Spawning-Run Stripers

Posted by  Friday, February 28 2014 6:00 am
expert

One April I was giving my new aluminum boat a test run in a nearby tailrace. After running several miles upstream, I decided to try out the trolling motor. Just as I lowered the troller into the clear, cold water, I heard an explosion near the bank, the familiar percussive thud of a wolfpack of hungry stripers annihilating a school of shad.

SpawningRunStripers 1
Like walleye and white bass, stripers undertake an annual upstream spawning run, a trek set in motion by rising water temperatures.

If you've never seen big landlocked stripers feeding on the surface, trust me, it's an awesome sight, the most primal display of predatory power you're likely to encounter in fresh water.

The good news: although this outing was intended to be a boat shakedown, I had brought along one striper rod. The bad news: I had only one lure in the boat — a big soft plastic jerkbait.

I eased within casting distance of the surfacing fish and flung the jerkbait into the melee. Immediately a striper snatched it, nearly jerking the rod from my grasp. The powerful fish surged into deeper water; after a 5-minute battle, I boated the 40-pounder. This striper was much shorter and squatter than those of equivalent weight I normally catch later in the season, a female loaded with eggs and bloated with body fat. Its outlandish proportions convinced me it was nearly ready to spawn. I slid the big girl back into the river, and she slapped a gallon of water in my face as she swam away.

The jerk bait was torn at the head, so I trimmed a couple of inches from it, rehooked it and made another cast toward shore, where wakes from cruising fish were still visible. I retrieved it quickly, alternately skipping the eel-like artificial over the surface, then killing it so it sank lazily through the water column. When the bait was halfway back to the boat, I saw a sight I'll never forget.

Two stripers had followed the jerkbait off the bank, swimming below and slightly behind it. I guesstimated the smaller fish at 25 pounds; it was as long, but not nearly as rotund, as the one I'd just boated — probably a male. But it was the second striper that brought me to my knees.

I've caught, and seen, my share of giant stripers over the years. But this fish was so outlandishly huge, it looked like a mutant, a piscatorial version of those giant ants and grasshoppers from cheesy '50s horror flicks. Its eyes were as big as tennis balls, and it's girth — well, maybe it's because I'd spent the previous Saturday shopping with my wife for a new refrigerator, but when the monster came into full view, my initial reaction was, "Wow! It's as big around as a Frigidaire!" I've photographed stripers over 65 pounds, and there's no doubt in my mind that this beast weighed 75 to 80.

The lure was 15 feet away when the gargantuan striper rose for it. I braced myself for the strike that never came. Instead, it turned, sloshing a wave big enough to surf on against the side of the boat, then disappeared. Nearly hyperventilating from excitement, I managed another cast, and a 30-pounder instantly grabbed my jerk bait. I reared back with the rod, the fish shook its head violently, and the only lure I had with me ripped off the hook. The stripers kept busting shad for another hour, but all I could do was watch.

I lucked onto that school of prespawn fish, but if you play your cards right, you can pinpoint giant stripers before, during and after their annual spring spawning run. We've enlisted the advice of two legendary Tennessee striper guides, Ralph Dallas and Fred McClintock, to put you on the biggest striper of your fishing career this spring.

Goin' Through the Motions

According to Old Hickory Reservoir guide Ralph Dallas, landlocked stripers, unlike their saltwater cousins, do not usually spawn successfully due to lack of consistent current.

"Once laid, the eggs of the striped bass must tumble and suspend in current up to 72 hours before they'll hatch," Dallas explained. "This means stripers living in slackwater impoundments have no chance of completing the spawn because there's little current flow. Even in rivers and river-run reservoirs, the eggs typically drift in current for several hours until generation from the upstream dam stops, and then they drop to the bottom where they're covered by silt or eaten by predators. Biologists have recorded successful striper spawning in a few inland waters, but it's rare."

But this doesn't stop these bruisers from answering Nature's call to reproduce, Dallas said. "Even if there's no chance of their eggs hatching, stripers will usually go through the motions of spawning. This opens an incredible window of opportunity for the trophy striper hunter."

Dallas ought to know — he and his clients have boated hundreds of giant stripers from March through May, the prespawn/spawn period he regards as prime time for recordbook rockfish. He's caught not one, but two Tennessee state record stripers, a 62-pounder in '97 and a 65-6 in 2000, during this time frame. "Stripers can gain as much as 10 pounds in eggs alone, plus additional weight in body fat, prior to spawning. The same fish a week after dropping its eggs may easily way 15 pounds less, so it's easy to see why the period prior to spawning is prime time for giant fish."

Driven by Degrees

Like walleye and white bass, stripers undertake an annual upstream spawning run, a trek set in motion by rising water temperatures. Fred McClintock, who guides for stripers on the Cumberland River system in Tennessee and Kentucky, finds prespawn movements begin when the water reaches the high 40s to low 50s, typically early to mid March in his neck of the woods. "The duration of the spawning run changes from year to year," he emphasized. "We had a cold spring in 2001, and the run didn't get underway until April. After a mild winter, stripers could start moving toward the headwaters as early as late February."

The temperature at which stripers actually attempt to spawn also varies. "Biologists will tell you that the ideal water temperature for landlocked striper spawning is 65 degrees, and this can indeed be the case in many reservoirs. But some striper haunts, like the Lake Cumberland tailrace in Kentucky, never get that warm all year long. I've seen stripers spawning in water as cold as 55 degrees. There is no absolute spawning temperature; these fish will adapt to existing conditions."

Both McClintock and Dallas have witnessed stripers spawning many times, and agree it's a mind-boggling sight. "Last year I watched their spawning ritual for two days in the headwaters of Cordell Hull Lake, Tenn.," Fred indicated. "A big female, 30 to 60 pounds, would rise slowly toward the surface with an 18 to 25 pound male on either side of her. The males butted the female with their heads and crashed into her sides until she released her eggs, which they then sprayed with milt. This all took about 30 seconds, then the fish swim off into deeper water.  I'm not sure whether a big female releases all her eggs at once or over several spawning bouts; a huge fish can carry buckets of eggs."

Following the Fish

Since many reservoir systems span great distances between dams, it may seem like an impossible task to locate stripers during prespawn. But our experts offered some tips at locating fish during their spawning run.

"During the winter months, many stripers locate in deep water in the lower end of a reservoir, and may be nearly dormant," Dallas noted. "Then once the water temperature rises into the prespawn zone, they begin moving toward the headwaters, a process that can take several weeks."

As stripers undertake their upstream journey, they stop and 'stage' in key places, including the following:

  • Shallow points — "Long, slow-tapering points that drop into the old river channel are often the first places stripers stage when moving toward the headwaters. When the water is in the upper 40s to mid 50s, run your graph over the ends of long points 1 to 5 miles up from the dam and you'll probably find concentrations of staging fish."

  • Humps — "Common structures in flatland reservoirs; stripers stage on 10- to 15-foot humps surrounded by deep water."

  • Holes — "Excellent staging areas in shallow rivers and tailraces. Look for 10- to 15-foot holes with lots of snaggy wood cover — river stripers love wood as much as largemouth bass do."

  • Bars — "These structures offer ample forage opportunities and a quick access to deep water."

  • Bluff banks — "Stripers often hold around rock slides and boulders at the base of bluffs, probably because shad are drawn here by the thick coating of algae that forms on the rocks."

Unless you're on the water every day, it can be tough staying on prespawners, Dallas noted. "You never know how long they'll stage on a specific spot before taking off upriver. If you were on fish Saturday and can't find 'em Sunday, try checking some of the staging areas I've mentioned a half-mile to a mile upstream."

Back-to-back weather fronts typical of spring can further complicate locating fish, Dallas indicated. "The worst-case scenario is a big rain that makes the reservoir or river rise quickly and turn muddy. Stripers hate high water and mud; they'll park in a sunken tree off a point or in a deep hole and wait until conditions improve before moving or feeding. I've found these fish virtually impossible to catch."

Actual spawning activity takes place in a wide array of locations, McClintock said. "Some fish run all the way to the upstream dam to spawn, others spawn further downlake. The first shallow shoal the stripers encounter as they progress into the headwaters is a common spawning location, as is a 'run' or straight stretch of river with a depth of 6 to 10 feet. I've also seen 'em spawning in shallow feeder creeks. In reservoirs with little current, spawning activity is not nearly as pronounced as in river-run reservoirs. Here, stripers may try to spawn on long points in the upper end of the lake."

The bite is usually much slower during and immediately after the spawn than in prespawn, Fred indicated. "The females may not be interested in feeding at all. Males will often chase your shad, but not eat it."

Post-spawn stripers quickly disperse throughout the system; many head back downlake. McClintock often finds fish in the first deep hole below spawning runs and shoals.

Live Bait Methods

Live bait is always the most consistent way to catch stripers, and at no time is bait fishing more exciting than now. In spring, Dallas and McClintock use large gizzard shad and skipjack herring for most of their trophy-class stripers. Fresh-caught bait is absolutely essential. Shad are gathered on shallow bars and shoals with a cast net; skipjack are caught below dams on small tube jigs. Both guides carry 50-gallon shad tanks in their boats; these have rounded interior walls so bait doesn't "red-nose" by running into corners. Tank water is treated with Shad Saver (Sure-Life Labs, 830/372-2239) to keep bait in tiptop shape.

Our sources recommend these bait rigging/presentation methods:

  • Planer boards — Open-water walleye trollers use these devices to spread out their lures; they're a godsend when you're hunting roving packs of stripers during prespawn. Planer boards let you cover big structures such as bars, points and shoals quickly and efficiently.

  • Three-way rig — A "rifle" approach for targeting huge stripers in prespawn staging areas, especially river holes. Can be fished with either live or "cut" (pieces of dead) bait. Anchor and cast the baited rig into the hole. Excellent technique during cold fronts and mid-day, when stripers are typically less active.

  • Float rig — Easily the most exciting way to catch a striper. When searching for prespawners, run two to four planer boards off the sides of the boat and a baitfish on a float rig down the middle. Also a superb backup method when casting artificials: if a striper rolls on a topwater lure but doesn't strike, go back to the spot later and cast a float rig into its lair. Often you'll get an explosive hookup the second the bait smacks the water.

Use stout tackle with live bait. Dallas prefers 7- to  8-foot G. Loomis saltwater rods with a medium tip, coupled with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 reels spooled with 130 pound Bass Pro Shops Magibraid line. McClintock likes 8- to 10-foot St. Croix planer board rods and Shimano Charter Captain Special reels loaded with 50 pound Ande mono. Both anglers use Eagle Claw 084 bait hooks, size 7/0 for shad, up to 10/0 for skippies. This gear probably strikes most anglers as overly heavy, but remember, our experts fish where the big 'uns live, in snaggy rivers and tailraces. In slackwater reservoirs with a minimum of submerged cover (and smaller fish), use bass flipping gear and 14 to 20 pound line.

The Lure of Giant Fish

Spawn-time stripers will plaster artificials, too. Both Dallas and McClintock have caught fish approaching 60 pounds on Cordell Red Fins during this period; retrieve this big minnow plug s-l-o-w-l-y in the places we've talked about so it makes a wake on the surface. You can also hang a monster striper now on a big prop bait like a Luhr Jensen Woodchopper, and on a magnum soft jerkbait like Lunker City's 10-inch Fin-S Fish. Other good lure choices include oversized shallow-diving crankbaits like the saltwater Rat-L-Trap, musky plugs and those humongous California jointed lures like the A. C. Plug. Stripers show a strong preference for shad, white and rainbow trout color patterns.

Whatever artificial lure you choose, you'd best be on the water early (or stay late) to throw it. Stripers are most active in low-light periods, and your shot at a big one on an artificial lure, especially a topwater plug, diminishes quickly once the sun gets high. Use artificials at daylight and dark or on cloudy days, then switch to live bait once the sun is overhead.

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Don Wirth
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Don is an award-winning writer/photographer has covered the fishing scene since 1970 for Bassmaster, Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, In-Fisherman, North American Fisherman, FINSnTALES.com and Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Site Library.

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