If you want a fight, well, bring everything you've got when you pick one with striped bass. The freshwater striper is ready to go toe to toe with any angler who enjoys tussling with an aquatic freight train capable of draining a reel of line and making arm muscles ache.
A saltwater native, landlocked striped bass afford fisherman an extraordinary angling dimension. Stripers are big, strong, fast and ferocious. They're freshwater heavyweights—as exciting to catch as Mohammad Ali was to watch.
History and Range
Striped bass (Morone Saxatilis) are anadromous species and the largest members of the sea bass family. Native ocean stripers spend most of their lives in salt water but make annual spawning migrations in to brackish or freshwater inland rivers. They're often called "temperate" or "true" bass to distinguish them from species such as largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, which are actually members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae).
The Cooper River success story has led to the creation of trophy striper fisheries in many reservoirs throughout the country.
The native range of striped bass ranged in the Atlantic drainages from New Brunswick's St. Lawrence River to the St. Johns River in Florida; Gulf Slope drainages from Lake Pontchartrain, La., to the Suwannee River drainage in Florida. Apparently, striped bass also formerly occurred in coastal areas of eastern Texas—as they were once reported as a chief commercial species in that area.
The freshwater striper fishery, as we know it today, is an offshoot of the damming of South Carolina's Cooper River in 1941. Stripers had migrated from the Atlantic Ocean up the Cooper River to spawn. When the river was dammed to form lakes Moultrie and Marion, upriver stripers were blocked from returning to the sea. Rather than perish in the freshwater ecosystem, the species flourished.
South Carolina was also a pioneer in developing striped bass hatchery techniques. As a direct result of work at the Moncks Corner Striped Bass Hatchery, striped bass fisheries now exist in reservoirs across the country.
Striped bass can live in excess of 30 years under good habitat conditions and light fishing pressure. They have the potential to reach 60 pounds or more (in fresh water) and are a premiere game fish.
Before the spawn, as water temperatures begin to warm in spring, reservoir stripers mirror their ocean-run relatives by migrating up rivers in an attempt to spawn. They spawn—or attempt to spawn—when water temperatures reach 60 to 70 degrees. The female releases semi-buoyant eggs into flowing water. The water flow is necessary to keep the eggs in motion until hatching. If they settle to the bottom, they will not hatch. The eggs are fertilized by several males in a thrashing event known as a fight. Generally, at least 50 miles of stream is required for successful hatches. As a result, most reservoir striper populations aren't self-sustaining and must be maintained through stocking. There are a few exceptions. The Congaree and Wateree tributaries of Santee-Cooper in South Carolina, and Lake Texoma, along the Red River, in northeastern Texas are two.
Habitat and Forage
Big stripers can be difficult to locate when they roam vast expanses of open water, but the rewards are obvious.
Stripers predominantly travel open waters. Schools can easily cover several miles during a 24- to 48-hour period. They are, however, always keyed in on baitfish. Bottom structure, such as underwater points, humps or sloping bottoms near deep water are summer and winter havens, but stripers also will suspend over channels. If there is one constant to striper location, the fish will usually be situated beneath schools of baitfish.
Although stripers prefer deep-water regions, watch surface areas and pay attention to shallow points and flats. They often herd schools of baitfish against the surface, especially in the spring. The feeding frenzy causes a formidable surface disturbance. Stripers also move into shallow regions, early or late in the day, to ambush forage fish. These low-light periods offer terrific angling opportunities.
In river systems, stripers are drawn to dam tailwaters and heads of islands. They also lurk behind objects that break the current, such as bridge piers and stumps, waiting for prey that is carried on the current.
Tackle and Tactics
Most seasoned striper fishermen prefer bait-casting tackle because it handles heavy lures and baits with ease. In most cases, medium-heavy-action rods are the best choice for these powerful fish. A long-handled, 7-1/2 to 8-foot rod with 15- to 20-pound-test line is an excellent choice. The leverage afforded by the long handle is a must, as is tough, sturdy line that can handle the fight.
When fishing live bait in lake areas, a lighter outfit can handle the job. In current or tailwaters, a heavy-action rod with 25-pound-test line is often needed to fight both the striper and current. In clear-water fisheries, dropping down to 10-pound test may be necessary on line-shy fish, along with top-level angling skills.
Live bait, topwater lures, spoons and crankbaits are all excellent choices when targeting stripers. In all cases, match your bait choice to the forage.
When hefty stripers are the objective, don't take chances with light tackle. But typical bass gear is usually enough, as long as it's on the heavy side.
When using live bait, try smaller baits like threadfin shad that grow to about 6 inches. At all other times, don't be shy about serving up a big meal. Gizzard shad or herring in the 8- to 12-inch range generally produce more strikes than smaller offerings. With all live baits, you'll need a well-insulated, aerated livewell to keep the fragile baits alive and in good shape.
When stripers head for the shallows early or late in the day, or are feeding on the surface, a wide range of lures will entice them. Stickbaits, swimming minnows and poppers all work well when you master the most productive retrieves. Walk the dog with a stickbait, swim a minnow so it wobbles and creates a V-wake, and intermittently jerk a popper to create surface commotion.
In deep-water situations, working jigs and spoons through the regions where the stripers are holding or feeding is productive. Count down jigs to the depth where the fish are holding and simply swim the jig just above or through the striper school. Vertical jig a spoon among suspended stripers with a pump-and-flutter action. Snap the spoon upward and let it flutter back down. Spoons are also very effective when stripers are surface feeding. Cast beyond the school and pump-and-swim the spoon through the commotion.
A variety of crankbaits, both lipped and lipless, can also generate deep-water strikes. The keys to success are selecting a lure that travels at the depth where the fish are holding and selecting shad imitators in regard to size, shape and color.
No matter what, don't forego striper angling because you might be a rookie. If you do, you'll miss some of the most exciting freshwater angling available.
Title image by Ken Wachendorfer; body photos by Greg Toller