When anglers ask guide Jim Parramore about the best time of year for catching striped bass at Martin Lake, his reply's always the same: between right now and this time next year.
Parramore, who's also an accomplished wildlife biologist, is quick to add that he's not overstating the case. "Martin's striped bass fishery is incredible," he proclaimed. "Not only is it an awesome lake for producing numbers of fish, but it also produces unbelievable numbers of trophy fish. Last year we averaged more than 25 fish per trip, with one trip producing 54 stripers: That's in winter. We could have caught more, but I ran out of bait. As for size, last year we caught 145 fish weighing between 25 and 40 pounds."
Parramore cut his teeth guiding part-time for 10 years at northwest Alabama's Smith Lake. Four years ago, he quit his job to guide full-time at Martin Lake.
"I decided to go down there and check it out," Parramore said. "I was stunned! It's a target-rich environment with no fishing pressure. In fact, I consider Martin Lake the best striper lake in the state."
Before dams stopped the migration of striped bass from the Gulf, the species spawned in the unimpeded current of the Tallapoosa River. Since stripes can no longer reproduce, the state annually stocks about three fish per acre in Martin's 40,000 acres of water in Coosa, Elmore and Tallapoosa counties.
Chris Greene, District IV fisheries supervisor, offered that the lake is unique, as it provides striped bass with critical thermal refuges formed by a combination of deep and infertile water.
"Cool water with adequate oxygen is critical for striped bass," Greene explained. "In clear water, sunlight can penetrate much deeper; therefore, oxygen is available at lower levels. Unlike impoundments on the Coosa River, which are highly fertile, sunlight cannot penetrate nearly as deep, so they do not have oxygen at those lower levels."
Of course, thermal refuges aren't an issue in the winter -- but they do come into play as the water warms. Here's how Parramore deals with the changing temperatures and seasons to find and catch striped bass.
Beginning in mid-to-late December and ending in late February, winter is the most profitable time of year for catching large numbers of striped bass. According to Parramore, it's also when the lake gets the most fishing pressure. But don't let that stop you.
"It's an absolutely awesome time to catch stripers," Parramore reported, "as they are traveling in huge schools. You may see 2 or 3 acres of them schooling on top. It's a sight! At times, when you pull into a school the sonar screen will black out because they are so thick.
"The fish congregate in these huge schools to feed on large schools of shad. They herd shad like dogs work cattle."
Parramore finds the schoolies -- fish weighing 10 to 14 pounds -- by either watching for feeding gulls or searching with his sonar. When using the latter, he searches around islands and on the edges of gavel and sandbars from Madwind Creek all the way downlake through the narrows to Martin Dam. It's the birds that provide him with visual cues.
"The gulls feed on shad the stripers are pushing to the top," he said. "While resting on a sandbar, the gulls send out a scout to search for shad. If successful, he will return and alert the others. As the gulls take flight, follow them. They give the fish away every time."
For catching stripers busting the surface, Parramore recommends a 1/2-ounce bucktail jig with a curlytail grub. Cast the lure into the school, let it sink for 5 seconds and then reel slowly for a straight-line retrieve. Winter is one of the two seasons of the year during which artificial lures produce well at Martin.
If you want to catch big fish, Parramore said, you'll find them holding on the outer edges of the school. "Nearly every time we caught a fish over 30 pounds last winter," he recalled, "it was due to a strong wind blowing us out of a big school of fish. It's hard to leave a school to work the edge; if you do, though, you may catch a monster."
Help from his feathered spotters aside, Parramore relies on his sonar. As soon as fish appear on his screen, he kills the motor and puts out 4- to 5-inch shad on downlines, which he lowers the baitfish to swim just a few feet above the stripers.
Parramore makes a downline by attaching a 2-ounce trolling sinker to his main line, which is 20-pound-test Trilene Big Game, and then ties a 3-foot leader of 20- or 25-pound-test fluorocarbon to the sinker. The other end is furnished with a 1/0 or 2/0 Daiichi circle hook.
Even though striped bass no longer spawn in the Tallapoosa, Parramore notes that the urge to reproduce still influences their actions. So during this season, he tracks the fish on the basis on behaviors characteristic of the pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn periods. Stripers move out of the main lake to the creeks and river and then back again in a cycle running from late February to mid-June. During this stretch, catching a trophy striper is likeliest from the end of February to the end of April.
Parramore observed that the transition from winter to pre-spawn begins when stripers start consuming large shad. "I fillet my customer's fish and always check stomach contents," he explained. "When I see large shad, it's time to change fishing techniques and switch to the big jumbos" -- those being gizzard shad weighing 1 1/2 to more than 2 pounds. "It seems when the water temperature reaches 53 to 55 degrees, the stripers metabolism increases to the point where they switch from a winter diet of 'chicken nuggets' to 'T-bone' shad."
Downlines continue as effective during pre-spawn, but the technique Parramore embraces is the use of side planer boards to search the shallow water of creek and slough edges.
"The deadliest weapon ever invented for catching trophy stripers is a side planer," he asserted. "The planer allows anglers to freeline shad away from the boat and are especially effective in shallow water."
Planer boards enable the guide to control the bait by simply maneuvering the boat without ever having to fear spooking fish swimming in water 2 to 5 feet deep. Plus, he can cover a lot of ground.
Parramore pulls Water Bugz planer boards using the same line and le
ader material, but switches to a 5/0 Daiichi circle hook for large shad. With the bait hooked and in the water, he pulls off about 40 feet of line before attaching the planer board. He then holds at a speed sufficient to keep the planer in position to the side of the boat.
"There's nothing specific about where to find stripers," he pointed out. "It's a hunt; you must go looking for them. When I pull in the back of a slough, I never know if it holds fish. The only way you are going to know is to put that big bait out and start working it down one side of the bank going in and the other side coming out. If they are there, you'll have an encounter, because stripers have a way of finding those big jumbo shad."
Nearly every creek and slough, Parramore believes, has the potential to hold fish during pre-spawn. As April arrives, however, he concentrates on the Tallapoosa River to take advantage of the landlocked stripers' instinct to spawn.
"Much depends on rainfall and the resulting current," he explained. "With ample rain, the river current attracts stripers wanting to spawn. When the current is ripping down the river, fishing for big stripers is incredible."
When he fishes the Tallapoosa, Parramore trolls big shad on planer boards just as before, but switches to the boat motor to counter the current.
If the current remains strong, river fishing continues until the end of April, when rising water temperatures induce the bass to abandon their desire to reproduce.
"Even though there are resident stripers that remain in the river year 'round," Parramore reported, "the majority of the big fish move back to the lake. You find them in the upper lake in the same places they roamed in winter.
"May is a great month to fish, because you can still catch them using planer boards or you can use downlines. The water is still cool enough to see fish busting the surface. Usually, though, they hold at depths between 20 to about 35 feet. Downlines produce best in this situation.
"Last year," the guide continued, "for the week before Memorial Day we caught 30 stripers weighing 20 to 30 pounds and eight weighing more than 30. I had never encountered so many big fish. We caught them 45 to 55 feet deep. Then, all of a sudden, on Memorial Day weekend they disappeared. We still caught fish, but I never found the location of those big fish."
As mid-June approaches, Parramore finds striped bass deeper, and in the middle of the lake around the Sail Club, Chimney Rock, Long Branch and Blue Creek. Their depth varies with temperature. Last summer was especially hot; as a result, the guide caught fish as deep as 80 feet.
Nevertheless, the heat had a positive impact on fishing. On July 30, clients set a new record for Parramore when they caught six fish weighing a total of 150 pounds. Two weighed more than 30 pounds; one exceeded 40 pounds.
Fishing live bait on downlines is the preferred method for catching these summer fish, in Parramore's view, but artificial lures also produce when trolled behind downriggers.
"Down-rig trolling, or controlled-depth trolling, is an awesome way to catch fish," Parramore enthused, "and it's an alternative to using live bait. One day last summer, heavy boat traffic mid-lake caused me to move to the upper lake. The downriggers did not produce at the first two places we fished; then we moved to Youngs Island. When we stopped fishing, we had caught 10 fish weighing 200 pounds. Of those, one weighed 30 pounds and two weighed over 20 pounds. The strike from the 30-pounder came at noon while fishing water 60 to 70 feet deep, with the downriggers set at 45 feet."
Downriggers are most lethal from mid-August though October on stripers that are scattered or schooling, Parramore observed. The former require you to cover a lot of water to find them; the latter move too fast for downlines to do their job. "If you see a large school of stripers following bait balls," he explained, "don't even try to fish them with downlines, because they will have moved before you can lower a bait to them. They are on the move. Often, using downriggers you can make two or three passes through a big school before you lose them, and usually you catch a double with each pass."
In either situation, he lowers his two downriggers to within 5 to 10 feet of the fish below and trolls at a speed of 1 1/2 miles per hour. The lure, a horsehead shaped jig with an Indiana spinnerbait blade, is rigged to run 100 feet behind the downrigger ball.
"That's the deadliest bait that I've every used on a downrig," Parramore noted. "Troll slowly, as stripers do not like to hit at high speed."
Downrigging catches fish, but not so well as does the use of live bait. The top summer pattern for fishing live shad involves finding stripers staging, a striper behavior in which, as Parramore describes it, the fish position themselves on a stretch of river channel or gravel bar waiting for the bait to come to them. They may remain in the same area for a month.
"When they are staging," the guide remarked, "sonar may show a very loose group of fish. They may be on the bottom, or 10 feet off the bottom. Mark them with a buoy and then put out live bait on downlines. You can return day after day and hammer them."
"I love fall fishing," Parramore stated, "because it's like a spring pattern." He went on to say that the cooler water in the backs of the creeks attracts big loners, so when you troll a jumbo shad over the shallows, the fish jump all over it.
From late October to mid-December, Parramore reverts to fishing side planer boards in the same places that he worked in the spring. While he's sure that all creeks potentially hold striped bass, the guide advises starting with the Tallapoosa River or Elkahatchee Creek.
If you tire of the hunt for plus-sized specimens, Parramore recommended, take a break by moving back to the lake. In the fall, the Kowaliga and Blue creek arms yield substantial numbers of fish to anglers using downlines.
"With planer boards," the guide noted, "we may go four hours before a blowup from a big striper. So if a client gets bored, we'll go catch some 8- to 12-pound fish on downlines to break the monotony. We fish the downlines just like in summer."
Fishing pressure is greatest at Martin in winter, and the use of downriggers is on the rise there in summer, in great part because of a dearth of baitfish. The lake's infertile water doesn't sustain high numbers of shad, which makes it difficult to catch enough bait for a day's fishing. So angler participation increases when striped bass respond to artificial lures.
For year-round fishing, Parramore catches gizzard shad from the Coosa River, usually in a tailrace below one of the reservoirs. Having a lively shad on the end of your line is the key to success, he said.
"Keeping shad alive is an art form," he noted. "For years, we did everything to keep them alive; nothing worked. Shad caught from the lake would have 100 percent morality within three days. Then a marine biologist at Dauphin Island researching baitfish and their immune system discovered a bacterium that becomes active within the shad when stressed.
"The bacteria are dormant when water temperatures fall below 56 degrees, and that's why anglers do not have a problem holding shad in winter. But in warmer months, the bacteria is a problem, so it's important not to stress the shad. Stress is caused by shad purging in the holding tank because their waste clogs gills and sends ammonia levels through the roof."
Parramore has found that shad mortality drops to 10 percent when he catches them in a tailrace.
"In a heavy current, the shad empty out," he explained. "So when you throw a net on them and drop them in your tank, the water remains clean. It makes all the difference."