Bundle up, the striped bass are waiting
The time from mid-January through early March often gets labelled with such cliches as winter doldrums, cabin fever or simply too-cold-to-fish. That sentiment often doubles down if your preferred watercraft for fishing is a plastic one.
The Carolinas rarely, if ever, get iced over. And in the event icing of a waterway does occur, it’s usually just smaller bodies of water that only last for a few days. Water is available, if you can just find willing fish. That’s where striped bass come in.
Fisheries biologists discovered around the same time that World War II ended, that striped bass, originally from north Atlantic waters and known to enter freshwater to spawn, could actually live their entire lives without returning to the brine. This led to a bunch of scientists figuring out a way to raise them in a lab. And 80 years later, both Carolinas are blessed with some great put-grow-and-take striped bass — and even hybrid striped bass — fisheries.
Most anglers fish for stripers and hybrids the same way. In lakes where both exist, they may feed together or, more likely, one species will be lower than the other in the water column.
Striped bass fishing tactics from a kayak fall into four basic categories:
Casting. Casting lures that imitate baitfish is effective. Weighted Flukes, bucktail jigs, Alabama rigs and sinking crankbaits top the list. Vertical lures, such as jigging spoons, Rat-L-Traps and Little Georges are also effective.
Blind casting in deep water is not as effective as marking fish on a kayak-mounted sonar unit and casting or lowering the bait to the fish. When fishing vertically over deep water, many advanced kayak anglers fish within the cone of their sonar transducer and can actively target fish in near real time.
Trolling. You can troll artificial lures behind your kayak, given the proper setup with spaced rod holders. Try to maintain a slower pace with pedal or paddle. Even striped bass will not chase a bait in the winter as far as they would in warmer waters.
Electronics can be a big help
Again, a sonar unit is useful for deciding if you need to be running sinking lures, deep-diving crankbaits or offerings closer to the surface. The advent of smaller umbrella rigs and Alabama rigs has made great trolling tools for stripers. When trolling any hard, sinking lure, you’ll have to become skilled at first maintaining a trolling speed. You can accomplish this easier with a pedal or trolling motor than in a kayak propelled by paddle alone — as you play the lure out to keep it from sinking to the bottom and possibly hanging up on bottom structure. You can also troll live bait.
Live bait. Striped bass maintain a nearly 100% fish diet. So baitfish is on their menu. Striped bass are known to favor herring, threadfin shad, gizzard shad, rainbow trout, white perch and bream. Anglers can troll live baits behind their kayak on a free line with nothing but a hook.
Planer boards work well for striped bass
Some kayakers even use planer boards to angle their baits further out to the side of the kayak when trolling. Some even fish live baits veritcally on a weighted Carolina rig.
Areas that are well-known striped bass fisheries frequently have bait shops that sell a variety of striper-preferred live baits. Almost all live bait must be kept alive and fished alive in order to be effective.
Cut bait. Few kayak anglers take advantage of cut bait when fishing for striped bass. Perhaps this is because cut bait fishing is considered a spring tactic when striped bass are working shallow points and humps. If fishing with cut bait, use freshly dead bait that you’ve recently obtained and store the bait in a Ziploc bag on ice. Cut the bait on site as needed to keep as much blood and scent in the bait when it’s time to place it on the hook.
WHAT — Striped bass
WHERE — Lake Tillery
HOW — Look for winter stripers to hold 20 to 30 feet deep over 40 to 50 feet of water on the lower, main-lake area. Vertically fish a ½- to 3/4-ounce gold, white or silver jigging spoon at the level that you mark fish or lower live baits on down rods.
LAUNCH — A listing of ramps, bridges, and marinas can be found at http://tillery.lakesonline.com/Boating/
INSIDER TIP — North Carolina stocks nearly 30,000 stripers in Lake Tillery annually, a lot for a 5,000-acre lake. Tillery may not be the place to land a trophy, but your odds of finding a catchable striped bass is pretty good.
WHAT — Hybrid striped bass
WHERE — Clarks Hill (Thurmond) Lake
HOW — Locate schools of baitfish by watching the sky for feeding birds or look for surface activity. You can cast near the bait or freeline live bait behind the boat.
LAUNCH — Multiple public boat launch sites are on Clarks Hill, and there are countless dump-in sites for a kayak. Choose areas that grant close access to open water. https://www2.dnr.sc.gov/ManagedLands/BoatRamp/BoatRampSelected/335836
INSIDER TIP — Keep a top-water surface lure tied on a spare rod. Hybrids are known to school early and late or anytime baitfish become nervous and rise to the surface.
Whaddya mean, fish with live bait?
Die-hard striped bass anglers refer to blueback herring as “striper candy.” Truthfully, the two species share some common ancestry. Like striped bass, herring are anadromous, meaning they can live in both freshwater and saltwater. Herring also have a propensity for cooler water. The downside is, herring are hard to maintain for more than an hour or so without a circulating bait tank and some highly oxygenated water.
What those same die-hard anglers won’t tell you is that in the coldest months, like February, blueback herring are not the most effective live baits when striped bass are gorging themselves on 2- to 3-inch threadfin shad.
Rather than trying to collect threadfin, which are harder to keep than herring, try matching the hatch with a closer sized bait: crappie minnows. These baits come in two main varieties: fathead minnows and shiners. For striper fishing, shiners more closely resemble threadfin shad in size and are generally available at most local bait shops.
If your bait shop separates minnows into sizes, a shiner in the 3- to 4-inch range is a near-perfect fit for winter striper fishing.
As an added bonus for kayak anglers, shiners don’t require a lot of room or care, to keep alive and a small aerated bucket or cooler can keep three or four dozen alive for a week or two if the water is changed every couple of days.
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