North Bama's Giant Stripers
September 28, 2010
A couple of venues in the northern half of the Cotton State have given up monster striped bass recently. Let's have a look at these hotspots. (May 2006)
Greg Burgess of Huntsville boated this 43-pound, 3-ounce striper in the tailwaters below Guntersville Dam. Photo courtesy of Greg Burgess.
When the striper bite's on in North Alabama, it can be an awesome sight to behold. Just ask Greg Burgess.
The Huntsville angler, a diehard largemouth enthusiast, hadn't had a lot of experience fishing for stripers -- at least, not until April Fool's Day of 2004, when a friend took him striper fishing below Guntersville Dam and, as day broke, he and his buddy found themselves in the thick of a swarm of monster-size fish.
"You could see the fish boiling on top of the water all around us," Burgess recalled. "We were fishing with Sassy Shads, not topwater baits, but you knew the fish were there."
On his second cast of the morning, Burgess hooked and landed a 26-pounder, enough to make the morning a success in its own. But on his sixth cast, he tied into yet another good one.
"The fellow I was fishing with, Frank Mokry, asked me if it was as good as the first one I'd caught," Burgess said. "I told him I didn't think so, even though it was like pulling up a radiator. Then, a few minutes later, the fish comes up and rolls on its side and Frank says, 'That's a 40-pounder!'"
It took Burgess and Mokry about 20 minutes to get the lunker into the boat. Digital scales in the boat showed the striper to weigh 48 pounds, 4 ounces.
For a while, the men thought they had a new line-class record, because Burgess remembered that the state line class record for 12-pound-test was 46 pounds. But when they weighed the bruiser on certified scales later in the morning, the fish tipped those scales at 43 pounds, 3 ounces -- just shy of the hoped-for mark.
"It was a little disappointing to not get that record," Burgess said, "but not much, since we had such a big fish to be proud of anyway."
Burgess and Mokry were on the water at daylight, motoring up to the dam and then drifting back and fishing with the current -- standard practice for catching stripers in the spring whether you're fishing with artificial lures or live bait. Although the bite had been strong when they arrived, it turned off within 45 minutes and they were essentially finished.
The Tennessee River below Guntersville Dam is not the only waterway to have given up a 40-plus-pounder in the last couple of years. A client of fishing guide Kent Edmonds caught another 43-pounder last summer on a fly rod just below West Point Dam on the Chattahoochee River, which forms the Georgia-Alabama border.
"It's unofficially a lake record," Edmonds said. "I say 'unofficially' because we put the fish back in the lake."
The lake that he was talking about is Lake Harding (better known as Bartletts Ferry, after the dam that impounds it). Unlike more-conventional striper fishermen, Edmonds specializes in using fly gear and big saltwater streamers that imitate injured minnows to fish for those stripes.
"People think we're really doing something special because we go after these big fish with fly gear," Edmonds said. "But it's really no big deal. They catch tarpon on fly gear too on the Gulf. Fly gear can take a lot of heat."
Two 43-pounders from two different waterways -- let's take a more in-depth look at each of these places and the striped bass fishing that's available there.
The Chattahoochee River is part of the historic range of striped bass in Alabama, according to state assistant chief of fisheries Nick Nichols. In the days before impoundments blocked their path, stripers would swim up from the Gulf of Mexico to spawn in the river.
In the modern era, fish have returned to the river, thanks to human intervention. Although Alabama and Georgia share the Chattahoochee, it's Georgia that's done much of the management and stocking work on the river.
"They have stocked both stripers and hybrids over the years," Nichols noted. "They went to almost all hybrids several years ago, but now they're switching back to stocking almost all stripers." Owing to the new stocking efforts, the fishery should continue to produce an abundance of stripers for anglers for many years to come.
The stretch of river that Kent Edmonds likes to target runs from West Point Dam down to Bartletts Ferry Dam and even to Goat Rock Dam and on down to Phenix City. "The big one came from just below West Point Dam," he pointed out.
Fishing for both stripers and hybrids in that stretch of river is great sport. "The hybrids grow a lot faster," Edmonds explained, "but they don't get as big as they stripers, and they don't live as long." Those hybrids also tend to run more in schools in the river, although big stripers will also school up.
In March and April, the big striped bass run in the river, finishing the movement ganged up below dams. "We like to throw big saltwater streamers that look like shad," Edmonds said. "Conventional-tackle fishermen also throw various baits that imitate shad."
Some fishermen even catch and use live shad. "If you catch the stripers busting on top, you can sight-fish," remarked Edmonds. "But you're not going to do that every day, and you're not going to do it very long on days when you are able to do it." So you're basically just blind-casting into areas in which you expect that stripers should be.
The best fishing is to be had when the dams are pulling water; indeed, a lot of striper fishermen think that you're wasting your time if you even try to fish when no water's coming through the powerhouses.
When you tie into a big striper on a fly below West Point, you'll either boat him or lose him fairly quickly, Edmonds asserted. "The water you're likely to be in is 8 to 10 feet deep, and there are a lot of rocks," he said. "And he's going to cut you off pretty quickly if you don't get him in. It took my client 15 minutes to bring the 43-pounder in."
Striper fishing tends to be a feast-or-famine sport: Either you catch a lot or you get nothing. "Fifty-plus fish a day is not uncommon on the Chattahoochee," Edmonds emphasized. "But you may go and not catch anything." He also said the best fishing tends to occur early and late in the day.
Stripers are open-water fish. Look for threadfin shad near the dams, and you should be able to find some stripers nearby. "They're out hunting the shad," Edmonds explained, "and they're going to be close to where the shad are. Neither
the shad nor the stripers like real warm water, so you'll find them deep in the cool holes in the summertime."
In the fall, he continued, the baitfish move to the backs of the coves; anglers can then follow them and catch them on lakes rather than in tailraces. "There's no doubt that there's nothing like fishing for stripers -- in freshwater around here anyway," Edmonds summed up. "You'd have to go west and fish for steelhead or salmon to have a similar experience."
The 43-pounder was estimated to be 14 or 15 years old, one of the original fish from the earlier stockings in Bartletts Ferry.
GUNTERSVILLE DAM STRIPERS
The 43-pound stripe that came from below Guntersville Dam is an even more interesting fish when you consider that the state hasn't stocked any stripers in that stretch of river in well over a decade.
"Even though we haven't done any stocking, the population of stripers seems to be stable," said fisheries manager Nick Nichols. "We think there are a couple of different things going on."
As one line of thought has it, a substantial number of striped bass come down out of Tennessee and find their way into the impoundments in the Alabama portion of the Tennessee River. According to Nichols, it's also possible that some fish are coming up the river from downstream; it wouldn't be difficult for fingerlings to negotiate the dams from either direction.
"We can't confirm it, but we have suspicions that there is also some limited natural reproduction taking place at the upper end of Wheeler Reservoir just below Guntersville Dam," Nichols added. "There's a fairly long reach of riverine terrain there. In the spring, there are good flows that would be conducive to natural reproduction."
It's been established that stripers come down the river from other states, as it's been possible to track some coming from Georgia into the upper reaches of the Coosa River. So it would only make sense, Nichols surmises, that the same thing happens with fish out of Tennessee. "Stripers are naturally programmed to go down the river as fingerlings and come back up it when they are mature," he said. Thus, small fingerlings could even survive the passage through powerhouse turbines or over floodgates if a dam were spilling water.
The optimum time for fishing tailraces such as the one below Guntersville Dam comes in the spring, when the fish are on their spawning runs, typically in March and April. "They accumulate below the dams at that time of year," Nichols observed. "You can find them chasing shad. It's the best season for that type of striper fishing, although there are other ways of catching them at other times of the year."
Nichols, who agrees that the striper action can be feast or famine, with anglers encountering either tons of fish or none at all, advises anglers not to overlook the side streams that flow into the main river, because they too are likely places in which to find stripers running. He noted that on the Tennessee River below Guntersville Dam, in the vicinity of Wheeler, the fish can be found running up both the Paint Rock and the Elk rivers.
"The hybrids -- particularly the younger fish under 5 pounds -- tend to be more gregarious and school up more, but you can catch the bigger fish in a school too," Nichols offered.
It seems to Burgess, the lucky fisherman who caught his 43-pounder below Guntersville on a 3-inch Sassy Shad, that the cooler the season or the hour, the better the action. "We got out there around 6:00 in the morning," he recalled, "and the fishing had shut down by 7:00." And speaking of cool, he also thinks that it's just plain cool that something so big swims the river.
"I knew catfish got that big," he said. "But I had no idea about stripers until I went with Frank. These stripers sure are pretty -- and they're a ton of fun to catch."
OTHER STRIPER HOLES
Guntersville and West Point aren't the only places in the northern half of the Cotton State that offer you the opportunity to tie into a monster striper -- other sites too exhibit outstanding potential.
Nichols likes to fish for the stripers of Lake Martin in the heat of the summer, trolling the cool, deep water with downriggers while looking with a depthfinder for balls of bait. He can even make out groups of stripers on his electronics at times.
"The biggest stripe I've seen with my own eyes was one that our folks collected below Lewis Smith Dam," he said. "It weighed 49 1/4 pounds."
In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state stocks rainbow trout below Smith Dam. According to Nichols, that's one reason that the stripers grow big below that dam. "They like to eat rainbow trout," he said with a grin. "Just like we do."
The stripers that the state is stocking nowadays are all rather of the Gulf Coast strain than the Atlantic strain. There's a big push in fisheries management to restore native populations of fish in the Southeast, and the Gulf-strain striper is the one associated with Alabama.
"There are some minor physical differences in the strains," Nichols noted, "but you just about have to be a trained biologist to be able to spot those differences."
It was thought initially that the Gulf Coast strain might be more tolerant to warmer waters, but that looks not to be the case now. "Historically, the Gulf-strain fish holed up in big limestone springs on the Apalachicola River," Nichols said. "Those springs are cooler than the similar springs that the Atlantic-strain fish had on the East Coast."
Whenever in earlier years stripers were stocked in new places, an outcry was sometimes made by anglers who favored other species and feared that the imports would eat their beloved crappie, bluegill and bass. "Studies have shown repeatedly that 99 percent of what stripers eat is shad," Nichols remarked. "They are a swift-water fish, so they're not even in the same kind of habitat as crappie, bluegill or bass."
For that reason, stripers fit in well with the state's overall scheme of providing anglers with as much opportunity as possible. And fishermen who land a big stripe will no doubt be hooked, and will want to go back to experience it over and over again.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The state-record striper weighed 55 pounds; it was caught in the Tallapoosa River in 1955.
Stripers are native to the state's rivers below the Fall Line, especially in the Mobile Basin, and are a popular quarry for anglers there. But they remain something of a novelty in the upper part of the state.
Landlocked populations of Gulf Coast-strain stripers occur in the Chattahoochee River above Jim Woodruff Dam and in Lake Lewis Smith.
Most stripers in the Tennessee River are Atlantic Coast-strain fish, although Gulf Coast-strain stripers have been introduced into Wheeler Reservo
Striped bass are also present in the Coosa River system, and Lake Weiss has a documented naturally reproducing population of the fish.
Striped bass angling is best during cool months; the most promising sites are tailwater dams. The roster of favorite baits includes live gizzard shad, white or yellow jigs, and spoons.