For a long time now, one of the great, yet often unnoticed, game fish available to fly anglers on both the West (Northern California) and nearly the entire East Coast, has been the striped bass (Morone saxatilis). What makes these fish so desirable to fly anglers is their availability to both shore-bound and boat anglers alike, and while they’re not always the easiest fish to catch, striped bass offer anglers a chance at catching a fish on a fly rod that can weigh as much as 50 pounds. Try catching a trout like that.
Over the past 10 years, the saltwater striped bass population has fallen under constant scrutiny by marine fisheries folks who manage the resource. Most agree the fishery has been dwindling for years, and no one really knows what the future holds.
However, there are other striped bass fisheries that, unlike our saltwater stocks, are actually growing in numbers and healthy, in sodium-free environments. Managed by most state fish or natural resource agencies, and without commercial fishing pressures, anglers have strong and viable fisheries at their fingertips. Most states introduced striped bass to local lakes beginning in the 1960s for two reasons. First, fish helped control the overabundance of certain forage species found in in the lakes. Second, stripers could support a thriving recreational fishery. Since then, these lakes have become a fantastic resource that fly fishermen are starting to notice. What’s more, freshwater striper impoundments are located throughout much of the United States and available to anglers living many miles from the ocean.
The nice thing about freshwater stripers, no matter where you find them, is they all have one thing in common—their reliability on forage bait like gizzard shad and threadfin shad— though like their saltwater brethren, stripers are opportunistic feeders and can feed on a host of aquatic creatures like crayfish, bream (sunfish), American shad, crappies as well as young-of-the-year fish found in their environment (bass, catfish, and so on). The key is figuring out what they’re eating and matching your fly to it.
Once you locate striper waters in your area, the single biggest determining factor to finding stripers is to find the bait—and to find the bait, let water temperatures be your guide. Water temperature can coerce bait into shallow pockets, the backs of coves, over tapered points, or along sandy beaches. Or, it can push bait deep into a lake’s main channel, where it will sit over underwater humps, or in the mouths of coves in a creek arm.
Remember, a striper in Virginia will react in ways similar to fish in Georgia, California, Oklahoma, or Pennsylvania. October is traditionally the start of the freshwater striper season, and it can last through June. In the fall, the surface water temperature on a lake drops to the low 70s, and it triggers bait that’s been hovering in the deepest and coolest part of a lake (usually near the dam) all summer to start migrating to shallower, more comfortable water. Stripers follow. Young-of-the-year threadfin shad, for example, can hover in the last five feet of the water column, and stripers looking for an easy meal will travel in schools, trying to get shad to ball up in big numbers before attacking them on the surface—blitz style, just as in the salt.
Flocks of hovering or diving terns and gulls also indicates the presence of surface feeding fish. As prevailing northwesterly fall winds continue to cool water temperatures, the bite will become more consistent and continue as temps fall into the low to mid 60s.
“Always be on the lookout for wildlife, especially herons, terns, and loons, to help find the bait or the stripers. Clay banks can hold lots of bait, so don’t always look for structure. Clay tends to heat up faster in cold weather, and you can find shad there,” famed angler and fly tier Blaine Chocklett says.
Around mid-November, surface temperatures drop into the low 60s, and anglers need to forget about throwing topwater flies to busting stripers. Electronic fish-finders will be your biggest ally at this time of year and will help you locate big schools of fish around the upper end of impoundments. Threadfin shad will seek the warmest water they can find. As lakes start to cool down, shad feel the temperature dropping and migrate farther north, where afternoon sunrays warm coves. If you find a cove that gets a good amount of afternoon sunlight, the area might heat up one additional degree more than others, which can make a big difference and coerce shad to move from deepwater holdings in coves to right up against the banks.
Search coves throughout the winter months. Going into December and January, there is still going to be some early morning and late-afternoon surface activity, as stripers usually feed heaviest during low-light periods. Surface water temperatures can dip from the mid 50s down to the mid 40s. Fish will be dialed into baitfish size, and matching the proportions is the key to fooling fish. If stripers are eating 1-½-inch long shad, then use small flies. If the bait is large, four-inch-long shad, then again, match the bait. Note that when you find stripers feeding on super-small shad (one to two inches long), fish might be extremely finicky. That’s when you can’t beat a small Polar Fiber Minnow or Somethin’ Else.
When January’s cold weather drops water temperatures to 45 degrees or below, it’s time to think about attending your local fly fishing show or simply staying home to restock fly boxes. Stripers tend to feed irregularly during this time of year, though you can sometimes find fish if you watch the weather and head out on the front side of a system.
After temperatures rise into the 50s, start looking for fish as bait seeks warmer water. When surface water temperatures cross into the upper 50s, striped bass start thinking about spawning and eat to put on the weight needed to head upriver for two to three weeks. Depending on the location of a lake, this happens in mid-March or possibly mid-April. But not all fish run upriver. Many fish will run to the back of a creek or cove, where there is a good supply of fresh water coming into the lake. Others will head to the deepest area in the lake near a dam or water drainage pipeline to spawn (especially if there is no river system attached). This is the time of the striper season when anglers can catch their biggest fish of the year.
Cast around river systems and points near river channels to intercept fish staging to make a run. If there are no rivers, go to the deepest arm of the lake where there may be a dam or large drainage pipeline and there’s a current where water filters out (especially in the spring). This is an ideal place to look for spawning fish.
“Learn to fish deep with fast-sinking lines. Fish the flooded tree line structures in the creeks during the spring, especially when the lakes are full. Try to find submerged structure like humps, as fish tend to hang around those areas. Fishing visual structure is also a good bet (rocks, concrete stanchions, etc.),” says striped bass expert and former guide, Dan Blanton. “Fish shallow both early and late, but once the sun goes high, try fishing uphill by starting shallow and tossing your flies into the deeper water, and retrieving back into the shallows. Fish the wind-generated mudlines, as fish use mud for cover, and flats with weed edges, as bait hides in the weeds.”
By the end of April, fish are coming down from their spawning run, and anglers can intercept them on their way back to the lake in the same places they staged to go up the lake. During low light periods, cast a fly on a slow-sinking line tight against the shore to look for fish prowling the shallows for an easy meal— like spawning gizzard shad. When gizzard shad spawn, they flock to sandy beaches in low light and throughout the nighttime. Toss a Game Changer tight to shore as fish will stay shallow until the sun rises, then head to deep water.
Once water temperatures hit 70 degrees, the topwater bite begins again and you’ll see fish chasing gizzard shad, large threadfin shad, and in some cases blueback herring, for up to four weeks. After that, fish start migrating to deeper water as bait looks for more comfortable temperatures. Cast a Pole Dancer or Flat Fred fly around any main lake area point during low light conditions. During the day, fish will be around structure 20 to 25 feet deep where a fast-sinking line with any baitfish pattern, like a Cowen’s Baitfish, can yield some really good numbers of fish. This bite usually continues through the entire month of May and sometimes into June if water temperatures don’t rise too quickly.
“If you want to put up some big numbers, always try to fish the spring spawning run as fish head up the river. As the water temperature cools in the fall and winter, keep an eye on the river arms around lakes as fish migrate to them. When fish are busting bait on the surface, try to fish slow using a twitch and pause retrieve. When fishing the springtime gizzard shad spawn at night, throw big Game Changers with a fast retrieve,” Chocklett says.
Tackling Sodium-Free Stripers
You can use essentially the same gear for freshwater striper fishing as you’d use to catch their saltwater counterparts. Eight and 9-weight rods are ideal for casting an array of different fly patterns, and I really like the RIO InTouch Outbound Short F/I line when chasing fish on or near the surface because it has a slow sinking head and a floating running line. This line allows me to make quick pick up and directional change casts to fish that are moving fast and feeding near the surface.
My other rig on the boat is an 8-weight paired with a fast sinking type 6 or 300-grain line because it allows me to fish from 10 to 30 feet down when schooling fish are in deep water. November is the time to switch to slow sinking intermediate or fast-sinking outfits. A type six or density compensated fly line will allow anglers to cast flies to fish that are hovering down 10 to 30 feet deep. Last, carry a 9-weight set up with a floating line for topwater opportunities or when blind casting poppers around points and structure in the spring.
Leader setup is fairly simple. For a fast-sinking outfit, all you need is a five-foot-long straight piece of 20-pound fluorocarbon. When fishing an intermediate outfit, use a seven-foot-foot long tapered fluorocarbon leader with a 15- to 20-pound tippet. When tossing poppers, I use a floating line with a seven-foot long, 20-pound, tapered monofilament leader.
When you find fish, approach stealthily by using your electric trolling motor and make your cast as quick as possible because fish go up and down rather quickly. Remember that for every fish you see on the surface there are probably five times as many finning deep. A floating line with a big top water fly like a pole dancer or a slow sinking intermediate line with either a Clouser or Wiggle minnow will get fish to eat. An intermediate line will probably get you more bites. The key to fishing an intermediate line to stripers that are eating shad is to fish with a series of quick threeto four-inch-long strips, followed by two- to three-second pauses to emulate a wounded fish that is falling out of a bait cluster. Shad that appear wounded are easy pickings for feeding striped bass.
For reels, any setup with a smooth drag, that’s capable of holding 150 to 200 yards of backing, will suffice. Stripers are a hard fighting fish and an old, large fish can certainly get into your backing. Assemble the best outfit by researching the lake you’re fishing. Some striper lakes are plum full of fish in the two to six-pound class, while other lakes (like Lake Lanier) have fish that consistently produce double-digit-sized fish.
Most anglers who have tried their hand at saltwater fly fishing have found it to be an amazing fly fishing experience. While most of us are not fortunate enough to live on or near salt water, fishing for freshwater stripers offers a saltwater-like experience hundreds of miles from the coast. Give it a try, and see what you’ve been missing.
For a brief list of freshwater striper hotspots and to watch Henry tie his Something Else fly, CLICK HERE
Henry Cowen currently guides anglers for landlocked freshwater stripers and carp just north of Atlanta, Georgia (www.henrycowenflyfishing.com) and is regular contributor to American Angler.