By Jeff Samsel
“Don’t try to reel when the fish first starts to run,” Hugh Albright said, coaching me about the striper that he knew would take my bait very soon, “because you won’t be able to.”
My first strike felt like a crappie tap, which Albright had told me it would, so I followed his instructions and set the hook with a light snap of my wrist. Also true to his promise, the fish took off like a train when it felt the hook, and all I could do was stand there with a deeply bent rod and a huge grin.
Eventually the fish wore down, and Albright slipped the net beneath a 12-pound Lake Ouachita striper. Worn out as I was from landing that fish on light spinning tackle and 8-pound test line, I couldn’t imagine what it was like hooking one of Ouachita’s 30- or 40-pound fish on that tackle. I was willing to find out, though, so we returned to the task at hand.
The stripers were stacked up from 30 to 40 feet below the surface, suspended among big schools of shad, and we were drifting hair jigs through that zone. Albright, a veteran Lake Ouachita guide and owner of Hugh Albright’s Guide Service, has learned over time that the fish will take a small jig fished that way during early spring, when schooling is sporadic.
As spring progresses, however, Lake Ouachita stripers become increasingly aggressive and do more and more of their feeding on top. By May, there’s no good reason for fishermen to carry anything other than topwater plugs to the lake, according to Albright.
In June, fishing will change dramatically as the surface warms and the fish go deep for the summer. Throughout the summer, live-bait fishing will be really the only reasonable method for targeting these fish. Right now, however, fishing is as exciting as it can get, with the fish looking up for their meals.
Stripers, which have been stocked in Arkansas since 1966, get stocked in eight major reservoirs, plus the Arkansas and Red rivers, and several million fingerlings are stocked every year. Many of the same waterways also get stocked with striper/white bass hybrids, which, though they don’t grow quite as large as stripers do, behave much like their cousins and are often caught with them, adding to the action.
Let’s look at a few of Arkansas best striper fisheries, zeroing in on how to get in on the most exciting action during May. Beaver Lake and Lake Ouachita, both deep mountain lakes that produce heavyweight stripers, are somewhat similar in their offerings to stripers and to striper fishermen. The Arkansas River, which cuts a broad valley between the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, is completely different.
During May, Albright does almost all of his striper fishing between first light and about 10 a.m. and during the last three or four hours of the day, which are the two periods during which the stripers typically come up to feed. For full-day striper fishing trips, he will plan a midday break, because the early and late fishing is so much better than what occurs through the rest of the day.
The stripers will come up all day on dark, overcast days, Albright noted, but those are tough to plan trips around. If clients are interested in doing so, Albright often will target stripers until about 10, by which time the fishermen often are worn out from reeling giant fish in anyway, and then switch over to bass fishing or crappie fishing for rest of the day. If clouds keep the stripers up and folks want to keep after them, they’ll keep plugging away with big topwater lures.
Albright striper fishes with two lures almost exclusively at this time of year: a big stickbait and a large jerkbait. “Even if they aren’t schooling, you can usually talk ‘em up with one of those,” he said.
If fish are actively busting bait on the surface, Albright typically begins with the big stickbait, which he fishes with a traditional walk-the-dog retrieve. He said that any shad-imitating color pattern is good for this situation. Occasionally, he’ll turn to a smaller stickbait, if the fish are busting small baitfish or are blowing up near on the bigger stickbait but not getting it.
If the fish aren’t breaking, Albright usually will fish a 7-inch jerkbait, which he slow rolls to make a “V-wake” on the surface. For the jerkbait he likes the rainbow trout and Smoky Joe color patterns
“You’ll just be fishing away and it will seem like nothing is happening when one of those big fish will come out of nowhere and just kill it,” Albright said, noting that any fish that devours a plug could weigh 5 pounds or 50 pounds.
Albright focuses most of his attention on main-lake points during May and said that he will work a lot of points until he finds the fish. He suggested Cedar Fourche and waters around Brady Mountain and Crystal Springs as good areas to work points for stripers this time of year.
“They move a lot,” he said, “Following schools of shad around. Usually they will be suspended 10 or 15 feet deep over 30 or 40 feet of water when they are not actually schooling on the top.”
Albright said that striper fishing is fabulous on Lake Ouachita and that it has just gotten better and better over the years. Anglers enjoy the best of both worlds there, with big numbers and big fish. Stripers average between 8 and 15 pounds, he said, and anglers land a lot of fish that weigh between 20 and 40 pounds.
Lake Ouachita has been stocked with stripers since the 1970s, and it does not receive any hybrids. Its large size gives stripers plenty of room to roam. The lake’s abundance of deep water provides good habitat through the summer, when the lake stratifies and
conditions turn toughest for striped bass, especially big striped bass.
To plan a striper-fishing trip on Lake Ouachita, call Hugh Albright at (501) 767-2171. Albright fishes out of Mountain Harbor Resort, which offers food, lodging and full marina services. For more information, visit www.mountainharborresort.com. The striped bass limit on Lake Ouachita is three fish.
Unlike most other Arkansas waterways, the Arkansas River supports a naturally reproducing population of striped bass. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission also stocks sections of the river some years, but the stockings are smaller in scale and less frequent than those that take place on big reservoirs.
“While the Arkansas River is known more for its tremendous populations of largemouth bass, there is a significant population of striped bass,” said Bruce Stanton of Fort Smith, who has fished for Arkansas River stripers for more than a decade.
The river population, if considered on a total per-acre basis, would be small compared to populations in more famous striper waters. Within the riverine portions downstream of the dams, however, where the fish stack up and where the bulk of the fishing takes place, densities are quite high. Through spring and early summer, especially, the fish pile up beneath the dams and serve up very fast action.
The Arkansas River does not produce many trophy fish. Fish up to about 20 pounds do show up pretty regularly, however, and fish in the 5- to 15-pound range tend to keep fishermen very busy. Adding appeal to the river, finding fish is easier than it would be on vast reservoirs for most anglers because the stripers concentrate in a dozen fairly limited areas.
Plus, portions of the river are very convenient to fishermen from Fort Smith, Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Stanton pointed toward Lock and Dam 13 in Barling and the Jeta-Taylor Lock and Dam in Ozark as outstanding striper waters that are close to home for him.
One of the best things about the Arkansas River is that every tailwater offers very good public access for bank-fishing. In fact, the bank-fishermen enjoy somewhat of an advantage over boating anglers at times because they are allowed to fish closer to the dams, and stripers like the swift currents of the immediate tailwater portion.
Bank-fishing anglers use long rods to make very long casts, Stanton said. He pointed toward a 5-inch yellow grub on a 1/4-ounce or heavier leadhead as the bait of choice.
“During heavy water-flow situations, when stripers are in the tailrace, cast toward the dam and keep the grub as close to the top as possible,” Stanton said. “Allow the water flow to work the lure downstream, and reel and ‘pop’ the grub while it is flowing downstream. This keeps the lure up where the stripers are feeding and will keep you from hanging up.”
Anglers in boats often begin fishing 100 yards from the dam, which is as close as they are permitted to go, and concentrate their efforts within a mile or so of that point. They fish rips between current lines, on the backsides of sunken rock piles and in cuts in the banks. Most anglers throw topwater plugs or jigs of some sort.
Stanton pointed toward stickbaits and poppers as the topwater baits of choice, but also noted white medium-running crankbaits will produce very well at time.
Bucktail jigs or soft-plastic minnow-bodied baits on leadheads also work really well beneath the surface. Depending on current, the head size might range from 1/4 ounce to 1 ounce.
Stanton noted that fishermen working from boats should not overlook wing dams within the first few miles downstream of the dam, especially if a fair amount of water is running. Stripers (along with largemouths, white bass and various other kinds of fish) will hold right along break lines formed by the rock walls and wait for food to get washed overhead. Most fishermen throw topwater plugs for these usually aggressive fish. Crankbaits also work well in the deep washout holes immediately downstream of the wing dams.
The daily combined limit for stripers and hybrids on the Arkansas River is 10 fish.
Beaver produced a former state-record striper, which weighed 57 pounds. In addition, the current state record, a 64-pound, 8-ounce giant that is also a line-class world record for 12-pound test, came from the Beaver Lake tailwater. The section of river where Jeff Fletcher caught the record fish is not stocked with stripers, so biologists believe that it was actually a Beaver Lake fish that went through the dam at some point.
Similar to Lake Ouachita, Beaver Lake is deep and very clear. Because of its size and depth, Beaver offers good habitat even through the hottest days of summer. In addition to stripers, which get stocked at a target rate of 200,000 fish per year (though in some years actual numbers are much lower), Beaver gets a dose of hybrids stocked in it every three or four years.
Beaver supports a good shad population, with both threadfin and gizzard shad in the mix. Striped bass growth rates, which biologists keep a close eye on, are very good, according to Moore.
The stripers make a distinct run up the lake’s two main arms during March and April in an attempt to spawn, Moore noted, and in the summer most fish are within about six miles of the dam, where the best deep-water habitat is found. During May, however they might be just about anywhere. Moore pointed broadly toward the middle and lower parts of the main lake as the best places to begin looking for stripers during May.
Moore said that most fishermen rely on one of three basic methods during late spring. The first is topwater fishing, which Moore said is at its best during May, noting that this is probably the most fun way to catch them and the best bet for anglers who haven’t done a lot of striper fishing. He pointed toward the same Spooks and Red Fins that Albright likes on Ouachita as prime lures,
“It’s something to see when a 15-pound striper comes out of 30 or 40 feet of water to take one of those big plugs,” Moore said.
In addition to fishing big plugs on the surface, Moore pointed toward live-bait fishing and trolling as the two most popular and effective ways to target Beaver Lake stripers. Most live-bait fishermen use small to m
edium-sized gizzard shad, which they may fish on free-lines, suspend under balloons or fish straight down on down-lines. Tactics vary according to whether stripers are schooling and how deep most shad and stripers show up on the graph.
Trollers typically use downriggers to put their offering right at the depths where they see the most baitfish or stripers. Downriggers allow for very precise depth control, which sometimes is critical for striper fishing. Most trolling fishermen pull crankbaits or elongated minnow-shaped plugs, Moore said. A few also troll umbrella rigs with bucktails on them.
The daily combined limit for stripers and hybrids on Beaver Lake is three fish.
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