Stripers: Livebait Secrets Of The Cumberland River Boys

Awhile back, I sat down with my pals Ralph Dallas and Fred McClintock for a chat about giant stripers -- the haunts and habits of these bruisers, how they mess with our heads, that sort of thing. My article, based on that conversation, ran in In-Fisherman last year. Now, Editor In Chief Doug Stange, himself bitten by the trophy striper bug, asked me to explore this topic. Glad to delve into it further, I arranged for a follow-up.


After a day on the Cumberland River with Dallas and McClintock, and smelling of skipjack herring and funky bait tanks, we occupied a back booth in a nearby barbecue joint. By the end of our session, I'd gotten the nitty-gritty details about fishing livebait for the biggest, baddest stripers in Creation.

ABOUT BAIT

Wirth: Let's start with key baits for big stripers.

Dallas: Like most striper fishermen, I started out using gizzard shad, but I've gone almost strictly to big skipjack herring -- some of the baits I use are over 24 inches long. I firmly believe that for fish 40 pounds and over, they're just about the only livebait worth fishing. You can go through a river hole with gizzard shad and catch 20- and 30-pound stripers, but if you have a big skipjack out there, your chances of catching a monster fish go way, way up. When I first began using them seriously, I was amazed at the difference in the sizes of stripers we'd catch on skipjack versus shad. My clients have achieved many In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards from our region over the years on big skipjack, and I've caught two Tennessee state records on them, including the current record of 65 pounds 6 ounces.


McClintock: I use both gizzard shad and skipjack. Availability usually dictates which one -- sometimes you can't get skipjack and can only catch shad, or vice-versa. Gizzard shad are abundant in our river systems and they run in big schools. You can usually catch all you need in one good cast-net throw around shoals and inflowing creeks. Skippies run in schools, too, but they're very fast and can be much harder to locate. They're easiest to catch below dams, as they favor turbulent water.

Dallas: We catch skipjack on a spinning outfit rigged with two or three crappie-size tube jigs tied up the line. Cast the jigs into the fast water and retrieve with a rapid jerking action.


Wirth: Do you ever vary your bait size according to conditions?

McClintock: Big skipjack are unbeatable in spring and fall. At spawning time, you can't fish a bait that's too big -- a huge cow striper engulfs a 26-inch skipjack with no problem. But after the spawn and through summer, I've found that smaller skipjack and big gizzard shad work about equally well on the river stretches I fish. When the stripers seem rather inactive, I make sure to bring medium and small baits in my tank as well as big ones. I downsize baits if the big ones aren't getting bit.

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Dallas: I used to use different-sized baits, but not much anymore. In winter, schools of stripers feed on tiny shad, about the size of crappie minnows, and a lot of guys use these for bait. But you know what? Skipjack are in there feeding on those small shad, too. The biggest stripers key on those big baits, regardless of season. Giant stripers are always characterized as eating machines, but in reality they're highly selective about what they eat. The biggest stripers target the biggest forage, and may not feed for long periods until it's available.

Wirth: Anybody who's ever tried to keep skipjack in a conventional bait tank or shad tank knows they go belly-up in a heartbeat. How do you keep 'em alive and frisky?

Dallas: First, you need a large volume of water. The built-in baitwell of my 22-foot Triton bay boat has a 50-gallon capacity. Next, you need plenty of oxygen, way more than a standard aerator pump can produce. Under my boat's front deck, there's an oxygen tank with a regulator, which I use to inject oxygen directly into the baitwell. A powerful pump on the tank's bottom spins the water in a circular fashion, to disperse the oxygen evenly throughout the water column. Finally, the water needs to be cold, preferably around 50°F, which means you have to add ice to your bait tank in warm weather.

McClintock: In my 20-foot SeaArk boat, I carry a 50-gallon Super Bait Tank II from Livewell Systems (864-295-4206). A remote oxygen tank with a regulator routes oxygen into an air stone on the bottom of the tank. The tank's aerator pump has a diffuser on the bottom; this helps remove carbon dioxide from the water. When you pump in oxygen from a remote tank, there's a buildup of CO2 in the water, and if you don't have a diffuser, the bait goes into shock. My bait handling setup cost me $1200. That's a lot of money, but I need it to keep skipjack alive. I like the coldest water I can get for my tank, but I'm cautious about adding ice in hot weather -- it can shock your bait.

Wirth: How do you treat your baitwell water?

McClintock: I use rock salt, and an ammonia-removing chemical. I fill the tank in the morning and pump it out when I'm done fishing. On real hot days, I pump out half the water every few hours and add fresh river water.

Dallas: I add four pounds of non-iodized granulated salt per 50 gallons of water. I also use a commercial livewell formula like Shad Saver, which removes any chlorine from ice. I change the tank's water every two or three hours. To tempt a giant striper, your bait must be lively, not just alive. Even well-maintained skipjack won't stay lively more than half a day, especially in hot weather. Around noon, I usually pull my striper lines and go catch some fresh bait.

TACKLE AND RIGGING RIGHT

Wirth: Most novice river-striper anglers are under-gunned in the tackle department. Big stripers make amazingly powerful runs. Add swift current and submerged snags into the mix, and it's obvious you need some serious gear to deal with these fish. Describe the rods, reels and lines you're using to fish big livebaits.

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McClintock: I use St. Croix planer board rods and Shakespeare Ugly Stik Dipsy Diver rods, all 10-footers. They're rigged with Penn 320 and Shakespeare Tidewater 20 reels, and spooled with 50-pound Ande or Berkley Big Game mono. The extra-long rods spread my planer board presentations so I can cover more water, and whip big fish faster than shorter rods can.

Dallas: I use G. Loomis saltwater rods, which are exceptionally light and strong. I'm not a fan of extra-long rods; most of mine are 7-footers, but real stout. You need a reel with a lot of line capacity when you start fooling around with river stripers -- a big one runs off 200 yards of line in a heartbeat. Still, even with the big reels Fred and I use, we get spooled several times a year by fish we can't control. Most of my reels are Ambassadeur 7000s, spooled with 130-pound Bass Pro Shops MagiBraid. This braided line has no memory -- it's super-limp and won't get springy, even in cold water. I've had very few fish break me off since I started using MagiBraid, but it can happen, especially if they get you down in a submerged tree.

Wirth: How about hooks and riggings?

McClintock: With 5- to 7-inch gizzard shad, I use a small short-shank hook like a 5/0 tarpon hook with a beefy shank, or else a 6/0 circle hook. With larger shad, I use a circle hook or octopus-style hook up to 9/0. I hook shad up through the lower jaw and out one nostril. I don't like to hook 'em sideways through both nostrils like some guys do; you miss a lot of fish that way. I've had good luck rigging skipjack on a sturdy treble hook. Run one tine up through both lips and out a nostril. As soon as a striper hits a bait rigged with a treble, you must set the hook or you'll gut-hook the fish. I normally don't use stinger hooks on my skippies. You end up handling the bait too much while rigging it, which knocks off scales. On days when the stripers seem to be just messing with your bait instead of attacking it, though, a stinger isn't a bad idea.

Dallas: I use Eagle Claw's 84 hook exclusively, or classic offset bronze style with a plain shank. I've tried others, but huge stripers break or straighten almost every other type. For gizzard shad, sizes 4/0 and 5/0 work well, but I use up to 10/0 for big skipjack. Larger baits require a treble stinger hook. I feed the line through the main hook, then slide it through a small worm weight and tie my treble stinger to the tag end. Rig the main hook up through both lips of the skipjack and out a nostril, and insert the treble into the side near the tail. The worm weight keeps the two hooks separated without creating excess line slack, and prevents the bait from rolling into a C-shape when you pull it downstream. This setup eliminates the need to cut and tie a separate line from the main hook to the stinger, which is time-consuming and always increases the risk of breakoffs.

Wirth: All us river rats use planer boards. Which ones do you guys like?

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Dallas: In the past, I've modified commercial boards to handle big skipjack by adding a keel weight and a heavy-duty release that I fashioned from rubber washers and springs. But I've had good success with the new Big Bird saltwater boards by Yellow Bird. They have an excellent release, the only one I've found that consistently holds braided line and big, active livebaits without accidentally tripping. You can't control a big skipjack on a standard planer board; it turns the board over and pulls it every which way when it gets excited.

McClintock: I use the new heavy-duty Off Shore boards, which also have extra-strong releases. You need a real strong release for river stripers, otherwise the baits keep popping the release in fast water.

Wirth: How far do you run your bait behind the boards?

Dallas: Most river sections are shallow and snaggy, and a big, active bait swimming around far behind your board can run into submerged trees and hang you up. In cold rivers, you only need 6 to 8 feet of line between the board and the bait. I let the depth and amount of submerged cover dictate the distance; it wouldn't hurt to run a bait 30 feet back from the board if you didn't have to deal with snags.

McClintock: In clear water, I run shad 10 to 15 feet behind my boards. In murky water, move it as close as 5 feet. In those conditions, stripers are often initially attracted to the board itself. Once they approach, they see their prey. With skipjack, I don't run more than 15 feet of line behind the board. As Ralph said, they're bad about swimmin' down into sunken trees.

Wirth: How about fishing baits under a float or balloon?

Dallas: While running a set of planer boards, I often slow-troll a bait 6 to 8 feet under a balloon, as well. Just stick this rod in a holder and forget it, and you may well pick up a bonus fish. You often get several stripers working your baits at once; the balloon rig just gives you another option for a hook-up.

McClintock: If I see a big fish swim out from a tree to follow a topwater lure like a Red Fin, I often go back to that spot once we switch over to livebait and toss a big shad on a balloon near that cover. Talk about exciting -- a striper can't stand a bait entering its lair. It goes berserk trying to catch it. I use a swivel about 3 to 5 feet up from the hook, otherwise the shad runs in circles and twists your line. When drifting or slow-trolling a float rig, I run baits about 10 feet below the balloon.

MORE BAIT OPTIONS

Wirth: Any other ways you boys fish livebait?

McClintock: Both Ralph and I often fish shad or skipjack on the bottom with a drop sinker or Carolina rig. This method works well when stripers are in deep holes.

Wirth: How about deadbait?

Dallas: Cutbait works great whenever the river runs high. In those conditions, stripers hold in eddies, and chunks of skipjack or shad fished on the bottom often catch 'em. Either cut or whole, deadbaits also work great in winter and early spring. The water's cold; stripers are sluggish and won't chase an active bait. We often anchor above a hole and fish the baits right on the bottom. When using a whole deadbait, we'll score it with a knife so its fluids run out into the water and attract the fish.

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McClintock: I seldom use deadbait, but it works after a cold front or during winter. You can anchor up or even fish it from shore.

Wirth: Do you have better luck when there's a lot of bait in an area, or not much bait?

Dallas: I like to see lots of active bait when I'm fishing. Stripers go where the bait is. They don't feed all the time, but they want to stay near it in case they get hungry.

McClintock: Ralph, I gotta disagree with you on this one. I've found that more bait in the river means a slower bite. I've caught some of my biggest stripers on days when I've had to really struggle to catch a few baits. When there's a ton of bait, stripers tend to fool with your hooked bait more. They chase it around or bump it but won't eat it, like a cat playing with a mouse.

Wirth: Last summer, while trout fishing below the Cumberland Dam in Kentucky, I was reeling in a 12-inch brown when a 50-pound striper swam out of a submerged tree and ate it. Ever use trout for bait?

Dallas: I'd rather fish a stocker-sized trout than any other livebait besides a big skipjack. Big stripers eat 'em like candy.

McClintock: Yeah, trout work great for stripers. Just ask the fly fishermen in our area -- they're always complaining about stripers eating their trout!

Wirth: My son, who lives in Boston, uses live eels for stripers in the surf off Cape Cod. They've been known to eat lobsters in salt water, too. Ever use any off-the-wall baits in the Cumberland?

Dallas: Some guys around here bottom-fish with shad guts and chicken livers for stripers. They'll also hit crayfish. These methods generally produce smaller fish, though.

McClintock: There are eels in the Cumberland, so I guess our stripers must feed on 'em. But sorry, I ain't about to bait one on a hook! One livebait I can't seem to make work is bluegills. I often hear about guys fishing 'em on down lines in slackwater reservoirs, but I've never been able to catch anything on 'em in the river.

Wirth: Any final thoughts on baitfishing?

Dallas: The methods we've revealed are extremely effective, so you need to use them responsibly. Fish hogs are about the main threat to a big striper. With the fine replica mounts available, there's no need to kill a big one.

McClintock: One thing about river fishing -- you can release these fish and be confident they'll survive in this cool, oxygenated environment. Let 'em go and watch 'em grow.

Wirth: Good advice, boys. Now, which one of you is gonna pick up my dinner tab?

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