Stalking Striped Bass with Topwaters
The striped bass may not rank at the top of statewide popularity polls with Texas freshwater anglers, but it certainly isn’t for a lack of effort. Pound for pound, ounce for ounce and inch for inch, Morone saxatilis is arguably among the hardest hitting and strongest fighting fish finning around out there.
Widely known for its brute strength and territorial disposition, the ferocious striper might best be described as an NFL linebacker and pit bulldog wrapped into a silvery stick of dynamite tipped with a short fuse.
That fuse becomes particularly short during late spring at Lake Texoma, where armies of the saltwater transplants —their metabolisms on turbo charge with warming water temperatures—gravitate toward the shallows to patrol shorelines and flats in search of a fast and easy meal.
Translation: It’s a terrible time to be a threadin or gizzard on the 74,686-acre Texas/Oklahoma border fishery. But it’s a grand time to be a striper fisherman, especially one with a topwater plug tethered snugly to the end of your fishing line.
Ask any Texoma salt and they will tell you. The late spring topwater fishing is typically world class.
“It happens every year, usually about the last week of April or the first of May,” said Bill Carey off Pottsboro. “The shad move into the shallows to spawn and the stripers move up there right along with them. It can be like a blood bath out there at times. Those stripers are there for one reason, and that’s to feed. When it’s on, it’s some of the most incredible fishing you have ever seen. They will literally crucify a topwater bait.”
Carey should know. He’s a former largemouth nut who turned striper freak in the late 1970s. That’s when he made is first trip to Texoma, one of the few freshwater reservoirs in the world with a self-sustaining striper population.
From that point forward, the only way Carey could fully feed his fishing addiction was by going after striped bass. He liked it so much that he eventually moved to the lake and started one lake’s premier striper fishing guide businesses in 1983.
Fittingly called Striper Express, Carey’s guide service caters exclusively to anglers who prefer to throw artificial baits. Now 64, Carey has since turned over the fishing end of business to his son, Chris, who is just as passionate about the sport as his dad, if not more.
Even so, the elder Carey remains closely connected to Texoma and striped titans that live there. I recently asked the striped bass guru to share some tips to help anglers better capitalize on the Texoma topwater bite. Here is what he had to offer:
Target High Percentage Areas: In May, when the fish are up shallow feeding on spawning shad, be sure to key on flats, islands, points or shorelines with deep-water access. Carey says the best areas are those that provide the fish with a route to travel from deep water to shallow.
Be an Early Bird: Be on the water casting at first light. The best bite typically lasts about an hour to 90 minutes, but it can last longer under cloudy conditions or when the skies are threatening rain.
Don’t Let Your Guard Down: Stay alert and be ready from the beginning to the end of every cast. A big striper is apt to come calling anytime the lure is in the water; it makes no difference whether the bait is five feet from the boat or 50.
Head ‘Em Off at the Pass: July is when main lake schooling activity reaches its peak. Carey says he has seen huge schools of stripers as large as a mile long and 1/4 mile wide moving down the lake at a fast clip as they have their way with roving pods of shad.
The striper expert believes that the larger fish are almost always at the leading edge of the school. For that reason, he says it is always a good idea to circle wide, get in position and wait for the schooling fish to come to you rather than running into the school and potentially spooking them.
Key areas for summer schooling activity include Soldier’s Creek/Oilwell Point, Dam and Texas bank to Little Mineral Creek (also nicknamed Striper Alley) and the Roosevelt bridge up the Washita arm (better known as the Alberta Creek run).
Patience is a Virtue: A big striper will often times short strike a lure or slap it with its tail in an attempt to stun or injure what it believes to be a baitfish. Carey says it is important to not jerk the bait away from a short striking fish. Instead, just give the lure an occasional twitch to help the fish relocate the lure. The fish will often times come back and crush it the second time around.
Wait Before You Set: Never set the hook until you feel the fish. When you feel the fish, cross its eyes to plant the hooks deep.
Play the Wind: Always play the wind, especially when targeting long, narrow points. Position the boat so the wind will blow it across or the length of the point, then loop pack and do it again. Never start the big motor.
The Right Casts: Always cast topwaters into the wind. This keeps your line tight at all times.
Color Charts: Use dark colored baits such as black/foil belly or menhaden in low light or cloudy conditions and go with lighter colors like blue/chrome, white/red or clear to prolong the bite once the sun gets up.
The Right Baits: In calm conditions, use stick baits like a Zara Spook. In windy, choppy conditions popper-style baits like a Cordell Pencil Popper or Storm Chug Bug are the orders of the day.
The Right Set-Up: Don’t use too much rod or too little line. Carey says the best topwater set-up is a seven-foot medium action and 20-pound test Trilene Big Game line. Reel spools should be fully spooled to prevent a big striper from emptying the spool on a hard run.
Maintain Control: Never, ever, give a striper a slack line. His head is always violently shaking and he’ll throw the bait if you do. If he’s not stripping line, keep a tight line and stay in the fight. A striper will fight you all the way to the boat and then try to bite you when you remove the hook.
Hook Sharp, Hook Smart: Stripers have tough mouths. Keep close check on your hooks to make sure they are needle sharp. It could make a difference in getting a hook in a fish that short strikes the bait. Plus, it will provide better hook penetration on a fish that eats the lure.
Line Check: Perform regular inspections for line fraying two to three feet above your bait. If you find frays or nicks, retie before making another cast.
Signs of the Times: If you see a fish move, get a bait in there on top of it quick. Hit the fish on the head with it if you can. If shad are flitting about the surface, hang on tight.
—story by Matt Williams