When the water cools and the days get short, striper fishing at these two lakes gets hot.
By Marc McGlade
Cloudy days. Empty lakes. Cool mornings and cool water temperatures. What do these fall patterns mean?
To Virginia striper anglers, they mean the fishing is heating up on Virginia lakes and that stripers will be ravaging the baitfish that inhabit the open water. Like linebackers at an all-you-can-eat buffet, stripers are pouncing on everything in their way and leaving very little in their wake. Two topnotch lakes for December stripers are central Virginia's Lake Anna and Southside's Buggs Island.
ANNA'S STRIPERS Lake Anna is in Virginia's north-central region - spanning Spotsylvania, Louisa and Orange counties. It has a maximum depth of 80 feet, is 17 miles long and has over 200 miles of shoreline.
At just under 10,000 acres, Lake Anna is considered a mid-size lake. Actually, the lake is 13,000 acres, but approximately 3,000 acres are separated by three dikes and are accessible only through private property.
John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), recently compiled a comprehensive Lake Anna report. In this study, he indicates that striped bass were stocked annually at a variable rate (199,000 in 2002) in an effort to determine an optimum-stocking rate, as overstocking could result in reduced growth, survival or recruitment.
Odenkirk said young fish grew quickly through age 3 (when the fastest-growing fish can reach the legal 20-inch minimum size), but growth slowed thereafter. Striped bass averaged 10, 18 and 22 inches at ages 1, 3 and 5, respectively.
Guide Glenn Briggs holds up a chunky -- and typical -- lake Anna striper. December is a good month to fish for linesides at Anna. Photo by Marc N. McGlade
He added that this pattern of striped bass growth (rapid growth of juvenile and sub-adult fish followed by slow growth of adults) is common in reservoirs in the Southeast with marginal habitat. Habitat needs shift as striped bass age, and summer conditions at Anna typically find water temperature and dissolved oxygen combinations marginal for adult striped bass, especially in the lower portion of the lake. Findings in this study also suggest the overall mortality rate for striped bass is low.
Relative abundance of striped bass was estimated by catch rate, or catch per unit of effort (CPUE). This was simply the number of striped bass caught per net night of effort. Since new netting protocols were established in 1997, CPUE for striped bass in gill nets has ranged from 3.0 (1998) to 4.8 (2000). CPUE in 2002 (3.7) was equivalent to the six-year average. Most striped bass were caught in the upper portion of the lake. The North Anna River from Rose Valley upstream to Route 719 and the Pamunkey River from Jetts Island upstream to Terrys Run were very productive locations during November netting.
"Anna's forage base includes gizzard shad, threadfin shad and blueback herring," Odenkirk said. "Most of the forage biomass is composed of gizzard shad, although blueback herring have been a challenge to effectively assess, and threadfin shad abundance is cyclic - based largely on minimum water temperatures, as this species has the proclivity to 'winter kill.'"
Glenn Briggs, 54, lives on Lake Anna and guides clients to stripers throughout the year. His largest striper from this central Virginia gold mine weighed 23 pounds, 9 ounces.
From late November through the first part of January, Briggs keys on the birds and open water. He uses the birds' feeding habits, along with his depth finder, to locate feeding stripers.
"If the birds are active and diving in the open water, I know stripers are under the bait," Briggs said.
When casting for the stripers - which is a technique Briggs prefers - he uses a 4-inch pearl white shad body rigged on a 1/4-ounce leadhead jig for targeting fish in the 6- to 10-foot range. From 10 to 20 feet deep, Briggs will bump up to 3/8-ounce heads, and any deeper than 20 feet he uses 1/2-ounce heads.
"One key to using these swim baits is to not cast too far because line stretch will prevent you from getting a good hook-set," he said. "Bites can resemble white perch bites - a little tap - so I recommend setting the hook at the slightest indication of a bite."
Briggs prefers to use 12-pound-test monofilament as his all-around line on bait-casting reels. He pairs his reels to medium-action rods, measuring 6 1/2 feet.
Briggs relies heavily on his depth finder and looks for broken-up schools of bait, a telltale sign that stripers are feeding on the school, as opposed to a giant, balled-up pod.
To that end, he relies on a heavy, 3/4-ounce jigging spoon to get down to the feeders. "Usually the fish hit this lure on the fall, and I use a heavy spoon to get past the smaller fish on top.
"My depth finder is my best buddy this time of year for striper fishing. It's important to concentrate on what it's telling you. If you pay attention to your depth finder and surroundings, it's not hard at all to succeed at Anna," he said.
When stripers are feeding on threadfin shad on the surface - whether or not birds are present - he opts for the "walk the dog" technique with a surface lure to draw violent strikes from aggressive-feeding stripers.
"Wait until you feel the fish before setting the hook when topwater fishing. Otherwise, you can miss a lot of fish."
Briggs will also use a wake bait to form a "V" in the water. "Many times stripers seem to want to kill the bait first, then come back and eat it on their second pass. I like a white body with a red head the best," he said.
"Once the water temperature drops into the 50s, stripers are strictly following bait, so you have to be versatile and check shallow and open water. Look for signs of bird movement or any feeding activity on the surface from fish," he added.
If fish are actively feeding on the surface, take care not to spook them with the big motor. Approach cautiously with the big engine, but quickly back off and close in with the trolling motor. "They spook easily with the big motor," Briggs said.
The guide fully believes stripers are creatures of habit, so he faithfully returns to areas where he caught them in past years.
If you get into fish on a major feed, stripers average ar
ound 6 to 8 pounds, Briggs said. Once you catch a few, the school most likely will get spooked, so you have to find them again. Stripers are constantly moving, he believes.
"Four of us have easily caught over a 100 in a day on a major feed, but the next day you might only catch eight!" he said.
Smaller fish are common and the occasional bigger fish, which in this fishery fall into the category of fish over 10 pounds. If Briggs is catching small schoolies, he'll move and search for another school looking for bigger individuals.
"Look at the size of the arches on your depth finder. It'll help you immensely," he noted.
Briggs prefers cloudy, cold or rainy days. "The more miserable, the better the stripers bite. If that's the case, usually the stripers will be up on the surface early and late in the day."
When that happens, you can catch them one after another, even on topwater lures in winter.
Favorite areas for Briggs from late November through early January are Stubbs Bridge, Rose Valley, Jetts Island, "The Splits," Route 208 bridge and Sturgeon Creek.
Launch ramps close to these areas are High Point Marina, Anna Point Marina, Sturgeon Creek Marina and Dukes Creek Marina.
BUGGS' LINESIDERS Buggs Island Lake has much to offer. Its 800 shoreline miles and almost 50,000 acres certainly make it huge. Some of the creeks on Buggs Island cover more surface acreage than many other Virginia lakes' total size. It can be intimidating for anglers to try to sort out such big water, no doubt, but also very rewarding.
Buggs Island Lake lies mainly in Mecklenburg County in Southside. Part of the lake, approximately 25 percent, is located in North Carolina straddling Granville, Vance and Warren counties. North Carolinians typically refer to Buggs as Kerr Reservoir, named after that state's congressman who was the project's main booster, John H. Kerr. The land was acquired in the 1940s and was impounded and filled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1952. Buggs Island's purpose, besides providing anglers with exceptional bass fishing, is flood control downstream and hydroelectric power, which is sold to local power companies.
Vic DiCenzo, fisheries biologist with VDGIF, said, "The overall opinion of Buggs' striper population is rated only fair to good because of recent poor spawns. Buggs is one of a few lakes in the U.S. where striped bass successfully spawn."
To aid in that effort, VDGIF is now stocking 350,000 stripers annually, and they monitor its effectiveness, which should help stabilize recruitment and increase abundance, DiCenzo said.
Buggs' linesiders average 20 inches in length by age 2 1/2; 5-year-olds average 28 inches, according to DiCenzo. Stripers have an assortment of gizzard and threadfin shad, alewives and blueback herring from which to choose for meals. The biologist said the top-end range for Buggs' stripers is approximately 38 to 40 inches, or in the 18- to 20-pound class, although on rare occasions anglers have caught larger ones.
Buggs, like most big lakes, has a diverse size range for stripers, and different parts of the lake are better at certain times of the year, particularly for big fish.
"The most productive areas of the lake are up lake in the spring because of the spawning run," DiCenzo said. "In the summer, the dam up to buoy 10 is good, and I recommend keying on the thermocline. During the fall and winter, try from Goats Island to Clarksville."
When asked what he thought of the outlook for stripers at Buggs, DiCenzo said, "From our perspective, the future is bright for the Buggs Island striper fishery. We are optimistic that stocking will help offset the recent poor spawns. As striped bass abundance improves, we fully expect to see angler effort, catch and harvest increase."
Richmond-area striper guide Roger Jones likes to pound away at linesiders while many anglers have given up for the year. Jones, 52, fishes for winter stripers by using live shad that he collects with a cast net.
"I'm looking for live gizzard and threadfin shad in the 4- to 6-inch range," Jones said. "This size works well for keeper-size stripers. It's important that the shad are alive; dead bait doesn't catch them nearly as well."
Jones prefers to hook his bait through both nostrils. He believes live shad hooked this way stay alive longer and that aids in his hook-up percentage.
"Stripers are going to hit that shad from the side or the front, and the hook through the nostrils helps a great deal with hook-ups."
To further aid in high-percentage hook-ups, Jones always uses medium-size circle hooks when live-bait fishing.
The striper guide almost exclusively targets main-lake points this time of year, from Panhandle Creek up to the Clarksville bridge.
"I vary the depths I fish, but I rely heavily on my depth finder to find stripers. The fish can be anywhere from 10 to 25 feet deep during late fall through early winter. I troll and alternate depth ranges and cover the points by casting out four to six rods - all at different depths to find the magic zone. I'll also use one rod to free-line shad," Jones said.
He likes to position his boat in roughly 30 to 35 feet and troll his live baits in that magic 10- to 25-foot range. Each point is different, but under normal water levels, he sticks his boat in 30 to 35 feet. With the drought of 2002 and the flooding rains of 2003, it's hard to say what's "normal" anymore, but Buggs at normal pool is 300 feet.
As for points, Jones doesn't necessarily prefer the red clay or rocky points. "Just find the stripers on your depth finder and you'll score regardless of the point composition.
"It's no problem for anglers to catch their limit of four 20-inch stripers in a day's outing, no matter the weather," Jones said. "This time of year the stripers are active and I really don't worry about what the weather is doing regarding sun, clouds or rain."
Jones also trolls a white or white and chartreuse combination bucktail. To this he attaches a white grub or shad body.
"I vary the depth of the bucktail the same way as live bait, focusing on 10 to 25 feet from late November through early January. Additionally," he added, "I'll troll a 3-ounce Silver Buddy."
No striper angler's arsenal would be complete without a set of stretch crankbaits. Jones favors those that dive in the 20-foot range to dig out the stripers he believes are hanging around this depth. A shad pattern is his preference, with a white bait and a red nose as his backup.
Jones places his rods in rod holders when trolling and clips a line counter to the rods t
o monitor the depth. He uses mostly bait-casting reels, spooled with 15-pound-test monofilament line on a medium-action, 7-foot rod.
Jones doesn't employ a run-and-gun approach to striper fishing like he might when chasing bass; instead, he'll stay put if he's marking fish on the locater.
"I truly believe the windblown side of the lake, or points, is the most productive because the bait will be there," he said. "Unless I'm trolling, I let the wind or current push me across a point I'm fishing."
Although Buggs isn't known for giant stripers, evidenced by DiCenzo's comments, Jones said it's typical to catch a limit, with occasional stripers pulling down the scales into the teens.
Launch ramps in Rudds Creek, Occoneechee State Park or Island Creek are within close range to the spots Jones fishes.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Creel limits are the same at both lakes: Anglers can keep four landlocked stripers per day, but each fish must measure at least 20 inches in length.
To book a trip with Glenn Briggs, call (540) 895-5307, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lakeanna-va.com. Contact the regional VDGIF office in Fredericksburg at (540) 899-4169 or visit their Web site at www.dgif.state.va.us for questions regarding the Lake Anna fishery.
For questions concerning the Buggs Island fishery, contact the VDGIF at (434) 392-9645, or go online at www.dgif.state.va.us. The Buggs Island Lake facilities information line can be reached at (434) 738-6143, and the Buggs Island Lake level recording at (434) 738-6371. Roger Jones' Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service can be reached by phone at (800) 597-1708 or (804) 276-1924; e-mail email@example.com; and Web site www.hooklineandsinkerguides.com.
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