Photo by Mike Marsh
The hand warmers had quit working, gloves were now only holding their own, and the lull between hookups was just starting to gain our attention. Then two rods went down simultaneously and suddenly the cold and the wait for a bite forgotten, overwhelmed by the fight of big stripers on the other end of the tackle.
January fishing is a little on the cold side, a little on the slow side at times, but when the stripers decide to feed in the wintertime, things heat up quickly. Here are four lakes — Cherokee, Cordell Hull, Norris and Old Hickory — that you can get warm on quickly.
The Science Of It All
Before we get into the where and how of winter striper fishing, let’s sidestep a little because below the depths of the lakes that we’re featuring lies more than big stripers: There’s biological data in there as well.
Tim Churchill may have vacated the reservoir coordinator’s position to work more directly with the TWRA’s director, but he can’t hide from me when I need questions answered about Tennessee lake fishing, including stripers.
Whether we’re talking about Cherokee, Cordell Hull, Norris or Old Hickory lakes, the type of habitat stripers prefer in cold weather, and their typical response to cooling water, remains similar. Churchill said stripers become generally more dispersed across lakes in the winter months when the water quality improves. However, an abundance of cold-stressed shad, such as those near steam plant outflows, sometimes concentrates the stripers.
Churchill said when water temperatures drop, threadfin shad in particular are susceptible to cold. They become slower and unable to avoid predators like stripers. As a matter of fact, Churchill said shad and alewives make up at least 90 percent of striper diets throughout the year.
He has learned from anglers across the state what type of structures are key to harboring scattered winter stripers. Churchill said many anglers have told him they have success on humps, submerged islands or rock outcroppings when temperatures drop.
Pat Black of the TWRA’s Fisheries Division calls himself a “fisheries biometrician.” I laughed and asked what that meant exactly. He said a large part of his job is to dig through the data and try to make sense of it all. That’s just what he did for our look at winter striper lakes.
Black took the time to calculate the monthly catch rates for stripers on three of our spotlight lakes. He didn’t have any winter creel data for Cordell Hull and was unable to provide the info on that lake. For the remaining three, Black went back over the last five years (2001-2005) of creel data to adequately represent each lake.
Cherokee Lake had the highest winter (December through February) striper catch rates, followed by Old Hickory and then Norris. He really wanted to show us where Cordell Hull ranks, but the information wasn’t available. You can bet it’s near the top of the list.
To get the catch-per-angler-hour estimates, Black lumped a great deal of data over multiple years to obtain meaningful figures. He said often in the wintertime, the creel clerks are concentrated in areas where anglers are seeking other species, so the chance of encountering anglers targeting striped bass is sometimes low.
Black went the extra mile to get the estimates by using take and mean daily catch for winter months of all the years of available data for each reservoir and divided it by the mean daily effort for the same years. Black didn’t calculate monthly averages, since in several cases the creel clerk didn’t encounter any striper anglers on given lakes in one month, and he was worried the information might be misleading.
He found in the data that Norris Lake and Old Hickory Lake were sampled all five years (2001-2005) and Cherokee was sampled in 2002 and 2004. Based on his research, the five-year average wintertime striper CPUE’s (catch-per-unit-effort) estimates looked like this: Norris = 0.05 fish/angler-hour, Old Hickory = 0.11 fish/angler-hour and Cherokee = 0.23 fish/angler-hour.
For comparison, the Annual CPUEs for the same reservoirs in 2004 and 2005 were: Norris = 0.11 fish/hour (in 2004), 0.14 fish/hour (in 2005), Old Hickory = 0.14 fish/hour (in 2004), 0.10 fish/hour (in 2005) and Cherokee = 0.18 fish/hour (in 2004), with no sampling done in 2005.
Black said that all of the estimates are based on anglers who stated that they were actively fishing for striped bass at the time they were interviewed. Also, the values are estimates based on random sampling and as such are subject to some degree of sampling variability (that is, a difference of 0.04 from one year to the next within a reservoir doesn’t necessarily constitute a real difference in angler success).
That ought to meet our quota for biological striper data for the year, so now let’s turn our attention to the heart of winter striper fishing and the how and where of catching rockfish on four of the best striper lakes around. To top it off, our list of anglers that helped us hash out fishing these lakes could be called a “who’s who” of Tennessee striper guides.
Noted guide Ezell Cox said January and February are good ones to be on Cherokee Lake. He said the area of the lake from the Hwy. 25-E bridge downstream is where you’ll find stripers wintering. They could be from there to anywhere on down the lake, but Cox added that from German Creek to the dam is a good starting point.
The way Cox locates late-winter stripers is by following the birds feeding on shad. He said the gulls have been depending on stripers for years in helping them to feed on baitfish. The stripers get below shad and push them to the surface; the birds know it, and you’ll know it, too.
All the action is dependent upon water temperature. Cox said once the water temperature gets below 50 degrees for more than two weeks, Cherokee stripers will size down on what they’re eating. It’s all related to metabolism and what they need to eat to survive. When the water gets cold, Cox said they key on shad that are 2 inches long or less for the most part.
Local anglers who key on the gulls are cocked and ready when the birds start to swarm over the schools of baitfish forced to the surface by schools of stripers. Cox said it’s basically a waiting game as you stay near the biggest concentrations of gulls and wait. When the gulls h
it the surface to feed on shad, the idea is to run to them but not right up on the feeding activity.
Cox said to situate yourself far enough away not to spook the big stripers. You need to keep your distance — a good cast away, for example. In this situation, he relies heavily on small spoons and small Dahl flies because they match the size of the shad the stripers are keying on. You can also cast them long distances to the schooling action.
The veteran striper man said this renowned lake has experienced a rebound in recent years. He said Cherokee’s recent success can be attributed to the closure in the summer months of the striper fishing around the water near the dam. It’s really protected the deep summer stripers and helped to bring more of the bigger fish back into the population.
Cox said a few years ago, you could expect to boat stripers in the 10-pound class at best. Now, he said it’s nothing to boat 10 to 15 stripers in a normal afternoon using his tactic of running and gunning gulls. The best news is that you can now expect to boat 20-pound-class stripers regularly. Cox said you can find feeding stripers in the main channel and in the mouths of creeks and on up those creeks as well. Wherever the birds are on Cherokee Lake, there will be stripers this time of year.
To get right in the middle of the late-winter striper action on Cherokee Lake, you can put your boat in at German Creek Dock, Gilmore Brothers Dock, the ramps at the dam or the public ramp at the Hwy. 25-E bridge. The creel limit for striped bass on Cherokee Lake is the same as the statewide regulations at two per day with a minimum length of 15 inches.
CORDELL HULL LAKE
Fred McClintock is a legendary smallmouth guide at Dale Hollow Lake. In recent years, he’s built the same reputation as a striper guide on Middle Tennessee lakes. Don’t worry, he can still catch brown fish, but the big stripers fear him as well.
McClintock said you could catch big stripers beginning in December all the way through March on Cordell Hull Lake. After November, the water cools down and the fish head for creeks. He said the late February and March action may be some of the best, and you’ll find him running creek channels with planer boards.
The veteran angler will put out as many as four planer boards with two on each side of the boat. They’ll be rigged with about 25 feet of line as he works the channels. McClintock will seldom put the baits off the boards deeper than 10 feet, and he almost always runs them on the surface in late winter for feeding stripers.
For McClintock, big baits equal big stripers. He’s not fishing for numbers, just trophies. McClintock likes to rig his planer boards with skipjack herring that weigh at least 1 to 2 pounds. McClintock will also employ a couple of down-lines rigged with shad when the stripers are hitting smaller baits, but he will also put skipjack on these rigs. He likes a skipjack somewhere from 15 to 28 inches long for his big striper getters.
“I compare it to muskie fishing,” McClintock said.
Don’t expect to catch more than a couple of stripers per trip, but expect to boat a big one because of the size of the baits you’re using and the channels you’re working. Most of the stripers McClintock is landing will run in the 30- to 50-pound class. He said shad will produce rockfish in the 20- to 30-pound range and you may boat three to five per day using shad instead of skipjack.
Key winter access can be found at ramps at Defeated Creek, Martin’s Creek, and any of the public ramps in the Gainesboro area. The Cordell Hull striped bass creel limit is two per day with a 32- to 42-inch Protective Length Range (only one fish may be over 42 inches).
Norris Lake guide Wayne Smith is no slacker among striper anglers either. He said late-winter stripers are going to be concentrated around the lake’s threadfin shad and alewife populations. In winter, that can be in the main channel, but definitely in any of the creeks on the upper end of Norris Lake.
Some of the best baits are the smaller ones at Norris. Smith said the threadfin are small in the late winter and like the Cherokee Lake situation, the seagulls will show you where they’re living. Smith said this scenario will equal some topside action, and everything will definitely be shallow. He likes to use a Storm Swimbait as well as cast bucktail jigs at them as they feed near the surface. Work the swimbait on top and let the bucktail sink just a little for the feeding stripers.
Another tactic for the seasoned striper angler is to use live bait. Smith is always pulling live bait in the form of shiners with planer boards. He advises anglers not to get too deep with these setups because he said the stripers like the cold water and will be up shallow. He puts the baits no deeper than 10 to 20 feet. This action starts in November and continues through the first part of April.
Smith said this is the time to catch better stripers. He said it’s not uncommon to boat as many as 30 stripers per trip. Typically, the biggest will be in the 30- to 32-inch size range, though a few bigger fish are always possible. A 36-inch striped bass at Norris will weigh in the 18- to 20-pound class.
The key waters are from the Hwy. 33 bridge to Hickory Star Marina. The waters in Lost Creek are always dependable as well as the areas around Andersonville Dock.
The creel limit for Norris Lake striped bass varies seasonally. From April through October, it’s two per day with a minimum length of 15 inches. From November through March, it’s one per day with a minimum length of 36 inches.
OLD HICKORY LAKE
The name Ralph Dallas is synonymous with big striped bass. He still holds the current state-record striper, a tremendous monster that tipped the scales at 65 pounds, 6 ounces. Dallas said striper fishing was good all last summer, which bodes well for this winter’s action.
Dallas’ only concern is the effect gill-netting for rough fish could have on the big rockfish population at Old Hickory; he hopes the practice is stopped. As things stand now, Dallas’ biggest striper last year was a 58-pound behemoth. His best day ever included a catch of three over 50 pounds.
The legendary striper guide said you’ll find Old Hickory’s late-winter monsters around the warmwater discharge at the steam plant, in the main channel, up in creeks, and traveling alongside main channel islands.
At first light, it’s topwater time on Old Hickory. Dallas said you have to be ready when they surface during the feeding on skipjack herring in the warmwater discharge. It happens fast, doesn’t last long, but could produce that fish of a lifetime on a Red Fin.
After the sun gets up, it’s all about live bait. Up in the creeks, the gizzard shad are smallish in size, too small for the cast net when catching bait. That’s why Dallas will buy shiners to match the size of what they’re fe
eding on in those areas. He likes 14-pound monofilament and a No. 1 bait hook when fishing the small shiners.
Dallas will also use live bait on down-lines but said you can just cover so much more water with planer boards. In the warm water discharge, he’ll pull boards mainly with skipjack on line about 20 feet behind his boards. Dallas said the stripers won’t look at a 6-inch gizzard shad but will readily take a 12-inch skipjack because they’re used to seeing the gizzard shad feed on the smaller shad in the warm waters.
This kind of live-bait fishing is for trophy rockfish. For the stripers he’s catching, Dallas relies on 130-pound-test line on his boards in this area.
The cold weather associated with this period is big-fish time on Old Hickory Lake. Dallas likes to fish the nastiest day he can find right before a big cold front. On the edges of these fronts, he’s boated as many as 15 stripers over 40 pounds in a single day. Right now, he said eight to 10 stripers per trip is a good day, but if you are concentrating on trophies, expect to catch an average of two big stripers using skipjack.
The Bull Creek Ramp will put you within three miles of the good striper fishing, as does the public ramp at Drake’s Creek. The creel limit for Old Hickory striped bass is the same as the statewide regulations at two per day with a minimum length of 15 inches.
To fish with these veteran guides at any of the locations give them a call.
• Ezell Cox — (423) 626-6547.
• Fred McClintock — (931) 243-2142 or at TrophyGuideService.com.
• Wayne Smith — (865) 992-5260.
• Ralph Dallas — (615) 824-5792 or 615-735-3917.