Stripers In The Cotton State

These saltwater refugees are some of the toughest customers in Bama's lakes and rivers. So what's the best place for hooking up with one of these bad boys? (January 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

"The reason I started striper fishing was to catch big fish," offered Irondale's Cecil Williams.

Williams, a winning striper tournament angler and part-time guide, travels frequently to the Gulf of Mexico to pursue big fish. An outgrowth of those trips, striper fishing gives him an opportunity to catch double-digit-weight fish without making the 572-mile round trip to Orange Beach.

When state officials began stocking saltwater striped bass in 1965, they had anglers like Williams in mind. The release of those and subsequent fingerlings led to the creation of a thriving fishery capable of producing 30- and 40-pound stripers in many Cotton State inland reservoirs.

Initially, Alabama obtained Atlantic Coast striped bass fry or fingerlings from Georgia and South Carolina for stocking. At the time, biologists were unaware that two separate types of stripers existed, the other being the Gulf Coast strain. Having discovering this, they concentrated on saving the native subspecies. Also, feeling that the Gulf Coast striper might adapt better to our waters, they then set in motion a series of events leading to the stocking and recovery of Gulf Coast striped bass.

"About 25 years ago," explained Nick Nichols, assistant chief of fisheries for Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, "our agency, along with Georgia, Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, established a cooperative agreement to jointly work to restore our native Gulf Coast striped bass." As a result, the DCNR has made great strides in restoring these fish to the waters of the Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.

"Unfortunately," Nichols continued, "due to the fact that those Atlantic Coast fish were stocked in some to these systems back in the '60s and early '70s, we do have some genetic contamination of those stocks, so our mission now is to restore or at least try to conserve as much of that native genetic heritage as we have left in these populations.

"In the mid-to-late '70s, we took some steps that really paid off. At the time, Lewis Smith Lake had never been stocked with striped bass or hybrid bass, so through this cooperative agreement, we obtained the best Gulf Coast fish we could for a number of years and initiated stockings of those fish in Smith Lake with the idea of using Smith as kind of a genetic repository. We also chose Smith because there's no chance of natural reproduction there. For probably the past 20 years, we have mainly used Smith Lake fish to produce striped bass for stocking in Alabama.

"One of the original interests in the Gulf Coast fish was the thought that those fish would perform better in our southern water than the Atlantic Coast fish. To be honest, no one has been able to pick out a performance difference between the Gulf fish and the Atlantic fish."

To get an overall look at the stripers' fortunes across the state, Alabama Game & Fish talked with the supervisor of each fishery district.

The northern districts report that anglers continue to have success on the Tennessee River, even though the state doesn't stock stripers there. The fish in our section of the river have migrated in from Tennessee.

At Smith Lake, the average fish size has declined, but plenty of big fish are still available, and good numbers of fish as well.

On the northern stretch of the Coosa River, the main fishery, Logan Martin, is stocked every year with five stripers per acre. Weiss Lake has a naturally reproducing population of stripers and is not stocked. Most of the fish weigh less than 10 pounds, though it does produce an occasional big fish.

Inland Lake is stocked at the same rate as Logan Martin and produces big fish. In fact, Williams believes that what he calls a "miniature Smith Lake" will yield up the next state record.

In the central districts, Bankhead Lake received its first stocking of striped bass in 2007, and these stripers should enter the fishery in 2010. Lay Lake on the Coosa has a stable fishery with a mixture of both stocked fish and fish that have moved downstream from Weiss.

Farther downstream, neither Mitchell nor Jordan receives stocked fish, but, like Lay Lake, they do contain stripers that have migrated downstream.

To the east, both West Point and Bartletts Ferry (Lake Harding) on the Chattahoochee River offer anglers good opportunities to catch 20- and 25-pound stripers, respectively. Alabama and Georgia alternate stockings on these lakes.

The premier water in this part of the state is Lake Martin. Like Smith and Inland lakes, Martin provides striped bass with critical thermal refuges formed by a combination of deep and infertile water. These cool-water refuges are essential for the survival of big fish during summer. Lake Martin is home to both tackle-busting fish and solid numbers of fish weighing more than 10 pounds.

Below Martin on the Tallapoosa River, both Yates and Thurlow lakes receive stripers at a stocking rate of one fish per acre. The reduced rate is a result of the limited availability of forage in these impoundments.

The southern districts boast classic tailwater fisheries during spring below Coffeeville on the Tombigbee River, Claiborne and Millers Ferry on the Alabama, and below lakes Eufaula and Andrews on the Chattahoochee. All are stocked annually.

Though not known as a striper lake, Eufaula seems to be trending up: Last June, Buddy McKeller of Fort Gaines, Georgia caught a striper weighing 39 pounds, 8 ounces from Pataula Creek on a spinnerbait.

STRIPED BASS FISHING IN THE WINTERTIME

Beginning in mid-to-late December and ending in late February, savvy anglers brave the occasional frigid temperatures, icy ramps and frozen rod guides to experience some of the best striper fishing of the year.

"I don't fish Inland Lake except in cold weather," Williams said. "The colder it gets, the better the fishing."

Guides Bill Vines -- Smith Lake -- and Jim Parramore -- Lake Martin -- agree that cold temperatures energize Gulf Coast stripers, but add that it's not necessary to get an early start in the morning, as these fish bite all day.

"It is cold in the morning," Parramore

remarked, "but usually by 10:00 o'clock it starts to warm and most days are in the 50s. If it happens to be a cold day, I promise you anglers will start shedding clothes, because the striper bite is unbelievable."

Parramore's best winter trip produced 54 stripers. (They could have caught more -- but he ran out of bait.)

As you might expect, all three anglers fish with live shad, which they collect from the Coosa River. Their respective lakes' infertile waters make it difficult to catch enough bait for a day's fishing. But fishing in winter offers anglers who don't have the time or equipment to collect bait a benefit.

"At times during the winter months," Vines explained, "artificial lures produce as well as or better than live bait. The stripers are feeding on 2- to 3-inch baitfish, which bucktail jigs and jigging spoons match. Normally, the smallest shad you will catch measures 4 or 5 inches."

When fishing with shad, the guides always use downlines and then add free lines and planer boards as needed to cover the water column. If you don't know where or how deep the stripers are holding, rig all three. This is especially effective when fishing in the upper reaches of creeks whose water is relatively shallow.

In deeper water, watch your sonar until you see the telltale arches of big fish; then, kill the motor and immediately set your downlines.

If needed, fish two free lines 50 to 75 feet behind the boat, and use a slip cork or balloon to keep the shad from tangling with bottom cover.

Inline side-planer boards allow anglers to free-line shad on either side of the boat. Vines runs his boards 25 to 30 feet off the side of the boat and fishes the shad at a specific depth. For example, if the stripes are 25 feet deep, he will feed out 25 feet of line before attaching the board's release clip. He uses a 1/4-ounce sinker to keep the small shad down.

Parramore, Vines and Williams are enthusiastic about using circle hooks for all their lines. For small baits during winter, they recommend either a 1/0 or 2/0 hook.

When searching for fish in winter, the guides troll their baits at reduced speed -- about a half-mile per hour. If the sonar's painting fish, they don't move unless the fish do.

According to Parramore and Vines, the go-to artificial lure for winter is a white 1/2- to 1-ounce bucktail jig. "If you see fish 25 to 30 feet deep," the latter advised, "cast the lure and count down to 30 for a half-ounce jig; with a 1-ounce jig, you might only count to 20. Make a long cast, keep your rod tip down, and don't think of moving the jig until the lure has reached the correct depth. Then use a slow retrieve -- the slower the better."

An alternate lure for cold days is a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce Hopkins spoon. Jig it vertically over the top of the striped bass.

For catching stripers busting the surface, the same half-ounce bucktail jig is the ticket to success. Parramore and Vines recommend casting the lure into the school, letting it sink as you count to five, and then reeling slowly for a straight-line retrieve.

Whether fishing live bait or artificial, the guides recommend a 7- or 7 1/2-foot medium-heavy action rod with a fast tip. Rod length is essential for casting distance with bucktail jigs, especially if you are fishing deep.

Lewis Smith Lake

According to Bill Vines, the best winter haunts for stripers on this 21,200-acre lake are in the upper reaches of creeks -- and it doesn't matter which, as he reported that nearly every arm off the lake holds a school of fish.

"They might move down the creek four or five miles," he explained, "but they stay in the upper third. It's one of the things that make fishing good in January and February. The stripers don't move around as much, so you can often catch them in the same place for a week or more.

"Look for the bait and you'll find the fish. In January and early February, shad hold at depths of 25 to 30 feet. As the water warms in late February, the bait may only be 12 to 15 feet deep."

The topwater bite at Smith, explained Vines, is brought on by with warmer water temperatures. "After a week of unseasonably warm weather," he noted, "the change in water temperature triggers the bait to move up and the stripers follow. They start moving shallow when the water temperature hits 50 to 51 degrees.

"As far as you can see down the lake, you will see fish jumping -- not fish after fish, but a group here and there."

Initially, Alabama obtained Atlantic Coast striped bass fry or fingerlings from Georgia and South Carolina for stocking. At the time, biologists were unaware that two separate types of stripers existed, the other being the Gulf Coast strain. Having discovering this, they concentrated on saving the native subspecies.

Vines also reported catching more than 50 fish on several different trips, but, he said, the numbers can vary greatly depending on weather and water conditions. "If a heavy rain muddies the water," he offered, "you must move to a part of the lake where the water is clearer and fishable. Stripers do hold near the dam, but the schools are smaller."

To book a guided striped bass trip on Smith Lake, call Bill Vines at (205) 647-7683 or see his Web site at www.stripefishingheadquarters.com.

Inland Lake
Guides refer to Cecil Williams as "the guide's guide." He fishes as often as a full-time guide and is always willing to share information with them.

Last February, Williams caught a 40-pounder from 1,536-acre Inland Lake, which is surrounded by thousands of acres of undeveloped land. The year before, he watched as an even larger fish was fooled by one of his planer boards.

"Ricky Harris and I were fishing with planer boards and downlines when two planer boards went down at the same time," he recalled. "We each reached for a rod. While Ricky was fighting his fish, I put the lines back out and caught four more fish. His striper weighed 46 pounds, 9 ounces."

Often Williams sets his lines out at the boat ramp, which is at the end of Boat Landing Road off State Route 75 near Allgood. "Most of the time," he said, "I launch my boat, put my trolling motor down and set out two free lines, two planer boards and two downlines. Then I ease down the bank toward the upper end of the lake. The only difference in fish location on the upper end of the lake in winter is that the fish might be in open water instead of tight against the bank."

Williams describes planer boards as "killer" on Inland Lake, as they don't spook big fish in the clear water. To make sure, he clips the board on the line 42 to 50 fee

t above the shad.

On an average morning of fishing, Williams catches a dozen fish weighing 7 to 13 pounds. His best catch was 50 fish.

For current fishing information, call Cecil Williams on his cell at (205) 527-9281 or office at (205) 669-9181. Williams does book some guide trips, but fishing is his passion, not his job.

Lake Martin
Jim Parramore sees more anglers fishing for striped bass in winter than at any other time. He attributes the increase to two factors: huge schools of fish, and the stripers' willingness to attack artificial lures.

When it comes to locating the big schools, Parramore pointed out, there's no best place to fish. He uses his sonar to search around the islands and on the edges of gavel and sandbars from Madwind Creek all the way down lake through the narrows to the dam. Anglers are also successful on the upper sections of creeks.

Guides Bill Vines -- Smith Lake -- and Jim Parramore -- Lake Martin -- agree that cold temperatures energize Gulf Coast stripers, but add that it's not necessary to get an early start in the morning, as these fish bite all day.

While his sonar paints Martin's depths, Parramore divides his attention between its screen and the skies; the second he scans for feeding gulls. "While resting on a sandbar," Parramore explained, "the gulls send out a scout to search for shad. If successful, he will return and alert the others. As the gulls take flight, follow them -- they give the fish away every time."

According to Parramore, the fish in these big schools, which may cover a few acres, usually weigh 10 to 14 pounds. If you want to catch the larger solitary fish, move away from the center of activity to the outer edge of the school and use the same half-ounce bucktail jig.

It's hard to leave a school to work the edge, but, the striper guide suggested, you could catch a monster.

At other times, Parramore watches schools surface momentarily and then descend. Quick to seize the opportunity, he lowers small shad on downlines to within a few feet of the active fish. By means of this maneuver, he and his clients caught 54 fish in one day.

To learn more about striped bass fishing on Lake Martin, or to book a day of guided angling, contact Jim Parramore at 1-205-669-1886 or cell 1-205-533-3664.

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