The Cumberland River Boys. Sounds like a bluegrass band, but that's what I call my inner circle of compadres who prowl the Cumberland River system of Kentucky and Tennessee for giant landlocked stripers. Ralph Dallas, Fred McClintock and I, three members of this rag-tag band of river rats, have been messing around with planer boards for stripers for over 20 years. The results have been pretty amazing. Dallas, of Goodlettsville, Tennessee, has logged not one, but two Tennessee state record stripers, and holds the current mark with a 65-6 behemoth. McClintock, of Celina, Tennessee has boated scores of 50s and a handful of 60s with boards. And every time I drop a baited line and a board in the river, I get goose bumps thinking of that refrigerator-sized striper that spooled me last summer.
We're dealing with big, incredibly powerful fish here. Stripers in the Cumberland River system, especially the choice section stretching from the Lake Cumberland dam in Kentucky downstream to the Old Hickory dam north of Nashville, commonly run 20 to 35 pounds. Forties aren't unusual, 50s are rare but possible, and 60s, 70s, and bigger exist. Without question, this water holds world record fish. The hair stands up on the back of my neck every time I replay an interview tape of Dallas, who is a taxidermist and a good judge of fish weights, describing his encounter with a striper he estimated at close to 100 pounds.
Conditions are near-perfect in the Cumberland for monster stripers: cool, highly-oxygenated water (even in midsummer), plenty of current and an abundance of gizzard shad and skipjack herring. Hooking up with a big fish is pretty easy; landing it is a challenge, due to the amount of snaggy wood cover in the river. We always cringe when we see newcomers to the river using bass tackle, because super-heavy lines (40 to 50 pound mono, up to 130 pound braid) and light saltwater gear are needed to consistently bring these bruisers to the boat. Our livebaits are big, too: 8- to 10-inch gizzard shad, skipjacks weighing two pounds or better. So much for angling as a gentle persuasion -- this is industrial-strength fishing!
Adapting Planer Boards to Stripers
Planer boards are nothing new — saltwater fishermen and walleye anglers have been using 'em for years. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, planer boards are surface-running directional devices that attach to your line and "plane" sideways, moving your lure or livebait away from the boat. They allow you to cover a wider swath with your presentation while preventing boat-shy gamefish from spooking. Planer boards come in left- and right-handed versions, and have a release at the front that pinches and holds your line. Most anglers rig their boards so that when a fish strikes, the line pulls out of the clip and the board pops free, allowing them to fight the fish unencumbered.
Most popular brands of planer boards like Offshore and Yellow Bird have a second line-attachment device at the trailing end, either another line release or a cross-lock swivel. Pop-up flags come with some boards; these help you see the devices more easily in choppy water and foggy conditions.
You'll find several differences in the way we use boards for river stripers: We often modify our boards to be more compatible with heavy lines and big baits. We use livebait behind our boards much more frequently than lures. I've experimented with trailing big swim baits like the A.C. Plug behind my boards, and have caught fish, but there's simply nothing more enticing to a big striper than a shad or a hyperactive skippy. We vary the distance from the board to the bait a great deal and often run our baits much closer to our boards than you'd expect — sometimes only 4 or 5 feet. We often use our boards tight to cover, not merely to spread out our presentations in open water.
I queried Ralph Dallas and Fred McClintock for specifics on their planer boards:
Dallas: "I use Offshore boards; they're bigger and heavier than others I've tried, and can handle larger baits. However, they require some modification to work with the 1- to 2-pound skipjacks that I use exclusively for bait. Neither the standard nor the heavy-tension line release clips are strong enough to consistently hold under the pull of an active skipjack, so I fashion super-heavy release clips from aluminum stock, stout springs and plumber's washers. These grab and hold the line firmly, even when you've got a huge skippy back there carrying on. I also cut a strip of aluminum the length of the board, bend it to match the contour of the board's wedge, and screw it to the side. This acts as a keel to keep the board vertical in the water so it'll plane better when using a big bait.
I've experimented extensively with various line attachments on the trailing end of the board as well. Ideally, I want the board to pop free when a fish hits so I can fight it without extra weight and drag on the line. I run a brass screw-eye into the top center of the back-end of the board, attach a heavy brass split ring to this, and then run the ring through an extra-light snap swivel, which I'll attach to my line. A striper usually creams the bait when it strikes, then takes off running. The light-gauge snap straightens out when the line suddenly pulls tight, and the board pops free — about 75 percent of the time, that is. I'm still searching for the perfect line attachment system.
McClintock: Offshore boards equipped with heavy tension releases will handle large gizzard shad with no problem. I also use the smaller Wille boards with built-in rattles, which are effective in murky water. I replace the stock release clips on the back ends of my boards with a corkscrew buckle swivel from Evans Manufacturing.
Tackle & Equipment
You'll need heavy tackle for his system. Dallas uses 7-foot G. Loomis saltwater rods with roller guides, Ambassadeur 7000 reels, 130-pound Bass Pro Magibraid line and Eagle Claw style 84 hooks from 7/0 to 9/0. McClintock favors 10-foot St. Croix planer board rods, Penn 320 trolling reels, Ande 50-pound clear mono, 10/0 circle hooks and Mustad #9174 hooks from 6/0 up. Both guides will also use stout treble hooks such as the Mustad #3551 with large skipjacks.
Your boat must be equipped with an aerated shad tank. Dallas supplements his with an onboard bottled oxygen system, necessary for keeping skipjack herring alive. A cast net is needed to gather gizzard shad; skippies can be caught in the fast water below days on a spinning outfit baited with a tube jig or small spoon.
Neither Dallas nor McClintock use a landing net, which would break fins and knock scales off these heavy fish. Ralph uses a musky cradle; Fred hand-lands his stripers. Cold, highly-oxygenated water means live release is possible and is heartily recommended.
Early Spring Pattern (March - April)
March typically signals the beginning of the Cumberland River striper season. The water is cold (often 44 to 50 degrees) and many fish are positioned in the wide, deep, slackwater Old Hickory and Cordell Hull reservoir pools. They're often suspending 20 to 30 feet deep around big schools of shad in the larger tributary arms.
Dallas: "The classic reservoir presentation for stripers suspending in deep, open water is to fish vertically with weighted down-lines, but planer boards allow a more natural presentation with much bigger baits. Plus, when using boards, there's no weight on your line to restrict the movements of the bait. When a striper moves closer, you want your bait to be free to run; this excites the fish into hitting.
When fishing with clients, I locate baitfish schools or suspending stripers on my graph, then, using my trolling motor, work around the bait/stripers with up to five baited lines. Two are attached to left-hand boards, two to right-hand boards, a fifth is run without a board about 100 feet behind the boat. Each pair of boards is staggered: one 25 feet from the boat, the other 35 feet.
I normally run my baits 20 feet in back of my boards in spring — this allows it enough freedom of movement in the water column to draw the attention of a suspending fish. Proceeding slowly down the middle of a tributary arm, close to a channel bluff or off a point, I'll frequently turn the trolling motor to the right or left, causing the boards on the opposite side to speed or slow down so their attached baits move shallower or deeper.
McClintock: The name of the game now is covering as much water as possible. With customers aboard, I run seven lines off a trolling board which I've rigged on the back of my boat. The center rod is run 100 feet straight back with a bait positioned 10 feet below a balloon. Normally I'll put the biggest bait in my shad tank on this rod. Then moving out from the center, I run two lines with planer boards 60 feet from the boat; the bait is 10 feet behind each board. Continuing out from center, the next two lines have boards set 30 feet from the boat, again with baits 10 feet back. The two outer lines have boards set 10 feet from the boat; these are down lines with 15 foot leaders, weighted with an ounce of bead chain lead placed 5 feet above the hook. This setup lets me cover a swath of water over 120 feet wide on each pass, ideal when fishing big tributary arms for suspended stripers.
I'll move very slowly, around 1 1/2 mph, using the trolling motor to pull the boards between two opposing points, along steep channel bluffs, up onto mud flats, anywhere I see clouds of bait on my graph. Often you'll go three or four hours without any action, then suddenly you've got one, two, three or more stripers hooked up at once. This is a great time to catch a giant fish, because they're fattening up prior to their annual spawning run.
Once our air temperatures reach the stifling point, stripers seek the coldest, most highly-oxygenated water they can find, which inevitably leads them into the upper third of the reservoir. Here they orient to undercut banks, logjams, shoreline deadfalls, gravel bars, eddies, bluff holes, shallow shoals — all the structures you're already familiar with if you've fished rivers much. The extreme upper end of the system, from 1 to 10 miles below the dams, commonly has water temps in the 60s even when nearby slackwater lakes are in the high 80s.
Stripers are low-light feeders, and will actively roam now at dawn and dusk, all day if it's cloudy or rainy. Often you'll see hellacious explosions as a wolfpack of monster stripers decimates a school of shad on the surface. Big topwater plugs and soft jerkbaits are deadly now, but nothing is more consistent than good ol' live bait.
Dallas: River stripers are going to be shallow and oriented to the bank, and to wood cover in holes off shore. How I fish now depends on current generation. If the current is strong, I'll point my boat downstream, use my trolling motor to move slightly ahead of the current, and run all my planer boards off the same side of the boat, staggering them as follows: the board farthest from the boat (maybe 45 feet) is extremely tight to the bank; the next board is 35 feet away; the next 25 feet, and so on. Spacing the boards out this way helps decrease the likelihood of a hooked fish gathering up other lines as it makes a run for deep water. I hold the rod with the board running closest to the bank in my hands, directing the board around wood cover with the rod tip. The rest of the rods are hand-held or placed in holders.
In slow or slack current, it's not so important to fish tight to the bank or cover — sometimes stripers will be hanging out in the middle of the river, relating to nothing at all. I'll run up to two left- and two right-handed boards now, plus a bait rigged under a balloon 50 to 75 feet straight back.
Stripers can be very reluctant to bite in high, fast water. Try pointing your trolling motor into the current, holding the boat steady and running one or two boards downstream so they're practically bumping into an undercut bank. The current intensity is greatly reduced close to shore, and you can hold your board and bait there for extended periods until Mr. Big loads on.
How far I run by baits behind the boards depends on the weather. If there's a front coming in and the fish are active, I may run 'em as tight as 5 feet behind the boards; in a cold front scenario, I might go 20 feet. Fishing a board tight to cover with a long line trailing behind it inevitably spells trouble — it's easy for the bait to swim down into a logjam and get hung up. As a rule of thumb, when I'm on this pattern, I keep the distance from the board to the bait as close as possible.
McClintock: During summer and fall, I'll gauge the number of lines I fish by the water clarity and striper mood. If the fish are active and the river is stained, I'll fish three boards on the shoreline side of the boat — one right on the bank, the second 15 feet closer to the boat and the third 15 feet closer than the second — each with the bait trailing 7 to 10 feet behind the boards. In highly-stained water, I'll reduce the distance from the board to the bait down to 5 feet. If the water is clear, stripers aren't as locked into the bank or cover, but they can be extremely spooky, so I'll run three additional boards off the opposite side of the boat with my baits trailing 15 to 20 feet behind.
I use what I call a "controlled drift" in fast current, keeping my boards running just a shade faster than the current so they'll plane properly. This means if the current is 5 mph, I'm moving around 5 1/2 mph. At these speeds, you've got to keep alert and constantly monitor your boards in relation to bank contours and shoreline cover. The idea is to get your boards and baits as close to cover as possible without constantly hanging up. This takes practice — if you spot a submerged tree up ahead, you'll have to reel up your boards well ahead of time to get around it. But don't be overly timid when fishing boards around cover — I like to slide mine right over limbs, stumps and boulders. Often, just after your board bumps against a tree, you'll see a big wake roll off the cover, followed by a surface strike of landmine intensity as a huge striper plasters your bait. Freshwater fishing just doesn't get any more exciting than this!