Overlooked Cotton State Stripers

Lakes like Weiss, Lewis Smith and Martin are famous for their striped bass fishing, but Alabama has some lesser-known hotspots as well. Here's a look at these other saltwater possibilities.

By Mike Handley

If you don't get around to wetting a line very often in Alabama's lakes and rivers, you may believe that saltwater-strain striped bass are limited to Lewis Smith, Martin and Weiss lakes. After all, these very different reservoirs get a lot of attention because of their plentiful and sometimes gigantic linesides.

All three are even home to guides who specialize in catching striped bass throughout the year on both live and artificial baits. These are the guys who haul their humongous coolers to the Birmingham Boat and Sport Show every year to give visitors an up-close look at the double-digit-sized fish waiting to be caught in those waters. The ploy works, as people book trips with the very real hopes of catching the biggest fish of their lives!

However, in June 2001, Thomas Greene of Birmingham didn't book a trip with a guide. He didn't go to those publicized waters either. He accompanied a buddy, Jeff Holmes, on a quick trip to Lay Lake, because Holmes claimed to have found a honeyhole in Talladega Creek teeming with stripers.

Greene later confessed in a newspaper story that he isn't much of a fisherman. His buddy knew where to go and what to do. He was along for the nighttime ride, lured by a chance to relax and to possibly catch one of the 10-pounders that Holmes insisted were there and eager to bite.

Like a novice poker player leaving the table with all the chips, Greene went home with what state fisheries biologists think might be the single largest fish ever to be pulled out of Lay Lake and maybe the entire Coosa River! That evening Greene boated a 44-pound, 8-ounce striped bass to go with the 16-pounder he caught just after they arrived.

Photo by Jeff Samsel

It was Greene's first time to fish for stripers, and the tackle he used would have been considered woefully inadequate by veteran anglers. The reel was spooled with 12-pound-test line. He was also tossing an artificial lure, which savvy anglers never do until fall.

To put his tackle in perspective, consider that when fishing for brood fish for the state's hatchery in Marion, fisheries biologists generally use 100-pound test. The cantankerous stripers sometimes even break that on their first powerful run!

Not horsing the fish saved the night, as well as having a partner quick enough to realize that they needed to follow the underwater freight train with the trolling motor to prevent the reel from being emptied. Still, it was almost 40 minutes before Holmes slid a net under Greene's tormentor. By then, one set of hooks had pulled loose and another had straightened. Only the rear hooks remained in the fish's jaw.

Before that striper was weighed, the biggest striped bass that state fisheries biologists had seen in the Coosa River was a 40-pounder shocked up below the Logan Martin Dam.

Providing fishermen with a tackle-busting experience and a trophy fish is the primary reason that Alabama began stocking Atlantic-strain striped bass in many of the state's reservoirs back in 1965. At first, the stocking was limited to Lake Martin, near Montgomery. Within a few years, 24 reservoirs were receiving them. Only seven, however, continue to be stocked.

Bama's Overlooked Striper Lakes


As pointed out, Lewis Smith, Martin and Weiss lakes are the creme of the crop when it comes to reservoirs that provide top-notch angling for striped bass. There is a second tier of lakes, however, that offers good prospects for this species, but do not get the same kind of publicity.

 

Lake Andrews: This 1540-acre navigation lake is on the Chattahoochee River near Columbia in southeast Alabama. According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which jointly manages it with the DWFF, Striped bass numbers are at the highest levels in year. Most weight 2 to 3 pounds, but fish up to 20 pounds show up.

 

Neely Henry Lake: Shoe-homed in between Logan Martin and Weiss lakes on the Coosa River, 11,235-acre Neely Henry is fast becoming a prime destination for stripers. Fish of up to 7 pounds are abundant during spring runs and when power is being generated at Weiss Dam. Most of the action is in the headwaters of the lake near that dam.

 

Yates and Thurlow Reservoirs: Two little known and small impoundments on the Tallapoosa River below Lake Martin and in Montgomery's backyard, Thurlow (585 acres) and Yates (1,980 acres) both offer good striper prospects. This is particularly true in the upper end of Yates at the foot of Martin Dam. The cool water released during power generation makes this possibly the best site in the Cotton State to catch a 40-plus-pound striped bass. -- Jimmy Jacobs

 

Since the mid-1980s, almost every reservoir in Alabama has received either stripers or their chunkier stepchildren, known as hybrid bass - a cross between the female striped bass and the much smaller male white bass. Many reservoirs get both. In picking which reservoirs will receive the "salts," as many anglers call striped bass, biologists consider several things.

"Many factors are considered when determining stocking rates, including forage abundance, predator interactions, historical fisheries data, thermal refuge availability, and angler catch rates," says Jerry Moss of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF). "Most lakes and reservoirs receive both stripers and hybrids.

"The primary goal of the Fisheries Section of the DWFF in stocking stripers and hybrids is to replace fish lost due to natural and angling mortality," he added. "It is very important, though, to not overstock. If stripers and hybrids are overstocked, then there are too many predators, which can cause an unhealthy decrease in the forage species. That could have a negative impact on the natural predator species such as spotted bass and crappie."

The availability of cool water is a must, especially for older stripers. Since a lot of Southern states, like Alabama, moved quickly to fill their waters with feisty striped bass, more than one set of biologists has learned the hard way that not just any body of water will do.

Moss notes that big stripers, particularly those weighing more than 10 pounds, are prone to suffer from thermal stress, which could lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, bacterial and fungal infections, and even death. These are often the fish that are seen floating in the middle of the lake or drawing flies on the shore.

Striped bass are very sensitive to temperature variations, preferring 68 degrees. If the oxygen level is poor or nonexistent at whatever depth serves as the striped bass sanctuary, the reservoir is probably better suited for hybrids

Since 1979, Alabama's fisheries biologists have used ultrasonic and radio-telemetry tagging to study the temperature phenomenon. These studies have shown that striped bass begin concentrating in cooler waters - "thermal refuges" - as early as late May, when water temperatures can often climb into the low 80s in central Alabama reservoirs. As the water warms throughout the summer, this herding escalates.

"Biologists have collected as many as 43 saltwater striped bass in an area no larger than an average-sized bedroom," Moss says. "Many fish, particularly the larger ones, were in poor condition, with slack bellies and parasitic or bacterial infections being the rule rather than the exception. In cool water areas with a low oxygen level, fish may show no interest in feeding. But areas with the right temperatures and oxygen levels can present excellent angling opportunities."

Because of the efforts of Alabama's biologists, including the substitution of hybrids in places not suitable for stripers, the summertime mortality here isn't nearly as bad as it is in other Southern states' reservoirs.

Smith Lake and Lake Martin are indeed on the list of reservoirs receiving stockings of striped bass. Weiss Lake is also on the list. Others getting them are most of the reservoirs along the Warrior, Tombigbee, Alabama, Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers. Some of the best striper fishing in Alabama can be found on Demopolis, Holt, Gainesville, Neely Henry, Jordan, Lay, Yates and Thurlow lakes. On the other hand, the shallower and warmer reservoirs, like Lake Eufaula, are stocked with hybrids.

No article about striped bass in Alabama would be complete without discussing Weiss Lake, where the striped bass - originally thought to be unable to reproduce in such short river runs - are indeed multiplying.

Both Alabama and Georgia first stocked Weiss Lake, the uppermost impoundment on the Coosa River, with striped bass in the early 1970s.

"Striped bass began appearing more frequently in angler creels and standardized gill net samples in Weiss Lake during the early 1990s," says Steve Smith, a District II fisheries biologist. "Speculation at the time was that either natural reproduction was occurring or emigration was taking place from reservoirs upstream in Georgia."

Electrofishing samples in March 1994 netted four 1-year-old striped bass near the Alabama-Georgia border. DNA analysis revealed that all four were Atlantic-strain fish. Since Georgia was stocking Gulf-strain fish, Alabama officials concluded that natural reproduction of striped bass was occurring in the upper Coosa River.

"Evidence shows that these fish are well on their way to establishing a self-sustaining population in Weiss Lake, a feat that has occurred in only a handful of landlocked river systems," Smith added.

This news, along with the state's stocking program, is not always met with enthusiasm among some freshwater anglers, particularly crappie fishermen. No matter that study after study supports the biologists' contention that striped bass are not eating up all the lakes' crappie, lovers of papermouths often regard linesides as vermin.

Along with the swelling population of stripers in Weiss, fisheries managers in Montgomery have also studied the fishes' diets. Through the examination of 450 striped bass stomachs, 115 of which were empty at the time of capture, they discovered that more than 93 percent contained shad, 6 percent contained unidentifiable fish remains, and less than 1 percent contained crappie, bluegills, minnows and drum. One fish had consumed a crawfish.

These results mirrored those from studies in Oklahoma, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, Utah and Tennessee. In short, although striped bass are voracious eaters, game fish do not rate high on the fish's menu. Both the FWCC and Auburn University biologists have further concluded that stripers' consumption of their share of the available baitfish has not adversely affected other predatory species like largemouth bass and crappie.

LIVE-BAITING
Because striped bass are predators, and because study after study proves that they adore baitfish, the best all-round method of fishing for them is to use live shad. Anglers with the know-how and the equipment for keeping them alive catch their own shad in the fall months and early spring. Many of these same anglers don't bother in the summer, when the shad are in deeper water and it's sometimes easier just to buy the bait.

Veteran striper guides say the best bait is gizzard shad, not the threadfin variety. If you can catch the shad out of the lake in which you plan to fish, chances are even better that they will live longer and entice more strikes.

Smaller shad seem to work best in winter, but switch to the beefier ones as the temperature starts to climb.

It can't be stressed enough how important it is to keep your shad alive. If they die, they're useless, unless you want to switch to catching channel catfish. It's best to have a large, round, aerated bait bucket, too, though it will take up a lot of room in the boat. If it is square, the shad tend to bunch up in the corners, where they usually die.

Tackle-wise, you'd better carry along big rods equipped with baitcaster reels. The ones with bait-clickers, which signal strikes, and decent drags are favorites. If your reel has a good drag, then you won't need line any heavier than 20- or 30-pound-test.

A typical striper setup looks much like a Carolina rig. A size 2/0 hook is tied to a leader attached to a swivel. Above that, there's a big egg-shaped piece of lead on the main line. Hook the live shad through the nose, then pull out the line to the desired depth, instead of trying to cast. Fishing directly under the boat is fine and a lot of fun, especially if you have a depthfinder that allows you to actually see the fish down there.

Many of the best striper fishermen would probably stay home if they lost their electronics. Otherwise, they'd have to rely purely on chance and historical hangouts to even find the fish. In big lakes when you are targeting fish that move around a lot, that is a pres

cription for a lot of down time.

While daytime trips are productive in the winter and early spring, the most action this time of year is to be had at night.

If you can't catch or buy shad, you might as well try shad-like artificial lures.

TOPWATER TACTICS
While live-baiting is the most common means of enticing strikes from stripers, it is not necessarily the most fun. Sitting and waiting is not for everyone.

On most central Alabama reservoirs, the perfect window for top-water fishing for stripers is from November through February. While schooling bass often run small, cruising stripers could range from small to huge, even 30-pounders!

"I'd rather catch one on top than 10 on bottom," says Bill Vines, a guide on Smith Lake who pays his mortgage by fishing mostly with shad.

KNOW THE RULES
It is important to remember the creel limit when targeting saltwater-strain striped bass. The limit on most reservoirs is 30 striped bass, but any yellow, white or hybrid bass also count against this total. No more than six of the 30 can exceed 16 inches in total length and no more than two of those six may be stripers.

Additionally, three lakes have special creel limits on striped bass. On Weiss Lake the daily limit is 30 stripers, with the yellow, white and hybrid bass also included in the total. However, there are no restrictions on what size the fish may be. In Neely Henry you can possess any combination of six striped, hybrid, white or yellow bass that are more than 16 inches long. Finally, on Lake Martin you can keep any combination of two striped, hybrid, white or yellow bass that are over 16 inches long.

Obviously, you should check the regulations closely before heading out on a striped bass trip to make sure you know the regulation on the lake you are visiting. The creel and size limits are available on the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Web page, located at www.dcnr.state.al.us/agfd/index.html. Then follow the prompts for Fishing and Creel and Size Limits.

Very few Alabama anglers catch a double-digit-weight fish in their lifetimes, unless they make frequent trips to the Gulf of Mexico or run trotlines for catfish. Striper fishing offers the opportunity and the very real chance to catch a freshwater trophy worthy of the mantel.



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