undercut bank. The current intensity is greatly reduced close to shore, and you can hold your board and bait there for extended periods until Mr. Big loads on.

How far I run by baits behind the boards depends on the weather. If there's a front coming in and the fish are active, I may run 'em as tight as 5 feet behind the boards; in a cold front scenario, I might go 20 feet. Fishing a board tight to cover with a long line trailing behind it inevitably spells trouble -- it's easy for the bait to swim down into a logjam and get hung up. As a rule of thumb, when I'm on this pattern, I keep the distance from the board to the bait as close as possible.

McClintock: During summer and fall, I'll gauge the number of lines I fish by the water clarity and striper mood. If the fish are active and the river is stained, I'll fish three boards on the shoreline side of the boat -- one right on the bank, the second 15 feet closer to the boat and the third 15 feet closer than the second -- each with the bait trailing 7 to 10 feet behind the boards. In highly-stained water, I'll reduce the distance from the board to the bait down to 5 feet. If the water is clear, stripers aren't as locked into the bank or cover, but they can be extremely spooky, so I'll run three additional boards off the opposite side of the boat with my baits trailing 15 to 20 feet behind.

I use what I call a "controlled drift" in fast current, keeping my boards running just a shade faster than the current so they'll plane properly. This means if the current is 5 mph, I'm moving around 5 1/2 mph. At these speeds, you've got to keep alert and constantly monitor your boards in relation to bank contours and shoreline cover. The idea is to get your boards and baits as close to cover as possible without constantly hanging up. This takes practice -- if you spot a submerged tree up ahead, you'll have to reel up your boards well ahead of time to get around it. But don't be overly timid when fishing boards around cover -- I like to slide mine right over limbs, stumps and boulders. Often, just after your board bumps against a tree, you'll see a big wake roll off the cover, followed by a surface strike of landmine intensity as a huge striper plasters your bait. Freshwater fishing just doesn't get any more exciting than this!

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Winging It For River Catfish

By Keith Sutton

Wing Dike River Catfish

Veteran catfish guide James Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee, often catches trophy catfish such as this monster blue cat, in the swirling waters around Mississippi River wing dikes like the one visible in the background.

The long rock wall jutted from the bank into the Mississippi River. At the wall's end, the river rolled around on itself to create a huge vortex. It looked like someone had pulled a huge plug from the river bottom, and all the water was going down an enormous drain.

"Suckholes," we called such maelstroms when I was a youngster catfishing the river with older relatives. Some call them "whirlpools." James Patterson of the Mississippi River Guide Service prefers the term "eddy."

"Drop your bait right at the edge of that eddy," Patterson said, "and free-spool it all the way to the bottom." I did as he suggested, and to my surprise, the big chunk of shad went straight down. The instant the bait touched bottom, before I was quite prepared, something huge grabbed it. And when it did, that "something huge" nearly snatched the rod from my hands.

I never saw that something huge. It got the best of me, as the big ones often do. I'm quite certain, however, it was a catfish -- probably a sizeable blue. And I learned that day that catfish fans who often fish large navigable waterways should study and understand both structures Patterson and I were fishing -- wing dikes and eddies.

Eddy

An eddy or "whirlpool" forms at the end of a wing dike. A bait dropped adjacent to this swirling bit of water will sink quickly to the bottom where it's sure to entice any nearby cat.

The rock walls known as wing dikes (or wing dams) are placed in strategic locations to help maintain ship channel depth and lessen shoreline erosion. They are most numerous in hydropower and navigation dam tailwaters but may be scattered along the entire length of a big river. They fulfill their intended functions by diverting current. They usually lay perpendicular to shore, and when moving water strikes one, it swirls back on itself. The force of the current then moves outward, toward the middle of the river. The water velocity slows, allowing suspended sediments to fall and accumulate on the river bottom. Over a period of years, the spaces between wing dikes will fill with these sediments. This narrows the river, creating more forceful current in the main channel that sweeps the bottom clean so little dredging is needed to maintain adequate depth for barge traffic.

Inactive catfish typically stay on a wing dike's downstream side, lying on bottom, usually near inshore reaches. Current is minimal here so rest is possible.

Most feeding catfish, especially the more numerous small cats, hold near the river's bottom on a wing dike's upstream side. The reason for this is three-fold. First, water hydraulics here create a "tube" of reduced current near bottom running the length of the dike. Hungry cats can feed here without using excess energy. Also, this is an abundant food zone-crayfish and mussels in the rocks; shad, herring and other baitfish holding in the slower cylinder of water. Finally, when the river is high and the wing dike is submerged, catfish can feed on addled or injured forage animals easily captured in the boil-line directly above the rocks and immediately downstream.

Wing Dikes

Many wing dikes can be seen in this aerial view of the Arkansas River in Arkansas. These catfish-attracting structures are particularly common near big river dams.

You should now understand the basics of wing-dike catfishing: to catch lots of eating-size cats, fish the upstream side. Downstream is rarely as productive.

There is another lesson, however, perhaps even more important: trophy catfish -- blues, channels and flatheads -- are best targeted around the eddies near the ends of wing dikes. This I learned from James Patterson, who often fishes around these "whirlpools" with his clients, and who frequently catches monster cats when doing so.

"I don't fish the eddy part of this rotation," Patterson told me the day I hooked something huge. "Instead, I fish the current along the edges. I have found that catfish in eddy water are not active. Active cats are along the edges, so that's where I want to anchor and fish."

Like most ardent blue-cat anglers, Patterson relies on two primary baits to entice his quarry. "I use live shad a lot, even though they're hard to find," he says. "Cut skipjack herrings also are good bait."

A simple three-way-swivel rig is Patterson's standard. The 2-foot hook leader is tipped with a 3/0 to 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. The 8-inch weight leader is tied to a 3-ounce sinker. His fishing gear consists of "a heavy-action casting rod with a light tip and a lot of butt strength" and a bait-casting reel that holds at least 200 yards of 20-pound-test line.

Wing Dike Catfish

The author displays a 64-pound blue cat caught on a wing dike in the Missouri River. Fishing right, wing dikes produce lots of eating-sized cats, too.

"I anchor above the hole I intend to fish," Patterson says, "then cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Sometimes I'll have out 200 feet of line. Blues usually hit hard and quick, so rod holders are necessary if you fish more rods than you can hold."

It would seem that a bait tossed to the edge of one of these huge suckholes would swirl round and round. But when done properly, the bait will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end, and then prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes, but if there's no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole.

Strikes usually come quick and hard, so use heavy tackle, and keep a firm grip on your rod at all times. One moment of inattention could cost you the catfish of lifetime. I learned that lesson the hard way when my "something huge" got away.

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Drop Shotting Smallmouth Bass

By Tony Hansen

Drop Shotting Smallmouth Bass

The drop-shot is about as simple as bass fishing gets. It features a small octopus-style hook, a specially-designed weight and your choice of finesse plastics.

There was no doubt a bite was about to happen.

For the last 20 seconds or so, the constant tick-tick-tick of the weight dragging across the rocky lake bottom had been constantly interrupted by the somewhat-annoying, always incessant nipping at the bait by fish that were clearly too small to actually inhale the hook. These pesky critters were, most likely, a pack of gobies.

But the pecking had stopped. It was only a matter of time.

Tap, Tap. Thump!

The sensation shooting up the fluorocarbon line was not the result of the weight bouncing off a rock. And it certainly wasn't generated by the diminutive taps of a goby. As I lifted the rod tip skyward, the rod blank loaded into a satisfying arc. A few quick turns of the reel handle coupled with an aggressive but controlled snap of the tip and yet another battle with the bronze beast was on.

The fish tipped my hand-held digital scale at just over four pounds. A solid fish but, quite frankly, it was just above average on this incredible summer day.

Welcome to Lake Erie -- land of giant smallmouth bass and the new home of the drop-shot.

Drop-Shot Tackle

Soft-plastic goby imitations are the overwhelming bait choice for Lake Erie smallmouths.

The drop-shot rig is a relative newcomer to the world of bass fishing -- at least it is to those who us who live anywhere outside of the West. Drop-shotting originated in the deep, clear reservoirs of the western United States where it was used to dupe ultra-finicky bass. The technique soon spread to the southern reaches of the nation where it was just the ticket for filling limits with spotted bass. Largemouth aficionados -- spurred by the success of big-name anglers like Aaron Martens -- soon started wielding spinning rods, tiny hooks and light line with regularity.

But smallmouths? Big, mean brutes of the deep? Believe it.

The drop-shot, for those unfamiliar with it, is about as simple as bass fishing gets. It features a small octopus-style hook, a specially-designed weight and your choice of finesse plastics.

Tying up a drop-shot is easy.

First, start with a quality hook. You'll be using hooks much smaller than you're used to and quality hooks are extremely important. Use one that's tack-sharp and fish will stay stuck. Good choices include Bass Pro's XPS octopus hook, Gamakatsu's drop shot hook or Eagle Claw's Octopus Hook (model L7226BP). Hooks sizes vary slightly depending on the plastic you're attaching to the hook. For small, finesse-style worms, I'll use a size 1. For drop-shot gobies and bulkier baits, a 1/0 is needed for solid hook penetration.

Drop-Shot Rig
Next, tie the hook to the line using a Palomar knot, leaving an extra-long tag end of about 10-18 inches. Finally, attach a drop-shot weight to the tag end. Drop-shot weights are specially-designed weights that feature a small swivel with line-pinching eyes. Just pass the line through the eye, pull up and the line will cinch in tight. You can add a simple overhand knot to keep the weight from pulling free. But when fishing rock-riddled waters, I forego the knot. When snagged, I can give a few quick snaps of the rod tip and the weight will pull free rather than breaking the line at the hook.

Once rigged, select a bait. For Lake Erie smallmouths, there is one overwhelming choice: the goby.

Gobies are non-native fish that were introduced into the Great Lakes from the discharge of ballast water by ocean-going vessels. New exotic species are introduced into the Great Lakes at a rate of about one new species every eight months by the unregulated discharge of ballast water. Many of these species are having dramatic and devastating impacts on the Great Lakes. The goby is one of those species. These fish are small but voracious feeders and are outcompeting many native species, such as perch, for food. On the positive side, the goby has created a tremendous forage base for smallmouth bass and the brown fish are bigger and badder than ever because of it.

Gobies are a bottom-dwelling species, which is why the drop-shot is an ideal presentation. By using a drop-shot, anglers can present goby baits about a foot off the bottom and by using a heavy weight (3/8- to 1/2-ounce weights are most popular) it's possible to fish ultra-deep where big packs of heavy smallmouths live during the summer months.

Drop Shot Smallmouth

The author demonstrates the effectiveness of the drop-shot rig on Lake Erie smallmouth.


I was fortunate to learn the art of drop-shotting for Lake Erie smallmouth from veteran Lake Erie angler Randy Ramsey of Battle Creek, MI. Ramsey finished second in the EverStart Series points race for the northern division in 2003 and finished second in the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League's Michigan division, including a pair of Top 10 finishes on Lake Erie. The drop-shot played a major role in those performances.

Many of the fish that Ramsey and I caught while pre-fishing for Erie tournaments fell victim to the drop-shot.

"It's an awesome tool for Lake Erie because it presents the bait exactly where the bass live and in a position that mimics their preferred forage," says Ramsey. "There was a time when dragging tubes and throwing jerkbaits dominated the tournament scene on Erie. Now the drop-shot is the undisputed king."

There are many different goby imitations available. Bass Pro Shops offers a pair of soft-plastic goby imitations including a Tournament Series Goby that's available in eight colors. One of the hottest baits for 2007 has been Berkley's Gulp! Goby. Poor Boy's Baits makes an outstanding, hand-poured goby as well.

The techniques used to fish the drop-shot are simple as well. Cast it near fish-holding structures such as humps and rock piles and slowly drag it back. When the wind is blowing -- as it often is on this huge body of water -- many anglers will simply allow the wind to drift them across the area. Keep a taut line and, if you're in the right area, it's only a matter of time before the bites come.

Gobies are not the only bait suitable for fooling Erie's smallmouths. Leeches, minnows, finesse worms and Senko-style baits can also work.

"It really depends on what the bass are feeding on at that time," says Ramsey, a member of the Mercury Marine pro staff. "There are times when the bass are feeding more on smelt or young perch or shiners than they are on gobies. You always want to experiment with baits to see what's working best."

Drop Shot Smallie

During the fall months, as the bite slows during the middle of the day, the drop-shot rig will continue to catch fish.

While drop-shotting takes plenty of giant smallmouth from water as deep as 30 feet during the summer months, the technique can be just as effective in the fall as the fish move shallower.

As fall settles in and water temperatures begin to drop, smallmouth bass will migrate shallower. The bass feed heavily as they bulk up for the winter months. And the drop-shot rig will continue to catch those fish. Simply look for fish in shallower waters and experiment with baits to see what they're feeding on.

Typically, anglers searching for smallmouth in shallow water during the fall months will employ a variety of hard-body jerkbaits, crankbaits and spinnerbaits. All are effective. But as the bite slows during the middle stages of the day, the drop-shot can shine once again.

During a recent outing on Lake Erie, Ramsey and I caught numbers of big smallmouth on drop-shot rigs in water as shallow as eight feet. Sure, fast-moving, reaction-type baits produced some fish. But as the bite slowed, the drop-shot continued to put fish in the boat -- including some of the biggest fish of the outing.

While the drop-shot rig is an ultra-simple setup, it does require some thought when selecting the tools used to fish it. A long, sensitive rod is vital. I prefer rods at least seven feet in length in a medium power with an extra-fast action. You want a soft, limber tip but plenty of backbone below that tip to quickly pick up line and hook fish in deep water. The perfect drop-shot rod for Lake Erie smallmouths is quite different than those used for spotted bass or even largemouths. You need a longer rod that's able to drive the hook home, yet with enough "give" to keep these big, aggressive fish from breaking the light line that's required.

The hookset with a drop-shot is also different. First off, you don't cross their eyes. Instead, you feel the tell-tale thump of a bite and lift the rod. If it loads up with the weight of a fish, simply rotate your body and give a quick snap upward while reeling quickly. The exposed hook will almost always find itself buried neatly in the corner of the fish's mouth.

Fluorocarbon line is a must. Most Erie drop-shotting is done with 8-pound test line. If the water is slightly stained, you can bump up to 10-pound test. If the water is ultra-clear, steping down to 6-pound can mean more bites.

Drop-shotting on Erie is primarily done with spinning tackle. When using such light line, a smooth, reliable drag isn't a commodity -- it's a necessity. Drag should be set fairly light. Generally, the big bronzebacks you tie into on Erie will be coming from open-water haunts. There won't be many weeds, logs or other obstructions. Allowing the fish to simply tire itself by fighting the length of the limber rod and the reliable operation of the drag system on your reel will prevent you from breaking fish off.

Smallmouth bass are, pound for pound, one of the strongest, meanest fish in fresh water. Lake Erie smallmouth, however, are not of this world. They're big, powerful fish with a nasty disposition. They're just as likely to pull hard for the bottom and thump repeatedly with determined head-shakes as they are to race for the surface and let loose with an aerial display that would make the Blue Angels take note.

Lake Erie is a special place indeed. It is one of -- if not the best -- smallmouth fishery in the world, and the autumn months can produce some of the year's best action. Learn the art of drop-shotting as it applies to this freshwater ocean and you'll be primed for the outing of a lifetime.

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Pitching Pilchards to Snook

By Capt. Joe Richard

Pilchards in Bait Net
Live pilchards were the key to fast action on snook.

For shallow water snook, a live pilchard is pure candy. We were reminded of that recently in the Everglades, fighting one snook after another in the hot sun, fish approaching 20 pounds, which isn't bad. On board were two Flamingo guides with a lot of years between them in these waters, Captains Mark Cowart and Dave Lee, fishing as a team on their day off. By day's end, the local snook had their lips stretched and probably weren't happy about it.  

Pilchard hotspots are closely guarded, and we ran a long way to get them. Maybe too far, with today's gas prices. We arrived on the edge of a grassy, nameless channel and shoved the pushpole down in three feet of water at the stern. That way, the boat's bow was facing downwind. That meant the castnetter had a deck to throw from, making easy downwind tosses. He tied a mesh bag off to a dock cleat, with a block of frozen chum inside. The current carried the smelly crumbs out over the grass, and it wasn't long before the crumb snatchers arrived.

These were common pinfish, always worth saving and using during the day. But the telltale flash of pilchards in the water was the real prize. When a hundred or more baitfish were milling in the chumline, Cowart tossed his big castnet. Ploom! It landed in a nice circle and he was soon dragging perhaps 40 baitfish into the boat, along with several mangrove snapper, which were tossed back. This happened about 10 times with varying degrees of success. Indeed, he kept throwing while we were cleaning grass and debris from the deck; he said more pilchards always seem to arrive late, just as you're cleaning up to leave.

Snook
Captain Mark Cowart lands and releases a keeper-size snook in the Everglades, out of Flamingo Park.

Several hundred baitfish were tossed in a big livewell under the front deck. We then noticed the high-flow water pump wasn't working to capacity, the intake perhaps clogged with floating grass that was everywhere that day. No problem -- we transferred most of them to the stern livewell, which was pumping vigorously. We then blasted out of there, heading back into the Everglades. The wind gusted from the east, but we were soon back in the forest, among winding passages completely protected. It looked like freshwater lake country, and it partially is, though saltwater fish prowl it throughout.

These captains were using thin, red circle hooks that live pilchards can easily carry, when hooked through the gristle or nasal cavity. The hook was certainly strong enough for fighting snook on anything up to 30 or 40 pound line, anyway. The trick was to let the snook take off after a strike, without setting the hook. Our guest Rick Mott was new at this, and "rared back" on a couple of early snook, before settling down and using the right technique.

These hooks almost guarantee a lip-hold on most fish, including snook, and that is especially great for releasing fish. We even had solid hookups by leaving a rod or two in the rear rod holders mounted on the poling platforms, and letting the pilchards swim perhaps 40 feet behind the boat. Phoom! The rod bent double, and we had another snook jumping like crazy. The red hooks were called Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp Circle Sea 4/0's.

Snook
Snook tail-walks on the water after being hooked.

Great action, but you had to watch out for bull sharks. They love snook and snook water, which is often semi-fresh and either muddy or tannin-stained. These particular sharks operate in murky water -- better to make mischief -- striking without warning, since you can't see their approach. If you have a snook or two cut to pieces by sharks, it's best to move on. There's no use wasting snook -- especially during closed season, when it's strictly catch-and-release.

Our new guy Rick is from North Florida, and had never fished for snook. He hooked an estimated 18-pounder, but it was cut off by a shark at the gills, a real heart-breaker. It made us consider putting out a heavy line and messing up that shark's day, but we did nothing about it. Bull sharks simply love snook meat, ignoring our hooked jacks and trout. We even saw a bull shark rooting back in the tree roots, moving them around. Very likely they've been doing this for some time before snook fishermen arrived -- as in several million years.  

We used three-feet of 40-pound flurocarbon line as leader, and this arrangement certainly drew strikes. I was hoping for a few jump photos, and got a few, but then a 12-pound snook grabbed my spin gear and bent the rod deep. I set the camera down, grabbed the rod, the snook jumped, and cut the leader in mid-air...As Dave Lee pointed out, "Jumps are nice, but that's when they damage or cut your leader." A snook's gill plate is razor-sharp, and that fast head-shake in the air just isn't healthy for mono leaders. And wire leaders are no good, since snook see them if the water has the slightest clarity.  

Snook eaten by bull shark
Bad luck with bull sharks: Rick Mott's fine snook was attacked before it could be landed.

Indeed, on one outside beach we plainly saw a school of 20 snook milling, each fish in the 12 to 18 pound range. A hooked pilchard soon swam above them on the surface, but amazingly, wasn't attacked. It seems the snook were waiting for the tide to begin flowing, before actively feeding.

Spin tackle worked more effectively than baitcasting. The latter is far better for manhandling snook away from roots, docks and other cover, but spin tackle excels at flipping unweighted, small live baits a better distance, and without ripping them off the hook in mid-air. Our crew had both kinds of tackle, and spin gear won hands-down. Spin tackle with some backbone, a medium reel and 30-pound braid line is well-suited here.

Generally, we moved around with the electric motor, up and down the shoreline. We spooked an occasional snook that left a muddy boil, but we were able to ease up on fish that were feeding. Anchoring or even tying the boat to a tree will work, of course, depending on where you fish. Many guides anchor and cast pilchards on the flats around potholes, even chumming with live pilchards. They'll scoop up several dozen baits in a Clorox bottle with the bottom cut off, which makes for a good slinging tool. The pilchards hit the water 20 yards away, dazed and confused, and the snook take notice, popping the surface when each pilchard is slurped down.

Our pilchards were more bait-sized, some almost six inches, and we didn't chum. Rather, it was pitch a bait out and let it swim with that light circle hook. Several of our best hits occurred after we set out a live bait and just left the rod in a holder. Phoom! There was a boil, the rod bent double and the circle hook worked to perfection. 

Our bait gradually dwindled and everyone grew tired. It was a long boat ride back, since Everglades National Park is a sprawling expanse with only a remote, single parking lot. It has two boat ramps and gasoline (usually), though facilities have fallen into disrepair after several hurricanes. It has a nice marina, however. 

At day's end we met a tired guide and two clients, climbing from their boat back at Flamingo's boat ramp. They'd had little luck tossing lures and flies. They inquired about our day, listened and shook their heads. Their guide remarked, "We did it the hard way."

How's the old saying go? "We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way."

Joe Richard is a Gainesville, Florida, writer and photographer who owns Seafavorites.com, a stock photo web site of outdoor photography. Captain Mark Cowart can be reached at (954) 893-9913 and Capt. Dave Lee is at (305) 246-9701.

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Off-Season Kenai Kings

By James O. Fraioli

Off-Season Kenai Kings
An off-season 50-pound chrome king.

It's seven o'clock on a soggy overcast morning. As expected, Alaska's most illustrious river is awash with anglers -- hundreds of them -- eager to pull a trophy from the 52-degree water. Atop every recognized salmon hole, more than 25 boats line up like rush-hour traffic, hoping to be the lucky one. While guides throttle their outboard engines and fishermen stare intently at their rod tips, 47-year-old Kenai native Jim McCormick patiently observes from the shoreline. He snickers at the circus-like spectacle. "And the fish aren't even running yet."

McCormick, a full-time guide with 14 years of experience on the Kenai, invites my father, Jim Fraioli, and I aboard his floating office -- a fully-equipped 20-foot aluminum boat with a deep-V hull. "Wait until mid-July when the late run is coming in," he adds. "Thousands of boats will be in here." Tightening the straps on his camo bibs, he notes: "It'll be so stacked up you'll be able to cross the river walking from boat to boat."

Like seasoned travelers who take trips during the off-season to elude hoards of over zealous tourists, we are here end of June -- missing the early run and dodging the sizeable second run -- to enjoy a side of the Kenai most anglers avoid. Albeit there are still plenty of fishermen on the water this morning, it's nothing like it will be next month.

Off-Season Kenai Kings
A modified Kwikfish -- the secret to enticing big fish.

"There are always productive holes getting overlooked or not being fished thoroughly," explains McCormick as he fires up his 50-hp Mercury and propels us upriver. "Everyone wants to toss in their line where the record king was landed (97.4 pounds at Crooked Elbow in 1985), or where they've had success in year's past. Not me. A salmon will always take the easiest path, so I look for water with the least amount of resistance. Other vital elements to factor into the equation are finding out what the tide is doing, how many kings have come up, and how far they're moving each day."

With a veteran guide like McCormick in our corner, we already like our chances. The Kenai has also been very good to us. My father brought me up here in the mid 1980s when forty-pounders were released at will. By the time we left, I landed an 82-pound chrome, etching my name into the record books. Now, more than twenty years later, it's my turn to return the favor.

"Okay, let's let 'em out," instructs McCormick, as my father and I clutch our 10.6-foot G. Loomis Salmon Series Rods. We release 40-feet of 65-pound Power Pro from Shimano Bantam 50s, which is tied to 50-pound Maxima leader, a 30/30 Luhr Jensen Jet Diver, and a chartreuse/silver K-16 Kwikfish -- but not just any ordinary Kwikfish. McCormick modified the lures by replacing the treble hooks with a single 4/0 Eagle Claw Siwash hook, and a sardine wrap (note: After Alaska Fish & Game determines they will meet their salmon escapement goals, they allow anglers the option of using bait and scent when fishing).

Off-Season Kenai Kings
Expect an epic battle after hooking into a Kenai king.

"The trick now is to get the lure in front of their nose," McCormick explains, positioning the boat in a slow-moving stretch of river six-feet deep, and where only two other boats are fishing. "These kings are extremely agitated. If we can bump a Kwikfish against one of them, they'll snap at the lure out of aggression. Hopefully one of the hooks will stick," he quips with a grin.

We meticulously fish the same hole again and again. In fact, the other two boats fishing alongside us left long ago. Just when I'm about to say, 'I think we've covered this piece of water,' my father's rod tip slams down and the fire-drill begins. "Fish on!" I holler, having witnessed a very aggressive strike. My dad lunges forward and rips the rod out of the holder, slamming the rod back with authority. McCormick swiftly gooses the engine and propels us forward to help set the hook. I immediately crank in my line to get it out of the way, as my father focuses on keeping his rod tip up. A smile explodes on his face. "Well done!" shouts McCormick, cheering him on, as we calmly follow the king with the boat.

After several commanding runs upstream, downstream, and across the river, the fish finally tires. It's a gorgeous 50-pound chrome, and for the briefest of moments, we all stare silently at the magnificent fish. Although I will land a 20-pound king an hour later, and we'll miss a strike by day's end, this gorgeous king we're about to net is proof the Kenai is home to trophy fish -- no matter when you arrive.

Without question, fishing for Chinook on the Kenai during the off-season is an exhilarating and breathtaking adventure. Should you ever find yourself caught in the middle of a salmon run -- or you prefer to enjoy great king salmon action without the crowds -- patience, persistence and an experienced guide will produce hours of enjoyment and plenty photographic moments.

WHEN YOU GO

Tim Berg's Alaskan Fishing Adventures
P.O. Box 2457
Soldotna, Alaska 99669
Reservations of Information
Call Toll-Free
1-800-548-3474
www.alaskanfishing.com

Jim McCormick - Kenai River Guide
Tel: (907) 398-8927
Email: kenaijim@alaska.net

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Redfish Autumn Run

By Capt. Joe Richard

Bull Redfish
Marilyn Giessel in Port O'Connor, Texas, with a trophy-size redfish caught on a jig after sight-casting in 20 feet of water.

The fall redfish run is no myth. Not only do these fish gather and spawn in September, but it coincides with the fall mullet run, which lasts well into October. That's when millions of these silvery baitfish gang up and migrate south for the winter and get blasted by redfish for their effort.

First, the spawning game: redfish of 34 inches and bigger spawn every autumn, using those strong, incoming high tides of fall, aided sometimes by higher water from tropical storms or even hurricanes. The super-high tides push fertilized eggs back into the marsh where they develop and grow. (It's been said that a "strong recruitment year," or a great year for redfish, coincides with big storms.) Autumn action on big reds can be fast and furious, non-stop action until anglers can take no more.

We've done it before during autumn, our boat surrounded perhaps by a thousand big spawner redfish. Twice we heard them drumming beneath the boat, on quiet nights during perfect conditions. It was the exact opposite weather from a tropical storm. There were so many fish, there was no need to set out more than one rod; each was instantly doubled over by a 40-inch redfish before you could set the rod in a gunnel holder. This was fishing in an inlet, a natural pass with 20-foot depths, and we were fishing bottom with cut mullet and other bait, including croakers and menhaden. Even a small bait on a big circle hook drew hits. Back then we used 4/0 "snapper rods" with 40 or 50 pound line. It was hard work, but the redfish couldn't take much line when hooked only 20 feet away, and that's how we racked up big catch numbers. Our best afternoon was 46 bull redfish landed and released in one spot, before running out of bait. That was about 800 pounds of redfish.

It should be noted that rounding up fresh live bait with a castnet is a valuable plus on these redfish trips. Frozen bait just doesn't stay on the hook as well, especially with sea catfish, crabs and critters nibbling away. If you pin a circle hook through the head of a fresh, one-pound mullet, nothing on this earth can dislodge it. It will eventually draw the attention of big predators, usually redfish.
 

Fall Redfish
Bull redfish caught on a deep-diving trolling plug. Digging treble hooks out of these fish is tough work.

This year I realized lighter gear was more fun for big redfish. We began using 20-pound spin gear with seven-foot rods -- tackle commonly used in the winter sailfish tournaments in South Florida. Perfect tackle! Each fish gave a very good account of it, making runs up to 80 yards, before being worked back in. Anglers in nearby boats were hooking these 40-inch reds on lighter bay tackle, often using 12-pound line, and that meant a long and tedious fight that eventually becomes very hard on a big redfish. That wasn't good; the vast majority of these fish are supposed to be released in good shape, not floating belly-up from exhaustion.

Mid-August can be called the early fall season, and we saw bull redfish busting migrating blue crabs on top. We were able to sight-cast to these big fish, which were the size of cobia; indeed, they looked like orange cobia in green water. During five consecutive days, I put 59 of these big redfish into the boat, eventually straining my shoulder. Many of these fish were caught on sporty 20-pound spin tackle. Some were caught on heavier gear, by pinning a frisky blue crab to a circle hook, and lobbing it behind the boat, leaving the reel in gear. Some of those reds made runs of 80 yards and more, but we had enough power to work them back to the boat. One redfish that I spot-cast to made a longer run, spooling the big spin reel, leaving me with nothing. (We had the boat's anchor set in 20 feet of water, and couldn't retrieve it fast enough. It was an awesome show of power by these fish).

Bull reds caught that week were actually sight-cast to, using green and orange bucktail jigs, home-made jigs with chicken feathers, white amberjack jigs, a topwater Mirrolure, and two brands of deep-diving plugs designed for kingfish. That's a wide variety of artificials. Watching a 42-inch redfish rear its head out of the water, to chomp down on a topwater plug -- that was a first. Digging treble hooks out of thrashing redfish wasn't much fun, and we went back to throwing single-hook jigs. It was amazing action, and everyone had a good time, save for the blue crabs getting blasted on the surface. Many bull redfish photos were added to my collection.
 

Fall Redfish
Easier to unhook are these soft plastic jigs, which big redfish clobbered just before September arrived.

Safely back on the Atlantic side of Florida, we're waiting for a repeat of last autumn's action of slot-sized redfish. This coincided with the finger mullet migration, when you could cast-net lots of mullet. We either surf-fished from the beach, fighting those redfish on long, 12-foot surf rods, or anchored 50 yards out in the inlet, setting out a spread of the 20-pound outfits, rigged with sharp circle hooks and mullet, both alive or "butterflied" to put out maximum scent. On several trips we fought double-headers, when two redfish latched onto the same 2-hook leader. The nearby crowd, who used single-hook rigs, was shocked when we drug up fighting pairs of keeper-size redfish.

On the beach were dozen of anglers with their 12-foot rods, set in PVC sand spikes. Rods were yanked down by sudden strikes, reels dunked in sand and salt. (It's a cruel environment for fine spin tackle). I had to jump into the water, to save my best 7-foot spin outfit -- which had two redfish on the far end of the line. This was on 15-pound tackle and the battle was long, getting two redfish to cooperate in a swift current. I grabbed the leader four times before both fish gave up and were dragged ashore. They weighed only four and six pounds, so the smaller fish was released. (Our best catch was eight keeper reds, always caught on the outgoing tide).

Most surf tackle is sturdier, of course, with the aforementioned 12-foot rods and 20-pound line packed onto big reels. Some anglers prefer a stiff tip on the rod for throwing long distance, while others employ a softer rod tip to better detect strikes from a variety of smaller fish. The beach was lined with these long rods during the fall redfish run.   

Double-hook rigs are rare here for some reason. However, two slot-sized reds have a difficult time breaking new 40-pound mono leader when both fish are tethered together. Those Eagle Claw Lazer 9/0 circle hooks, either red or black, worked like a charm -- no need to set the hook -- and make it easy to release fish, which is handy. The circle hook was simply made for catching redfish; these fine fish are almost always hooked in the corner of the mouth by circles, making for such an easy release. This is also a tough customer in the boat, and even a long minute spent prying loose the hook isn't detrimental to the fish -- as it would be for something like a king mackerel.

We've used circle hooks on big redfish since the mid-1980s, but always those huge 16/0 circle hooks, much bigger than needed. They're the best hook for tarpon, and that was often our target fish, though we landed dozens of bull redfish before and after each tarpon. The eye of these circle hooks was so big that you could pound one with the heel of your fist to knock the hook loose. About one of every 30 circle hooks were swallowed, and when that happened, we simply cut the line right next to their lips before releasing them. We also used 150-pound Ande line for leader, so you could catch many of these fish without losing any tackle at all.

It was often fast and brutal fishing. But after all, releasing big redfish still feisty and in good shape is an investment in the future. I can't imagine autumn arriving without a redfish run.

Shop Redfish Tackle and Gear

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Skipping Tubes for Largemouth Bass

By Tim Allard

Skipping Tubes to Largemouth Bass

Skipping allows you to make accurate casts to tight, otherwise inaccessible fish-holding areas.

I watched and waited. My line twitched once, then started to move. I had just skipped a purple tube under a long dock and a largemouth bass quickly decided it was dinner. I set the hook, feeling the weight of a decent fish. The largemouth swam towards the dock's pillars with a strong surge, but the rod's steady pressure coaxed the fish boat side. I lipped the hefty largemouth and got a photo before releasing the fish.

"Another one fooled by a skipped bait," I said to my fishing partner as I rigged another tube. "It gets better, we've got a lot more docks to fish before our day's over," he enthusiastically replied. That day, we caught several bass by skipping tubes, and this season you can too if you take the time to learn this presentation. Here's what you need to know.

Why You Should Skip Tubes

Bass hold under cover-laden areas to escape the sun, predators and fishing pressure and typical holding areas include docks, boat houses, pontoon boats, laydowns and overhanging branches. For many, flipping or pitching is the preferred method to fish these kinds of cover. The underhand, pendulum approach of these casting styles presents the bait straight on and from above. Although accurate and precise, the casts' mechanics can have limitations around overhanging obstacles. This is when the low trajectory and small angle allowed by skipping tubes gives you an advantage.

Skipping Tubes
Bass hold under hard-to-reach cover to escape the sun, predators and fishing pressure.

For example, picture yourself at a long dock with boats on either side. If flipping, you'd be limited to how much of the dock you could fish and you'd likely only be able to access the periphery. The ropes securing the boats would be obstacles, and couldn't flip beyond them, at least not without taking your chances at snagging the line.

But that same dock can be thoroughly fished by skipping tubes. With a little practice, accurate casts could let you bounce a tube under the ropes and around the boat. You could also skip a tube a considerable distance through the dock's main opening, accessing water probably off limits to flipping.

Done properly, skipping causes minimal splash and you can skip baits from a far. This makes it a good option in clear, shallow water. Bass appear attracted to the skipped tube as it mimics the fleeting tactics of baitfish or something scurrying across the water.

Rigging Tubes for Skipping

When skipping stones, the best rocks are flat and smooth. The same logic applies to the sleek, rounded profile of tubes. To keep tubes snag resistant, rig them Tex-Posed using a 2/0 to 3/0 wide gap hook, matching hook size to the tube's body. As skipping is an abusive presentation, use tubes with tough plastic noses to hold hooks in place.

Tube Rigged for Skipping
To keep tubes snag resistant, rig them Tex-Posed using a 2/0 to 3/0 wide gap hook, matching hook size to the tube's body.

You'll want to add weight to tubes to cast them with enough force so they skip and then sink upon entry. Use weighted hooks, like Falcon Lures Bait-Jerker models, or simply insert a weight into the tube. You can use weights specifically designed for tubes or insert a worm weight between 1/16 to 1/4 ounce into the tube's body. With a worm weight insert a tooth pick horizontally, and behind it, to peg it in place. Another alternative is using a bell sinker in combination with Eagle Claw's High Performance Hook. Stuff the sinker in the tube, then rig the bait ensuring you pass the hook point through the bell sinker's eye. Once rigging is complete, fasten the hook's patented clip to hold the plastic and sinker in place.

The weight's location on the tube will influence its underwater action. A front-weighted tube will nose dive in a tight spiral, while a center-weighted one will shimmy or glide in a larger circle in a horizontal position.

The Gear You Need

I recommend skipping with a spinning outfit. Spinning reels' stationary spools let line unravel without tangles from the irregular surge-and-bounce pull of line from a skipping bait. You'll want to use 12- to 17-pound-test fluorocarbon or 20- to 30-pound-test superlines for their strength and abrasion resistance. Fluorocarbon is virtually invisible in the water, making it the better choice for clear lakes.

When it comes to rods, you can skip a tube with any length of stick; however, shorter rods provide more manoeuvrability around docks. I use a 5'4" G. Loomis (SJR642) spinning rod specifically designed for skipping baits. It has a fast tip that loads with a snap of the wrist, and unloads quickly enough to propel tubes. It also has enough backbone to pull bass from cover.

How to Skip a Tube

To skip a tube, start with 6 to 12 inches of line between your rod tip and the bait. Begin a side arm cast and point the rod tip slightly downward, keeping both hands on the rod to improve casting accuracy and control. With a quick turn of the wrist, spin the tube on the line so that it rotates around the rod tip in a clockwise motion. This manoeuvre adds momentum to the tube. You can skip tubes without this first step, but I find it improves my casting distance.

Skipping Tubes
Tubes with tough plastic noses work best as skipping is an abusive presentation.

Immediately after starting to spin the tube, pull back on the rod and begin a side arm cast. As the tube completes half a rotation, snap the rod tip forward. In an ideal cast, the rod tip should unload as the tube completes 3/4 of the rotation.

At this point the bait should shoot forward at a low angle along the water. If the angle is too high, the tube will likely sink, make a big splash, or bounce on too high of an arc to bounce again.

If having difficulty keeping baits low, consider crouching, as a low trajectory is critical to this technique. Think of the perfect stone skip. The rock hops along the water in a series of small, tight splashes before sinking. Replicating this type of skip with a tube will result in controlled casts and subtle splashes. The splashes slow the bait down, and once the tube loses most its momentum it will faintly sink. This type of cast is perfect for getting under docks with minimal space between them and the water.

When penetrating leafy branches dangling in the water, you want a slightly higher skipping angle. Aim the tube in front of the branches so that it breaks through the leaves after the first bounce. To get a higher bounce, either raise the rod tip slightly so the bait hits the water at a higher angle, or keep the bait low but add a stronger snap to your cast so that the tube skips high off the water.

In most instances, the bounce and resistance of the tree's leaves slow the bait down so that the tube's entry has a small splash. Let the bait rest for several seconds to see if any bass are holding under the tree, then give it a few slow pulls. If there aren't any takers, swim the bait from the cover to avoid catching the branches.

Skipping requires calm or ripple water conditions. You can't skip rocks well in rough water and the same applies to tubes. The technique also demands accuracy. As you learn this method, use open water and practice. The mechanics will come through the repetition as will confidence and casting precision. Your reward will come when you lip a bragging-sized bass after threading a tube through the eight-inch clearance offered between the water and a dock! Learning this casting technique gives you one more tool for your angling arsenal. Who knew that the fun and the skills of that childhood game of bouncing stones would transfer to skipping tubes for largemouth bass? 

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