My fishing partner Jack has caught some humongous landlocked stripers. I was with him the evening a 48 pounder noisily engulfed his prop bait, but that fish was a mere minnow compared with the cow he hooked on a foggy morning last August.
We arrived at the river at daybreak, and I promptly caught some gizzard shad in a cast net. After stocking my bait tank, we made a couple of drifts across a big stump flat where I’d taken many nice stripers. Chunking Red Fins in hopes of drawing a surface strike, we watched with anticipation as the plugs sashayed across the surface.
Unfortunately, we only hauled water, so as the fog dissipated we broke out the heavy artillery—saltwater rods armed with Abu 7000s and 50-pound mono. We ran to the next flat upriver and started pulling shad behind planer boards.
Jack rigged up the biggest shad either of us had ever seen—a toad that spanned more than 14 inches. “This oughta catch one!” he said as he threaded the 9/0 through its lips.
We let out three planer boards and a float line; on our first drift, Jack’s big shad swam to the surface, a sure sign it was being harassed by a striper. Then a wave big enough to surf closed in on the bait and Jack braced himself for a strike.
There was no explosion, no telltale boil. The line simply pulled tight, the rod loaded and Jack was hard into a gigantic striper. It ran straight upriver, ripping line from the reel in short, angry bursts. As I frantically reeled in our other lines, Jack shouted, “It’s gonna spool me!” He tightened the star drag slightly, but it didn’t slow the behemoth.
With the lines finally in, I stowed the trolling motor, cranked the outboard and chased the fish. Jack soon regained most of the line he’d lost, and after five minutes had worked the striper directly under the boat, where it sulked in a 20-foot hole. But when he attempted to raise the giant fish, it shook its massive head and made a powerhouse run to the bottom.
Ever hear 50-pound mono break on a straight pull? The closest thing I can compare it with is a .38 going off. It’s a sound I hope I never hear again. “Damn!” was all Jack could say as the beast disappeared into the depths.
Stripers are seldom thought of as summertime fish, but in the right places, with the right baits and presentations, you can enjoy unbelievable hot-weather action like this for these monster predators.
Lock And Load
Landlocked stripers crave cool water (temperatures from 55 to 65 degrees are ideal) with plenty of dissolved oxygen, conditions they’re unlikely to find in slack-water reservoirs during the summer.
In a stagnant Sun Belt reservoir, where surface temperatures can skyrocket into the 90s by July, stripers typically have to move so deep to find cool water that they run low on dissolved oxygen and become seriously stressed.
Rivers offer far better summer habitat than slack-water impoundments. The water below some of the dams near my home port of Nashville may be a bone-chilling 52 degrees, even in August. Stripers move into headwaters of river-run reservoirs and find nearly ideal water temperatures and plenty of dissolved oxygen, along with a never-ending supply of food.
Depending on the river, stripers dine on gizzard shad, blueback and skipjack herring, eels and rainbow trout. Best of all, successful live release is highly likely in this cool, well-oxygenated environment, even in summer.
The Plane Truth
Planer boards are old hat to walleye and salmon fans, but they’re catching on with striper seekers as well. Boards can present baits on either side of the boat and are handy tools for coaxing spooky fish into striking. In open water, they spread presentations over a wide area, but in striper rivers, they’re used mainly to run live baits close to shoreline cover such as downed trees, logs and boulders.
During summer, river stripers often prowl shallow bars, shoals and flats early and late in the day, and retreat to holes, undercut banks and submerged trees once the sun is high. They’re highly catchable even at midday—if you use boards.
Strike detection is simple. When a fish blows a hole in the surface the size of your truck, you’ve got a bite.
Unlike other bait-fishing methods, planers let you cover water fairly fast—a great asset when you’re not sure where the stripers are hanging out (the fish may move several miles overnight). Boards are also a must in clear rivers because they let you keep your distance from spots you want to fish.
Though not as effective as pounding bottom in a deep hole, all things considered, boards are the deadliest presentation I’ve found in rivers and tailraces.
Suspending lively bait under a float or balloon is another deadly summer tactic. It works alone or with a planer board spread; I like to run a single, large cork float directly behind the boat, about a cast-and-a-half back. The float line often gets smacked early or late in the day, when stripers are roaming shallow structure and aren’t holding tight to cover.
Once the sun is high, I use the float line for a different presentation: I call it “kamikaze striper fishing.” I’ll spend the first hour of the day casting topwaters; big stripers, like muskies up north, have a habit of following a lure to the boat without striking. When this happens, I make a mental note of the stretch of bank, sunken tree or boulder where the fish was, then return later and cast a big shad dangling beneath a float to the striper’s lair.
This is absolutely the most exciting freshwater fishing imaginable, especially in clear rivers where you can see the fish react to the bait. With the boat as far from my target as possible, I lob the bait slightly upstream and let it drift downstream. Often the loud, wet “splat” of a big shad smacking the surface is enough to trigger one, two, even a dozen big stripers to move in for a look. Hookups can be instantaneous, violent and downright scary.
When conditions are tough, however, it pays to be patient. I’ve soaked a shad in a flooded tree for as long as 20 minutes during a cold front before the striper sulking there finally couldn’t stand it anymore and ate the bait.
Don’t be afraid to cast a float line into any likely striper spot, even if you haven’t raised a fish there. High-percentage areas include large pockets or indentations in the bank, current eddies, switchbacks and submerged logjams. A sunken tree in the middle of the river is an especially good place to try this technique.
Float lines can also tempt fish holding downstream of cover or structure in clear rivers. If you believe several stripers are prowling a shallow gravel bar downstream of timber, tie up to a tree limb, lob out your float-rigged shad and let it swim downstream. If the current isn’t too swift, engage the reel and let the bait swim back and forth over the bar until it gets plastered.
River stripers actively feed on dead, injured and healthy baitfish on or close to the bottom. They also devour pieces of dead fish, especially below dams, where the turbines chop up shad and herring. This scavenging behavior makes bottomfishing another deadly option for giant stripers.
During summer, most river rats I know bottomfish at night because it’s a good way for them to escape the heat of an angry Southern sun. Using a Carolina rig with a heavy sinker, they’ll anchor above a hole and cast a live shad or skipjack—or chunks of cutbait—on a stout hook. They use leaders 18 inches to 3 feet long, which give live baits freedom of movement to attract the attention of a striper, and allow cutbait to dangle enticingly in the current.
If you crave fast action, bottomfishing isn’t for you. I consider it a last resort to use during cold fronts when the fish have lockjaw. But some of the biggest landlocked stripers ever taken have been caught using this tactic.
If you know where a big cow hangs out and can’t get her to bite using other methods, try bottomfishing. You just might get your string stretched.