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Steve

Cold Days and Skinny-Water


In-Fisherman, February 1998


Cold water, fish deep.  Right?  Not for stripers.  Right now, stripers are feeding on baitfish in water barely deep enough to cover their backs.
“A striper’s life revolves around baitfish,” says South Carolina guide Steve Crenshaw.  “The stripers go where the herring go.  And early in the year in the Midsouth, herring and other baitfish generally move shallow, where they find temperatures that suit them.”
In most southern impoundments, blueback and skipjack herring and threadfin and gizzard shad are the primary prey of stripers.  Temperate species like stripers and herring spend most of the year deep, where the water stays cool enough to suit them.
In late winter and early spring, however, stripers find suitable temperatures along the bank, where warming water and cover draw baitfish.  The bright sun of February and March affects the shallows quickly, and striper leave their state of winter lethargy, ready to feast before the spawning run starts.
Many large impoundments offer an ideal mix of coolwater and warmwater habitat for stripers, and the fish grow hefty on abundant shad and herring.  Fishing action shows seasonal peaks, but late winter and early spring constitute prime time for catching the biggest striped bass the system offers.
During this period, the biggest females are fattening up prior to the spawn, and them may feed all day, boosting your odds for success.  Later in the season, action shiftw either early or late in the day.  In midsummer, stripers in southern reservoirs, become almost nocturnal.  So right now, anglers who shed cabin fever for stripermania often have the best fishing waters to themselves.
Ralph Dallas, a trophy striper specialist on two of Tennessee’s Cumberland River reservoirs, has focused on this Prespawn Period for much of his trophy hunting.  Last April, he was pulling 10-inch gizzard shad behind planer boards in just a couple feet of water at Old Hickory Lake when he took his biggest striper ever.  The 62-pounder was, in fact, the biggest striped bass ever caught in Tennessee.
Dallas uses skipjack herring most of the time, but occasionally opts for gizzard shad.  Sometimes he fishes outlines with each to let the fish decide. Once landed, the state-record striper spit up two gizzard shad, each more than a foot long.
Dale Welch, a guide on Smith Lake, Alabama’s premier trophy striper lake, chooses gizzard shad as his primary bait.  Threadfins are the dominant forage in Smith, but big stripers favor bigger gizzards.  Welch holds the lake record for Smith, with a 45-pounder, but he and other regulars on the lake are convinced that much larger fish exists there.
Steve Crenshaw, who guides on Lake Hartwell, a Savannah River impoundment on the Georgia-South Carolina border, fishes only with live blueback herring through February and March, populations of threadfin shad and blueback herring, but Crenshaw finds herring far superior as bait.
Location
Though both baitfish and stripers append much of their time shallow early in the season, Ralph Dallas says cloudy weather and cold fronts slow their feeding and push them deeper.  Key spots, such as long points and vast flats running close to a major creek or river channel, provide shallow feeding areas for stripers, with close access to deeper water.
In addition to structure like slats or points, cover seems essential to draw stripers shallow, Dallas notes.  Lakes along the Cumberland River have strong currents in many areas, and striper hold in eddies behind snags and fallen trees.  Rockpiles and bluff banks provide excellent holding and feeding areas.
While many stripers migrate upstream in spring, major creek arms may support resident striper populations, and some large fish stay in the lower lake, so long as baitfish remain.  While many anglers are working big schools of stripers that follow shad to Lake Hartwell’s upper end, Steve Crenshaw stays well down the lake, where the lake’s largest stripers chase herring close to the bank.
On Lake Hartwell, Crenshaw looks for stripers on clay points—herring spawn over clay bottoms—and migrate to those areas when they first move shallow in spring.  Years of experience have taught Crenshaw to ignore prime-looking rock areas at this time of year.
Ralph Dallas has found that certain creek banks tend to hold the largest stripers year after year.  “It’s one of those things you learn by fishing a lake for years,” he says.  “I haven’t been able to identify specific features of those banks that prove so attractive,” says Dallas, who’s been guiding for striper on Old Hickory for 27 years.
Dale Welch focuses on the upper ends of creeks during late winter into spring.  Except during April, when the shad go to the banks to spawn, Smith Lake stripers don’t hold as shallow as they do on most other southern striper lakes, probably because the water’s so clear.  Though Welch moves well up the creeks and almost always works quite close to shore in spring, he often finds fish in 20 or 30 feet of water.
Skinny-Water Tactics
Stripers, especially trophy stripers, are spooky by nature, so putting a bait in front of one in shallow water takes a special approach and a dash of finesse.  Adding to the challenge, the water in many of the best striper lakes is clear.
While summer striper patterns often involve marking fish and presenting livebaits vertically, fish generally are too shallow in early season to hold over them in a boat.  They also tend to move more than those holding in the depths.  As a result, baitfish become “fish finders.”  Stripers hold near the biggest bait supply and may reveal themselves by busting shad or herring on the surface.
Many veteran striper fishermen, including Welch, believe that the sound of sonar and trolling motors can spook stripers, especially big ones that previously have been hooked.  If history and conditions indicate that an area should hold big stripers, Welch pulls some baits through it before turning on a graph.
In Lake Hartwell's clear water, stripers can be spooky, so Crenshaw prefers a quiet hardware-free approach for presenting live herring.  His favorite tactic on spring is to beach his boat on a clay point that extends toward the edge of a major channel and cast out several live herring on freelines.
From the stripers' perspective, the motionless boat becomes part of the landscape.  B y working points that drop into the channel, Crenshaw catches cruising fish.  He casts out each herring bait a different distance, letting the bait swim uninhibited as shallow or as deep as they choose.
But if Crenshaw has tried several points with no pickups, he searches for fish by casting a couple livebaits on freeline rigs close to the bank, then releasing line.  He then moves slowly along potentially productive banks at a pace that doesn't drag baits, but keeps them swimming freely behind the boat.
Crenshaw maneuvers the boat to stay over deeper water when he passes a productive looking point, angling back toward shore so the baits cross the point closer to the tip.  This slow-trolling presentation requires precise boat control, but it accounts for lots of big striped bass early in the year.
When stripers chase herring against the banks, Crenshaw adds a cork a few feet up the line and casts to the breaking fish.  When the stripers are aggressive, a well-placed herring rarely lasts long.  On all his rigs, Crenshaw lip-hooks herring on #1 Kahle livebait hooks and uses 15-pound-test Trilene Big Game line.
Ralph Dallas, on the other hand, trolls livebait on planer boards along riverine stretches.  He also fishes with heavier line and larger baits than Crenshaw favors.  Dallas drags skipjack and shad averaging about 12 inches long on 50-pound monofilament or 80-pound braided line.
Dallas has been know to pull herring over 20 inches long.  He doesn't expect to catch many stripers in a spring day, but he know that those that strike will be hefty.  "We didn't catch a fish under 30 pounds during April last year," he adds.
Using JTS planer boards, which pull the big baits to the side when trolled, Dallas can present livebaits shallow without getting too close and spooking stripers with the boat.  He works downstream, parallel to the bank, and moves the boat only slightly faster than the current.  Dallas has located the best cover on his favorite flats and keeps his baits tickling through snags and brushpiles.
Dallas generally pulls four lines behind planers, determining the distance each runs from the bank by how much line he lets out.  At times, he sets baits just a few feet behind a board, while at other times, 100 feet might separate the baitfish and the planer.  Water color, weather conditions, and time of day cause stripers to move deeper and shallower during spring, so Dallas adjusts to accommodate them.
When stripers feed aggressively, busting baitfish on the banks, Dallas sometimes casts large plugs that imitate shad and herring.  "Sometimes those big fish hit a Red Fin when they won't touch a live skipjack cast right to them," he says.
"Stripers become most aggressive just ahead of a front, usually as the storm rolls in," Dallas reports.  "One day last year, a storm kicked up, and we were hiding from it under a bridge.  The stripers started breaking within casting range, and we ended up getting a 50-pounder on a topwater."
Once the front passes, though, the stripers move deeper and feed less aggressively.  When that happens, Dallas strings strips of skipjack on a hook and casts up against cover located about halfway down the slope from the flat to the bottom of the channel.  When stripers hold in deep cover, they aren't aggressive, but often can't resist a cut of fresh fish placed before them.
Dallas presents his big livebaits and cut fish on 7/0 Eagle Claw 84 hooks.  "We've tried many different hooks," he says, "and those are the only ones stripers haven't straightened."  He uses Ambasadeur 7000 reels on Fenwick rods.
When Smith Lake striper are up the creeks but not on the banks, Welch runs downlines on Carolina rigs, using 1 1/2 oz. sinkers and 3- or 4-foot leaders.  Rigging with several live shad, he moves along slowly with his trolling motor.
Welch hooks his bait through the back because stripers often slap a shad with their mouths, just to kill it, before they engulf it.  If the feel resistance, they may not return.  With the bait hooked in the back, the striper usually finds a hook point when it slaps the bait.
Welch's preferred size for gizzard shad changes as the season progresses.  In January, when striper metabolism is low, he fishes 3- or 40 inch shad, switching to 5- or 6- inch baits as the water warms.  He fishes mostly 10-12-inch shad by mid-May.
"If a big striper can get twice as much nutrition by striking only once, it will usually do so.  That's why I usually use baits that are larger than the forage the stripers are preying on," Welch explains.
When Smith Lake striper move shallow, Welch switches to planer board and balloon rigs.  He runs three or four lines from the side of the boat on planer rigs to work the banks.  He also runs a couple behind the boat on balloons, for fish suspended near the surface over deeper water.
Welch runs 14-poun-test Silver Thread on Daiwa Millionaire reels matched with 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy Zebco Rhino rods.  He puts his rods in holders with the reels in gear to allow the stripers to hook themselves.  "I used to let them run against the clickers and then I'd guess at when to set the hook.  The year I switched, I increased my hooking percentage by about 80 percent."  Welch says.
Getting and Keeping Bait
While live herring and shad are available locally around some striper lakes, it's usually necessary to catch your own baitfish.  Whether fished alive or as cutbait, herring and shad must be fresh to attract stripers.  Almost all veteran striper fishermen agree that frozen bait is best left in the freezer.
Shad can best be caught with a cast net.  They may be shallow and visible, dimpling the surface, or deep and require a graph for locating them.  A bit of local advice is often helpful for finding the size shad the stripers are eating.  Guides and local experts may also reveal a couple good cast netting sites.
Of course, some of the best striper lakes are not good lakes for catching bait.  Smith Lake, for example, has gizzard shad, but they run too deep to find and catch consistently with a cast net.  Plus, most of the gizzard shad are too small to make prime bait for giant stripers.  Welch, therefore, travels to other lakes and rivers to collect bait.
Herring, unlike shad, often are easiest to catch with a rod and reel.  For skipjack, micro jigs (1/68 to 1/16 ounce) or tiny in-line spinners work well.  Dallas uses two small crappie jigs tied about a foot apart and casts them with an ultralight-spinning outfit.  Skipjack herring hold on sandy flats and points, usually in coves where the water is a little warmer than in the main lake.  They also concentrate in tailwaters when flow is high.
To catch the smaller bluebacks he prefers, Crenshaw uses a Baitchaser rig, which looks like a group of tiny ice flies tied a few inches apart on the line.  He adds a weight to the end of the line and vertically jigs the Baitchaser rig.  Where he finds his bluebacks, he later fishes for stripers.
Shad and herring aren't easy to keep alive.  Use round, well-aerated tanks, and maintain good water quality.  Also try bait-saving chemicals to keep baitfish alive longer and free of red-nose.
A Handful of Southern Hot Spots
Old Hickory Lake--Along with landing the 62-pound state-record striper last year, Ralph Dallas also witnessed a 61-pounder and several 50s caught and released from his boat last spring.  Old Hickory, a fairly shallow riverine impoundment on the Cumberland River, runs almost to Nashville.  Dallas noted that lesser-known Cordell Hull Reservoir, just upstream of Old Hickory, holds stripers that are just as big but with fewer numbers than Old Hickory.
Savannah River Lakes--Lakes Hartwell and Clark Hill, both dividing South Carolina from Georgia on the Savannah River, are the best lakes in the Carolinas for big stripers.  Clark Hill (Lake Thurmond) produced a 55-pound 12-ounce striper a few years ago that broke a long-standing state record.  Both lakes also support strong populations of hybrid stripers and provide a lot of extra action.
Lake Sidney Lanier--Arguably the best-known striper lake in the South, Georgia's Lake Lanier still ranks among the best.  While Lanier's trophy numbers are somewhat down from past levels, the lake still has outstanding numbers of large stripers, and its 38,000 acres provide space for lots of anglers.
Lewis Smith Lake--First stocked with stripers in 1983, Smith is a relative newcomer on the trophy striper scene.  Its clear water offer ideal habitat for striped bass, and biologists have documented growth rates of five pounds per year.  Unlike many southern impoundments, Smith was originally stocked with stripers from the Gulf of Mexico.  It serves as Alabama's brood pool for Gulf-strain fish.
Smith Mountain Lake--Every couple years, a Smith Mountain Lake striper breaks the Virginia state record, always replacing another Smith Mountain Lake fish.  The record presently stands at 45 pounds, 10 ounces, but regulars on this lake all agree that 50-pounders are swimming down there.