Stripers in the Brine

The coastal rivers of southern Mississippi provide some interesting fishing for striped bass. Here's a look at this action and when you can take advantage of it.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Robert Brodie

Looking for a fight with one of the most powerful fish that roam in our coastal river systems? Then look no further than the striped bass. Pound for pound, the striper is one of the strongest species that reside in the murky waters of Mississippi's coastal river systems. Striped bass offer everything an angler needs for an unforgettable angling experience.

Once hooked, a decent-sized striper of 5 pounds or more is sure to rip line off a reel like no other fish in its river environs. Along with unsurpassed acceleration rates, these fish have the ability to fight long and hard, especially in the swift currents of a deep river bend. At times, they even fight relentlessly on the surface. But make no mistake about it: on light tackle a 5-pound striper puts any equivalent-sized largemouth bass to shame when it comes to their athletic ability.

Although stripers are caught year 'round along the coast, the largest concentrations of these fish are encountered in the fall and winter. Since stripers prefer colder water, and the often-nasty weather that comes with it, summertime fishing for this species can be really tough in these southern waters. In the summer months, stripers' metabolism seems to slow down, and their presence becomes much more obvious.

According to Larry Nicholson, the fisheries biologist who heads up the Striped Bass Restoration Program at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) in Ocean Springs, the reason why so few coastal fish are caught in the hot months is clear.

"By nature, striped bass are coolwater fish. During the hot summer months, they will seek out cool water and stay there. During this period, they do not exert very much energy and eat very little," Nicholson stated.

"You can tell that stripers don't feed much during this period, because most of the fish caught early in the season look very gaunt or lean. But in the fall when the water starts to cool down, it doesn't take stripers very long with their voracious appetites to bulk back up," Nicholson added.

"During the summer months, stripers spend most of their time in the upper rivers. Here, they look for relief from the heat in thermal refuges such as deep holes, spring-fed streams and other tributaries with cooler water running into them."

HOT-WEATHER FISHING
Honestly, fishing for striped bass during the hot months of summer doesn't get very much press coverage in this coastal region, and for a simple reason. During these periods, stripers aren't very active, and reports of their catches fall off dramatically compared to the fall and winter months. In late April through May, before the blistering heat of summer arrives, striped bass can be caught, if you are willing to have a little more patience and work a little harder at locating these fish.

A lifelong native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and a very knowledgeable angler on these waters, Kevin Toncrey of Biloxi has found a way to sometimes take stripers in the summer months. According to Toncrey, the critical part of fooling hot-weather stripers is fishing the proper tide.

"To fish for stripers during the summer months with any success, it's very important to always fish a strong falling tide," he stated.

Of course, falling tides during the spring months generally occur in the afternoons, making fishing even better with the drop in temperature.

"To fool stripers during the hot season, I free-line a live menhaden into deep holes in river bends. I forgo any leader and tie a 4/0 or 5/0 live-bait hook directly to my reel's line. Usually, I add a split shot or two 12 inches or so above the menhaden. I cast the bait into the deep hole, give it a few seconds to sink, and then I reel the bait in very slowly," Toncrey explained.

Although Toncrey spends most of his time fishing the Tchoutacabouffa River near the Cedar Lake Bridge for stripers, he has also encountered stripers in the summer while gar fishing very late at night under lights on the Escatawpa River. On those occasions on this tributary of the Pascagoula River, Toncrey finds the stripers ravaging schools of menhaden attracted to the lights. He tosses lipless crankbaits into the melee, usually resulting in instant hookups.

Toncrey stated that he likes to fish with a quality 15-pound-test monofilament line and recommends using a quality spinning or baitcasting outfit with a good drag system for catching river stripers. By the way, I've also heard that in the heat of the summer, stripers occasionally come up to feed after a light afternoon rain has cooled down the water a bit.

Be aware that striped bass are armed with a set of very sharp and jagged gill plates. If handled improperly, a thrashing fish may leave you with a nasty hand laceration. Toncrey also said that he gets more bites by going with the light leader, but he did admit he gets occasional break-offs, probably from the gill plates.

AND WHEN IT COOLS
It's a fact that if you want the best odds of catching a striped bass in your favor, you need to make plans to also fish later in the year. In Mississippi's coastal waters, including the Pascagoula River and its tributaries, Fort Bayou, Biloxi River, the Tchoutacabouffa River, and the Pearl River system, the coming of cold weather awakens these fish out of their summer slumber. When stripers attain their cold-weather power surges, they more than make up for their loss of appetite during the hot season.

Especially when the rivers have had very little rainfall (causing salinity levels to rise), even well into the upper river systems, stripers can be found on a relentless pursuit of shrimp and menhaden. Stimulating telltale signs are large shrimp jumping franticly on the water surface only to be swiftly engulfed while trying to touch down, or large schools of menhaden swimming in a tight group for safety, only to be suddenly scattered from below by voracious stripers.

A well-seasoned angler who has caught his share of striped bass on the Pascagoula River is C.A. Fillingame. According to Fillingame, the best time to locate stripers in these waters is during October through December.

"Over the years, most of my striper catches have come from the area near the mouth of the Little River on the East Pascagoula River, and in the area of the I-10 bridge crossing at State Highway 613," stated Fillingame.

"My

time is primarily spent on these waters to catch big speckled trout by slow-trolling. Since most of the salt water is on the bottom, I like to troll 4-inch-long soft-plastic split-tail Beatles in a chartreuse color, threaded on red-headed lead jigs. But I also pick up stripers while trolling," he pointed out.

"I've caught stripers in the 12- to 14-pound range in these waters," Fillingame continued, "and when hooked they are so strong they easily pull my small boat around. They are a powerful fish and fun to catch, but I fish for them for sport and turn them loose anyway. When stripers are in the area, you know it because you see them chasing shrimp all around the area.

"I like to throw 6-inch crankbaits at them when I spot fish striking on the surface, although, when the fish are feeding in the area, you can catch them on just about anything you throw at them," Fillingame added.

This in-the-know angler has also noted that stripers seem to prefer the swift waters in the middle of the river - the more turbulent the better. Also, from his experiences, Fillingame has concluded that the best time to catch stripers is early in the morning or late in the evening.

"The best conditions for catching stripers in this area are when river waters are clear and down. This is when salinity levels are high and plenty of shrimp have worked their way into the area. There have been times while reeling in a striper that I've spotted two or more fish following that one to the surface. But if heavy rain muddies up the river, and the bait gets flushed out, the fishing will shut down," Fillingame concluded.

Most of my experiences with the striped bass have occurred on the Tchoutacabouffa River, especially in the areas above and below the Cedar Lake Bridge in Biloxi. In this locale, the river offers plenty of big winding bends with deep holes, plus a number of offshoot lakes that dump into the main river.

Looking back on past fishing experiences, we can see that the best striper catches have come on cold mornings and afternoons, especially during drizzly, overcast periods. Also, the fish seem to bite best when there is a strong tidal flow, on either ebb tides or flood tides.

Of course, the availability of bait in the area is essential too. In the fall, if the rivers remain salty, large schools of menhaden work their way well up the rivers, and stripers are usually lurking around these surface-flicking masses of small baitfish.

Just like on the Pascagoula River, as well as on the other Mississippi coastal rivers, shrimp, like the menhaden, are a plentiful source of protein for stripers in the Tchoutacabouffa River in the fall. Of course, the rivers have to deliver clear, salty and low water levels. Even if they suddenly become muddy, anglers at times can find pockets of clear water in offshoot lakes, deep bayous or feeder streams where baitfish have taken refuge. In these situations, stripers often follow the bait and seek refuge until the river recedes again.

Like Toncrey, I found free-lining live menhaden or large shrimp into the swirling waters on the Tchoutacabouffa River's deep bends an excellent method of catching fall and wintertime stripers. When doing this, I like to attach a small black barrel swivel to the main line. To the other end of the swivel, attach 3 feet of 30-pound-test clear monofilament leader. Finish off the rig with a bronze 4/0 short-shank live bait hook.

To properly present a live menhaden, insert the hook from one side to the other, through the clear spot above the eye, or simply insert the hook through the eyes. To best present a live shrimp, insert the hook at the base of the horn, in one side and out the other. Be sure not to hit the little dark spot inside the crustacean's exoskeleton. That is the shrimp's brain, and piercing it creates dead bait.

If the current is running hard, it may be necessary to add a couple of split shot a foot or two above the bait, thus enabling the live offering to reach the deeper spectrums of the water column. Also, besides still-fishing, these live baits can be slow-trolled with good results at times.

Because of their aggressive feeding nature in cold weather, stripers also attack a wide variety of artificial lures. Undoubtedly, one of the best artificial lures for catching striped bass in these waters is a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap. These lures resemble the menhaden on which the stripers key. Sporting a chrome finish with either a blue or chartreuse back, these crankbaits are deadly striped bass lures. Actually, lures in chrome or white that resemble baitfish are likely to catch feeding stripers.

KEEPING STRIPERS PLENTIFUL
Striped bass are native to our coastal rivers and streams, and they were originally quite plentiful. Sad to say, sometime back in the 1930s and '40s the fish began to disappear. According to Larry Nicholson, factors like sudden industrial growth and its associated pollution, dams slowing down coastal-river flows, and loss of thermal refuges contributed to their disappearance.

Luckily for coastal anglers, a sea-run striped bass stocking program was started back in the early 1960s. The intention of the program was to bring back and sustain a healthy population of striped bass in Mississippi's coastal rivers. Since the program's birth, the biologists at the GCRL have uncovered much information about the striped bass that have been reintroduced into Mississippi's coastal rivers.

Although no significant evidence of reproduction has been verified, a program of put-grow-and-take fishing has developed from the thousands of small striped bass released into Mississippi's major coastal rivers every year. These efforts ensure that a good number of stripers are always there for anglers to enjoy.

Last year two releases of juvenile striped bass took place on Magnolia State coastal waterways. In July several thousand untagged 2-inch stripers were stocked into four flows. In November an estimated 20,000 tagged 6-inch fish were added to the stocking. The releases took place on Fort Bayou, plus the Pascagoula, Tchoutacabouffa and Pearl rivers.

"In the past, we have stocked both a Gulf-race striper and an Atlantic-race striper. We are hoping to find out if one race will fare better than the other. The Gulf race comes from the Apalachicola River system and is the only resident Gulf fish known to be reproducing on its own," Nicholson pointed out.

He went on to mention other sites where frequent striped bass reports come from, including Cedar Creek and Bluff Creek, on the Pascagoula River; Big Creek, on the Escatawpa River; the Jack Watson Power Plant barge canal, on the Biloxi River; and at the mouth of the canals in John C. Stennis Space Center and the T-shaped canal at the end of the Bienville Industrial Canal, both on the east side of the Pearl River.

Most stripers caught in these coastal rivers run anywhere from 5 to 12 pounds, but every year hefty specimens in the 20-pound class are reported. For further information on striped bass in general, the Striped Bass Restoration Program, and the reporting of tagged or untagged stripers,

contact Larry Nicholson at the GCRL by calling (228) 872-4242.

THE REGULATIONS
In Mississippi's coastal river systems, the daily creel limit on striped and/or hybrid bass is three per angler per day, with a minimum length of 15 inches. Also, resident Mississippi anglers age 16 through 64 must have a regular state fishing license.

A saltwater fishing license is required south of U.S. Highway 90, while a freshwater or saltwater license is valid between I-10 and U.S. Highway 90. A saltwater license is not valid north of I-10.

For more detailed information on fishing license requirements in the Magnolia State, visit the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Web site, located at www.mdwfp.com, or telephone (601) 432-2400. To order a Mississippi license by phone, call 1-800-5GO-HUNT.



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