Everyone loves topwater fishing. The action is incredible, even when the fish miss the bait, because you get to see the violent blowups that happen when the water explodes around your bait. But going after freshwater stripers with topwater plugs can be some of the most heart-stopping action that you'll ever see in freshwater.
You will definitely want to have the right kind of gear and the right conditions to make it work.
The first thing you need for striper fishing is the proper gear. I prefer the Yozuri Pencil. This bait is designed to dart back and forth across the top in what is commonly referred to as "walking the dog". The action of this bait is really what separates it from other "dog walking" style baits because it will maintain that desired side to side action whether you are working it slowly, or trying to burn it as fast as you can. It has incredibly sharp hooks, great sound, and you can cast it a mile.
The next thing you need is a long, stiff, fast action rod. You can use a flipping stick if you're not able to have a rod designated solely for topwater fishing, but I recommend getting one for topwater plugs and frogs because you'll want that intended design when it comes to this particular style of striper fishing. For the reel you want high speed, at least 7.3.
My setup is a 13 Fishing Omen Black 7'11" Heavy Power Fast Action rod and a 13 Fishing Inception reel, left handed, 8.1:1. I spool that up with Cortland Line Masterbraid 50lb, and depending on the day and the water I may or may not use a monofilament leader (also made by Cortland Line) 15lb (it acts like 25lb), and my two baits are the Yozuri 3DB Pencil (my favorite colors are Prism Ayu and Sexy Shad) or the Surface Cruiser in Holographic Black.
This Cruiser is my favorite bait for targeting giant stripers because it's a giant bait that displaces a lot of water, it's loud, the hooks are big but not so big that it prevents hooking up, and it has a black bottom and it's the only topwater bait I've ever found that didn't have just a white bottom to it, which makes it stand out a little better when the fish are looking up at it.
When targeting stripers on the top the best time of year is right after the spawn and again in the fall, and you need to get out about an hour before sunrise because on a calm day with no clouds or wind, the topwater bite is going to end between 10am and 11am. That's because the fish don't want to look up into the sun.
Can you still catch them on the top after this primetime window? Absolutely. But it will require a slightly different approach to the way you target them. You can also target them later on in the early evening, during roughly the last three hours of daylight. Look for points or ledges that provide access to shallow flats.
You should also try to look for shaded areas where the sunrise or sunset casts a shadow. With stripers in particular you won't have to look too hard, if they're nearby you'll see them violently busting on the surface. During the early or late hours of the day you want to just cast in any general area, reel steadily, and work the bait with short pulls of the rod in either a downward angle to the right or left (whichever you prefer) or in a shorter action with the rod tip straight up in the air.
Now I know some guys swear by this upward motion, but I want to say that in my opinion you will lose fewer fish by working the bait with your rod tip down, because you are already in position to fish those big fish with the tip down rather than up. You might get fewer strikes, but you'll land more fish.
Another way to work this bait is with exaggerated jerks of the rod, followed by elongated pauses in between. This presentation mimics larger dying fish, in an attempt to target larger feeding fish. For this type of action you will definitely want to snap the rod down towards the water to keep the bait from flying up or too far to the side. By pulling it down you can move a lot of water, make a lot of noise, and give fish that aren't close by time to hear, seek, and destroy the bait!
As the day goes on if the sun is covered by clouds and there's some chop on the water, you can continue to use this bait in this manner all day long. If the sun is out and the water is like glass what you'll have to do is stalk your fish by waiting to see them surface and then cast to where they are.
Once they've pushed the bait to the surface they'll often chase for several seconds, giving you an opportunity to cast where they are. If you can get the bait within a few feet of the fish within 10 seconds of seeing them surface there's a very high probability that they'll try to hit it. But rarely will fish come up from the bottom if they have to look into the sun to do it.
This is exactly what happened when I went to Lake Lanier to film a segment on topwater fishing with The Weather Channel and my good friend Shane Durrance. Within about 5 minutes of us being on the water I hook a big striper near a point. The fish only stays on a couple seconds before it manages to shake the hook.
Roughly an hour later I hook a giant striper, and when it hits my bait it's one of the most violent explosions I've ever seen on the water. It's not just one splash, this fish freaks out and completely loses it's mind for about 20 seconds. Which is approximately how long it took to spit the hook.
A couple casts later I hook another, but rather than try to shake off my bait on the top, this fish runs deep, and I'll admit that I wasn't ready at all. The drag is set as tight as I could get it, but not intentionally. Honestly I'm lucky the fish didn't break the rod in any of the three times that it swam as fast as it could under the boat. This fish knew exactly what to do, and where to go to try to get off, I just had it hooked really well and was fortunate enough to be able to outlast the fish and get it in the boat.
At this point, this is the biggest freshwater striper I've ever caught. My arms even hurt a little, and for a moment I don't know if I can ever go back to catching anything smaller than this. If you haven't caught a freshwater striper of this size you are missing out on one of the most ferocious battles that exists for any freshwater fish. Period.
But shortly after this, the sun gets too high in the sky and the front that was called for is delayed, leaving us with no cloud cover and no wind. So we go on the hunt for actively feeding fish (like the area where we started), put the trolling motor on high, and start covering water. That's how I managed to catch this one. As you can see the clouds came back but it was still pretty sunny, but by focusing on areas we knew had fish it increased the likelihood that we would have an opportunity for one of these freshwater giants.
Both of the stripers that I lost were my fault. I was overtired, and not as sharp as I would've been had I gotten more than just two hours sleep the night before after a late flight into Atlanta. It is really important that you be on your game when you're going after fish of this size. Sometimes there is just a tiny window of opportunity for you to react and set the hook in order to land that fish, and in the first two that I lost I just wasn't focused enough.
That's a hard pill to swallow and an ever harder one to admit. As thankful as I am to have landed the fish that I did, it's really disappointing to have missed the other opportunities that I had.
If you want to see the striper fishing video, be sure to tune in to The Weather Channel and see the episode we filmed. Tentatively the episode is scheduled to run on July 10th, at noon eastern on a show called WeatherGX. Special thanks to Shane Durrance for taking us out.
Anyone looking to take a trip to Lanier should contact Shane at shanedurrance.com. Not only will he put you on giant fish, but he'll get you the most amazing pictures to capture that moment.