Coldwater striped bass fishing heats up this month on Buggs Island. Here's a guide's advice on getting into the action. (January 2009)
The author holds a Buggs Island striped bass that he caught while fishing Nutbush Creek in January. Photo courtesy of Phillip Gentry
The morning was just starting to turn from "I'm an idiot for being out here" cold to just plain "cold." At least that's the way the two anglers huddled in the back of the big Maycraft center console described it. Daylight had broken somewhere off to the east of Grassy Creek, but the sun hadn't topped the trees yet, so it was still cold. It wasn't that unusual of a morning for "Ramrod" Hall, a full-time striped bass guide on Buggs Island (or Kerr Lake if you preferred the government's terminology for the nearly 50,000-acre impoundment of the Roanoke River that is also fed by several smaller tributaries). If the two guys, who were positioned to watch the rods that were pointing out to the side of the boat, thought it was cold now, they should have experienced the "early edition" of this morning, which started at 3:30 while Ramrod was throwing the cast net in the dark for the tank full of bait the two anglers were leaning on.
Hall, from the nearby town of Henderson, has been a striper guide on these waters for 18 years and knew that the two guys in the back of his boat were about to forget about how cold it was. The reason he knew that was two-fold. The first was that his sonar graph was displaying a familiar version of "spaghetti with meatballs." The second was that the small armada of yellow planer boards that he was towing out to the side and behind his guide boat was just about to enter the war zone. In fact, the far right board had sputtered like a toy boat with engine trouble and then had completely broke formation and was going in reverse.
"Watch that right rod," instructed Ramrod to his clients, alerting them to the fight that was about to start, "easy now, let him eat it." The retreating board reversed even faster before submerging altogether, causing the rod that was attached to the line to bend over double.
"Alright, get him," coached the guide. One of the anglers plucked the hurting rod from the rod holder and laid back on it as the reel screamed from rapid loss of line. The other angler moved in behind the first to let his buddy have some room when Ramrod shouted to him that a rod on the left side was going down. No sir, neither one of these guys would think about the cold again for the remainder of this trip. They were locked in battle with a pair of Buggs Island stripers.
After the fight was over, and both of his clients were visibly warmer from the exertion, Hall offered some tips on what to expect for the remainder of the trip.
"I look for stripers moving into these creeks looking for pods of bait," explained the guide. "This time of year when the water temps really start to get cold, the baitfish -- gizzard shad, threadfins, alewives and blueback herring -- come back in here to try to find some warmer water.
The shad will ball up near the surface and the herring will usually be a little deeper below them. As they move in here, so do the stripers. Anywhere along a creek they can ambush them, they will. If you put a bait with a hook in it in that ambush, well, you can turn the tables on that striper."
Hall, who operates Ramrod's Guide Service (919/622-2796), tricks the ambushing stripers by using only a hook and line to get the bait out in the water. Occasionally, he will attach a small split shot weight a couple of feet above the hook as the sun gets up and stripers feed a little deeper. Using natural bait that he caught before sunup in a cast net, the guide employs matched sets of planer boards to move the hooked baits, which are referred to as free lines, out to the side and away from the boat.
The whole presentation works because the free lines are trolled behind the boat using an electric "Auto Pilot" trolling motor mounted to the bow of the boat. Ramrod can set the general direction of the trolling motor with a remote control and the motor will make any necessary course adjustments based on an internal compass. As the boat moves forward, the planer boards, to which the fishing line is attached by a plastic clip, pull to either the right or left based on the shape of the wedge built into the front of each board. In addition to the lines attached to boards, the guide trails other lines without boards behind the boat in the same fashion to cover the water directly behind the boat. In all, Ramrod usually run six boards and four flatlines while trolling the edges of the creek channels.
"I stagger the amount of line that's let out on each rod," Hall said. "I may put 40 feet of line out behind one and 60 feet behind another and add another 10 feet to the next one. The idea is to figure out how far back behind the board to fish in order to get their attention."
Hall also monitors the overall boat speed by watching the speedometer built in to his sonar/GPS unit. He generally starts at .5 mph and will adjust his speed from there. At this speed he will parallel the shoreline but always starts closer to the mouth of the creek and works his way back toward the end.
"The stripers will move shallow at night, herding baitfish toward the shallows. They often feed right at first light and will stay active for a few hours. Then by 10 a.m. in the morning as the sun gets up, they'll retreat back to deeper water. A striper doesn't like bright sunlight, so I work in his direction, trying to catch them as they move back out of the creek."
The guide admits that much of this pattern has to do with water temperatures. For example, if the water is in the upper 40s or above, he knows he can move back into some of the smaller creeks that feed into Nutbush Creek, such as Hibernia or Townsville, and catch stripers on their infiltration from the shallows. If water temps are lower than 45, he contends that stripers won't be moving inshore and he'll stay out in the main-lake area of Nutbush. He's particularly prone to this strategy if a predominant northwest wind is blowing, because that way he can still fish some good deep-water areas while being protected from the harshest winds by the landmass to the west of the river arm.
Another good area where Hall likes to free-line for Kerr's winter stripers is the Grassy Creek area.
"Grassy has a lot of smaller cuts and coves and the points of these coves often hold fish, on the inside if the water temps are tolerable and on the outside if the water has gotten too cold," Hall said.
Hall will motor straight into Grassy until he reaches the area between MM 13 and 14. This area has a lot of both marked and unmarked humps. Humps are good ambush sites for stripers, particularly when the water
temps dip as they afford deep water close to a structure stripers can feed on when the time comes.
In Hall's opinion, a good third choice to look for winter striped bass is Eastland Creek on the north side of Kerr. Around Buoy No. 6, he'll start watching his graph and try to pick up on the daily pattern to determine whether the fish are high in the water column or if they are hugging the bottom. Another reason he likes Eastland Creek is the easy access from Eastland Creek ramp, which is located right off Hwy. 707.
It's not uncommon for Hall to pick up on a pattern in a big creek like Nutbush, which is nearly 10 miles long from the mouth at Keats Point back to Satterwhite Point, and stay on those fish for several days or weeks. Hall has a number of choices when it comes to boat access to Nutbush. He can use the Henderson Point ramp east of Woodworth off Hwy. 39 if the fish are out closer to the mouth of the creek, or he can use the ramps at Hybernia or Flemingtown if the fish have moved farther south into the creek. Both of these ramps run east of Hwy. 39 near Townsville.
The final piece of the puzzle, according to Hall, is to ally yourself with some other knowledgeable striper anglers so you can trade notes when the fish don't want to cooperate. Hall serves as the tournament director for the Buggs Island Striper Club, which was founded in 2001 and boasts over 300 members.
"These guys know Buggs backward and forward," said Ramrod, "and that's a great resource when things get tough." For more info on the Buggs Island Striper Club, contact president Lanny Parrott at (919) 693-6263 or visit the Club's Web site at www.buggsislandsc.org.