Winter Days and Shallow-Water
A striper’s life revolves around baitfish. The stripers go where the baitfish go. Early in the year Smith Mountain Lake baitfish generally move shallow, where they find temperatures that suit them.
Cold water, fish deep. Right? Not always for striper. This time of year stripers are feeding on baitfish in water barely deep enough to cover their backs. At Smith Mountain Lake, alewife, threadfin and gizzard shad are the primary food source of stripers. Temperate species like stripers and herring spend most of the year deep, where the water stays cool enough to suit them.
In late winter and early spring, however, stripers find suitable temperatures along the bank, where warming water temps and cover draw baitfish. The bright sun of February and March affects the shallows quickly, and striper leave their state of winter lethargy, ready to feast before the spawning run starts.
Smith Mountain Lake offers an ideal mix of cool water and warm water habitat for stripers, and the fish grow hefty on abundant shad and herring. Fishing action shows seasonal peaks, but late winter and early spring constitute prime time for catching the biggest striped bass the system offers.
During this period, the biggest females are fattening up prior to the spawn, and they may feed all day, boosting your odds for success. So right now, anglers who can tough it out for stripermania often have the best fishing waters to themselves.
Though both baitfish and stripers spend much of their time shallow early in the season. Cloudy weather and cold fronts slow their feeding and push them deeper. Key spots, such as long points and vast flats running close to a major creek or river channel, provide shallow feeding areas for stripers, with close access to deeper water.
In addition to structures like flats or points, cover seems essential to draw baitfish shallow. While many stripers migrate upstream in spring, major creek arms may support striper populations, and some large fish stay in the lower lake, so long as baitfish remain. While many anglers are working big schools of stripers that follow shad to Smith Mountain’s upper end, others will stay down the lake, where stripers chase bait in major creeks close to the bank.
Some creeks tend to hold the largest stripers year after year. It’s one of those things you learn by fishing a lake for years. This time of year we focus on the upper ends of creeks during late winter into spring, except during April, when the shad go to the banks to spawn.
Stripers, especially trophy stripers, are spooky by nature, so putting a bait in front of one in shallow water takes a special approach and a dash of finesse. Adding to the challenge, the water in many of the best striper lakes is clear.
While summer striper patterns often involve marking fish and presenting livebaits vertically, fish generally are too shallow in early season to hold over them in a boat. They also tend to move more than those holding in the depths. As a result, baitfish become “fish finders.” Stripers hold near the biggest bait supply and may reveal themselves by busting bait on the surface.
Many striper fishermen, including myself, believe that the sound of sonar and trolling motors can spook stripers, especially big ones that previously have been hooked. If history and conditions indicate that an area should hold big stripers, we will pull some baits through it before turning on a graph.
In Smith Mountain’s clear water, stripers can be spooky, so we prefer a quiet hardware-free approach for presenting live bait. One of our favorite tactics in the spring is to anchor our boat on a clay point that extends toward the edge of a major channel and cast out big shad on weighted lines. From the stripers’ perspective, the motionless boat becomes part of the landscape.
Another tactic is Using Rock Creek planer boards, which pull the big baits to the side when trolled, we present livebaits shallow without getting too close and spooking stripers with the boat. we work downstream, parallel to the bank, and move the boat only slightly faster than the current.
At times, our baits are just a few feet behind a board, while at other times, 100 feet might separate the baitfish and the planer. Water color, weather conditions, and time of day cause stripers to move deeper and shallower during spring, so adjusts need to be made to accommodate them.
“Stripers become most aggressive just ahead of a front, usually as the storm rolls in. Once the front passes, though, the stripers move deeper and feed less aggressively. When this happens, stripers hold in deeper water, they aren’t aggressive, but often can’t resist a cut bait placed before them.
Stripers often slap a shad, just to kill it, before they engulf it. If the feel resistance, they may not return. With the bait hooked in the back, the striper usually finds a hook point when it slaps the bait.
Preferred size for gizzard shad changes as the season progresses. In January, when striper metabolism is low, he fishes 3- or 4 inch shad, switching to 5- or 6- inch baits as the water warms. Fishing mostly 10-12-inch shad by mid-May. If a big striper can get twice as much nutrition by striking only once, it will usually do so. That’s why I usually use baits that are larger than the forage the stripers are preying on.
When Smith Mountain Lake striper move shallow, we will switch to planer boards and redi-rig. We run three or four lines from the side of the boat on planer rigs to work the banks. We also run a couple behind the boat on Redi-rigs, for fish suspended near the surface over deeper water.
We run mostly Shimano reels on Shakespeare rods, 30lb power pro with 20-25lb leaders, our rods in holders with the reels in gear to allow the stripers to hook themselves. “I used to let them run against the clickers and then I’d guess at when to set the hook.
Getting and Keeping Bait
While live bait and shad are available locally around some striper lakes, it’s necessary at smith mountain to catch your own baitfish. Whether fished alive or as cutbait, herring and shad must be fresh to attract stripers. Almost all veteran striper fishermen agree that frozen bait is best left in the freezer.
Shad can best be caught with a cast net. They may be shallow and visible, dimpling the surface, or deep and require a graph for locating them. A bit of local advice is often helpful for finding the size shad the stripers are eating. Local experts may also reveal a couple good cast netting sites. Baitfish aren’t easy to keep alive. Use round, well-aerated tanks, and maintain good water quality. Also try bait-saving chemicals to keep baitfish alive longer and free of red-nose.