Gerald Almy: Two tactics for freshwater stripers
It was a cold, gray day on Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake. It was hard to believe the calendar said it was spring. My face and hands were chilled in spite of all the cold-weather clothing I was wearing.
But all that was forgotten once a sharp take telegraphed up the thin graphite fishing rod. After a raucous fight, I eventually worked a stubborn 12-pound striper into the outstretched net. Now it suddenly felt like it was indeed spring! I unhooked the glistening black and silver fish and watched with a smile as it darted back into the lake, none the worse for wear.
Striped bass have been stocked in many states throughout the country and represent one of the best freshwater quarries you can go after during late winter and spring. You can catch them anywhere from California to Pennsylvania and south to the Texas-Mexico border. But our own state of Virginia has some of the best freshwater striper fishing found anywhere. Anna, Gaston, Kerr and Smith Mountain lakes are a few of the best bets.
Productive techniques include fishing live bait, trolling, casting and vertical jigging. For now let’s look at two of those tactics – casting and vertical jigging.
Casting is often the best tactic to use on actively feeding fish in medium to shallow water. Use the vertical jigging method when stripers are hovering over deep offshore structure in tight schools, moving and feeding little.
As long as water temperatures are in the 40s or higher, catching stripers by casting and retrieving is a productive and engaging tactic. Most Virginia lakes are at that temperature now. Look for fish near points, flats, drop-offs, submerged islands, humps and bridge pilings. Also watch for fish busting into bait on the surface.
One of the best lures for this fishing is a thin minnow plug or jerkbait. Cast over likely holding areas or where you see surface activity and retrieve with a slow, steady motion so the lure creates a V-wake on the surface. Topwater chuggers can also work if fish are surfacing or hanging out in shallow water. Work those lures with a fast twitching retrieve.
If fish are deeper, try lipless crankbaits like the Spot, Rattlin’ Rap or Rat-L-Trap. Let the lure sink to different depths and retrieve steadily. Also throw in occasional pauses that will make the lure drop sharply like a wounded shad running out of steam.
A final lure to stock for casting and retrieving is a white bucktail jig, preferably with a saddle hackle tied in along the flanks. Add a plastic twister tail if the water is discolored. Fish it by itself if the water is clear. Cast and crank it in smoothly, pausing part way back if the steady presentation fails to score. A jig weighing about 3/8 ounce is usually best.
When fish are packed in tight schools over structure such as a point, dropoff, creek channel or submerged island, working lures up and down directly over top of them is the way to go. First pinpoint likely areas to check out on the topo before leaving the dock. Then scope them out with the depth finder on the water.
If they show baitfish, large gamefish, or both, drop a buoy marker and try pumping lures seductively up and down over them. Other than live bait, this is by far the best way to entice stubborn, non-feeding fish to strike.
Good lures to vertical jig for stripers include tailspinners, jigs, blade lures and best of all, slab-type jigging spoons such as the Hopkins Shorty, Mann-o-lure, Bass Pro Strata or Luhr-Jensen Crippled Herring. Depending on the depth you’re fishing and whether there is current, lures weighing from ½ to 1 ½-ounces can be used. Top colors are silver, chrome, chartreuse or white.
Lower the spoon to the depth fish are showing at on the sonar or a foot or so above them by counting off two-foot strips of line measured on your rod. If the fish are smack dab on the bottom, simply lower the lure until slack forms, then reel up a couple of feet.
Pump the lure rhythmically, raising it sharply, but dropping it just fast enough that excessive slack doesn’t form in the line. Most strikes will come on the drop. You may feel a slight tap or simply see the line move sideways or stop falling. Set the hooks immediately with a sharp lift of the rod.
A few largemouth bass, crappies, smallmouths and white bass may also grab your lure with this method.
But who’s going to complain about that?
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.