When the blood-red sweet gum leaves cartwheel to the ground around 50,000-acre Kerr Reservoir, Shorty Osborn goes fishing. The Farmville, Va., resident can’t really say whether he likes to tussle with a big largemouth more than he likes to fight a powerful striped bass, but this time of year, he doesn’t have to decide. He catches both. And he catches them with the same lures and from the same water.
While most anglers consider these fish to be mutually exclusive, that is, they inhabit different habitat and don’t typically mingle, it’s not only possible to catch stripers and largemouths together, it’s a fairly common phenomenon this time of year. In fact, when Osborn hits his favorite lake, he never knows what each cast will bring.
Where To Find ‘Em
“This is a great time of year to target both fish because they’ll often run together, or at least they’ll be in the same areas,” agrees Mitch Looper, a restaurant owner, musician and part-time guide from Fort Smith, Ark. “The key is to find shad. If you can find areas with large concentrations of shad, there’s a real good chance both largemouths and stripers will be there with them.”
Point-hopping is the general rule for stripers and largemouths, but always keep an eye out for surfacing shad. (Photo by David Hart)
Both Looper and Osborn spend the majority of their time targeting points, primarily those on or near the main lake. Looper suggests starting about a quarter of the way up the lake from the dam, and then working your way farther toward the upper end. If neither expert finds fish out on the main lake, they’ll ease into creeks and coves and search there. Sooner or later, they’ll find the fish.
“I’m just going to run points,” says Osborn. “They could be on any point, but I like long points that have a pretty good drop on either side, almost like a ridge that runs out from the bank. If the creek or river channel is close to the point, that’s even better.”
Although striped bass are always on the move and tend to travel from one end of the lake to the other as the seasons change, largemouths are more stationary. They will move with the bait, Looper says, but there are rarely entire sections of a lake that don’t have some bass. In other words, find stripers and the odds are, there will be some largemouths mixed in, as well.
Osborn also starts his search for largemouths and stripers with a hunt for shad. Both guides will cruise around in their boats with one eye on their depth finders and another scanning the lake for the telltale rings left by shad flipping on the surface.
“I’ll start on the main lake and then start working my way back into creeks if they aren’t out in the main lake. You just never really know where they’ll be this time of year,” Osborn says. “If it’s real cold but sunny, the shad will move all the way back into the upper end of a creek. A lot of people don’t know that. The shallower water in the backs of creeks will warm up a little and the shad seek out that warmth. There have been plenty of times when I couldn’t catch anything on the main lake or in the first half of the major creeks, but once I got farther back, I’d really tear them up.”
Osborn keeps his lure choices simple, so simple that he only fishes one: a 3/8-ounce white bucktail jig tipped with a white, six-inch Mann’s flat tail worm. He used to fish with other lures, but Osborn started tying his own bucktails a decade ago and never looked back. Based on his success, it’s no wonder he doesn’t bother with anything else. He’s caught countless bass over 7 pounds from Kerr and other lakes in the region on his hand-tied lures. And he puts a serious dent in the region’s striper population every winter.
Whether jig, crankbait or topwater, make sure it looks like a shad. (Photo by David Hart)
“I’ll keep a topwater tied on, a Zara Spook or a pencil popper or something like that, just in case I see them busting bait in the back of a cove. I don’t think it matters what kind of topwater you use when bass and stripers are chasing bait on the surface. They’re feeding, and when they’re feeding they hit pretty much anything,” he says.
Looper, however, gets a little more in-depth when he wants to target both species. Since both fish are feeding on shad this time of year, he tends to carry such lures as Fat Free Shad crankbaits in both medium and deep-diving models, Smithwick Suspending Rogues, CC Spoons, and white tubes rigged on a -ounce ball head jig. What he uses depends entirely on the depth at which he finds the fish.
“If I see fish busting on top, I’ll throw a Zara Spook or a Spittin’ Image. Both are excellent baits when bass and stripers are ganged up and chasing shad on the surface. Last fall I caught a 5-pound bass and a 5-pound hybrid on back-to-back casts. You just don’t know what you’ll catch when the fish are schooling together,” he says.
It’s tough to get too elaborate with a bucktail jig, which is exactly why Osborn sticks with that single lure. He will, however, use it at a variety of depths and he’ll try a few different retrieves until the fish tell him what they want. Most of the time, he simply casts up to the bank and brings the lure back with a lift-wind, lift-wind retrieve. The jig rises up and down as he works it back to the boat, but generally follows the contour of the bottom.
“I’ll tell you the truth, most of my strikes come as the lure falls in deeper water or within the first 10 feet of the retrieve when I cast toward the bank. I catch a lot of bass and stripers right up on the bank in two or three feet of water, even when the water is in the high 40s. If I don’t get bit right away, I’m not going to get bit on that cast. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is,” Osborn says.
He typically starts by working a point from the shore out, taking care to cover the sides as he works the structure. He’ll then cast across the point, bringing his bucktail up and over both sides until he unlocks the pattern for the day. If the bass and stripers are there, he’ll catch them. If he doesn’t get a strike, he moves on to the next one, and once he catches a few fish, he’s pretty confident the rest will be in similar depths and on similar structure.
In fall and early winter, one never knows what species of bass will show up at the end of the line, but chances are it will be sizeable. (Photo by Stephanie Tegtmeier)
Looper also runs points, making sure he works them from a variety of angles and with several different lures before he moves on to the next one. Not every point will have a fish on it, but when he hits one that does, he expects to catch several fish of either species. One cast is just as likely to produce a fat largemouth as it is a hefty striped bass or hybrid striper.
“I might start out with a shallow-running crankbait and then a deep-diving crankbait if I’m trying to locate fish on points. If I’m working over a shallow flat, I’ll throw a Suspending Rogue or even a Spook if the conditions are right. Spoons and tubes are great for bass and stripers working shad over deeper humps and channels,” Looper says.
What you use is perhaps less important than using it at the right spot and the right depth. If the bass and stripers are there and they are in the mood to eat, there’s a good chance they’ll hit your lure. The only mystery will be this: Is the next fish you catch going to be a bass or will it be a striper?
Sidebar: Topwater Stealth
There aren’t many things more exciting than casting topwaters to breaking bass and stripers. However, when you see that school of fish busting shad on the other side of the cove, get there in a hurry, but go slowly.
“Most guys fire up the big motor, run over to within casting range of the breaking fish and then cut off the motor. They not only spook the fish with the engine noise, but they throw their boat wake on the fish, as well,” Looper says. “That will put the fish down every time.”
Instead of stopping right on top of the breaking bass and stripers, Looper will ease up on the throttle far away from the surface commotion and cut the motor, and then quietly drop the electric motor over the bow.
“Once I get within casting range, I won’t even run the electric motor if I don’t have to. If you put the fish down, there’s a real good chance they won’t come back up,” he says.