Smith Mountain Stripers -- Making A Comeback

The largest fish on this Piedmont reservoir suffered a population decline a few years ago -- but now the fishery has bounced back (December 2007)

Tammy Stanley of Salem and Moneta guide Todd Keith with a nice slot striper caught from Smith Mountain Lake.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

I have to admit that I very much wanted to experience the action that the other members of the guided trip were enjoying. I was aboard Moneta guide Todd Keith's boat, and already his two clients, Kevin and Tammy Stanley of Salem, had caught three Smith Mountain striped bass between them. For Tammy, her two stripers had been the first ones of her angling career, and she was overjoyed with her success.

It wasn't as if I hadn't experienced plenty of opportunities. By now on three separate occasions, fish had smashed the shad dancing beneath my planer board. And three times, I had managed to either miss the fish on the initial hookset or lose it shortly thereafter.

Finally, a fourth strike occurred and this time I drove the hook solidly home. For several minutes, the striper displayed the aggressiveness that made the species become known as the "fish that made Smith Mountain famous." After I landed the 28-incher, which Keith estimated weighed about 9 pounds, the guide told me that fish that size are becoming increasingly common on the 20,000-acre impoundment. Indeed, one of Tammy Stanley's fish weighed between 12 and 13 pounds.

Smith Mountain Lake has not yet returned to its glory days when 20- to 30-pound stripers were a possibility on any given trip. However, Dan Wilson, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist for the lake, believes the fishery is improving.

To see why, first we need to review some history.

The VDGIF initially stocked stripers at the lake in 1963. The fish do not reproduce naturally in the lake because of limited spawning habitat. Throughout the last 30 years, the body of water received acclaim not only as the best striper destination in Virginia but also as one of the premier ones in the country. Not many fisheries could, as was the case with the Roanoke-area impoundment, account for annual catches of fish in the 40-pound class (and sometimes bigger). In the lake's prime, an angler hauling a 15-pounder back to the dock would receive only a knowing nod.

Indeed, the fishery was so good that a series of state records came from the impoundment. During the 1980s and 1990s, anglers progressively caught bigger and bigger trophies, finally topping the 50-pound barrier. Although the current state record (a 53-pound, 7-ounce brute) was caught from Leesville Lake by James Davis in 2000, Smith Mountain remained the place for dedicated trophy seekers to congregate until 2003.

Wilson related that striper numbers had been improving since 1999 as a result of increased stockings and better survival of young fish. But in late 2002, two factors combined to severely harm the fishery: A parasitic copepod infestation struck the striped bass, and the shad population plummeted by more than 60 percent for several months due to winterkill. During the spring of 2003, a major striped bass kill took place for two months. Keith believes that an E. coli infection from waterfowl -- Canada geese exist in large flocks and receive insufficient hunting pressure -- did not help matters.

The biologist said that the die-off eliminated most stripers that weighed over 10 pounds. However, gill net data indicated that fish up to 3 years of age remained good.

Now, those fish are forming the basis of a comeback that is definitely underway.

"The number of bigger striped bass has been improving, but most of the larger fish are still limited to 10 to 15 pounds," Wilson said. "However, there are a few striped bass available up to 20 pounds with the biggest fish in 2006 weighing in at 38 pounds. The VDGIF is continuing to monitor and research the parasite infestation. It is unknown at this time what the long-term impacts of this parasite will have on the health of the striped bass population."

Wilson said that to accelerate the recovery, the VDGIF instituted new regulations in 2006. The limit remains two per day all year; but from Oct. 1 through May 31, no striped bass can be kept between 26 and 36 inches. From June 1 through Sept. 30, there is no length limit.

The new striped bass size limits are designed to restrict the harvest of larger striped bass when survival of catch-and-release fish is high, but allow harvest of this game fish during the summer when survival is typically low, Wilson explained.

"Studies have consistently shown that catch-and-release of striped bass in the summer months results in very high mortality," he said. "Most of these striped bass die one to three days after release and most sink to the bottom and never surface.

"Consequently, anglers should not release striped bass during the summer months. The VDGIF encourages anglers to quit fishing after catching their two-fish limit in the months of June through September. Catch-and-release is recommended for striped bass from October through May."

Todd Keith agrees that the fishery is recovering. The guide said another plus is that the threadfin shad population has improved, and gizzard shad and alewives remain a major food source as well. He is also a fan of the new slot limit.

"I love the slot limit," Keith said. "It gives an angler a chance at a bigger fish sometime down the line, and maybe, eventually, even a state record. Basically, what the slot is doing is protecting 8- to 20-pound fish. Of course, a 37-incher (or a fish weighing 20 pounds or more) will earn a citation."

Since our outing took place during the catch-and-release period and all fish caught fell within the slot, the four stripers we landed obviously had to be released. However, even if the fish we caught had been outside the slot, Keith would have strongly suggested releasing them. He made sure that the stripers, after a few pictures, were quickly set free. The guide believes that catching and releasing stripers will accelerate their recovery.

HOTSPOTS AND TAGGING PROGRAM

Wilson noted that striped bass dwell throughout the Piedmont reservoir for much of the year. The only time this is not true is when they move to the lower lake area during the heat of summer and early fall. A good general place to prospect for fish is between the dam and Buoy 64 on the Roanoke arm and up to Buoy 40 on the Backwater arm.

At this time of year, the fish can be found in coves, tributaries and the main lake. As Wilson noted, striped bass are notor

ious travelers and may dramatically change positions depending on shad movements and water temperature fluctuations not only now in the winter, but also at any time of the year.

Wilson said that the VDGIF began a tagging study in the fall of 2001, one of the goals being to learn more about this fish's movements. Other objectives include learning more about catch and harvest rates, survival and population dynamics. Three-inch yellow tags have been attached to abdominal areas on the fish.

The biologist instructs anglers who catch these particular fish to clip the tags (do not pull tags loose as this could harm the fish) and send them to the address printed on them. All returned tags will be worth one of the following amounts: $5, $10, $20, $35 or $50. Additionally, fishermen should print the following information on a tag: date fish was caught, buoy marker number nearest to location of capture, length of fish, and was the fish harvested or released. Tagged fish do not have to be harvested for an individual to collect the reward.

Wilson stated that the VDGIF usually does not collect stripers over 8 pounds, but that data on these larger fish is much desired, especially in light of the new regulations and the past problems with the fishery. If anglers decide to harvest stripers 8 pounds or more, the biologist requests that they freeze the heads and bring them to the Virginia Outdoorsman store in Moneta; the VDGIF periodically picks up the heads. The store has a form where anglers can fill out data on their catch.

The VDGIF biologist noted that if anglers would like to know the age and year the fish was stocked, they should include their mailing address and the VDGIF will send that information after the fish has been aged. Most game fish have an inner ear bone in the head (termed "otolith") from which the age is determined. Each otolith contains rings similar to tree rings and they can be counted for an accurate age determination.

Keith, who operates the Shad Taxi guide service, relates that he likes to concentrate his efforts in the Roanoke River arm, and the section from the dam to Hardy Bridge has been productive for him.

"This area has traditionally produced bigger fish, especially stripers over 20 pounds," he explained. "The area is also an especially good place to fish from December through early March. It has a lot of standing trees in deep water; some of the depths are between 45 and 60 feet.

"At this time of year, stripers can turn on -- or off -- at the snap of a finger. Sometimes all it takes is the water temperature rising or falling a few degrees."

Within that area, Keith said he finds fish in a number of types of places in addition to what he calls the "forests." Those locales include underwater islands, humps and points. Still, one thing trumps all forms of structure and cover.

"Stripers won't be somewhere if no baitfish are present," the guide emphasized. "Stripers don't strictly associate with structure or cover nor do they stay still for long. In their makeup, they seem to have to be on the move. Don't ever count on these fish to stay still or be in the same spot day after day. Stripers follow the baitfish and so should anglers."

HOW-TO TIPS

Wilson said that striped bass fans use a variety of fishing methods, such as drifting or slow-trolling live shad, trolling plugs and bucktail jigs, and casting topwater lures and bucktail jigs. Anglers use live shad throughout the year, trolling is most popular during the warmer months and casting topwater or shallow-running plugs is most productive during the spring at night.

One of Todd Keith's favorite tactics, especially from early December through February, is to use a 3/4-ounce Hopkins Shorty Spoon.

"During the winter months, I won't throw the spoon until I find a school of fish," Keith said. "I can't emphasize enough that during this time of year, fishermen have to use their graphs to locate schools before they can even think about fishing.

"Water temperature is also a big factor. If the temperature is on the rise, even into the upper 30s or low 40s, the fish can turn on. Once I locate a school, I will drop the spoon down into it and then begin the vertical jigging process."

Articles have been written on how to vertically jig correctly. It is a tactic that I have consistently failed to master. However, if a fisherman can learn how to keep in touch with the lure and develop the concept of the proper way to yo-yo it through a school, vertical jigging can be an extremely efficient way to entice cold-season stripers.

Some anglers like to use 5- or 6-inch soft-plastic jerkbaits at this time of year, but they must be weighed sufficiently so that they descend to the depth that a school is holding. On a previous wintertime junket to Smith Mountain, a friend and I caught our limits by alternating between jerkbaits and live shad.

On that outing, the lure and live bait both were effective, and ineffective, at various times. A good way to use the jerkbait is to attach it to a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce jighead, obviously leaving the hook exposed.

Keith will also use soft-plastic jerkbaits, especially if the fish are not holding very deep or if he witnesses surface activity. For surface activity, his favorite lures are hard-plastic jerkbaits, such as Storm Thundersticks, Cotton Cordell Jointed Red Fins and Rapala X-Raps.

Keith maintains that one way to find this surface activity is to "follow the birds." Indeed, on my trip, we observed several scattered flocks of ring-billed gulls, the most common species of gull on Smith Mountain. They typically arrive sometime in late autumn and linger until early to mid-spring. Ring-billed gulls (and their close relative the herring gull) are vicious and deadly winged predators, and they miss very little concerning what is happening on the surface of the impoundment.

If the gulls are winging their way down to the surface and dimpling the water, they may well be feeding on shad that have met a bad end -- perhaps even from stripers. Casting hard-plastic jerkbaits into the commotion can result in some scintillating surface action.

As adept as Keith is with all these techniques, perhaps his most effective way to catch stripers is with planer boards. He is very precise concerning the baitfish needed for this tactic.

"I rely on 6- to 10-inch gizzard shad and 4- to 5-inch alewives," he explained. "Both are hardier than threadfin, which don't live as long on a hook or in a bait tank."

Before each outing, the Moneta guide will use a throw net to corral dozens of baitfish. He is so enthusiastic about this method of gathering bait that he has devoted a section of his Web site on how to properly do so.

Keith believes planer boards are effective for several reasons. They take the baitfish away from the boat and even though he often has three rigs on each side of his craft, fouling is uncommon. On my trip, even tho

ugh three of us were fishing, I don't recall any crossed lines.

Rounding out the tackle for planer boards, Keith recommends 20-pound-test for the main line with a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader and a 3/0 Eagle Claw hook. Interestingly, I expected Keith to use a medium-heavy or heavy rod for this type of fishing, but such was not the case.

"I prefer a medium-light baitcaster," he told me. "The stiffer the rod, the fewer the hookups a fishermen will get. A lighter action rod will let itself 'load up' and the result is more hooked fish."

Smith Mountain and the fish that made it famous are not quite ready to return to the glory days of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. However, positive trends are taking place, and the VDGIF has initiated some sound regulations. The next few years should prove very interesting as the fishery with any luck continues to rebound.

IF YOU GO

For guided trips with Todd Keith, contact him at www.theshadtaxi.com or (540) 797-2528, e-mail: todd@theshadtaxi.com. To contact the Virginia Outdoorsman in Moneta, call (540) 721-4867. The establishment is also a good place to learn about current fishing information and lake conditions and stock up on bait and tackle. For information on planning a trip, contact the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitroanokeva.com, (540) 342-6025 or (800) 635-5535.

Find more about Virginia fishing and hunting at: VirginiaGameandFish.com

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