Hotspots For January Stripers

Hotspots For January Stripers

These linesided bass are some of the biggest freshwater game fish found in the Peach State. We're checking out the best venues for battling one of them in the winter! (January 2007)

Guide Jerry Hester displays an average-sized striped bass taken from Lake Lanier.
Photo by Don Baldwin

Avid anglers deem few things more exciting than hooking, fighting, and landing a big fish — and I mean big: a line-stripping, rod-bending beast that makes your drag scream and your adrenaline levels soar. The satisfaction of getting into an extended battle of wills with such a creature, then conquering it, and at last leading it to the side of the boat is what big-game fishing is all about.

For most of us in Georgia, big-game fishing entails a trip to the coast and long rides out to the blue water in search of king mackerel, bull dolphin, or oversized red snapper. But if you live inland, an easily-accessible alternative option may be found very close by: chasing striped bass in our area reservoirs.

Georgia's aggressive stocking program has resulted in the development of noteworthy striped bass fisheries in many of our lakes. Their seagoing kin spawn in freshwater rivers, so the brutes are well suited to inland environments, and survival rates for stripers introduced into the larger, deeper reservoirs have been observed to be extremely good.

Let's explore a few of the Peach State's better venues for lineside action, and ask some experts about their methods for catching stripers during the cold of the winter months.

LAKE SIDNEY LANIER

This mammoth impoundment north of Atlanta has long been known as a pretty decent striped bass fishery. The deep, clear lake is loaded with striper-friendly habitat and forage. Reggie Weaver, the fisheries biologist assigned to the lake by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division, described the striper population on Lanier as healthy and numerous. "We stock about 10 fish per acre on average in Lanier every year," he said. "That means that over 350,000 1-inch fingerlings are being added to the fishery annually."

Dropped into the lake in several places, the fingerlings spread out all over, affording them better access to food and cover. This relatively new distribution program is leading to stronger year-classes than resulted from large numbers being dumped in one or just a couple of locations.

"The addition of blueback herring has also had a positive impact on the striper survival and growth rate," Weaver added. "These baitfish go much deeper than shad typically do, so they provide an excellent deep-water food source for stripers during the summer months, when the big fish are deep looking for cool water."

The average Lanier striper weighs between 8 and 10 pounds, but specimens of 20 pounds and up are far from unknown in the reservoir. The lake-record striper weighed 46 pounds — and you can bet that the drag screamed during that fight!

Fooling The Fish

Being a fulltime striper guide, Jerry Hester spends an unsurprisingly large amount of time pursuing Lanier's big linesides, and as he's on the water year 'round, he stays in close contact with the movements of the fish.

"Winter is a great time for striper fishing on Lanier," he noted. "The fish are active and chasing bait in the cool water, and it is the best time of the year to catch big fish."

The location of baitfish is a key factor in finding Lanier's wintertime stripers. "It is a good idea to start in the back third of big creeks that feed the lake," Hester said. "These creeks are usually pretty rich in oxygen due to the flowing water, and the bait tends to congregate in these areas."

A few techniques help Hester to focus the search for baitfish. "The first thing I look for is surface activity," he offered. "Early in the day the lake is usually pretty calm, and you can see fish breaking the surface chasing bait from quite a distance."

Another good indicator: actively feeding birds. Gulls and loons are of necessity highly competent baitfish locators, so exploit their skill to better your success. If you see birds darting and diving over a section of the lake, you can bet on a substantial school of baitfish being at or near the surface — and when schools of bait are present in an area, stripers are likely to be under them.

But the signs won't always be so blatant. "You can't always count on birds or active fish on the surface," said Hester. "That's where your electronics are critical." He uses sonar extensively when he's trying to pinpoint the fish's whereabouts.

When Hester pulls into a creek in which he expects to find fish, he shuts down the big motor and, going to the trolling motor, starts crisscrossing the area, eyes on the apparatus, looking for clouds of bait. "You won't always see fish under the bait," he remarked. "Sometimes the bait schools are so big the graph will be black from the surface to the bottom."

And that's the time to drop a line overboard and hold on. The guide ordinarily sets out several rods when he finds a likely spot. He uses three basic methods with live bait: free lines, balloons, and planer boards.

A free line consists of a barrel swivel followed by a leader of about 8 feet with a 1/0 hook. A live shad, trout, or blueback herring — hooked through the lip or nostril, thus allowing the bait to swim freely and to track easily with the movement of the boat — is the typical offering. The freelined bait finds its own depth and moves about naturally.

In shallow areas or locations with a lot of submerged brush, Hester floats the bait under a balloon. The rig is essentially a free-line setup, but a small balloon is inflated and tied on to the line to keep the bait at a desired depth. The balloon is easy to see, and doesn't affect the swimming action of the bait as much as a conventional fishing float does.

The third option, a planer board, is used to position the bait out to the side of the boat. The device is set up to move away at right angles to the boat when it's pulled through the water. With one in a rod holder on each side of the vessel, you can cover a lot of water and leave room behind the boat for balloons and free lines.

"There are two schools of thought about the size of baits," Hester offered. "Larger baits like big shad, and trout are preferred by many striper anglers because they believe they attract larger fish. I use large baits most of the time, but sometimes I think it is good to scale

down with a medium-sized bass minnow or shiner." And, he's found, the smaller minnow will sometimes do the trick if the bigger baits aren't getting hit.

When dragging bait through an area, Hester keeps one eye on the electronics and another on the surrounding area. Fish can come up to the surface, crash into the bait schools and disappear just as quickly as they rose. If they stay up, and are within casting reach, the guide moves slowly over to them to get within range for a long cast.

Hester recommends a white bucktail jig for this action. As it casts farther, and has a good bait profile, a 1/2-ounce model is the size he generally opts for. If, however, temperatures are extremely cold, he drops down to a 1/4-ounce model, because it sinks more slowly and is thus more attractive to fish made sluggish by chilly water. Other worthwhile artificials include a Zoom Spook Trailer or a curly-tailed grub, with white the preferred color.

Another hot method for finding cold-weather stripers involves the use of a wire contraption available at most local bait shops: the umbrella rig. Consisting of six or more bucktail jigs tied on short leaders to a wire frame, the rig emulates a school of shad on the move when it's pulled behind the boat at about 3 to 5 miles per hour.

With the umbrella rig, you can cover a lot of water to locate schools of fish. Once they're found, slow down and set out the live baits.

Another Option

Striper zealot Henry Cowen has been pursuing the big fish for over 30 years both in water both fresh and salt. His weapon of choice, however, is a fly rod. For the past several years he's been chasing big linesides of Lanier and other area lakes. He runs a guide service primarily on Lanier that focuses solely on anglers looking to land a striper on a fly.

"There are some great fish in Lanier," Cowen said, "and a fly rod is a challenging but rewarding way to catch them. I use 8- and 9-weight fly rods with both floating and sinking tip lines, but 80 percent or more of the fish are caught on the sinking-tip line." And, he added, the winter months can hardly be beat if your quarry is a striper and your offering a fly. The fish are running in relatively shallow packs, chasing bait; a well-placed fly can be the start of a frantic fight on the whippy tackle.

Cowen prefers a 300- to 350-grain sink-tip line that falls at a rate of about 6 feet per second. When he spots fish on his electronics, he can count the fly down to the fish, because he knows the rate of its descent with a fair degree of accuracy. Saltwater streamers in whites and chartreuse are smart fly choices.

Stripers as deep as 30 feet down figure among Cowen's targets. The method calls for, first, a cast of at least 40 to 60 feet or more, and then, once the fly is at the desired depth, a quick stripping action as the fly is retrieved to the boat. Cowen also recommends sticking with the backs of coves in the winter, as he's determined that the northern portion of the lake is the most profitable section at this time of year. You can, however, find fish on the south end as well.

Floating line and surface flies work well in situations that see fish busting the surface — but, again, you need to make a long cast. "When it is done properly," Cowen pointed out with regard to the retrieve, "the fly will make a classic 'V' in the water as it glides across the surface."

Strikes can be explosive, so keep a tight grip on the rod. To prevent breakoffs, loosen up a bit on the drag.

OTHER DESTINATIONS

Of course, Lanier's not the only venue at which to challenge a few linesides this month — other lakes too hold promise for wintertime striper action.

Lake Allatoona

Just northwest of Marietta on Interstate 75, Allatoona can offer proof of the potential of its lineside fishing: a 42-pound lake-record striped bass. But Allatoona does produce some big stripers, it's better known for hybrid bass, the almost invariably sterile laboratory offspring of striped and white bass.

Jim Hakala, the WRD biologist assigned to Allatoona, is of the view that conditions at Allatoona are better suited to the hybrid. "Hybrids do really well in Allatoona," he stated. "For that reason we stock them far more heavily than we do stripers."

Still, the 11,000-plus-acre reservoir receives 2.5 stripers per acre annually — and, here, the biggest of these fish are ordinarily caught during the winter months.

Jerry Hester guides at Allatoona as well as at Lanier, and his experience has been that the above-described tactics for Lanier also work serviceably well for this impoundment. He recommends that you try starting your search in the Allatoona Pass area, the back part of Allatoona Creek, and the Kellogg Creek area. To help you identify schools of both hybrids and stripers, again, look for baitfish with your sonar and for active birds — particularly if they're diving — with your eyes.

Carters Lake

The WRD's Jim Hakala also oversees the fishery at 3,220-acre Carters Lake, a deep impoundment of the Coosawattee River. Both stripers and hybrids are stocked into this lake in the foothills of the mountains of northwest Georgia, each at about 5 fish per acre. Hakala feels that the limited access for a spring run upstream in the small lake makes it less than ideal for a great striper population — but that's not to say the fishery is not a worthy one.

"There are plenty of good stripers in Carters," he stated. "A good fish will go over 20 pounds."

Wurley Creek, on the north side of the impoundment, is a likely site to try. The planer boards described earlier work particularly well in narrow cuts like this creek arm, in which fish sometimes hug the bank. With a planer board, you can get your bait right up next to the shore while the boat's still out in the channel. The bait can move along silently well away from the boat, giving much less occasion to spook the fish in the shallow water.

Clarks Hill Lake

This lake along the Georgia-South Carolina border boasts a solid striped bass fishery. Ed Bettross, the WRD fisheries biologist assigned to the lake, regards the Clarks Hill population as doing very well.

The WRD works cooperatively with its South Carolina counterpart to manage the lake, and together they stock an average of 7.5 fish per acre annually. In this lake covering 71,000 acres, that comes to about a half-million 1-inch fingerlings per year. The fish are spread around the lake to give them access to more cover, which means both a fighting chance at survival, as well as more forage.

"This program is working very well," Bettross noted. "Our gill net surveys continue to show strong year classes for stripers."

Exceptional water quality and high levels of dissolved oxygen equip Clarks Hill to foster trophy-sized stripers far better than is usual for Georgia reservoirs, Bettross added. "The addition of b

lueback herring to the lake didn't hurt things either," he said. "These forage fish have thrived in the cool water and are providing an excellent year round supply of food for the stripers."

While the average striper here runs between 6 and 8 pounds, the lake record was set by a fish weighing a whopping 55 pounds, 12 ounces — but given the way the fish are thriving, Bettross feels that the record may very well be in jeopardy.

* * *

And there you have it: Whether you choose one of the lakes listed above, or one of our other great reservoirs, your prospects for some striped bass action in the Peach State this winter are fabulous!

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