Gerald Almy: Trolling for freshwater stripers

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The weather was bitter cold as we trolled slowly along the lower reaches of Leesville Lake in south-central Virginia. But my cold fingers and face were the last thing on my mind when a rod suddenly bowed deep in its holder.

Grabbing the 7-foot graphite rod, I pulled back and was fast to a hefty fish. Five minutes later my partner deftly scooped the net under 15 pounds of glistening striped bass! Suddenly the cold didn’t seem quite so bad. There’s nothing like a feisty fish on the line to take the bite out of winter. And one of the best quarries to focus on at this time of year is the freshwater striper.

You can catch these landlocked stripers many ways — casting lures, fly fishing, drifting with bait. But one of my favorite tactics is trolling. This is especially true on waters new to me. Instead of just riding around looking over a lake, you’re fishing while you explore it.

You can investigate likely striper areas such as points, underwater islands, saddles, drop-offs, river channel edges, flats, and the water near the dam. Trolling also takes lures deep — down in the 15-40 foot range where most stripers hang out during winter and early spring.

Trolling doesn’t require expensive equipment to break into. One item that is crucial, though, is a good depth finder. Get the best one you can afford. You’ll never regret it.

Stripers are open water fish, it’s true. But they do hang out near certain types of structures much of the time. When they are moving, they also tend to follow underwater contour lines such as the edge of a flat or river channel. By pinpointing these types of cover with a depth finder, you can continually pull your offerings through potential pay-dirt zones.

In addition to pinpointing prime structure, depth finders help you locate forage fish. When you find a school of shad, herring or alewives, stripers are usually close by. Finally, depth finders allow you to locate the stripers themselves on the display screen as large individual markings.

Rods for trolling should have plenty of backbone, to resist the pressure of the moving boat and the big-lipped, diving plugs often used. They should also be fairly long, to allow you to keep the lines clear of each other–6 ½-8 feet. Baitcast or level wind reels are most practical, spooled with 12-40 pound line.

A topographic map is vital. Buy it ahead of time and try to pinpoint good areas for trolling such as points, flats, creek and river channel edges, underwater islands, saddles and riprap near dams.

In spring the big pin-striped bass might be in major feeder rivers of the lake. During summer, fall and winter, deep water near the dam and main river channels are especially productive.

Keep detailed records of where you catch fish. This way you can return and try those spots again under similar conditions.
Deep diving plugs are a great lure choice when stripers are suspended at levels of 12-25 feet. These include offerings such as the Mann’s Stretch series, Storm Big Mac, Rapala X-Rap Deep, Whopper Stopper Hellbender , Rebel Spoonbill and Deep Diving Red Fin, among others.

All will catch stripers if the fish are in a feeding mood and the bait they are utilizing is fairly large. If the stripers are proving finicky, however, or if they’re feeding on small threadfin shad, a bucktail jig or grub trailed behind these lures will often account for even more fish than the plug.

With this rigging, the larger lure’s main purpose is to pull the small jig deep into the striper’s feeding territory. Attach a 30-48 inch 14-30 pound leader to the center hook of the front treble and tie on a ¼-ounce white bucktail jig or leadhead with white or chartreuse twister tail. Vary the distance you run this behind the boat until you find a range that produces strikes, generally 75-150 feet. Expect the majority of hits on the trailing jig.

You can also score on stripers by simply trolling with a single 1/2-3 ounce white or chartreuse jig or Sassy Shad. Some anglers also use umbrella-type rigs with several jigheads. This simulates a whole school of baitfish and can be deadly.

Downriggers offer another option for obtaining depth while striper trolling. A heavy lead “cannon ball” on a steel cable takes your lure deep and counters on them allow you to choose the exact depth. Set the counter to the level fish show on the depth finder or slightly above it.

White, yellow or chartreuse bucktails, shad-shaped plastic lures, vibrating rattle baits such as the Spot or Rat-L-Trap, spoons, and thin-minnow plugs are all good choices for use with a downrigger.

Optimum speed for striper trolling is usually the slowest you can obtain with your outboard. Work in “lazy-S” patterns or slight curves, to cover more water and give a different action to the lure during the turns.

No, it’s not easy to get up at dawn to head out for a cold day on the lake in January or February. But when you know a batch of 10-20 pound stripers are waiting, it’s well worth the effort. And few methods can compare with trolling for getting those pinstriped bass to bite.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.

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