Stripers are, biologically, a very interesting fish. They are native to saltwater, but are highly tolerant to freshwater. So much so, that many reservoirs and lakes now have large populations of stripers that live their entire lives in freshwater. Ocean stripers of the Northeast live mostly in the saltwater until it is time to spawn, when they move into brackish and freshwater estuaries. Georgia's stripers, though (and those of the St. John's River in Florida) have the opposite life cycle. They live mostly upriver in freshwater during the warmer months, and then move into the brackish and saltwater in the winter.
The Savannah River estuary, from roughly the I-95 bridge all the way to the Wilmington River, is where you can usually find the stripers this time of year. The best spots have deep, vertical structure, which is why the two hottest spots are at the Houlihan Bridge in Port Wentworth and the old tide gates on the Back River behind Hutchinson Island. The pilings act as current breaks which the stripers can hide behind to ambush prey. Old pilings and channel markers along the Port Wentworth docks hold fish, as well as the mouths of old rice canals feeding into the Savannah Wildlife Refuge.
The Savannah River gets most of the fanfare, but the Forest River and Ogeechee also hold good populations of stripers. Again, bridge pilings and rice canal mouths are good striper-holding structure.
Fairly stout tackle is a must, because some of these fish top 50 pounds. Heavy spinning tackle with 30-50 pound braided line is the best way to go. Suffix 832 Braid is an excellent choice, as it has added Gore fibers (as in Gore-Tex) that increase abrasion resistance and presvents saltwater from penetrating the line. Live bait can be a good choice depending on what's available. When stripers are feeding on the top, a shrimp under a popping cork is a treat for them. When they're on the bottom, which is where they will be most of the time, a livelined finger mullet is the way to go. If you can get your hands on live eels, those are also an excellent live bait choice.
Various artificial lures will work for stripers, but perhaps the best two choices are large swimbaits or bucktail jigs.
Swimbaits are soft plastic baitfish-shaped lures that are pre-weighted and hooked. You just tie them on and cast. These are great baits when the stripers are feeding on mullet and pogies, and several companies make imitations of these baits. A 5' Tsunami swim shad in a mullet pattern is a great imitation for the local forage, and it is perfect for stripers. Keep in mind that stripers often hit big baits. Swimbaits 6 inches or larger are readily taken by even small fish. When retrieving, let the bait fall to the bottom, then retrieve it slowly, letting the current give it action. Pause periodically, letting the bait flutter down. This falling action is often what triggers the striper's instinct to feed.
Bucktail or skirted jigs are classic lures for stripers that have been used for generations. The best jigs for river fishing are in the 1/2-ounce to 3 ounce range. Large tides combined with increased flow from the dams upriver can make the current very strong in the Savannah River at times. Heavier jigs will help get the bait to the bottom. I love the new Salt Life Big Eye Salty jigs built by C&H. These are best pitched very tightly to structure. A jig falling vertically along a piling is almost unbearable to some stripers. The best color combos are red and white or chartreuse and white. To increase the action, pin a chartreuse grub trailer or other small soft plastic to the hook. You can also tip the hook with a small strip of mullet or piece of shrimp to sweeten the deal even more.
Stripers move with the tide and current, so it can take som patience to locate. When you do, though, you are in for a real treat as few fish in the river can match the fighting power of the striped bass. Savannah area stripers are a great wintertime foe that get little pressure. Get after them before the waters warm and they move upstate!
Savannah Bass Pro Fishing Sales Manager
A special thanks to Captain Jack McGowan for some of the pictures featured in this post. Captain Jack is a local guide that specializes in targeting stripers. Be sure to contact him for more information!
Captain Jack McGowan
Coastal River Charters