I know better than to scramble over jagged riprap in pale, predawn light, but I just can't help myself. The sound of surface-feeding fish incites me to hurry down the bank and cast an offering into the water.
I bark my shin, mutter something about the offending boulder’s ancestry, then promptly bark my other shin onthe next step. Talk about painfully slow progress.
When I finally reach the water, the sight of white bass snapping shad off the surface makes me forget my cuts and bruises. They are out of range of conventional white bass lures, but my rod is rigged with an agitator.
A variety of agitator designs and some of the lures that work well in conjunction: hair jigs, jigs dressed with grubs, soft-plastic jerkbaits and agitator flies.
The heavy popping implement cuts a long arc in the air and lands amidst the feeding fish with a heavy “kabloosh.” I retrieve the rig steadily, popping it every 3 feet or so. A feisty white bass promptly nails the tiny jig trailing the agitator.
I am always pleasantly surprised by how hard white bass fight, and this instance is no exception. The fish is the first of dozens I catch over the next hour, getting strikes on almost every cast. Eventually, the white bass wind down their feeding spree. Such encounters provide the kind of action that keeps me coming back for more; they also make me thankful I discovered agitators.
Why, When And Where
I can’t say whether white bass, hybrid stripers and stripers love or hate agitators. I only know that they come running when they hear them. A splashy agitator mimics the sound of a feeding fish hammering shad and other baitfish at the surface. This may trigger a competitive instinct, or simply alert these game fish that food is nearby.
In most cases, a rapid retrieve with "pops" every three feet is too good for whites, stripers and hybrids to pass up.
While the agitator serves as an attractor, the lure trailing behind on a 2- to 4-foot leader generally receives the brunt of the attack. Jigs, spoons, spinners, flies and soft-plastic offerings all work well with agitators. The size and type of lure employed depends on the size of the baitfish in the area and whether you are targeting white bass or larger stripers and hybrid stripers.
A makeshift agitator can be constructed by removing the hooks from a large, chugger-style surface plug. Consider leaving the rear hook attached when fishing for hybrids and stripers, since the plug itself may be assaulted. Commercially made agitators are available in hard, solid foam, wood, as well as hollow plastic. Most are cone-shaped with a flat or cupped face. Bright colors, such as white and chartreuse, help anglers keep track of agitators, especially under low-light conditions.
Agitators typically weigh 1 ounce or more and allow for longer casts, especially with lightweight white bass lures. They help shore-bound anglers reach out and catch distant fish. When fishing from a boat, agitators let you stay farther back from the feeding activity and avoid spooking the school.
Anytime white bass, stripers or wipers feed on or near the surface, agitators should be given a high priority. In the Deep South, these feeding flurries may occur, to some degree, throughout the year. Farther north, this kind of activity gets underway well into the spring and continues into the fall. Autumn is particularly good anywhere these species call home, and lakes warmed by power plants typically produce great surface action all winter long.
Tail waters and discharges offer prime bank-fishing opportunities for the agitator, which helps launch your presentation to distant schools.
Regardless of the season, low-light hours early and late in the day consistently yield more strikes. Take whatever steps are necessary to insure you are casting during these prime times. Overcast conditions sometimes encourage feeding activity throughout the day.
Prime fishing locations include the tail waters of dams on impoundments and river systems, the mouths of tributaries, sand and gravel bars, and water discharges. When these game fish follow shad about the deep-water expanses of large impoundments, they may pop up anywhere. Finding them in the latter instance requires a boat, a pair of binoculars and, ideally, a flock of gulls.
When a feeding blitz drives shad to the surface, gulls often converge on the area to take advantage of the mayhem. Anytime you spot gulls swarming over the water, check with binoculars for white splashes on the surface, the tip-off that fish are feeding. If there are no gulls to point the way, simply scan the surface for the feeding fish. A large school may erupt over several acres.
Hustle to the fish but avoid running a boat too close or you’ll put down the school. Cut the motor and let forward momentum ease the boat quietly within range of your agitators. Then turn the steering wheel to swing the boat sideways and continue casting until the school sounds. Some anglers refer to this ploy as fishing the “jumps.” The word jump may refer to the fish coming up to the surface or the way you must jump from one school to another to keep up with the action.
Tools For The Agitator
A scrappy Ohio wiper falls for a small spoon trailing a chartreuse agitator.
Tackle for agitators should match the fish you’re targeting. My friend Bob Mrugacz, who introduced me to agitators, relies on a medium action 6-foot, 6-inch spinning outfit with 8-pound line when casting to white bass.
“White bass give you a nice scrap on light tackle,” says Mrugacz. “Light line also catches more fish. I drop back to 6- and sometimes 4-pound test for the leaders, and it really makes a difference.”
Mrugacz relies mainly on three lures for white bass: 1/32- and 1/64-ounce hair jigs, a tiny wobbling spoon, and a white bass fly that comes packaged with some brands of agitators. When white bass are especially thick, he rigs jigs in tandem and often lands two fish simultaneously.
“Never attach these tiny lures to your leader with a snap or snap swivel,” says Mrugacz. “That drastically cuts down your strikes.”
When retrieving small lures for white bass, keep the agitator coming to prevent slack in the leader. The crucial moment occurs immediately after popping the agitator, since this is when strikes often take place. Any slack at this time may allow a white bass to hit the lure and reject it before the hook takes hold.
Keep reeling after popping an agitator to maintain constant rod pressure and you’ll convert many more strikes into solid hook ups. With a tight line, the bass pretty much hook themselves.
For stripers and hybrids, the same technique applies, only with heavier tackle and larger lures. Spinning and bait-casting outfits designed for black bass perform well, but a light saltwater outfit provides a better tool.
When trailing an agitator, a soft-plastic jerkbait--or "stickbait"--is potent medicine for bigger wipers and stripers.
A 9- or 10-foot spinning rod matched with a reel spooled with 12- to 14-pound line launches agitators into orbit. And when working an agitator at long range, the lengthy rod provides excellent control and delivers a solid hook set.
The leader line should be at least as heavy as that on the rod. When fishing in an area renowned for big fish, you may want to consider a 17- or 20-pound leader. Curly-tailed grubs 3 to 5 inches in length consistently take stripers and hybrids when danced along behind agitators. Rig them on a stout hook or on 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs that have capable hooks.
Flutter spoons, large flies and hair jigs also take stripers and hybrids behind agitators, as will a wide variety of plastic baits. Larry Holsinger, a fishing guide on the Ohio River, has had excellent results running 4- and 6-inch Slug-Gos behind agitators.
“That Slug-Go is an excellent shad imitator,” he says. “When you pop an agitator over the surface, the lure darts back and forth with a real lively action. I’ve taken several 10-pound hybrids in a day with that combination.”
Little guesswork is involved when a heavy striper or hybrid pounces on a lure trailing an agitator. If you don’t see the strike, you’ll definitely be aware of it when the rod nearly lurches from your grasp.
At that point, you’ll be grateful for the long rod, a reel with a lot of backing and the agitator that got you into the fray.