The transition from the cooler to warmer months finds varied water temperatures throughout lakes, and that often spells trouble for striped bass anglers. But if one works hard to find the fish and has the flexibility and know-how to use a variety of techniques, it could be the best chance to land a trophy-size fish.
The striper fishing at Lake Murray can be exceptional throughout the spring months and many of the biggest fish are caught during this time of year. But the results, unfortunately, can be feast or famine.
During early spring, anglers will find more fish at shallow points, flats and in the creeks. But stripers prefer water temperatures in the 65- to 70-degree range, so when the shallow water begins to warm, that pattern changes quickly.
Captain Buddy Bouknight, with Sunrise Fishing Guide Service at Lake Murray, said during this time of year, finding the fish can be a lot less predictable.
"After their annual urge to spawn in the spring, stripers start to migrate back down the lake and can be found virtually anywhere," he said.
Many fish still may be congregating near winter and early-spring hangouts in shallow water, while other fish have begun to migrate to the thermal refuges of the lake's deeper water. This scattered effect can confuse and frustrate many striper anglers.
With the warming water, baitfish also will begin moving out of creeks and into the main lake by late spring and early summer, which is a major clue to finding fish this time of year.
Stripers will pursue these baitfish, ambushing the forage along the deeper points and humps in the main lake.
"Stripers will follow their food source," Bouknight said. "And in the case of Lake Murray, that is blueback herring and threadfin shad."
A good electronic graph or depth-finder is an essential tool for locating schools of baitfish.
Another important facet to fishing success in the spring at Lake Murray is the ability to change fishing techniques to fit the conditions.
"The key to consistently catching stripers on Lake Murray is versatility in fishing techniques," Bouknight said. "An angler must let conditions dictate what fishing techniques should be used. Weather, water conditions, and bait availability will tell an angler the most effective method of presenting baits to these fish."
Free lining is an effective way to take big striped bass in the early spring when the surface temperature is still less than 70 degrees. Bouknight has a preferred line setup for this tactic.
"My setup begins with one spinning rod straight out of the back of the boat," Bouknight said. "I place a cork on the line about 75 feet behind the boat with a blueback herring 30 feet behind the cork. This line is set out the furthest from the boat."
Boat speed is critical for success as Bouknight likes to keep his boat speed near 7/10 mile per hour.
Next, he may add as many as three planer boards to each side of the boat. Planer boards are basically floating corks with a rudder and clip that pulls the trolled line to the side of the boat.
Wind conditions help determine how many planer boards can effectively be used, since too much wind can make them difficult to manage. Bouknight attaches live blueback herring 10 to 50 feet behind each planer board, sometimes using small weights behind the leaders to keep the baits down in deeper water.
The last step is adding two additional spinning rods off the back corners of the boat.
"These baits are set back about 75 feet and have small weights on them to ensure they don't interfere with the 'cork' rod when making turns," he said.
Bouknight improved his hook-up ratio after adding a stinger hook to his free lining rigs using live herring. He creates this rig by tying a No. 2 Eagle Claw 084 plain-shank hook to a 14-pound fluorocarbon leader with a loop knot.
"The straight-shank hook and loop knot are important in that it lets the hook swing along the side of the bait without damaging its scales or skin," he said.
Next he ties a 1/0 Eagle Claw 084 plain-shank hook forward of the first hook about 3 inches with a snelled knot.
During late spring and early summer, anglers must revise their techniques to meet the changing conditions.
"As summer approaches, stripers seek the cooler water temperatures of the deeper regions at Lake Murray," Bouknight said. "During this time, down-rodding and trolling become the dominate methods for catching your limit."
Down-rodding is a simple fishing technique of dropping a bait off the side of the boat with an egg sinker, swivel and leader. This technique gets a bait down deep to precisely where the fish are holding.
"I use line-counters, made by Shakespeare, to ensure I get my baits to the proper depth fast," Bouknight said.
Trolling with down-riggers, lead-core line and umbrella rigs is another effective method to use when the fish go to deeper water. It's important to remember depth control is critical during this phase of the year.
Trolling reels with line counters should be used to control the depth of lures when using umbrella rigs. Lead-core line is also an effective method for getting baits deep while trolling. The line is colored differently every 10 yards, so proper depth control can be maintained by counting the 10-yard sections. Down-riggers can also be used to place bucktails, crankbaits or live blueback herring at precise depths.
Blueback herring is the bait Bouknight and other Lake Murray guides prefer. The non-native bluebacks were probably brought to Lake Murray from other area lakes about 30 years ago and since have thrived.
Fortunately for anglers, there is good availability of live blueback herring bait at the lake. Most of the local bait shops sell live herring, as well as two "baitmen" who sell to anglers from their boats at the public landing near the dam.
Keeping baits lively and fresh is critical to success. A 30- to 50-gallon round or oval tank with a 12-volt pump to circulate and aerate the water is ideal. The bait water must be kept aerated and at the proper temperature for the herring to stay alive and fishable.
There is no natural reproduction of stripers in Lake Murray or its tributaries. It's strictly a put-and-take fishery. More than 1 million striped-bass fingerlings are stocked each year by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and they grow fast and fat.
After three years of gorging themselves on an abundant forage base, they will reach keeper size. After six to eight years, they will become 20-pound trophies.
The lake has a healthy population of average-sized 6- to 12-pound stripers, but anglers occasionally catch 20- to 30-pounders. The current record striped bass caught at Lake Murray is 53 pounds.
The striper limit for Lake Murray is five fish and each must be at least 21 inches in total length. From every indication, the 21-inch minimum-size limit seems to be working well as a management tool. Creel surveys and anecdotal reports from local fishing clubs indicate anglers are landing more 20-plus-pounds fish during recent years.
Lake Murray is a 50,000-acre impoundment with 500 miles of shoreline located northwest of Columbia. It was created in 1930 with the construction of the Lake Murray Dam on the Saluda River.
Striped bass first were introduced to the lake during the early 1960s after anglers and biologists discovered a landlocked population in the Santee-Cooper lake system were surviving in fresh water. The stripers, until then considered an anadromous salt water species, reproduced naturally in the Congaree and Wateree rivers - headwaters of the Santee-Cooper impoundments. However, the same could not be said about the headwaters of Lake Murray. The fish went through spawning motions, but their eggs couldn't hatch into fry. (Striper eggs require about 60 miles of tumbling in a free-flowing stream and must hatch in a nursery area with sufficient nutrients to sustain them).
During 1971, SCDNR began an aggressive stocking program at Lake Murray and created the put-and-take fishery that is so popular now. Today, striped bass are the most sought after game fishes in the lake.
In addition to the techniques described earlier, it's always a good idea to keep a rod rigged for schooling fish. Anglers never know when stripers will show up near the surface chasing shad.
However, stripers at Lake Murray don't school on top as much as they did before blueback herring were introduced.
Bouknight said the lack of surface action is a result of blueback herrings spending most of their lives in deeper water.
"Stripers feed on bluebacks in much deeper water," he said. "They just don't have the chance to corral them to the surface like they do threadfin shad."
It still happens often enough to make worthwhile having a rod rigged up and ready to go. Look for flocks of gulls hovering near the water or diving.
In addition to stripers, anglers occasionally catch a hybrid striped bass at Lake Murray. A cross between a white bass and a striped bass, hybrids travel in the same schools as stripers and have the same basic feeding habits. However, hybrids are generally smaller than stripers and have a broad, deep body - unlike their sleeker cousins. Most hybrids' lateral lines also are broken while stripers' lateral lines (along their sides) are straight and unbroken.
In spite of the rapidly changing conditions this time of year, Lake Murray still offers great striper fishing. Look for areas where baitfish congregate by checking your electronic graphs or depth-finders and be willing to adjust fishing strategies to conform to current conditions.
Striper fishing is good year round, but the spring is one of the best times to land the fish of an angler's dreams.