You'll find just that -- and maybe some hybrids, too -- when you fish these great Central Texas waters. Yes, even in August!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
"Wahoo! They're chasing the bait! I see 'em working to the top!"
Those are the words you want to hear when you're sitting in the boat with your guide and looking for striper action. The lake may be any of a half-dozen, and the guide could be any of maybe 20 to 30 who work professionally on the Highland Lakes chain.
But those words also alert everybody on the lake who has a CB. Those stripers are turning on and rising to the bait. Boy, oh, boy -- when the action starts with hungry stripers, it's fast and furious!
And it's no less furious when you're watching the surface boil with hungry hybrids intent on killing all the baitfish in the lake. The birds are wheeling overhead and diving into the middle of the massacre, fishing boats are kicking up roostertails behind them on their way to the action, and those hybrids are striking everything in the water.
Whew! If only it were like that all the time.
Well, it isn't -- not even when you're willing to pay for a guided fishing trip -- but it happens often enough that the Highland Lakes in Central Texas are full of eager fishermen just about every day of the year. And there's a reason that folks choose to fish the Highland Lakes. Remember that old saying, "Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime?" Nowadays it's more like, "Teach a man how to use the Internet to research stocking histories of the Central Texas lakes, and he'll know where to fish for a lifetime."
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department puts all the stocking history information you'll ever need on the agency's Web site. It was a real eyeopener for me, mainly because I assumed that stripers had been stocked in all the Highland Lakes. Not so. The TPWD folks figured out that Mother Nature could do their work for them, so they stock a lot of stripers in Lake Buchanan and let downstream flow do the rest. Opening the floodgates on Buchanan, which happens every time that rainfall's heavy upstream, does the job for them.
The TPWD began stocking in Buchanan back in 1977, and the department continues it on a very regular basis, so there are striped bass in all the Highland Lakes. The TPWD stocks a huge number of stripers in Canyon Lake, too, so if that's your lake of preference, you'll have no trouble finding them there.
Just knowing what lakes the fish are in isn't enough, of course. A grasp of some basic species data and techniques will make connecting with the linesided fighters easier. Let's start with a few facts about these fish.
It helps to know that stripers do well in very large reservoirs for several reasons -- one being that if they were able to breed in a lake, they'd need upwards of 50 miles of unbroken water flow in order to give the eggs time to develop. The fish do breed successfully in Lake Texoma, which has that kind of length, but nowhere else in Texas. Another bit of info: They like cool-to-cold water and so need it to be deep, at least in the summer. A third fact: Having originally been saltwater fish, and still instinctively hunting as if they were in the trackless ocean, stripers like open water. (Hybrids, on the other hand, are much more tolerant of warm water, and do quite well in power-plant lakes, which tend to be smaller bodies of water.)
The stripers' preference for cooler water makes them predictable in the hot Texas summer. As the water heats up, the fish move from the shallow upper ends of the lakes down into the deeper and, therefore, cooler basins near the dams, which are generally wider and more open, and are found in deeper portions of the lakes -- and that's why folks pay big bucks for electronic depthfinders.
Nowadays, state-of-the-art fishfinders all but give you the fish's first name; they'll certainly indicate individual fish and the depth at which they're suspending or traveling -- and water temperature, too. These devices allow the fisherman to cover a great deal of lake in a relatively short period of time.
On my last trip to Buchanan, I fished with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide named Jackie Headrick, who operates Empty Pockets Guide Service both at Buchanan and at tiny Inks Lake just below. In the summer, he likes to look for a water temperature in the mid to upper 60s for the most likely action. When the water warms up past that, he works on transition zones, such as an open area between, say, two submerged groves of trees. The fish tend to stage just above the cover of the trees and then move back and forth across the open area to look for passing baitfish.
Stripers fight harder in the summertime. They like cold water, but if it's too cold, they get sluggish and don't put up much of a fight. I fished Buchanan last February, when the water temperature was in the mid-50s, and caught five decent schoolies in the 3- to 5-pound range, not a one of which actually fought hard enough to strip line off my reel. In the summer, they'll stay deep and frisky in the cool mid-60s water, and when they see baitfish above them, they'll come up out of the cool water to strike. When they hit your bait, they take off like a locomotive!
Are you one of those guys who want to catch a really big fish? Well, Buchanan is where most of the stripers start out -- but it's not necessarily where they stay when they grow up. The biggest striper on record coming out of little Inks Lake, at 37 pounds, is almost 10 pounds larger than Buchanan's 27-pound-plus record fish, and farther downstream in Lake LBJ, the record fish, at 38 pounds plus, was over a pound heavier than the Inks Lake fish. Even as far downstream as Lake Marble Falls, the record is more than 4 pounds heavier than Buchanan's biggest striper. Lake Travis's record fish is 2 1/2 pounds bigger than Buchanan's.
Having originally been saltwater fish, and still instinctively hunting as if they were in the trackless ocean, stripers like open water.
One lesson, it seems clear to me, can be derived from such trivia: There are so many fishermen working Lake Buchanan that the bulk of the fish caught there are teenaged schoolies that haven't found an open floodgate yet. Put it another way: You might catch a great big fish downstream, but you're going to catch more fish if you stay at Buchanan. And who wants to catch a really big striper anyhow? OK, everybody does -- but what I mean is: Do you really want to keep a coarse, rough old booger like that when you're ready for a mess of striper filets? No. You want those sweet schoolies that weigh in the 3- to 8-pound range.
Trust me: When you're eating what you're catching, you want those teenagers.
Still, if you really must go after a truly big striper, then the record books would suggest that you ought to head even farther downstream to the tailraces below Mansfield Dam, where a 43-plus-pounder was caught in the headwaters of Lake Austin, or below Tom Miller Dam, where Town Lake yielded a 45-plus-pound fish.
I remember the newspaper article and picture of the Lake Austin fish. I think it was caught back in 1986, and, if memory serves, on a big live perch. Many of the giant ones do strike medium-to-large perch. Truth to tell, some very large stripers have also been caught below Longhorn Dam, which impounds Austin's Town Lake; fishermen there stand on the rocks and cast live perch or big silver spoons into the tailrace.
It's hard fishing, though, and many's the day that those guys go home with nothing. That may be the way to catch monster stripers, but it's not overly entertaining, if you ask me. My idea of fun is to catch a stringer full of fish and go home for a fish fry.
You want those sweet schoolies that weigh in the 3- to 8-pound range. Trust me: When you're eating what you're catching, you want those teenagers.
"But what about hybrids?" you may ask. "I don't care about those giant fish -- I just like really hot and fast action like our hybrids are famous for."
Well, most folks think of hybrids, a cross between white bass and striped bass, as being sort of on the small side. And they are -- compared to monster adult stripers or, perhaps, great white sharks. But they get plenty big enough to satisfy most anglers. Lakes LBJ and Austin and Town Lake in downtown Austin have all recorded hybrids of over 17 pounds -- which, I might add, is considerably larger than the personal-best lunker largemouth that most anglers are so pleased to brag about.
In one of those curious coincidences that are so interesting, the same man holds the water-body record for largest striper and largest hybrid from Austin's Town Lake. And what may be equally curious is the fact that Morris Boyd caught them within three months of one another, back in January and March of 1993. The striper weighed 45.5 pounds, the hybrid 17.78.
I'm indebted to a very interesting Web site,
www.stripers247.com, for this information. The webmasters amass lake and saltwater records for stripers from just about everywhere, plus a lot more. Give the site a look; it's full of fascinating stuff.
Here's the stocking story for hybrids in Central Texas lakes: The TPWD has stocked them just about everywhere. When I looked up stocking histories for area lakes on the TPWD Web site, I found that the two lakes receiving the most were Walter E. Long and Calaveras just below San Antonio. But Inks, Marble Falls, LBJ, Lake Austin, Town Lake, Georgetown, and Stillhouse Hollow all received good numbers of hybrids.
Still, for lakes close to Austin, the place to go is Walter E. Long. Long is to hybrids as Buchanan is to stripers. The fish are plentiful, so that folks go there and catch them while they're still growing up. The lake record for Walter Long is only 8.58 pounds, far below the records on any of the Highland Lakes chain of lakes -- except, oddly, Inks Lake, where the record is only 7.37 pounds. That's no scrawny fish, by my standards, but Long is still where you'll catch the most on any given day.
All right, that's all well and good (you say) -- but how do I catch these finny and ferociously-fighting soon-to-be-fried-filets? Well, here's the short version: In the summer, you turn on your fishfinder and look for channels, dropoffs, and for submerged trees or other structure, and when you see fish show up on the graph, you put a bait just over their heads.
Sound oversimplified? Well, maybe a little -- but this one move is basic to whatever you do to catch them, because they will always rise to the bait. If you have a good fishfinder, it's an interesting thing to watch. In fact consider this: Your boat is on a drift, the fish are suspended at a certain depth, your baits are all suspended approximately 3 to 5 feet above the fish, and you can see the fish themselves on the finder's display. Suddenly, one of the little arcs that represent fish will change direction and swim straight up. You know that fish is going to strike a bait, and everybody turns to see which rod bends.
Of course, you don't just hang one bait over them. You actually hang as many shad over the side as possible, because you're trying to fool the fish into believing he's looking up at a small school of bait. The usual rig is a 1-ounce egg sinker above an 18- to 24-inch leader, and a No. 4 wide-mouth hook. You can use bigger hooks, or even smaller ones, but a No. 4 will take the strain of just about every fish you're going to see.
When the fishing gets tough and they're sulking, and it seems as if they're avoiding your baits -- a common occurrence in the heat of summer -- you can give yourself a small advantage by using fluorocarbon leaders. They seem to be almost invisible, and that gives an apparent separation between the bait and the weight. It makes the shad seem to be swimming free. (Hey, every little bit helps!)
Sometimes a second technique comes into play: You look for the birds. Seagulls and similar birds living permanently on all these lakes are always on the lookout for the wounded shad that come to the top when the stripers or the hybrids attack the school from below. When the birds suddenly group up, begin circling and start diving into the water, you crank up the motor and go to them. Sometimes there will be such a massacre of shad that slicks composed of fish oil released when the shad are getting pounded will form on the water's surface.
Another technique, usually most effective on the early summer mornings and late evenings, is to check the shallow bays around the edges of the lake. Stripers or hybrids will drive the shad into the shallows so that you can actually see them swimming, almost like redfish, after the baitfish. For my money, this is when silver spoons or shad lookalikes are most effective. Those fish are biting anything that moves in that shallow water, and they don't always take time to check out the species of critter they're eating. It might be a shad; it might be your black-and-silver crankbait. With any luck, by the time the fish figure out the difference, it'll be too late (heh, heh).
Hybrids, just like their daddies the white bass, tend to turn on at night, and it can be great fun to catch them under lights. It's like catching white bass on steroids.
Hybrids are fun to fish under birds as well; they'll actually drive a school of shad or minnows clear to the surface, and you can sometimes see the water come alive with them. Then you want to be on the no-shadow side of the school, fling
ing just about anything that resembles a shad or minnow. When they're hitting, pardner, they're hitting! In the summer, hybrids act more like white bass, suspending in submerged trees as opposed to suspending above them, as stripers tend to do.
And here's another tip: Hybrids, just like their daddies the white bass, tend to turn on at night, and it can be great fun to catch them under lights. It's like catching white bass on steroids. The hybrids will be more willing, as a general rule, to take an artificial bait, which they will absolutely beat to death once they start hitting it.
In the summer, one rule of thumb for catching hybrids is to fish a weather change. If the barometer moves -- it doesn't matter which way, up or down -- the fish will start to bite. So if the weatherman tells you that a front is coming through in the morning, you ought to be in your boat on Walter E. Long when the sun comes up!