The horizon was barely lit by the sun, which was still an hour or so from showing it’s face, as guide Mike Gault put the big outboard on his fishing pontoon in reverse and backed away from the dock at Dreher Island State Park on South Carolina’s Lake Murray.
The quest was striped bass, a fish that has a huge following with guides and weekend anglers across the Carolinas. One of the reasons for the popularity of this engineered fish is its willingness to bite and fight hard under almost any conditions, including the heat of summer, when other fish have turned lethargic.
Gault said a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation and understanding of the habits of these fish comes into play. In fact, he has a list of tips that he relies on to help him catch fish this time of year.
Time On The Water
Striped bass are notorious wanderers. Gault, who runs Time2Fish Guide Service, said it’s not unheard of for a school he fished the day before to move 3 to 5 miles overnight. In order to stay abreast of the habits and whereabouts of these fish, you have to spend a lot of time on the water.
“I mostly guide during the summer, but I fish for them year-round,” said Gault (864-426-0709). “To build consistency, you have to put in time on the water. I learn something new almost every day, and that adds to my knowledge of what to do and where to fish under different conditions.”
The only possible substitute for time on the water is a timely, reliable fishing report. That was Gault’s goal when he set up the Lake Murray Fishing Reports Facebook page. He keeps the page posted in an attempt to help out other anglers.
“I started this page about 4 or 5 years ago,” he said. “We’ve got maybe 9,000 followers.”
The other version of time on the water is time of day. During summer, it’s not unusual for Gault to begin his charters an hour or more before sunrise and finish by 10 o’clock.
“I know it’s early, but bright sun and boat traffic really makes it hard to keep these fish grouped up,” he said. “It’s best to get you’re fishing done before the sun and the recreation crowd gets up.”
Know Your Electronics
Gault said it isn’t necessary to have top-of-the-line electronics, but knowing how to read and how to use the units you have is all-important.
“A guy who’s got a decent system and has it adjusted correctly, where he can mark fish and mark bait and know exactly where he’s at on the lake, (and he) will outfish a guy with better electronics who can’t read them,” he said.
Keep Your Bait Healthy
Gault makes a distinction between fishing with live bait and fishing with lively bait. Like many anglers who target striped bass, his bait of choice is fresh blueback herring, which he buys from local bait shops the morning before a trip.
“This time of year, the surface temps are hot, upper 80s,” he said. “I make it a point to get that bait from my bait tank to the hook and free-falling into deep water in under 10 seconds. It’s a matter of practice. I see too many people not accustomed to handling bait fumble getting it out of the tank, fumble getting it on the hook, maybe even drop it on the floor and then let it sit in hot surface water for several seconds while they get situated. Once the bait gets down to the fish, it might still be alive, but it won’t be lively. Lively is what catches fish.”
Use Lighter Tackle
August is probably not the time to be chasing trophy striped bass, but it is a good time to catch numbers of decent fish. Gault suggests downsizing your main line to 12-pound mono. Like most striper anglers across the Carolinas, he fishes vertically, using Carolina-rigged down rods to fish live herring. His main line is 12-pound test, but he also uses smaller leaders.
“I’ll run 10-pound fluorocarbon leaders, and I also match the hook size to the bait,” he said. “My choice is a No. 1 or 1/0 Owner Mutu Light circle hook. It’s not that I believe stripers are particularly line or hook-shy, but it’s that lively bait thing. The lighter line and hooks will let that bait act more natural, and I’ve seen that catch fish 5-to-1 to anglers using 20-pound test and 3/0 and 4/0 hooks.”
Gault has fished in every type of boat imaginable, but he finally settled on a fishing pontoon boat made by Angler Qwest and hasn’t looked back.
“This boat is a tri-toon, which makes it very stable, even when you’re got a lot of summer traffic,” he said. “It’s also well designed, with space for a large bait tank, top-of-the-line rod holder configuration and plenty of room to fish.
“The front is laid out for comfortable seating, but the back is hard-core fishing. I like to say it’s party in the front and business in the back.”
Feel the thump
Some years ago, beating or drumming on the floor of the boat while fishing for striped bass was a closely held secret of the die-hard angler set.
The practice was to use a broom stick, pool cue, landing net handle or other hard object to tap or drum on the floor of the boat while fishing. The practice was primarily used when down-rod fishing for stripers with the boat positioned directly above the fish.
“I’ve heard a lot of different reasons for doing it,” said Mike Gault, who guides on South Carolina’s Lake Murray. “Some said it was vibration in the water that excites the fish. Others said the sound mimics pumping water through the dam, which stimulates feeding, and still others say it reminds the fish of feeding time at the hatchery where they were raised. Whatever the reason, I’ve just seen it work too much not to believe it works.”
In recent years, inventive entrepreneurs have even devised “thumpers” to do the drumming for anglers. While a commercially made device is not currently on the market, plenty of garage businesses have put together a small electric motor on a cam shaft attached to a rubber mallet and striking base. All of this is contained in some type of box, and the result is a continuous thumping as the cam turns and drops the hammer on the base.
“It’s become popular here on Murray, sometimes too popular,” said Gault. “I’ll run mine when I have an area and a school of fish to myself. On the weekend, when you have a half-dozen boats all in the same area, and they’re all thumping, I think it can spook the fish.”
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