Striper School Fishing Fundamentals Feb 1, 2019 15:28:24 GMT
Post by Virginia Striper©® on Feb 1, 2019 15:28:24 GMT
Striper School Fishing Fundamentals
by Russ Bassdozer @ www.finsntales.com
With a bright white roostertail flaring far behind our high-powered bass boat at the crack of dawn, my fishing partner and I raced to beat the sun to our preselected fishing spot. After twenty minutes and twenty miles of an invigorating rocket ride into the cool dimness of false dawn, we reached a hotspot nestled in the back of a basin where three deep creeks spilled into the lake. We dropped the boat’s nose down off plane, puttered close to a stretch of deep shoreline and shut off the engine. Word was that other anglers had been baling stripers in this location lately, so we had high hopes that the stripers would go wild feeding on the surface in the windless conditions this morning – and they did! The first moments of dawn can be the quietest part of the day, but within a few seconds of arriving there, hundreds perhaps thousands of blitzing stripers shattered the still surface of this tranquil scene in an early morning feeding frenzy. It’s often the case, as it was this time, that a boat arriving on the scene gets the shad schools moving. When the boat comes to a stop, so do the shad stop moving – and that triggers an all-out attack!
Caught a bit unprepared, we ripped rods out of the boat deck lockers and cast whatever we had rigged into the barrages of feeding stripers erupting all around us. We began to fill the boat’s livewells with four, five, six and seven pound striped bass as quickly as we could catch them. Yet the surface feeders moved quickly, as stripers always do. They were using the underwater terrain, ledges and slopes along the bottom to send cavalry charges of stripers stampeding back through the bountiful shad schools they were feeding on. The striper forces were charging down a ridge line toward a kind of anchoring pocket cut into the shoreline. Then the rampaging stripers would whirl around in the apex of the pocket, regain their group formation off a nearby point, and gallop back through the fields of shad from the opposite direction.
It was difficult to keep up within casting distance of the surfacing schools, as wave after wave of stripers came out of the deep water and charged down through the shad fields, wheeled around and charged back up field.
As many stripers as were on the surface, there were thousands more marauding shad below the boat. In contrast to the explosive surface churning, the presence of this deeper army of stripers and their onslaught against the shad twenty-five feet deep was entirely undetectable except on the silent fishfinder screens on the front and back of the boat. Yet the underwater charges were every bit as explosive as the surface action. Watching the screens, it changed from second to second, pulsing with life. Tight balls of shad, streaks of stripers racing in, the shad balls suddenly fragmenting into many splinters, opening up to let the stripers through, then closing rank behind them. Yet without the fishfinders, none of this would be detectable.
As chaotic and random as surface-feeding school behavior may appear to us, it isn’t. Gamefish that are blitzing do not act as individuals. Instead, they act instinctively in unison with a singular collective and collaborative mission. They function within small groups, waves or vanguards, but also maintain an awareness of the overall larger assembly. So when you witness wild surface action that seems disjointed and haphazard to us, if we could actually clearly see everything going on under the water, it is likely that the separate smaller groups of gamefish are decked out in flights and formations and stratified into layers, some surface, some deep with synchronized swimming and precise timing intervals between the groups. They’re going onto the field, following the cut of the terrain to get there, trying to encounter and keep the prey in or move them toward the most conducive spot for eating the prey. A blitz seems like confusion to us, but to the fish, both predator and prey, it is a very orderly experience with precisely orchestrated instinctive moves. To them, it’s just what they do. It’s the normal everyday routine.
No matter how many stripers you may see breaking on the surface, there are always many more marauding baitfish below the boat.
As chaotic as a blitz may seem to us, even at the height of the engagement, have you ever seen one fleeing baitfish collide with another? They usually don’t. Baitfish are not nearly as panic-stricken as we imagine them to be in a blitz. They’re simply repeating the same evasive maneuvers that their species has done for eons to consistently thwart predators.
Of course for the prey, they’d rather not be charged, but the blitz isn’t as one-sided as it may seem. Prey also cunningly use the terrain to disadvantage the predators. The prey positions themselves in hard-to-attack and easy-to-escape locations, and otherwise use their own collective movements to make it difficult for the gamefish to grab them. In the final result, the tremendous effort expended by the gamefish can be self-defeating, and the prey will win if the predators cannot gain more food energy than they expend during the blitz. At some point in every blitz, the gamefish will realize they are losing more than winning, and unceremoniously call it quits. In between charges, the gamefish muster off a point or prominent ledge or focal location and determine whether to continue launching raids or whether they’ve had enough. At some point, they’ll stop, and simply collect and rest. Ultimately, the entire army may retreat further from the field of battle toward a sanctuary where they’ll lay low, camp out, de-stress and recuperate fully from the blitz event.
A Bounty of Other Bass
In practically every striper blitz, there surely will be other predators such as largemouth or smallmouth bass present – if you know where to find them. Stripers may be blitzing out in a channel. Meanwhile, largemouth or smallmouth bass will be lined up on any shoreward shoals, points or the inshore channel ledge waiting for the melee to be pushed in toward them. Largemouth and smallmouth will usually not mix in with stripers during a blitz (although it may mistakenly seem as if that’s happening at times). Even in their native ocean waters of the northeast Atlantic where schools of saltwater gamefish, say stripers, bluefish and weakfish (northern sea trout) are all hitting the same bait school, the predators stay apart from each other. They could be very close apart, and you could catch stripers, bluefish and weakfish on consecutive casts – but they are not mixed, just charging across the battlefield in fast-moving formations of their own species. This is just so they can do their own thing efficiently. They all just happened to be after the same prey in the same area. Yet in fresh or saltwater, mixed catches of gamefish don’t mean mixed schools.
Freshwater bass will not take the open field with stripers. Instead, the bass more or less hold their own ground on relatively shallower shoreline or shoal features and wait for the stripers to get the shad coming in toward the bass. Almost always, stripers will be moving along and working with the underwater terrain, loosely following the underwater slopes and ridges and channels. When a point or shoal or hump protrudes along the way, the largemouth or smallmouth bass will be waiting there, and will most actively feed in the moments just before the striper “push” gets there, and in the moments right after the stripers pass through.
The timing and location of a striper blitz can often become repeatable and predictable from one day to the next. You can sometimes set your watch to the minute when the stripers will show up and begin to blitz. Largemouth and smallmouth bass will uncannily anticipate where the stripers will push bait, and will line up and be waiting on strategic spots on structure or in cover for that striper bait push to happen. Even before the stripers start to get active, the bass will jockey each other for prime positions. It’s like waiting for a parade to come down the street. The bass somehow anticipate the striper push will come their way, and it usually does! Largemouth and smallmouth bass will line up shoulder to shoulder waiting anxiously for the stripers to get there. They’ll station on every inshore ledge, depth break, channel edge, underwater ridge, point, saddle and hump that extends offshore, plus any other form of deep structure or cover, especially rocks and outer edges of deep grass beds or brush banks. Show up before the stripers do, and you can bounce from point to shoal to hump to ledge and have a field day pulling bass off every piece of structure protruding from the shoreline out toward the impending striper blitz. A fast-moving lure like a rattling lipless crankbait is one of the best choices to pull past these waiting bass before the stripers start getting active.
The Versatile Spoon
Of all lure types, it is only the spoon that can be reeled high when stripers are on the surface as well as quickly dropped to any depth that stripers show on the depthfinder.
In terms of lures for stripers, I prefer to use flashy metal jigging spoons during blitzes. For one thing, a spoon only sports one treble hook whereas many other striper lures are festooned with two or three trebles dangling off them. So it is easier to land and safer to unhook stripers with a spoon. Another reason to prefer a spoon is that they are solid metal, therefore heavy, and one provides you with great casting distance, which is important since fast-moving schools of stripers often require long casts to reach them. Besides, it is only the spoon that can be both reeled high when stripers are on the surface as well as quickly dropped to any depth that stripers show on the depthfinder. You can’t do surface and deep double-duty like that with any other lure. So as surface-feeding schools careen out of casting distance or plunge back underwater diving after deeper shad schools, a gleaming spoon is practically the only lure you can keep in front of blitzing fish whether on the surface or deep.
The Combined Effect of Trolling, Retrieving and Jigging
Can you ever have enough good fishing? We think not, and that’s why my fishing partner and I plus another friend vowed to go fishing together, back to the same location the very next morning. The second morning proved to be a windy one, and because of that, the striped bass did not feed on the surface, due to the wind. We puttered around with the fishfinders on and started marking thick black masses of fairly inactive stripers and unharassed balls of baitfish on the graph. Most of the bait balls and striper schools were in water from 40 to 60 feet deep, and their presence was most often associated with depth breaks (rapid changes in bottom depth). So if you need to locate deep stripers with a depthfinder, depth breaks are where to look for them.
We tried to use heavy jigging spoons, dropping them down to the striper schools seen on the graphs but it was difficult to keep the boat over the schools due to the wind. Although fish were coming aboard on an intermittent basis, we spent as much time puttering around trying to relocate the schools as fishing. At times like these, when surface-feeding stripers aren’t active and when you can’t easily stay over deep schools long enough to effectively spoon fish for them, it’s time to instead bring the schools to you by combining trolling, retrieving and then jigging them.
It is not any one of these techniques – but the combined effect of trolling, retrieving and jigging that started scoring striper after striper for us this windy morning.
What I mean by this devastatingly effective trolling, retrieving and jigging combo is the following explanation:
First, we trolled deep-diving plugs about 60 yards behind the boat. With three anglers in the boat this morning, we trolled the center line furthest back and therefore deepest of all. We mainly trolled the 40 to 60 foot depths where the balls of bait and predators were seen on the electronics.
Because the center line was set back furthest and therefore deepest, it proved to be the pole that was hooking almost all the fish as we trolled, using the outboard at idle speed (800 rpm’s). We’d start marking fish on the graph, and a few seconds later, the center line was the one most likely to hook up. But that didn’t mean the other two anglers with the outside flanking lines were shut out. It’s true that the outside lines did not hook as many stripers during the trolling phase, but once we hooked a single fish out of the school, we’d shut off the motor right away. This is where phase two – retrieving – our plugs so they followed and flanked the hooked striper resulted in multiple hook-ups. With 60 or more yards of line out behind the boat, as one angler fought the first fish, he’d pull the entire school up to the level where the other two anglers had our plugs as we retrieved them alongside the hooked fish – and we’d also hook up with other members of the school coming in alongside the hooked fish.
Now, two or three of us would be hooked up on plugs, and bringing the entire school to the boat along with our hooked fish. The school would come right up to the surface by the time they were boatside, and then you could simply cast back out and catch another one or two near the surface by simply casting and retrieving the plugs for a minute or two as we boated the hooked fish.
Next, we’d pick up other rods rigged with jigging spoons and drop them straight down into the school, now directly under the boat. This was almost like chumming with the jigging spoons constantly being swept up the length of the fishing rod, and then falling back down (which is when most bites occur). With three spoons, it simulates a fall-out of injured shad fluttering to the bottom thereby keeping the school under the boat for a few minutes more.
It is not a single technique – but a combined sequence of techniques that will score striper after striper.
So by trolling deep-running plugs over fairly inactive schools of stripers seen on your electronics, and by getting just one to bite, it’s possible to parlay that one fish into many – just about every time!
On this particular day, as the temperature warmed up by mid-morning, there was a momentary lull in the wind. That was when we got into the biggest, most active school, which stayed under the boat for fifteen minutes. We caught them on almost ever drop of our spoons as the boat drifted from 60 to 30 feet deep, with constant double and triple hook-ups. It was our finest moment! Marks on the graph were no longer dense blobs, but more like streaking, scattered markings, surely signaling that an all-out, furious striper blitz was going on below. The scent of battered shad wafted to the surface, and a sweet smell of shad oil spread over the water, filling the warming air all around us.
I am not sure if the school moved with us, or if we slowly moved over them, since as we got shallower (from 40 to 30 feet), the fish got smaller. Most of the fish this day were 3 to 5 pounders, but as we drifted over the shallowest tip of this school (about 30 feet deep), there were only 1-2 pounders. So I think that was just a solid 15 minute long school that we slowly slid over. There was no wind at this time, and we were fishing off the deep side of the boat, so as 2 or 3 of us were always hooked up, the fighting stripers were actually working like mule teams to pull our boat back toward the main melee, helping to pull and position the boat right over the heaviest action!
All good things must end however, and a fresh breeze resurfaced, one that was just strong enough to finally blow the boat off that massive school and into shallow water. Since we were almost up on the shoreline by this time, we turned around and started casting toward the shore, which was how we started nailing largemouth and smallmouth that were lined up on the shoreline filling up on all the shad that the stripers were pushing in toward the bass.
It’s hard to say whether it was us or the stripers who had finally had their fill that morning, but whoever gave up the game that day, we just didn’t relocate or catch many more stripers after that. I honestly think it was us, the anglers who were finished catching for the day. We felt fulfilled as we jetted back to the launch ramp with a cooler full of stripers to fillet, and a great day we won’t ever forget.
If you want to try these techniques for stripers, they are proven and it’s possible to repeat these results most anywhere that landlocked striper schools abound. Keep what this story has taught you in mind and you too can keep a tight line deep into the next striper blitz!