Here Come The Stripers!
October 04, 2010
That's what you'll be saying as you cast to the schools of predators tearing into surfacing baitfish on these North Texas waters this summer.
Photo by Tom Migdalski
Midsummer is prime time for catching North Texas stripers and their hard-fighting hybrid striper relatives.
When the fish are actively chasing shad under mobs of circling, diving seagulls, anybody with binoculars can find the fish. When the schools aren't actively churning the water's surface, they can usually be located on sonar as they hold tight to bottom structure such as humps, ridges and points.
Here's a run-down of some of the better spots for getting into exciting big-fish action during a period whose fishing is often as hot as its weather.
CATCHING 'EM AT TEXOMA
By now, locating and catching stripers at Texoma should be as regular as clockwork for those who know the situation. Some mega-striper schools begin gathering for the day around daybreak and herding shad along the Texas Bluffs down from Eisenhower Park. The schooling action will intensify as more and more stripers join in the feeding melee. The schools work their way past Butter Fly Cove; then, following the shoreline down past the Dallas Water Pump Station, they head in an easterly direction.
By the time the school reaches this point, its members number in the thousands, every fish hell-bent on stuffing itself with shad. By 8 a.m., activity around Butter Fly Cove has as a general rule reached fever pitch. The schools head on to the mouth of Little Mineral Creek and then east along the south edge of Table Top -- a big, deep midlake flat well marked on all sufficiently detailed Texoma maps. The flat is defined by a submerged ledge 60 to 70 feet deep on its southern boundary, and it's along this ledge that the stripers will herd the baitfish.
The underwater race between predator and prey runs along the length of the ledge to the waters out in front of Colbert Boat Club, at which point the stripers track the Red River channel down to near the Railroad Bridge. The schools usually break up there, and the individual stripers head for the channel to recover from the early-morning feeding spree.
During the first couple of hours of daylight, topwater plugs such as Pencil Poppers, Chug Bugs or Zara Spooks draw strikes from these aggressively feeding schoolies. A lead slab dropped below the topwater action can often coax larger stripers hanging close to bottom, where they feed on crippled shad left behind by the fast-moving surface feeders, into biting.
Stripers should be easy to pattern at Tawakoni this month. A pair of binoculars will be a must for spotting distant schools of gulls, terns and egrets circling and dive-bombing the water's surface to snatch up the injured shad that mark the passage of the voracious schools of stripers.
Guide Joe Read offered this tip: "The trick this time of year is usually not locating surface-feeding stripers, but avoiding spooking them. During midweek, when fishing pressure is light, my clients and I have enjoyed nonstop action from the same school of fish for over an hour.
"It's important to approach the feeding fish quietly with the trolling motor to avoid spooking them. Even fishermen without trolling motors can enjoy good fishing if they slowly motor upwind of the schools and allow the wind to drift them through the feeding fish. When the boat drifts out of casting range, quietly and slowly make a big circle and get in position for another drift. All it takes is one careless fisherman to put a stop to the topwater action by running his big engine too close to the feeding fish."
Read suggests keeping three rods rigged with baits that will cover the range of depths during this bite. "I keep a big topwater such as a bone-colored Chug Bug or Pencil Popper at the ready when the fish are actively blowing up on the surface," he said. "It's important to experiment with the retrieve on a day-to-day basis to see what the fish want.
"After some serious surface feeding by a big school, the surface is often dimpled with injured shad that make short, frantic runs. When I see several crippled baitfish on the surface, I mimic their action by jerking the big topwater plugs a foot or so across the surface. Of course, it's important to watch for blow-ups and sight-cast just past the surface explosion."
When Read spots wakes caused by stripers chasing shad near the surface, he makes sweeps of the rod that drag the plug 3 or 4 feet across the water's surface. This fast retrieve is all it takes to dupe a striper into thinking that its prey is escaping.
When the surface water stops churning and the school sounds, don't think for a minute that the action's over. The school often suspends a few feet below the surface and moves in the direction of the school of shad. As gulls have the uncanny ability to stay up with the feeding activity, their movements are the striper fisherman's most reliable natural clue to the direction in which the stripers are heading.
When the stripers go subsurface, Read switches to a Sassy Shad on a half-ounce jighead to stay in the game. "I have found that dipping the tail of the pearl-colored Sassy Shad in chartreuse dye often improves its appeal to the fish," he explained. "Make long casts ahead of the direction the school of stripers is moving, allow the soft plastics to fall about 5 feet below the surface, hold the rod tip high and retrieve the baits with a medium-speed crank of the reel. This will keep the bait in the strike zone 3 to 5 feet below the surface and just above the fast-moving stripers."
After the school-oriented feeding activity slows, stripers will often move to bottom structure, where they become a bit lethargic. They can still be stirred up, however, with a slab bounced in front of their noses. If a little wind is blowing, Read will switch to an elongated 1-ounce slab and drift humps and points that the stripers like to stack up on. It's hard to beat well-known bits of bottom structure such as Sun and Cloud points at Tawakoni, but there are also lots of isolated humps and ridges in the lower lake that can be readily pinpointed by means of sonar.
When the wind's too light for a good drift, Read will mark the bottom-hugging stripers on sonar and use his trolling motor to stay directly over them. He prefers a 3/4- to 1 1/4-ounce Holiday Slab in this situation.
"Vertical jigging can be very effective when stripers are locked down on structure," Read offered. "Let the bait hit bottom, and then crank hard on the reel about three turns; disengage the reel's spool and allow the slab to flutter back to the bottom."
The Texas Par
ks and Wildlife Department took Tawakoni off the list of lakes to be stocked with hybrid stripers last year, causing Read and many anglers in the area to form the Lake Tawakoni Sportsman's Association. Through tournaments and donations, the association raised just over $10,000, which was matched by the Sabine River Authority (the lake's controlling entity) to stock 139,000 hybrid fingerlings. The state added an additional 180,000 hybrid fingerlings and 80,000 stripers.
Striper and hybrid striper fishing is of substantial quality at this grand old Texas lake now, and thanks to the joint efforts of local striper enthusiasts and the state, it appears that this fertile reservoir will be a great striper-fishing destination for years to come.
This lake is known primarily as a white-bass hotspot, but the hybrid striper action has been picking up big-time over the past couple of years, an aggressive stocking program being what's made the difference. According to guide Bob Holmes -- who, with his 15.3-pound striper, is the current holder of the lake record for the species -- catches of hybrids in the 4- to 6-pound class, with an occasional larger one, were common this past summer, and he's looking forward to an even better summer this year.
At R-C, battles with the occasional pure striper that's come down the watershed from lakes Navarro Mills and Bardwell, both stocked with stripers several years ago, are hardly unheard of. Most of the fish were carried downstream into R-C during spring flooding.
Regardless of whether it's stripers or hybrids that you're targeting, head down to the 309 Flats out from the dam, tie on a 1- to 2-ounce slab or 4-inch Sassy Shad and work the baits close to bottom under the hordes of schooling white bass.
Since 1995, close to 1 million hybrid striper fingerlings have been stocked at Bridgeport. Fish in the 4- to 6-pound range are the norm, but enough double-digit fish are caught to keep the fishing interesting.
Last June, I enjoyed a red-hot morning of hybrid striper action here with guide Dennis Bolton. The tactics that worked for me last summer should help get your line stretched this month.
We landed all the fish from one anchorage off Rattle Snake Island. It was along a sandbar that, topping out at 6 feet below the surface, was surrounded by water 28 to 20 feet deep. Bolton uses a combination of live shad, cut shad and artificials such as lead slabs or soft-plastic shad bodies on jigheads to take the majority of his stripers.
When the fish are very active, usually in May after their "false spawn," topwater plugs such as big Pencil Poppers or Zara Spooks will draw strikes. We were baiting up with live shad about 3 inches long and chumming the area with pieces of fresh-cut shad.
"Chumming is a highly effective method of putting lethargic hybrids in the feeding mode," Bolton told me. "There's something about the scent of the fresh blood and oil in the water that really turns the fish on."
There's also something about the darting of a fresh and lively shad that elicits vicious strikes. Soon our live baits were being attacked by roving packs of hybrids that moved in to feed on bits of cut bait. Later, back at the cleaning station, it was obvious that the chumming had helped incite the action, as most of the fish we cleaned contained pieces of cut shad.
Lake Proctor has definitely rebounded from the mid-1990s flood that took many of the lake's hybrids over the spillway. My last trip there with guide Billy Tyus produced fast action with hybrids in the 4- to 6-pound range. Tyus reports that his clients regularly mix it up with fish in the 6- to 10-pound range.
A couple of throws of the net, and Tyus had caught enough 4- to 6-inch gizzard shad to fill the bait tank. "Here's one reason for the awesome hybrid fishing this lake offers," Tyus commented as he dumped a heavy net full of shad into the tank. The game fish in the lake obviously have a ready source of protein in the zillions of shad frequenting the backwaters of the coves. And the regular stocking of almost a half-million fingerling hybrids since 1995 has obviously contributed to Proctor's rating as a topnotch hybrid hole.
As we motored slowly away from the dock, Tyus broke out his map and pointed to the confluence of the Savanna and Leon Rivers. "When the engineers decided to construct Proctor, they were indecisive as to which of the rivers to dam," Tyus said. "Some wanted to dam only the Leon River and let the Savanna discharge into the Leon somewhere above the lake. The decision was finally made to position the dam below the confluence of both rivers.
"The submerged confluence of the two rivers is situated near midlake today, and the four submerged ledges created by the two streambeds created ideal structure to hold not only big schools of shad during the summer months, but roving schools of hybrid stripers as well."
As soon as the first of the river ledges began to be plotted on the sonar unit, Tyus turned off the big engine, lowered the trolling motor and buried his face in the screen. "We've been finding the hybrids stacked near the top of the ledges of both rivers," he noted. "It's not hard to find hybrids here -- but it's feeding fish holding around pods of baitfish that will eat our baits."
Soon a big school of shad, the shape of its echo signature resembling an inverted Christmas tree, appeared on the display. Some large "hooks" were showing up on the side and under the pod of shad. "That's what we're looking for!" exclaimed an exuberant Tyus.
We soon had the frisky gizzard shad 22 feet below the boat, just a foot or two above the heaviest concentration of hybrids. A couple of the rod tips begin to dance wildly, indicating that the big shad baits below were getting very nervous; an instant later, we learned why: Two hybrids, having apparently decided that it was feeding time, slammed the baits, their power causing the rods to bow heavily and setting the reel drags to singing.
During the course of that afternoon trip, we sampled the fishing at many of Tyus' favorite hybrid hotspots, and found active fish at most of them.
TPWD biologist Spencer Dumont, stationed at the Abilene district office, says that Proctor has been yielding up dependable catches of hybrids in the 4- to 7-pound range, and some red-hot white-bass action as well. "The white bass migrated down the Leon River from Lake Leon," he said, "which has long been a top white-bass fishery. With a very healthy forage base in the form of huge numbers of threadfin and gizzard shad, this should be a very good summer for catching everything from hybrids to catfish at Proctor; the fish should be in excellent shape."
STRIPERS OUT WEST
TPWD biologist Brian VanZee, stationed in the San Angelo District, reports that after having been hit hard in recent years by golden alga, E.V. Spence is in a rebuilding stage. "TPWD has stocked 27,000 fingerling hybrids the past two seasons and 38,000 are scheduled to be stocked this
summer," he said. "The stocking from 2003 should be just over 18 inches (the legal limit) by next summer."
The best bets for catching "keeper" hybrids out west this summer are lakes Nasworthy, in San Angelo, and Fort Phantom Hill, about 10 miles north of Abilene. With plenty of open water over submerged ridges and humps, Fort Phantom Hill is ideal for downrigging or using planer boards with bucktail jigs. The almost 140,000 fingerling hybrids stocked there in the past couple of years will help ensure that the fishing continues to meet solid standards of quality.
At Lake Nasworthy, VanZee says, the stockers of 2002 should be approaching "legal" length this summer; big-fish potential here is based on hybrids stocked in previous years. The lake-record fish, a 17.76-pounder, was landed back in '91 and it's a good bet that specimens of this caliber still swim the reservoir.
According to VanZee, fishing from the bank with large spinning reels and 8-foot rods baited up with live or fresh-cut shad is a favorite method of catching hybrids at Nasworthy. Downrigging with soft-plastic shad imitations or jigs just out from the columns under the Nicknerbocker Bridge is another pattern that often works during midsummer.
Regardless of which part of the state you choose to fish, this is inarguably prime time, as stripers cruise the open waters in pursuit of shad, for getting in on the big-fish action. Pick a lake, rig up with the baits and employ the tactics that our pros suggest, and get out there. You're just a cast away from the fight of a lifetime!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For more information on fishing these lakes, contact the following: Lake Texoma -- Tinker's Guide Service, 1-888-846-5377; Lake Tawakoni -- Joe Read, (903) 896-1380; Richland-Chambers -- Bob Holmes, (972) 617-5972; Lake Proctor -- Billy Tyus, (254) 445-2147; Lake Bridgeport -- Dennis Bolton (254) 834-3486. For info on West Texas lakes, contact the TPWD's regional office in Abilene, (325) 692-0921.