By Don Wirth
A cool river on a hot day, and a wall-hanger of a striper -- what more could any fisherman ask for?
The big topwater plug slushed once, twice, then all hell broke loose. First the water beneath the lure bulged up, then a detonation followed. I set the hooks hard and the fish thrashed angrily, throwing gallons of water skyward. That's when the fun started.
No doubt about it, this was one big fish. Although I had the drag on my wide-spool baitcasting reel nearly locked tight, and in spite of the 50-pound mono that loaded the spool, this striper was uncontrollable. It shot across the flat where I'd hooked it and headed for a deep channel. All I could do was lean against the loaded-up rod and watch helplessly as my line disappeared down to the knot. All seemed lost, then for reasons known only to the fish, it suddenly did a 180. I reeled frantically, regaining line as the striper rocketed back in my direction.
Finally its surges grew less intense and the striper rose to just beneath the surface, fanning its great tail, its silvery-purple hues evident through the thin morning fog. I worked the fish to boatside and managed to slide it over the gunwale of the boat. What a monster -- 48 pounds on digital scales!
If you're looking for big-fish excitement close to home, you ought to get into striper fishing. These exciting gamefish hit hard, pull even harder and grow to unbelievable size. They live in reservoirs, rivers and tailraces across much of the country, and their range is expanding annually. I'd like to tell you what I've learned about these gamefish so you can get in on the action, too.
Habits of Landlocked Stripers
The striped bass is a true saltwater species, but one that has also proven to adapt remarkably well to many freshwater environments.
Two primary factors drive striper location in any body of water:
Food availability -- Put simply, stripers go where the groceries are. You will rarely find them where large schools of baitfish aren't evident. Landlocked stripers feed primarily on pelagic (open-water) baitfish, especially threadfin and gizzard shad, hickory shad (skipjack) and blueback herring. If shad or herring aren't readily available, they will also devour creek minnows, shiners, freshwater eels, trout and small bluegills.
Landlocked stripers grow big -- real big. Like this 62-pounder caught by legendary Tennessee guide Ralph Dallas. Water temperature -- Stripers are cool-water fish. They are most active in water temperatures ranging from around 48 to 68 degrees, with 54 to 64 considered prime by most experienced striper anglers. Stripers become stressed in warm water and lethargic in water much below 44 degrees. In summer, especially in deep Southern and Western reservoirs, reservoir stripers may attempt to move extremely deep to find cool water temperatures; this can be fatal to them since sufficient dissolved oxygen may not occur at depths that have the right temperature.
Structure and Cover
One of the most confusing aspects of striper fishing to many first-time anglers is grasping exactly how these fish relate to structure (bottom contour changes) and cover (objects in the water). A brief explanation is in order.
Many striper fishermen, myself included, got into this sport via bass fishing. I can vividly recall the morning I was casting topwater lures for largemouths and a 20-pound striper appeared out of nowhere and blasted my plug. I was hooked! But it took me a while to realize that reservoir stripers, unlike largemouths, maintain only a loose association with structure and cover. Once I began fishing for stripers seriously, I realized that their location was usually dependent upon food availability and water temperature, not the presence of points, humps, ledges, standing or sunken timber, rockpiles, etc. Thus a striper is just as likely to be caught in open water as it is at the end of a reservoir point -- provided that's where forage and cool water are found.
Of course, baitfish often congregate around structures, especially main-lake points, sunken islands and river channels, and stripers may be there waiting for them. But it's the bait, not the structure, that holds them there.
Stripers are not nearly as cover-oriented as largemouth bass -- except in current. I love to fish for big stripers in moving water, and have found that these fish will stick very tight to submerged trees, logjams and boulders, much more so than in slack water.
To sum up: structure (bottom contour changes) is important to stripers only to the degree that it attracts baitfish. Cover (submerged objects) is much more important to stripers in rivers, river-run reservoirs and tailraces than it is in slackwater reservoirs.
Live- and Dead-Bait Approaches
The most dependable method of hooking into a landlocked striper is via live bait. Here are some tactics the experts use to fish it:
Gathering fresh bait -- Fresh, lively bait is essential. Soft-rayed baitfish favored by stripers (shad, herring) are extremely hard to maintain commercially for any length of time, which is why you seldom see live shad sold in bait shops. The best way to ensure that you have good bait is to catch it yourself, usually by using a cast net. This is a circular mesh net that's weighted at the bottom; when thrown properly, it fans out and sinks quickly, entrapping large quantities of bait. Cast netting is an ancient skill; once mastered, it can help assure that you have plenty of lively bait. But before you rush out and buy one, check local regulations regarding the use of cast nets. They aren't legal everywhere. A dip net with a long handle can also be used to gather bait; this works especially well along dam wing walls and bridge pilings.
Live bait is great for stripers. Keep delicate shad in a rounded tank. Storing bait -- Once you've caught your bait, you need a place to keep it. A shad tank, available by mail from most fishing gear catalogs, is highly recommended; these have a circular or oval interior which helps prevent delicate baitfish from jamming into corners and damaging themselves. More hardy species including creek minnows, shiners and bluegills can be kept in a conventional rectangular baitwell or ice chest rigged with an inexpensive aerator.
Downlining -- Using weighted bait rigs or "downlining" is a good approach in deep reservoirs lacking standing timber or other line-fouling obstructions. Use any medium- to medium-heavy-action baitcasting or light saltwater spinning rod, a reel with plenty of line capacity and 14 to 20 pound line. Vary hook size according to bait size. Avoid light-wire hooks, as stripers can easily straighten these. My personal preference for all forms of reservoir and river live-baiting, including downlining, is the Gamakatsu Octopus bait hook, size 4/0 to 6/0. Set up your downline rig with a heavy egg sinker, swivel, 2-foot leader and hook.
Downlining procedure is fairly simple. Idle over the area you intend to fish and watch your graph for baitfish and/or stripers. Determine the depth of the bait/fish and lower your downlines to this depth or slightly above, but not below. Then either drift with the wind or use an electric trolling motor to move you slowly along. A good place to try downlining is between two main-lake points; stripers often suspend in open water in this scenario, following wandering baitfish schools. When downlining, adjust your reel drag so it will slip and put your rods in holders.
Flatlining - Flatlining is a technique whereby live bait is drifted or slowly pulled behind the boat. Pick an area on the main lake or in a tributary where baitfish are running close to the surface, then gently cast or simply let out enough line to put your bait well in back of the boat (1 1/2 castlengths is sufficient). Put your rods in holders and drift or troll slowly. The bait tends to move up and down slightly with wind and wave action, enhancing its visual appeal. Flatlining will take other species as well as stripers; I've caught bonus bass, hybrids and walleye.
Floats -- If you know stripers are using a specific area, suspending a live bait beneath some sort of float is a deadly and exciting technique. Commonly-used floats include large cork bobbers and balloons. Simply rig the bait two or 10 feet below the cork and let it swim around freely. I like floats best in rivers, where stripers often hang very tight to submerged wood cover.
Planer boards are commonly used by Great Lakes salmon anglers and big-water walleye fishermen, but they're great for stripers as well. I especially recommend them in rivers, where they help you present your live bait close to shoreline cover. I use heavy line (130 pound Bass Pro Shops MagiBraid) and light saltwater tackle when planer-boarding for big stripers in snaggy rivers. Rig the bait 3 to 6 feet behind the board and simply drift with the current or move slowly along with your electric trolling motor, occasionally bumping the board into logs and rocks. If there's a fish hiding there, you'll know it!
Bottom rigs are excellent in current, especially in deep river holes. Use a heavy sinker rigged on a drop line on a 3-way swivel. The sinker line should be lighter than the main- and leader lines, enabling you to break it off easy should you get hung up (a common occurrence). I use very heavy tackle and line when river fishing (40 and 50 pound mono) if monster fish are a possibility.
Dead bait can be highly effective for stripers. In fact, I believe some of the biggest stripers, like giant northern pike, may feed exclusively on dead bait, this being obtainable without the fish expending a great deal of energy. Rather than use the whole baitfish, some form of "cut bait" -- either chunks, filet or head -- is recommended. In slack water, fish it on the bottom on a swivel rig from shore or an anchored boat; in current, use the 3-way rig.
Lures & Tactics
Several types of artificial lures can be used for landlocked stripers:
Try surface lures, minnow crankbaits, vibrating baits and jigs for big landlocked stripers. Topwater lures are exciting to fish, and often highly effective since the striper is a big-time surface feeder. Big minnow lures with short diving lips are an excellent choice; retrieve these slowly right across the surface as shown in Fig. 6. Large prop baits are better in low-light conditions and if there's a chop on the water. I use a 6/12- to 7-foot rod and 14- to 20-pound line in clear reservoirs; 40-pound-plus in snaggy rivers.
Crankbaits with diving lips can work well when cast or trolled. Run these through a school of stripers and hang on! Use a soft-action fiberglass or composite rod to help absorb the powerful impact of a striper slamming a fast-moving crankbait.
Soft jerk baits are very convincing mimics of injured or disoriented baitfish. Rig them as shown in Fig. 6 and twitch them close to the surface; often you will see the striper rise up and grab he lure.
Jigs and pork or plastic trailers are best when stripers are schooling. They are heavy lures that can be cast a long distance. When you spot breaking fish, cast beyond the surface activity and reel quickly. If a striper doesn't grab the jig directly, stop reeling and let it sink; one will often pick it up on the fall. I like jigs best in slightly murky water, and will usually use a large white or chartreuse twist-tail pork strip or soft plastic grub as a trailer.
Metal spoons are best when stripers are suspending, but they can also be skipped across the surface for schoolers. I especially like spoons on stormy days since they're extremely wind-resistant.
Surface lures, shallow-running crankbaits and soft plastic jerk baits are best when used in low-light conditions. This can include daybreak, dusk, night or all day long if it's stormy. I usually start my fishing day at dawn with topwater lures, using my biggest, noisiest artificials first and gradually shifting to smaller/quieter baits as the sun comes up. Then in mid-day I switch to trolled crankbaits, jigs or live bait.