If you're looking to tie into a nice freshwater striper this winter, it's hard to beat the action at Buggs Island and Jordan Lake. (January 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
While a lot of fishermen are winterizing their boats this month, cleaning out their tackle boxes and taking apart their reels for a good cleaning and oiling to prepare for the spring fishing that's 10 weeks away, Troy Roberson and Joel Richardson are really getting excited about fishing right now.
That's because the two fishing guides understand that cold weather can mean hot fishing, especially if you're concentrating on striped bass and your home base is either Jordan Lake or Buggs Island (Kerr) Lake.
Stripers aren't exactly turned off by water temperatures that are cold enough to shut the mouth of a largemouth bass. In fact, as the mercury drops below the 50-degree mark, stripers are really starting to get into the swing of things, dogging schools of baitfish and feeding actively for long periods of time.
At least that's what Roberson and Richardson are counting on.
Roberson operates Striper Sniper Guide Service on B. Everett Jordan Lake south of the Raleigh-Durham area. As president of the Jordan Lake Striper Club, he has been guiding for three years -- roughly half the time that the sprawling reservoir has had stripers (the white bass-striped bass hybrid having been stocked there for years).
Richardson, a pro bass fisherman from Kernersville, guides just about everywhere in the Piedmont of North Carolina, but his primary turf is Buggs Island (John H. Kerr), which straddles the North Carolina-Virginia state line north and west of Henderson. He has a cottage on the lake and has guided winter striper trips there for years, normally beginning in mid-December and going through early February.
Their wintertime tactics, like their home waters, are similar only in their effectiveness. Roberson concentrates on live bait during the winter; Richardson uses artificials.
"I basically stick with two basic strategies in January: fishing shad on free lines or fishing them out on planer boards," Roberson said (919-656-1887). "I'll usually put out two rods with planer boards on either side of the boat and two free lines off the back of the boat -- one with a split shot and one without.
"I like to fish with smaller baits during the winter, 4- or 5-inch threadfin shad, and usually you can catch shad. It isn't hard, at least not on this lake," he said. "I don't use the big gizzard shad that you do other times of the year. Threadfins are the weaker of the species, and during the winter, they're dying off, and the stripers will be feeding on them. With a striper's metabolism at this time of the year, a small bait is ideal for them. But I will normally have at least one gizzard shad out at a time."
Jordan is a relatively shallow lake, with very little water any deeper than 25 or 30 feet. There is some 50-foot deep water in the main channel close to Jordan Dam, but for the most part, it's one of the shallower lakes around that is home to stripers.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission stocked the lake with hybrid bass after it was impounded in the early 1980s. They thrived for 15 years, but in the late 1990s, the commission rethought its stocking plan. Worried about hybrids' propensity for escaping a reservoir and moving downstream, biologists feared that hybrids would get out during a period of extremely high water (like Hurricane Fran, for example), using the spillway to access the Cape Fear River below. With dams being destroyed well down the river, the potential for mixing hybrids and pure-strain stripers that move out of salt water into the river to spawn became a reality.
The commission cut its hybrid stocking by 50 percent and replaced those fish with striper fingerlings, then, in 2000, quit stocking hybrids completely but doubled the rate of striper stocking.
"We had a new lake (striper) record set in a club tournament in June (18.35 pounds), but I don't think we'll ever see many fish over 22 or 23 pounds, even after they've been in here for a long time, because the lake isn't deep enough. But it's perfect for hybrids. I hate that they quit stocking them. They're a lot of fun; they're definitely the most sporting fish in the lake."
Roberson's personal best striper is a 16-pounder, but he said that increasingly, fishermen are seeing fish between 12 and 14 pounds as the original stockings reach 5 or 6 years of age. Most of the hybrids that show up are grown ones. Five- to 10-pound fish are not unusual; Roberson has caught them up to 12 pounds and has heard of 13- and 14-pound hybrids. What he doesn't understand is why 2- and 3-pound hybrids are showing up in anglers' creels.
"They stopped stocking them in 2000, so the last ones stocked should be bigger than that," said Roberson, a 33-year-old Concord native who developed a love for striper fishing on Badin Lake as a youngster. "I don't know if some are getting mixed in with the stripers when they stock them, or maybe they're spawning on their own. Maybe they're mixing in and spawning with the stripers -- a male striper and female hybrid? Because most of the hybrids they stocked should be at least 5 or 6 pounds by now."
Roberson said that most of Jordan's baitfish will be just off the main lake during the winter, back one-third of the way from the mouth of major creeks. He likes White Oak and Beaver creeks the best, but will work around the mouth of most any creek and around the mouth of pockets and coves off creek channels.
"I'll work in and out of coves until I find a school of fish or find an area where they're actively feeding. There may be a few deep, bumping the bottom, but most of the stripers will be suspended, and my favorite range to fish in the winter is 2 to 10 feet," Roberson said
Roberson is careful about his live bait, which he catches with a cast net, either spotting them flipping on the surface in coves and pockets or seeing them in tight schools on his depthfinder. He rigs them on circle hooks.
"I like to use a 2/0 Owner circle hook, but I'll go to a 3/0. I'm particular about matching my hook sizes to the size of the bait," Roberson said. "Normally, I use my trolling motor to drift along at about 1.5 miles per hour."
Roberson uses Waterbugz side planers and puts two baits out on either side of the boat, spreading them apart by paying out different lengths of line. He puts one shad off the back of the boat on a line without any weight, allowing the shad to swim freely, and a second shad off the back on a line with a single split-shot several feet above
the hook, which pulls the bait down in the water column.
"I'm targeting stripers anywhere from the surface to about 12 feet of water," Roberson said. "They'll be suspended a lot of the time, and sometimes, they'll be right up under the surface feeding.
"Normally, I'll drag the bank south of the mouth of Beaver Creek on down toward Johnson's Island and the (Pea Ridge Road) roadbed," said Roberson. "I'll stay in less than 20 feet of water all the time, and there are some times when I get close enough to the bank that my planer boards will be over about 5 feet of water."
Jordan has a four-fish daily creel limit, with a 20-inch size minimum that's applicable to stripers and hybrids. Roberson believes that the ratio of stripers to hybrids in the lake is about 3-to-1. In the winter, he catches a higher ratio of stripers to hybrids than during the warmer months.
"In January, you have water temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s, and I don't think the hybrids will go up in the shallow water, back in the creeks, the way the stripers do at that time of the year. And now and then, you'll get a largemouth mixed in with the stripers."
Roberson will occasionally troll bucktails or use a jigging spoon in January when conditions are right.
"A jigging spoon will work if you can get right over the fish," he said. "It imitates a dying threadfin shad, and they'll hit it. If you want to troll in January, you need to fish a 3/8-ounce bucktail with a 4-inch (plastic grub) trailer. You have to use white and chartreuse. If it's not chartreuse, at Jordan, it's no use. You need some combination of chartreuse, green and white."
The January bite can last all day, Roberson said. There's no real advantage to getting out particularly early or staying extremely late. "The time of day doesn't matter; we catch them at noon in the winter," he said. "And the bite will be very predictable. If you catch them one morning, you can catch them the same time and place for the next two or three days before they move. You can be on the water from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. all through January and catch fish."
At Buggs Island, January is really two different months -- at least as far as fishing tactics go for Joel Richardson, who fishes mostly on the lower half of the 49,500-acre lake.
In early January, or as long as the weather doesn't break off ridiculously cold, Richardson targets stripers in the first third to halfway back in major creeks with shallow- to medium-running crankbaits.
"The first part of the month -- or if the weather has been mild -- fish can still be caught on crankbaits and bucktails in 7 to 15 feet of water," Richardson said (336-803-2195). "You want to fish the biggest creeks on the lake, the creeks with the really big channels that carry good depth a long way back -- creeks like Nutbush and Grassy. You want to fish the longest shoal you can find in an area -- where the deep water and shallow water meet."
If the winter has been extremely mild, fish will be in relatively shallow water and Richardson will target them with a Bomber Speed Shad, a crankbait that will run 4 or 5 feet deep with a very distinct wobbling action. The colder it gets, however, the deeper Richardson fishes, and he normally moves to a medium-running bait like a Zoom Z-3 or a DJ-2 flatsided bait, using some kind of a shad finish or color.
"Stripers are just like largemouths; they're particular about where they locate," Richardson said. "If they're on the edge of a flat, they'll be on the best place -- either on some kind of cover like a stump, brush or rocks, or they'll be on the sharpest dropoff. A Speed Shad will get them early, but normally, you need to go a little deeper in January. You're really looking for plugs that will run down around 9 to 11 feet.
"What you find is that the stripers will hang out on top of a point, and they'll move on and off that point. There might be one or two fish on a spot, and if you can find a place they're using, you can catch a fish, come back later, and catch more. It's like they're taking turns feeding on that one place. When one moves off it, another one moves up on it."
Richardson also likes to cast a bucktail into the shallows, working it back methodically but slowly, bouncing it off the bottom and hopping it along until he gets it back to the boat. On occasion, stripers will prefer a bucktail to a crankbait.
By the middle of the month -- or if December has been particularly cold -- Richardson moves out of creeks and starts looking for fish in the deepest water available, which is around the main Roanoke River channel.
"By January, they'll be around the mouth of the creeks, and if we've had some cold weather, or if it's mid-January, it's probably gotten cold enough, and I'm going to fish around the mouth of every creek from Butcher's (creek) to the dam: Eastland, Mill, Carter and Nutbush. I might fish in the creek around the first secondary point or two, but mainly I'm going to be out on the deeper channels. I've caught them as deep as 50 feet on a jigging spoon, but most of the time they're going to be from 35 to 50 feet deep. And they won't be on the bottom -- they'll be suspended about 10 feet off the bottom."
Richardson said that this kind of offshore fishing is when a good depthfinder really pays for itself.
"It comes in handy, big time," he said. "I don't even start fishing until I see some activity on my Lowrance X-19C. I'm looking for bait and (fish) hooks on the screen, and when I go over them, I know it. Stripers -- there will be big spots of them, and they'll show up on the depthfinder like trees, stacked up vertically."
When he finds fish, Richardson will break out a jigging spoon. He's not particular about the size or brand, although he does like a spoon that's painted white on cloudy days.
"Something I don't do much of but what will work is to drop a live bait down there during the winter," he said. "I normally stick with artificials, and it doesn't matter what kind of spoon you fish, as long as you can get it down to them."
Richardson likes to replace the treble hooks that come on many spoons with a pair of single hooks, threading them onto the split ring that connects them to the bottom of the bait so that the hook points face each other. And he believes that a red hook can really make a difference in the winter.
"Then, I just jig through them," he said. "If you really find fish feeding, your spoon will never hit the bottom. And you'll catch everything: big crappie, blue catfish, white bass, white perch, walleyes and stripers. Normally, when you're jigging that deep, you're below the largemouths, and the stripers and blue catfish will be the deepest."
Richardson regularly ties into stripers that push or exceed 15 pounds, yet he sticks with the tackle that he normally uses to fish for largemouth bass.
"I like to use 12- to 14-pound Stren
mono and a 6-foot, medium-heavy Shimano Claris baitcasting rod," he said. "I just drop it down as far as I think I need to and jig it up and down. You'll catch more stripers fishing deep than you will cranking early in the month, but they won't be as big as those fish."
Buggs Island is managed jointly by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The states share a four-fish daily limit and 20-inch size minimum for stripers, and both states recognize each other's licenses all over the lake.