One of the most memorable moments in my 40+ years of fishing occurred at dawn’s first light on Lake Cumberland in Kentucky. As the late Tony Campisano roared around a point and into a large cove, I wondered at the surflike commotion at the back of the bay. The scene looked like crashing breakers at Malibu Beach, but the morning was flat calm and the spot sheltered by a classic Kentucky holler.
“Look at ‘em all,” Campisano beamed, and I suddenly knew hundreds of big stripers were busting shad on top, far more fish than I’d ever seen while fishing off the Atlantic Coast. We frantically rigged our rods with Cordell Redfins and heaved the baits into the fray. The shad-happy stripers struck with abandon, but in their aggression they often missed the bait or were marginally hooked and pulled off on the first powerful run.
Little matter, an accompanying striper would grab the lure as it fell from the mouth of its fellow. The frantic bite lasted almost an hour until the rising sun banished the big stripers to the lake’s depths. But during its height, the bite provided one of the most action-packed sequences in the history of In-Fisherman Television.
Action like that is a reason fishery biologists began stocking anadromous striped bass into inland impoundments more than 40 years ago. Over the years, researchers have learned a great deal about the habitat needs of stripers and the type of lakes that support them. Moreover, they’ve learned the types of lakes that can produce large numbers of moderate-size stripers (8 to 20 pounds) and which can grow true giants (35- to 60-pounders).
Important factors include forage base, for stripers are shad-eating machines and their location patterns typically follow those of gizzard and threadfin shad, alewives, or blueback herring. Stripers favor expansive impoundments that offer a variety of depths, feeder creeks and rivers.
Also, to grow big stripers, a thermal refuge is necessary, for the giants are coldwater fish, favoring water cooler than 65°F. So infertile highland and canyon impoundments with cold, oxygenated water below the thermocline offer fine habitat. Some reservoirs like Lanier in Georgia and Norris in Tennessee once were in that category, but increasing eutrophication lowered oxygen levels in the hypolimnion, simultaneously reducing the maximum size of stripers.
Stocking rate also affects average and ultimate size as well as total abundance of stripers, for growth seems density dependent, provided the forage base and coolwater habitat is limited. Fishery managers typically stock from five to ten 1-inch fingerlings per acre, though mortality takes a quick toll on the little fish.Abundance of predators and availability of zooplankton prey and hatchling shad shortly after stocking strongly affects survival and subsequent year-class strength. Lately, fishery biologists have begun stocking advanced fingerlings from 3 to 5 inches long that should show better survival rates.
In most systems, stripers must be regularly stocked (at least every other year) because the reservoir systems typically don’t provide the free-running rivers stripers need for natural reproduction. Exceptions exist, and biologists have found stripers spawning where it was thought impossible—on sterile submerged buttes in theColorado River and in a small Maryland impoundment without a major tributary.
But usually infertility is a benefit, for it allows biologists to control the number of striped bass in a system. Where they spawn ad libitum, as in lakes Mead and Powell, they frequently become overpopulated, resulting in poor condition and slow growth. But they provide fast action, and daily bag limits are liberal, up to 20 fish per day.
Regional Roundup—Tidal Stripers
Striped bass are native to the Atlantic Coast, from the Canadian Maritime provinces south to Georgia and north Florida. A precipitous decline in the mid-1980s led to closure of commercial fishing and catch-and-release-only regulations for recreational anglers. These regulations, combined with pollution abatement in major East Coast rivers, and perhaps some environmental factors, have fostered a huge resurgence of stripers.
Anglers living within 100 miles of the coast have been discovering incredible action for giant fish. Strict length-limit regulations continue, so catch-and release is the rule in most situations, with harvest of a trophy fish or limited numbers of small fish allowed. Check local regulations.
The Chesapeake Bay is an incredible resource, a short drive from millions of urban and suburban residents. During May, the Bay is full of rockfish, as they’re known. Fall brings the hottest bite with countless stripers along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. Anglers troll large spoons and bucktail jigs, or umbrella rigs, and also cast topwaters. Fishing live or rigged eels, bunker, bluebacks, and other baits also works.
Just north, the tidal Potomac River houses a growing population of stripers. Winter fishing in the warmwater discharge from the Morgantown Power Plant can be phenomenal, with lots of 15- to 20-pounders and potential for a 40+. Casting jigs and crankbaits to rock jetties and submerged oyster bars is a good pattern.
The Susquehanna River also attracts a run of stripers, moving up to the Conowingo Dam. Casting bucktails and Sassy Shads is effective during the Prespawn Period, while drifting live shad andherring or cutbait works as the fish move back downstream in May, holding along deeper ledges.
The Delaware River, which flows past Philadelphia, hosts a fine run of stripers—lots of fish from 25 to 35 pounds and occasional 45+ trophies. The lower Delaware (below Trenton, NJ) is navigable with delineated channels fishable from all craft. Fishing begins there in March as stripers follow migrating American shad and blueback herring.
The upper Delaware is a fast-water fishery best navigated with a jet boat. Wading is possible in some spots. Big stripers hold behind boulders where they engulf live herring caught on bare gold hooks. The section around Easton, Pennsylvania, holds big fish.
Farther north, the Hudson River stock is back big time, with an estimated 2million fish running upstream as far as Troy, New York, beginning in late April. The fishing ban and massive river cleanup have achieved the revival. The run starts when water temperatures push above 60°F.
Fishing in New York harbor up to the Tappan Zee Bridge is productive. Local anglers also favor the section from Kingston to Poughkeepsie. Fishing live eels is the traditional approach, but try trolling big plugs like Bombers and Mann’s Stretch 18+.
The striper run in the Connecticut River begins a bit later, offering excellent shallow-water action in the section below the old Enfield Dam near Enfield, Connecticut. Drifting cut mackerel is thepreferred technique, but large jerkbaits and even topwaters score in deeper pools and in eddies. Bank fishing is possible, and jet boats provide better maneuvering when water levels are low. Up the coast in Maine, reports suggest that big linesiders are pressing their way into the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers.
On the Pacific side, tidal waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers, west of Sacramento, also yield lots of stripers. Size is smaller than on the Atlantic Coast, with most fish from 5 to 8 pounds, but occasional catches in the 20-pound class.
Regional Roundup—Best of the West
Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead, Nevada, contain vast numbers of striped bass. The lower portion of Lake Mead offers fast action for stripers from 3 to 6 pounds. If numbers are your game, consider these spots, though Powell has produced a few stripers from 30 to 40 pounds in the last few years.
Lake Mohave, lying below Mead on the Colorado River, recently has risen to the top of the pack for production of giant stripers. In fact, two over 60 pounds, the biggest a 67.1-pounder, were recently taken from this desert lake that forms part of the border between Arizona and Nevada.
Fishing is banned in the mile below Hoover Dam, but from that mark downstream for 18 or so miles, giant stripers roam within the canyon walls. Water passes through the dam at 56°F and remains near 60°F through that stretch, making it prime for giant stripers in summer. Stocked trout fuel the growth of the big linesides.
During winter, the lower end of Mohave also produces many fish from 30 to nearly 50 pounds. A. C. plug inventor Alan Cole plies this water and has taken hundreds of big stripers on his giant plug. Stripers spawn successfully in Mohave, but growth rate apparently hasn’t become depressed due to too many fish, as it has in upstream impoundments on the Colorado.
California’s O’Neill Forebay, associated with the San Luis Reservoir, holds the all-tackle record for the International Game Fish Association, a 671⁄2-pounder caught by Hank Ferguson in May, 1992, as well as many line class records. Reports suggest that production of giants is down on this small body of water, due in part to fishing pressure stemming from publicity. But action is fast for smaller fish, and a giant is always possible. In such waters, striper numbers depend on fishing pressure and fish passing through the aqueduct.
Regional Roundup—Middle America
The range of strictly inland stripers extends from Oklahoma and central Texas north to Nebraska, where Lake McConaughy once produced fish into the mid-40s, and east to Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake. At McConaughy, a moratorium imposed on striper stocking has put the kibosh on the fishery, though fishery chief Don Gabelhouse feels the recent addition of alewives might merit a review of the striper stocking issue.
The Arkansas River in Oklahoma and Arkansas has a reproducing population of stripers, but the four major fisheries in Arkansas (Beaver, Ouachita, Hamilton, and Norfork) are supported by stocking. Hot Springs is a hotbed of striper fishing, with Lake Ouachita offering a hot spring topwater action.Summer patterns involve soaking live shad in the 60-foot depths of the reservoir where cool water and sufficient oxygen are found.
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