Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Mist wafts up from the surface of the water as first light breaks over the eastern tree line. Emerging from the mist like an apparition, a boat materializes. Fishing rods point perpendicularly from the boat’s gunwales. Each rod trails a glistening thread of fishing line. Arranged in symmetrical order on each side of the vessel, lines from the bow rods plunge almost vertically into the cold, dark water. Subsequent rods sway back into the gentle roll of the boat’s trolling wake, while the stern rods tow a small armada of bright yellow boards, barely visible in the low light of the craft’s developing shadow. An angler stands immobile behind the boat’s center console; only his eyes move, trading between the bright glow of the boat’s electronics and a wheeling flock of birds swinging just above the water’s surface, directly in his path. Not unexpectedly, one of the starboard boards breaks formation and reverses course with violence. The rod’s drag begins screaming its alarm. . . .
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Many anglers consider the cold winter months as a time to regroup and prepare for the upcoming spring season. Striped bass anglers, on the other hand, yearn for the cooler months, a time when they can have vast reservoirs all to themselves and when they can easily pattern their quarry by locating tightly packed schools of baitfish.
Mike Green is one of those hardcore anglers. Green, a native of Huntersville, knows a few things about freshwater striped bass fishing. Green and his tournament striped bass team — Team Fishers of Men — have to their credit three National Striped Bass Association Gold Cup Championships. For Green, January is not a time for planning for future fishing trips: It’s time to be on his favorite North Carolina lakes and get busy. He shares his advice on fishing three Carolina striper lakes: Norman, Hickory and Badin.
Winter striper fishing on Norman means stripers are concentrated in the mid-lake region looking for pods of baitfish.
Green prefers to launch his 21-foot Key West Center Console at one of several ramps located near the Hwy. 150 bridge crossing the lake. From this location, he can access four primary winter venues for Norman stripers: McCrary Creek, Stumpy Creek, Rocky Creek and Hicks Creek.
However, before he fishes for stripers, his first order of business is to catch live bait for the day’s fishing. Typically, this is a quick process because Norman’s primary forage — herring, alewives and gizzard shad — can be found bunched up near the surface during the early morning hours. A couple of throws of the cast net and it’s time to get the day started.
Compared with some other Carolina lakes, Norman is not considered a trophy fishery — but it is well known for the numbers of 3- to 6-pound fish it produces.
Assuming the overnight temperatures have been seasonally cold, Green presents multiple live baits while scouring the main-river channel, looking for structure that will hold fish.
“I believe striped bass are far more structure oriented than most people give them credit for,” he explained. “Sure, they have a reputation for roaming open water, but during the winter when their metabolism slows down, they are more prone to hold in a really small area on a piece of structure and wait for food to come to them.”
While in search mode, Green will deploy a couple of Carolina-rigged down rods from the bow of the boat and stagger free lines down the sides of the boat. The free lines are a mix of lines held out to the side of the boat by planer boards, lines that are held a little deeper in the water column with split shot weights, and lines that are nothing more than a baited hook tied to the main line.
First thing in the morning, look for fish to be deep on the edge of the channel: Average depths in the mid-lake may be 20 feet on the edge of the channel dropping off to 50 or 60 feet.
“I’m looking for humps adjacent to the channel, points where the edge of the channel juts out into deeper water and any structure that’s hanging on that channel edge,” Green commented.
While watching the depthfinder to keep his boat oriented to the channel edge, Green is also seeking pods of baitfish. This is accomplished by looking for “clumps” on the depthfinder screen and by looking for birds — seagulls, terns, and loons — diving into the water. These shorebirds migrate inland from the coast during the winter when coastal bait is scarce. Once inland, they feed on reservoirs where cold-weakened forage fish are vulnerable. The feeding activity of these birds can be seen from far off. When the birds begin diving into the water, it’s almost a sure sign that striped bass have pushed bait to the surface and are feeding on the forage fish from below.
While live bait gets the nod the vast majority of the time when winter fishing for striped bass, Green admits he has a soft spot for throwing artificial baits. Even with live baits in tow, the lineside veteran keeps a 6-foot Bass Pro Shops medium-action graphite spinning rod equipped with a Shimano Stradic spinning reel within reach in an accessible rod holder. His bait of choice is a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce white bucktail jig.
“The key is to match the lure with the size bait the stripers want,” Green said. “A 3- to 4-inch bucktail does just that.”
A fish that breaches within casting distance is worth a shot. Two fish breaching in the same area is almost a sure hookup — provided the angler can get to the rod and make an accurate cast before the swirl begins to dissipate. It’s for this reason that Green reels the jig all the way up against the top guide while the rod is in waiting.
While the morning hours may provide a chance opportunity at schooling fish while you are bait-fishing, better artificial bait opportunities arise at the tail end of a bright, sunny day, especially during a midwinter warm spell.
Bright, sunny days will warm shallow waters near the shore. Even a mild change in water temperature will be attractive to baitfish that are clinging to survival in water only a few degrees above their tolerance level. Green submits that timing is important in catching feeding stripers up next to the bank.
“The last hour to 45 minutes of the day is usually best,” he said.
For fishing water that may only be 1 to 5 feet deep, Green will lighten up to a 1/4-ounce bucktail jig and throw right up on the bank. The retrieve can be either a
painfully slow, steady retrieve or a retrieve and twitch. Once darkness falls, the angler can fish the same locations but switch over to a surface bait or shallow-running plug. A medium Redfin “waking” bait in the 5-inch range or a shallow-diving YoZuri crankbait in the 4 1/2-inch size is best.
Another impoundment of the Catawba River located to the northwest of Lake Norman is Lake Hickory. Although smaller than Norman at only 4,100 acres, Hickory is much more likely to give its anglers a chance at a trophy striper, especially during the pre-spawn and spawn.
For winter fishing, NSBA champ Mike Green heads directly for the back of Gunpowder Creek. The area is best accessed from Hwy. 321, approximately five miles north of its intersection with U.S. 70 west of the town of Hickory.
The back of this creek can be a frustrating place to fish because of the tremendous amount of bait that congregates there in the winter. The area supports large numbers of 6- to 7-inch gizzard shad, which make ideal bait for Hickory stripers.
After loading the bait tank with gizzards from this area, Green cranks up the big motor and heads for the main Catawba River channel. One of his favorite stretches to fish is from the mouth of Gunpowder Creek approximately three to four miles in either direction along the historic Catawba River channel.
As he does at Lake Norman, he searches Hickory for wads of bait by watching the skies and his sonar. Because of the lethargic nature of stripers at this time of year, Green wants to provide as much provocation as possible. One key to making his fresh-caught live bait appeal to the fish is to deploy the bait on lighter line.
“I like to use 10-pound-test line,” he said. “I’ve experimented time and again using heavier line and just one rod with the light line and almost every time the light line sees the most strikes.”
The average fish on Hickory is 8 to 12 pounds and may require a little extra care on 10-pound-test line. Green is confident that even the frequent 14- to 16-pound fish produced by Hickory can readily be brought to the boat if the angler combines the line with a quality rod and reel. Green’s choice is a Shakespeare Ugly Stik in medium-heavy action. With a rod as flexible as the Ugly Stik, a quality reel with a good drag system is also important and here is where the Abu Garcia 6500 gets the nod. Green is quick to point out that he loses the 10-pound-test for tournament days when he’s after bigger fish, or when warmer weather rolls around and the chances of catching a 30-plus-pound fish greatly increases.
He points out that Hickory’s frequent dingy water allows the use of heavier line; it’s not the water clarity that makes light line a better choice here in winter, but the fact that lighter line allows the bait to behave in a more realistic manner, which results in more strikes.
Green’s artificial bait of choice for Hickory is a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce roadrunner with a white marabou body. The small flash afforded by the attached spinner blade can often produce strikes where a plain hair or bucktail jig may slide by unnoticed in the dingy water. As at Norman, Green experiences better action here in the afternoon than the morning and will sometimes spend an afternoon fan-casting a roadrunner from the bow of his boat while slow trolling baits at multiple levels. His retrieve is a slow and steady 10 to 12 yards followed by a twitch of the wrist, which causes the bait to flare and flash.
“I have seen striped bass follow the lure for several yards,” Green noted. “It takes that twitch to set them off, then they grab the bait.”
Moving farther east across the state of North Carolina, we come to Badin Lake, a 5,350-acre impoundment of the Yadkin River. Badin is a popular destination with anglers, boaters and a host of people who like to recreate on the water.
However, Badin is generally pretty quiet in January and that’s when Mike Green keys in on this lake.
“I’ll start by putting in at the Old Whitney Road boat ramp,” began Green. “From there, I can go straight across the lake and catch my bait from either the mouth of Garr Creek or on farther toward the back of the creek.”
The Whitney Ramp is situated off State Road 1521, which runs approximately 2 1/2 miles north of Hwy. 740, located six miles northwest of the town of Albemarle. Once the bait tank is full of average-sized (5- to 6-inch) gizzard shad, Green checks a large flat just north of Garr Creek and the railroad crossing. If that doesn’t produce, he will work the Yadkin channel back toward the railroad crossing.
As at the Norman and Hickory fisheries, the angler’s need to find bait precedes finding fish. After bait is aboard, the angler watches for feeding birds and for marks on his graph. Either will tell him which way to go. Unlike a channel edge, a flat area holds fish in a scattered pattern — on a channel, the fish will pattern along the edge, but obviously, fish up on a flat have no edge hold to relate to. With average depths between 15 and 25 feet on a flat, Green runs his whole arsenal of down rods, split-shot rigs and free lines.
“It’s almost impossible to fish too slow,” Green said. “Some anglers will use a GPS unit to chart their speed, but I prefer to judge by the angle of the line on my down rod.”
Anglers who prefer to chart their trolling speed with a GPS unit understand that 1.0 mph is about the speed it takes to discern movement of the boat by looking at objects on the shore. That is the speed you’re looking for. Using a 3/4-ounce egg sinker for weight on a Carolina-rigged down rod on 10-pound-test monofilament at a depth of 20 feet, Green calculates the correct boat speed by watching how far the line moves back from a straight perpendicular line. He estimates that a 20- to 25-degree angle is just right. A slow presentation on light line can spell the difference between a few fish and a day’s limit.
While the morning live bait bite may last well into the day, once the day becomes long and the “golden hour” approaches, he moves back into Garr Creek and breaks out his spinning rod and a lightweight 1/8-ounce roadrunner jig dressed in white marabou. By far, his favorite “casting run” is from midway back in Garr Creek all the way out to Uwharrie Forest Point. As with Hickory, he is targeting pockets of warmer water up against the bank from a day’s worth of bright sunlight.
And as darkness falls across the cold, barren landscape, there is little sign left of the day’s encounter. The birds have vacated the skies to return to their overnight roosts, while the few night creatures that still brave the winter cold set up for their nightly serenade. Meanwhile under the surface, the world of the aquatic returns to its state of dormancy to await yet another cold winter’s night.