I’d call trophy landlocked stripers the most misunderstood of all large gamefish—not only do most people know little about them, much of what they think they know is myth.
The problem stems from three main reasons: First, unlike other big-game like muskies and blue catfish, landlockeds haven’t been around for long. The true striped bass is a saltwater species that spawns in freshwater. Widespread stocking efforts in lakes and rivers began in the late 1960s and ’70s, so most anglers have been exposed to landlockeds for only about three decades.
Second, critical knowledge from extensive fisheries studies has generally not been passed along to the fishing public, furthering myths.
And third, stripers’ size inspires anglers to jump to conclusions about their behavior. For example, many mistakenly characterize the fish as eating machines. After all, any fish capable of such growth must constantly gorge itself, right?
Wrong. Despite the apparent logic in this leap, my experience has shown that the biggest stripers often go long periods without feeding and are extremely selective.
But that’s only part of the monster striper solution.
Go Where Giants Rule
There was a time when slack water was the best place to catch a 40- to 50-pound striper. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Norris and Tims Ford lakes in Tennessee, Lake Cumberland in Kentucky and Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico were prime venues for the big boys.
Today, however, the productivity of most of these reservoirs has declined to the point that a 30 pounder is a rarity. Most are subject to oxygen depletion during summer, and stripers need plenty of dissolved oxygen (5 to 8 parts per million) to survive.
In my hunt for the baddest fish, I’ve learned that you need to fish current to even have a chance at a true giant. Moving-water parts of reservoirs and tailraces have what it takes to produce gargantuan fish: cool water, even in midsummer; lots of oxygen throughout the water column; abundant forage, including striper favorites such as skipjack and blueback herring, gizzard shad and rainbow trout; and in some cases, light fishing pressure because many anglers don’t know how to fish in current.
Don’t Miss Your Window
When I’m on the hunt for a monster, I plan a trip that coincides with the spring spawning migration. I simply don’t miss it.
Landlocked stripers rarely spawn successfully because their eggs must tumble and suspend in current for nearly 48 hours before they hatch, which is seldom possible because of the size and flow characteristics of most tailraces. Nevertheless, stripers still make the attempt, presenting anglers their best crack of a giant.
As the water warms in spring, groups of fish make their way to the headwaters of the system, staging on main-lake structures such as points and offshore humps. When the water temperature reaches about 65, the fish spawn on shallow shoals, usually at night. I’ve seen them spawning in water so shallow that their backs broke the surface. After dropping their eggs, they disperse downriver.
During upstream migration females become grotesquely fat, carrying 8 to 10 pounds of eggs and layers of body fat. That’s why the prespawn period is a critical time for hanging record fish—a striper that weighs 50 pounds in winter might top 60 during the prespawn.
Because migrating fish are capable of swimming long distances in a remarkably short time, they’re extremely elusive. So the best way to catch them is to be on the water as much as possible during the prespawn. Do whatever it takes to be there.
The Best Odds
When you’re there, live bait’s hard to beat—it’s the most consistent way to catch the biggest stripers. I’ve had the best luck with 1- to 2-pound skipjack herring. Catching skipjacks is easy and fun; they live in the fast current below dams and will eagerly strike small tubes and curlytail jigs. The hard part is keeping them alive—in a regular livewell or shad tank they go belly-up in seconds.
Through extensive experimentation, I devised a system that keeps these critical baitfish alive for long periods, and I owe some of my biggest landlockeds to it.
The rig incorporates a rounded tank with onboard oxygen and specialized plumbing and hardware. It cost more than $1,000 to build, but it’s worth it to me whenever I hook a 50-pounder. If you can’t devote that much to a similar setup, a cheaper solution is to use large gizzard shad, which also work well and are easier to maintain than skipjacks.
Planer boards are a must when bait fishing. They let you cover water efficiently and present baits close to striper-holding cover without spooking the fish. I run the bait eight to 10 feet behind the board and use a trolling motor to stay slightly ahead of the current.
Big stripers tend to swim much shallower in current, even during midsummer. Early and late in the day they prowl shoals and bars; at midday they drop into holes and hunker close to submerged trees. Using boards will help you score strikes even when the sun is high and fish are negative.
Tangling with world-class landlockeds takes the right tactics and a special frame of mind—these brutes share a niche with only a few freshwater species that top the 60-pound mark. If you don’t come with it, they’ll whoop you. But adopt a do-whatever-it-takes attitude and put in time on the best waters, and you’ll be in for the fight of your life.