September 28, 2010
You can catch big stripers at plenty of places in the Sportsman's Paradise -- you just have to know which places those are. (May 2007)
Photo by Larry Walsingham
Louisiana is not widely hailed for its striped bass fishing. Neighboring Texas and the East Coast get the lion's share of media for their excellent lineside fisheries. However, Louisiana waters have produced some truly big striped bass over the years, including a 47.5-pound state record caught on Toledo Bend that would turn heads anywhere. The state also boasts a healthy hybrid striper fishery that's both wide-ranging and quite prolific.
Let's take a look at the top areas for these hard-fighting species and review methods for catching them.
We might as well start with the biggest and best -- which is exactly what Toledo Bend represents among Louisiana's striper fisheries.
Last year, according to officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, more than 80,000 stripers were stocked at "T-Bend," thus continuing a rich tradition of keeping the population here healthy. Coupled with stocking efforts by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which shares jurisdiction over this massive reservoir, the striper fishery at Toledo Bend is in fine shape.
Owing to extremely low water levels, last year's fishing pressure was light. At one point, the lake was nearly 12 feet low; it was on average 8 feet low throughout most of 2006.
"A lot of the areas anglers fish for stripers looked a whole lot different last year, due to low water levels," said guide Roger Bacon. "Running on parts of the lake was dangerous and most of the boat ramps were closed." He added that the low levels (if they rise back to normal levels) should equal good fishing this year, as low pressure indicates that more fish survived into 2007.
Anglers looking for surface schooling action, which can be hot in early summer, should get up early, as much of the best action is right at dawn. There is also good fishing late in the evenings just before dusk.
The areas around Louisiana Island and Texas Island are excellent choices. The big fish like to gather in that area and feed on the gizzard shad that stack up there.
I prefer chuggers for these hardcore fish, but some of the locals prefer big walking plugs like the Super Spook and Top Dog. Popular colors are bone and a white model with a striper head that's locally called the "striper-headed woodpecker" pattern.
When you work topwaters for stripers, don't let the fish's intense blowups fool you -- it can miss a plug, and anglers probably miss most of them by attempting to set the hook before it has its mouth on it. Big predators like stripers push up a lot of water when they are hitting at something on the surface. It's best to get hit, count to two and then set the hook; if you miss the fish, it can pay to let the plug sit there and then gently twitch it. More often than not, stripers can't resist this technique.
Anglers preferring live bait should focus their efforts on the open water around the spillway, and search for the old roadbeds and creekbeds that seem to be key areas for these big fish to hide in. Live perch or big live shad rigged on a free line are excellent bait choices from summer through the winter.
If you prefer lures, look for shad bunched up around the secondary points and, using a slow retrieve, fish a crankbait like a Hellbender. If you find fish, and they're active, switch to something like a Fat Free Shad and boost the retrieve to medium speed. Sometimes on Toledo Bend, the shad are spread along the shorelines, stacked horizontally instead of vertically. If this is the situation, the stripers can be scattered as well, so try trolling. Use the crankbaits trolled at a slow pace. If you catch a fish, throw over a marker buoy and hit that spot again.
Employ spinners when the water's up high and you have shad clinging tight to the shoreline. Cast parallel to the shore and work it back at a medium pace for the best results.
Louisiana's most scenic lake has a strong population of hybrid stripers that grow to impressive sizes. Anglers should focus their efforts on big schools of shad in the early summer and in the winter period.
Locate the shad and toss a marker buoy overboard. You may put out as many as a half-dozen of these before fishing, thus giving you plenty of spots to hit.
For the best results, use a 1/3- to 1/2-ounce spoon on a 2-foot leader attached to 15-pound test Stren Sensor line. Simply lower the bait down into the bass' zone, work the bait up and down and hold on while you wait for a hit. If you're not bit within a few minutes, move. It usually doesn't take long to find them when they're actively feeding in a locale. During winter, their feeding gets a lot more focused on these schools, as their metabolism is not going to be high enough for them to roam around, chase and corral the shad, so they suspend around big schools of them. Often the bass will lurk around logjams and structure just under the shad, so they can be hard to locate on electronics. Find the shad, and you can usually find the stripers.
Topwater action for hybrids can heat up in the late-summer and early-fall periods. Anglers on this lake tend to fish a lot on the south end of the lake to find schooling action on the main lake.
One mistake that anglers targeting feeding hybrids can easily make is to run too close to them. While their actions are aggressive, these fish can get spooky if you run right up to them with your motor. The best bet is to run up to roughly 100 yards from the fish and troll up to the school. Better yet, if a wind's blowing, drifting into the fish can produce even more solid bites. Hybrids aren't as spooky as redfish, for example, but in most cases, the quieter your approach, the better off you will be.
Unbeknownst to many, Lake Pontchartrain harbors a fair population of hybrids. A great place to catch them is around the thousands of marker buoys and barnacle-encrusted channel marker poles in the canal, which hold stripers year 'round. These poles create their own mini-ecosystems, much as do oil and gas platforms in nearby Lake Borgne. They're obviously not as prominent as are rigs, but they do draw in fish.
First, check to see if the poles have many barnacles on them. Those are good to fish, because they're likely to draw in lots of baitfish and crustaceans -- which stripers, of course, dine on. In addition, those near shell-rich shorelines are great places to fish. The markers typically indicate where chan
nel and shallows meet, so setting up between the shell along the shore, and the marker puts an angler in a great position. Chunk one line in the shallows and another in deep water, and your chances of scoring on a striper will be very good.
"Vertical trapping," a method that I'm experimenting with in such areas, involves dropping a Rat-L-Trap or similar lipless crankbait down over deep holes and simply reeling it up. Anglers use this method on smallmouth bass in channels along the Great Lakes, and I recommend it for hybrids and other Southern species.
This method's appeal lies in its enabling the angler to target various depths of the water column. If you don't have electronics, and have no means of telling where the fish are, this can allow you to hit all areas of the column with a lure that mimics what they're feeding on -- and that's hard for them to ignore.
If a big wind's blowing, it'll often push baitfish against the north shoreline, or concentrate them in areas in which the wind's effects are minimized, as in a protected cove. On that same note, it's very important to pay attention to tidal correction tables for the hybrids and stripers throughout the southern lake, marsh and river systems in Louisiana.
A tide is like a wave, in that it weakens as it moves inland. Keep up with the tidal correctional tables for the areas you fish. If, for example, a newspaper gives you tides for the Southwest Pass area and you're fishing on the north end of Venice Marsh, you won't see nearly as much tidal movement. In planning your trips, keep in mind that in most cases, the farther you move island, the less the water exchange.
If the hybrids are feeding on a flat coming out of a marsh, you need to know that water will be on those flats. If you're expecting them feeding on the edge of an area baitfish are clinging on high tides you'll want to find the tides that are high and falling. Conversely, tides will strengthen as you near the Gulf, so make note of the intricacies of fish feeding in relation to these big tides. Even a small tide can create big movement at a jetty or fish pass, like South Pass, where there's a lot of water to move.
One of Louisiana's best-kept fishing secrets is the awesome winter striper fishery on the southern end of the Sabine River basin.
From the port of Orange down to the mouth of Sabine Lake at East Pass, anglers can find the big, hard-fighting fish sometime this month. Though stocked in freshwater lakes in Texas, these fish are naturally a saltwater species, and they thrive in this brackish, prey-rich environment.
When you work topwaters for stripers, don't let the fish's intense blowups fool you -- it can miss a plug, and anglers probably miss most of them by attempting to set the hook before it has its mouth on it.
Trolling with live bait is an excellent way of targeting these stripers, which can weigh up to 25 pounds in the Sabine area. A live shad rigged on what I like to call a "breakaway rig" is a good choice for anglers not wanting to invest in downriggers and related expensive gear unnecessary for pursuing these fish.
As I often recommend to coastal anglers, trolling these breakaway rigs requires using two rod-and-reel outfits: one is to fish with, and the other to get your bait down to the depth at which you fish. Now, you can use this for trolling lures as well, but it's pretty much the easiest way for live bait.
Hook a live shad through the lips with a small, wide-gapped Kahle-style hook rigged on braided line; then, take a rod rigged with a 1-ounce weight attached to a good swivel and attach it to your line with a thin rubber band tied to the swivel and to the braid. Let the baited line out first and then attach the rubber band and weighted line out once you have say 20 yards of line behind the boat. This will allow you to troll your bait freely a good distance behind the boat, and to adjust the depth readily. Once you have a fish on, the pressure will cut the thin rubber band on the sharp braided line and let you fight the fish freely.
Anglers should troll live baits slowly. You might want to start by using your trolling motor; if that's not doing the trick, try switching to the big motor to speed things up a bit. Start around the port of Orange and troll down a few hundred yards south. If that area doesn't pay off, work the outside of Burton's Ditch and the Dupont Outfall Canal. Finally, try trolling from the mouth of Blacks Bayou down to East Pass or from Middle Pass out to the islands.
You'll be trolling mainly over mud bottoms mixed with shell structure here, but the largest concentrations often hold tight to the river channel along dropoffs and around the mouths of cuts. Anglers looking for surface schooling action should get up early, as much of the best action is right at dawn.
"You pretty much see the feeding action really early and really late," said Greg Stephens, a dedicated angler from nearby Vinton. "And don't be afraid to fish when it's extremely cold. The key is calm mornings and, to be perfectly honest, sometimes the colder the better.
A popular topwater plug here is a Super Spook in a redfish pattern and a She-Dog in black. The basic protocol is to walk the lure with a fast retrieve around the feeding action. For blind-casting, a medium retrieve tends to work better for enticing the fish to bite.
Louisiana anglers should keep the reciprocal agreement between Texas and Louisiana in mind. It follows the line of the river: Louisiana anglers may fish on the Texas side of the river but can't enter any of the cuts or bayous. Fishing the mouths of these cuts is OK, but entering them is illegal unless you've got a Texas fishing license.
For striper anglers, the only time this will really come into play is at the Dupont Outfall Canal, where stripers will sometimes school against the fence, which is in Texas waters. The port of Orange can also be an issue, but for the most part the best fishing is on the river side of the port, which falls under the reciprocal agreement.