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Going Deep For Stripers

Going Deep For Stripers

Is this a smart angling strategy for Texoma, Keystone and other lakes across our state at this time of year? Well -- yeah! (January 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The first few times I went fishing for striped bass in Oklahoma, we trolled the big, open waters of Lake Keystone with deep-running crankbaits and jigs -- open-water fishing for sure, and always in the summertime.

But my first wintertime striper experience was much different -- and more to my liking. It too was at Lake Keystone, but this time we jigged slab spoons around standing timber in a couple of the larger creeks. We caught several stripers from about 4 to 9 pounds, and I learned that stripers sometimes hold near structure and cover almost like black bass. Saltwater natives that sometimes cover great distances, stripers do tend to roam, and they keep moving most of the time. Still, they'll gather around cover and sit relatively still, at least in well-oxygenated waters.

On a trip to giant Lake Mead on the Arizona-Utah border a few years back, I had the chance to scuba-dive in the huge tap-water-clear lake. On the dive, I was surprised to see with my own eyes that stripers were gathered around structure and holding still, just like black bass or crappie.

I'd been told once by a freshwater fisheries biologist that stripers had to keep moving so that they could get enough water passing through their gills to extract sufficient oxygen from the water. I took that for granted until I saw that school of stripers holding still around a pile of boulders about 30 feet deep in Lake Mead.

I asked another fisheries biologist later if stripers had to keep moving in order to get sufficient oxygen. He said that they can "pump" water through their gills and so don't necessarily have to keep moving -- although, he added, the keep-moving idea was widely believed about several species of fish.

The bottom line is this: At times, stripers do hang around structure or cover much as black bass do, even though the fish often roam far and wide in search of prey.


I've even caught stripers in Lake Keystone brushpiles while I was out after crappie, and taken them in stands of submerged, standing tree trunks in which we sought them out on winter afternoons.

I've almost always used jigging spoons (a.k.a. "structure" and "slab" spoons) or jigs to fish for them in these areas, but I believe that using live bait might be an even more productive method of fishing around structure when stripers aren't on the move. Small sunfish, big minnows, or, best of all, live gizzard shad can be excellent baits for catching stripers that are hanging around deep structure.

In the summertime, it's almost impossible to keep shad alive for more than a few minutes. Striper guides on Texoma and striper fishermen at Lake Keystone install elaborate bait tanks and mix ice, salt and chemicals to make a suitable environment for their fragile baits to swim in until needed. But in the winter, when water and air temperatures are colder, it's possible to keep shad alive in a regular livewell or even in a bucket outfitted with a small battery-powered aerator. You may not be able to keep the shad alive for days, but a lifespan of some hours is feasible. And live, swimming shad are infinitely better than dead or cut shad -- at least when you're fishing for stripers or white/striped bass hybrids: If your shad die, you might as well switch to catfishing.

Some anglers free-line the shad and some add a split shot or two to the line to keep the shad down at whatever the target depth may be. When I fish with live bait -- I rarely do -- I prefer a slip-cork rig, which at once allows my bait to sink down to the proper depth and enables me to reel the line up to make easier casts. A bobber-stop allows my bobber to slide up the line to a fixed point and then slide back down to the sinker when I reel in the line.

All sorts of ready-made bobber-stops are available at tackle shops. I usually use a small bead and a couple of feet of elastic thread from the sewing section of our local department store. The elastic thread, tied in several successive knots around the line at the proper depth, stops the bead from sliding any farther up the line. The bead, in turn, stops the slip-bobber from sliding any higher. The thread holds pretty firm if tied tightly, but not so firm that the little wad of knots can't be pushed farther up or pulled farther down the line to adjust the fishing depth.

The size of bobber to use depends on what size shad or other baitfish you're using. I recommend going with the smallest size you can practically use, but you want it large enough that your baitfish won't be repeatedly pulling it under the surface.

You generally don't have to worry about finesse when you fish for stripers with live bait. Strikes generally are aggressive. Still, the less bobber resistance there is, the more likely a striper is to hang on and keep running with the bait until you set the hook with authority.

The one caveat I would offer regarding fishing for stripers around standing timber or other objects is to make sure deep water is nearby. I've never found stripers roaming way back on shallow flats far from deep water. They may roam a little way onto a flat, but they won't be far from a deeper escape route. That's been my experience.

I've noticed the same thing in my fishing for stripers on the Lower Illinois River. There is a flat area there, just upstream from the large island that lies on the right side of the channel going downstream toward the mouth of the river. Sand bass will chase shad clear to the bank on that flat, but stripers seem to chase them only up over the edge of the dropoff and into the first few yards of shallow area. They seem to be reluctant to travel far from the deeper water in the channel.

I'm not talking about great depths here, but I believe stripers must like to have a little room to maneuver, for I rarely see them in water that's less that 10 or 12 feet deep. I catch both white bass and white/striped bass hybrids in shallower water on occasion, but about the only places I can recall catching stripers in depths less than 4 or 5 feet are in the Arkansas River around Tulsa and in the Canadian River a few miles below the Eufaula Dam. In both places there isn't much deep water available, or at least there wasn't at the time I was catching stripers there.

These days, many serious striper fishermen have learned to use downriggers to take lures and baits down to more productive levels. But even if you don't have a downrigger, you can troll with deep-running crankbaits.

When Lake Keystone was young, and we were learning how to fish for stripers in Oklahoma, many of us trolled with old

deep-running Bombers and Hellbenders from the Whopper Stopper lure company. They were about the only baits that would dive deep enough.

Later, Mann's came out with the 20+ and 30+ deep-divers, and Storm, Bagley, Rebel, Bill Norman and other hard-bait companies all introduced big-billed baits that would dive to below 20 feet on 14- or 17-pound-test line.

Those baits were great for trolling for stripers, especially in the coldest months of winter and the hottest months of summer when the stripers seemed to spend a lot of time at greater depths in Oklahoma lakes.

Of course, in Lake Keystone, a lack of oxygen at greater depths keeps most stripers in shallower zones much of the time in summer. But in the winter it's still possible to find stripers hanging out below 20 feet.

Stripers still have a fairly limited range in Oklahoma. Although they were stocked back in the early 1970s, few were put into waters outside of the Red River and Arkansas River drainages after the later part of the decade.

Another little trick that sometimes yields great results is to trail a jig below and behind a crankbait. I sometimes tie a 1/4-ounce jig dressed with a 4-inch plastic grub, either pearl colored or chartreuse, to a 2-foot dropper line beneath the line-tie eye of a deep-running crankbait. Tying it on the tail or rear hook of the crankbait makes the bait climb and roll. But tying it beneath the eye allows both the crankbait and the jig to run fairly smoothly.

I don't know why, but several of my striper-fishing friends and I noticed that on some days, most of the stripers would hit the jig. On other days, most would hit the crankbait. I never did identify any reason why the preference changed from day to day, but there definitely was a pattern. One day we'd catch eight stripers, every one on a crankbait treble hook. Another day we'd catch six stripers, five of them on the single jig hook.

Usually, when I tied a jig behind a crankbait, I'd use a lighter weight of line. If I had 17-pound-test on my reel, I'd use 12-pound-test to tie on the trailing jig. That way, if the jig got caught in a rock crevice or snagged on a big log mired in the depths, I could break the dropper line and not lose my crankbait. If you do that, though, remember to set your reel's drag for the lighter line instead of the heavier one.

Professional fisherman Roland Martin is known for his expertise at catching black bass, but he is an accomplished striper fisherman as well. He now lives in Florida but called the Tulsa area home for several years. And before that, he guided both black bass and striper fishermen on the Santee-Cooper Reservoirs in South Carolina -- the original freshwater homes of striped bass.

When Martin lived in Tulsa, I accompanied him on several trips to Lake Keystone to fish for stripers with jigging spoons. He had an uncanny knack for identifying stripes just by their blips on an old-fashioned "flasher" sonar unit. How he could discern a striper from a catfish or carp baffled me. I used flasher units for many years too, but I could rarely say with any certainty what species of fish was making that signal 30 feet below me and hovering 2 feet above the lake floor.

Martin might ignore 20 such signals, then stop and toss out a marker and drop a Hopkins or Blue Fox jigging spoon down to the spot where another signal had originated. Invariably, it would turn out to be a striper, not a catfish or some other finny creature.

Martin said he learned at Santee-Cooper that stripers are structure-oriented fish, and that even though they roam widely in open water, they do gather around places like submerged creek or river channel edges.

When I fish with live bait -- I rarely do -- I prefer a slip-cork rig, which at once allows my bait to sink down to the proper depth and enables me to reel the line up to make easier casts.

One thing I learned from Martin has served me well on many trips since: White bass seem to hit all colors, shapes and sizes of jigging spoons, but stripers seem to show a marked preference for chrome or shiny silver spoons, usually in longer, slender shapes like the classic Hopkins Spoon. The painted "rocker" style spoons that Oklahomans employ for catching schooling sand bass at many lakes in the summertime will take an occasional striper, but the chromed spoons seem to out-produce painted spoons consistently.

I've used both the 3/4-ounce Hopkins "Shorty" spoon and the standard 1 1/2-ounce Hopkins Spoon with much success on both Keystone and Texoma. At times, generic versions of the same basic spoons work well.

When rigging a jigging spoon, I either tie a loop-knot to the eye of the spoon or use a split ring to tie to. That gives the lure freedom to flutter and wobble instead of being restricted by a knot tied tightly to the lure body.

Stripers still have a fairly limited range in Oklahoma. Although they were stocked back in the early 1970s, few were put into waters outside of the Red River and Arkansas River drainages after the later part of the decade, because black bass fishing enthusiasts protested vehemently that stripers competed with largemouth bass and other native fish for food. For that and other reasons, the essentially sterile hybrids created in hatcheries by crossing white and striped bass were widely stocked instead.

Still, Lake Texoma and Lake Keystone both have been bountiful nurseries for stripers. Stripers from Lake Keystone have populated the whole Arkansas River system, below Kaw Dam and all the way to the Arkansas border, with lots of stripers. Kerr and Webbers Falls reservoirs offer excellent striper fishing. Keystone doesn't seem to produce large stripers, but it still has an abundant population. And Texoma, of course, is perhaps the best inland striper fishery in the nation. It rarely yields the big 40-pounders that lakes in some other states boast, but it produces thousands and thousands of stripers that draw anglers from throughout the country to fish for them on the big Oklahoma/Texas border impoundment, and in the river below the Denison Dam.

In years past, stripers have been caught in lakes like Grand and Tenkiller and Oologah where there were either some small stockings in past decades or where stripers stocked in reservoirs in Kansas made their way downriver into Oklahoma lakes. But these days, Lake Texoma and the Arkansas River and its lakes and navigation pools are the primary striper fisheries in the Sooner State.

Stripers also run up rivers that flow into the Arkansas -- at least until they can't go any farther. The Canadian River below Eufaula Dam is a productive striper venue, even though there are essentially no stripers in Eufaula. The Lower Illinois River, too, is a very good striper fishery, but the stripers can't move upstream past the Tenkiller Ferry Dam.

One thing I learned from Roland Martin has served me well on many trips since: White bass seem to hit all colors, shapes and sizes of jigging spoons, but stripers seem to show a marked preference for chrome or shiny silver spoons.

They also run up the Neosho River from the Arkansas, but can go only a short distance there before being blocked by the Fort Gibson Dam. There are excellent tailrace striper fisheries below the Eufaula and Fort Gibson Dams, and occasionally, especially during high-water-flow periods, stripers are caught below the Tenkiller Ferry Dam as well.

If you plan to fish for stripers in reservoirs, a good sonar unit is invaluable. It can help you find both structure and fish at depths far below the surface. Only experience, though, will allow you to interpret the signals and identify the fish shown with some degree of accuracy. Today's sonar units, with easy-to-interpret signals and detailed LCD screens, are much easier to use effectively than old-fashioned "flasher" sonar with its minimalist blips. (Still a mystery to me, as noted above: Roland Martin's seemingly unerring instinct for identifying stripers just from those comparatively indistinct signals.)

That said -- why not get out there and try your luck with Oklahoma's deep-water stripers this month? If you think it's still too cold, a tussle with one of these big fish will heat you up soon enough. And that's one thing I can assure you of!

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