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How to Fish for Freshwater Striped Bass

Catching these hard-fighting, open-water fish can be a blast

How-To On the Water

Striped bass are native to areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While they're anadromous fish, meaning they live most of their lives in saltwater and enter freshwater bodies to spawn, they've been stocked in inland freshwater reservoirs across the country for decades.

Robust and adaptive, these now-landlocked versions of their coastal kin have thrived in their new homes – a fact that Texas angler and Mercury Pro Team member Barry Stokes finds highly appealing.

Based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Stokes often features “stripers” on his “Let’s Fish TV” program. Covering a variety of fisheries in 10 states from the Carolinas to Texas and Oklahoma, the show visits prime striper waters, where Stokes has mastered the art of locating and engaging these powerful fish.

“Some biologist figured out that they can live in freshwater, so they transplanted them,” Stokes said of the fish. “Here in Texas, they started inland striper stocking in the ’70s, while other parts of the country started earlier than that.

“Now, they’re widely distributed across most of the country, but in particular, the southern half of the country. You’ll find them in reservoirs from North Carolina and South Carolina, all the way to New Mexico.”

Where to Find Stripers

There are a couple foundational aspects of striper behavior you need to understand before you start fishing for them. First, they’re pelagic, which means they inhabit open water and live within the water column, rather than relating to bottom. Also, the depth where you find them is relative to where you’re fishing, but you’re not likely to find them around a lot of cover such as grass or weeds.

“They’re not like a (black) bass, crappie or walleye that like to stay up in shallow water and hover around cover,” Stokes said. “Stripers pretty much swim constantly in open water.”

Stokes makes open water his starting point. From there, he’ll narrow down his search based on several factors:

  • Water clarity – “If you have a choice, lean more toward the cleaner water,” Stokes said. “My experience has been that they tend to migrate away from muddy water.”
  • Water temperature – During periods of high heat, Stokes expects to find the fish in some of the coolest water he can find, which usually means moving to deep basins, creeks or main-lake areas in the summer. They’ll often move shallower to feed in spring and fall while still remaining in open-water areas. “I would say the 50s through the 70s is their optimal water temperature range, so if you have water temperature in that range, then they’re comfortable getting shallow,” Stokes said. “Literally, you can catch stripers in a foot of water. “If the baitfish are comfortable getting shallow, the stripers will follow them right up into that shallow water, as long as it’s not overly hot. The depth of water is not nearly as relevant to them as the temperature, the clarity and the most important factor – where the food is.”
  • Baitfish – Finding baitfish by visually scanning or using electronics is one of the most important factors for locating stripers. “They’re instinctively going to stay somewhere near where the bait is, so when they get ready to feed they can do one of two things: They can chase down schools of gizzard shad or threadfin shad, or they’ll use some type of backdrop and run the baitfish onto a flat, a point, a ridge, a dam or riprap,” Stokes said. “Stripers are notorious for herding baitfish up onto a spot and then going crazy. You’ll see them thrashing the surface and schooling on the baitfish.”
  • Wind – Stokes finds a light wind – just enough to put a little chop on the surface – ideal for striper fishing. “When it’s calm, they won’t ride as high in the water column. They tend to sink down and swim deeper,” Stokes said. “If you have some chop on the water, they won’t hesitate to get right below the surface. “The interesting thing about stripers is that you may find them in the middle of the day in 50 to 80 feet of water, but they won’t be anywhere near the bottom. They’ll typically be between 10 and 30 feet down.”

Modern Sonar Shortens the Search

Now, if ever a scenario defined “needle in a haystack,” it’s the task of finding highly mobile open-water fish. Thankfully, the rapid rise of forward-facing sonar has forever changed this game.

“This technology is great for finding schools of stripers,” said Stokes, who uses Lowrance® ActiveTarget™ sonar. “I can literally get out there in open water and start scanning 360 degrees around the boat, and I can look out 120 feet or so in all directions.

“I can see the bait schools and the stripers. You can tell it’s a striper because he’s constantly swimming.”

Once Stokes finds a school of stripers, he’ll stop his boat, point his forward-facing sonar transducer right at the fish, make a cast and then leverage the real-time images to watch his bait descend and monitor how the fish respond.

3 Ways to Catch Striped Bass

There are many ways to catch striped bass once you find them, ranging from live bait to artificial lures fished by trolling, drifting, casting or vertical jigging. Stokes shared three methods to get you started:

  1. Casting spoons or swimbaits – For warm-season stripers in open water, Stokes said a 4- to 6-inch spoon is hard to beat because it can be cast a long distance and it sinks quickly. If the fish are tough to catch, he switches to a 2 1/2-inch spoon. “The fish are swimming fast, so you have to get out ahead of them, let the spoon fall below them and then get it up in the water column,” Stokes said. “Vertical jigging is not as effective for stripers; they want it swimming almost horizontally. You can’t out-reel them. Most days, your best chances of getting bit come through burning it.” Another option is to cast and slowly wind in an internally weighted 1-ounce, 4- to 6-inch-long swimbait.
  2. Dead-sticking soft-plastic jerkbaits – Despite winter’s reputation for tough fishing, Stokes actually finds this season most consistent. The stripers group tightly in predictably deeper zones and swim at a slower pace, so it’s easier for him to get a lure in front of them. In this scenario, he targets stripers right below the boat by dead-sticking a 4- to 6-inch soft-plastic jerkbait on a lead-head jig. The jig should have a 90-degree line tie to keep the lure horizontal. If the fish are finicky, downsizing to a 2 1/2-inch straight-tail soft-plastic lure on a lighter jighead usually does the trick.
  3. Fishing topwater up shallow in the early hours – Time of day impacts water temperature through varying levels of sun exposure. As Stokes explained, the higher the surface temperature, the deeper you’ll find the stripers. Conversely, the cooler conditions of early morning may offer a bonus in the warmer seasons. “In Lake Texoma, for example, there are stripers caught literally in a foot of water,” Stokes said. “They’ll move up there overnight, and right at daylight they’ll feed and chase those baitfish up in really shallow water. But about 7:30 to 8 o’clock, as soon as the sun hits the water, the baitfish leave and the stripers will follow. “You have about a 45-minute to one-hour window to be able to catch them at daylight before that water starts heating up. If they’re up shallow, you can catch them on a big topwater walking bait like a Zara Spook, a Strike King® Sexy Dawg Hard Knock or a pencil popper.” A shallow topwater striper bite is a sight to behold, and on known striper fisheries, Stokes suggests starting your morning in search of this amazing action. From there, work progressively deeper into open water and keep watch for those bait schools.

Wherever and however you pursue landlocked stripers, be sure to use high-capacity reels. Get ready for a long run and a furious fight – one that rewards diligence with a beautiful catch offering excellent table fare.

 

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How to Fish for Freshwater Striped Bass
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