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Big Jerks

Striped bass and hybrid stripers get big and bite hard - and you can find them in a lake near you.

By Larry D. Hodge

Steve Hollensed powers the 9-foot, 8-weight fly rod forward, and the black head of the shooting taper line rockets through the guides, gobbling up the yellow loops of lighter line coiled at his feet. The blue-and-white bucktailed deceiver fly plops onto the surface of Lake Texoma, floating briefly before the weight of the tungsten in the head of the line drags it down. Hollensed lets the fly sink to the bottom 15 feet below, then begins to strip line as he jiggles the rod tip.

A member of the mass of striped bass we can see clustered beneath a ball of baitfish on the fish finder decides to eat and picks the wrong victim. Fish on!

A few minutes later, Hollensed releases the fish and explains why he routinely does what many people think can’t be done. “When I started fly-fishing for stripers on Lake Texoma, people told me you couldn’t catch them on a fly,” he says. “But fly-fishing for striped bass is very popular on the East and West coasts. I’d caught a lot of stripers on live bait and lures, and I wanted to try something different.”

Conditions could hardly have been worse the April day we spent on Texoma. A strong north wind raised 3-foot whitecaps on the open water, and torrential rains only days before had washed what seemed like half of West Texas into the lake, creating a stunning contrast between red, muddy water and isolated pockets of clear, green water. Fortunately, clear water and areas protected from the wind by islands or shoreline go together, so we are able to find fish and catch them.

“Even though most of the stripers have gone up into the river to spawn, there are always some resident fish in the lake,” Hollensed explains. “During this time of year, avoid muddy water. The fish will range through the old river channels and gather on flats and points next to the river channel. You can also find some in the backs of creeks.” We do find stripers in Mill Creek, along with largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and pairs of spawning spotted gar. “One of the things I like most about Lake Texoma is the diversity of species you can fish for,” Hollensed says.

Striped bass, like salmon, live in the ocean but move into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. “As far as we know, they go to the same place annually to reproduce, like salmon,” says Roger McCabe, a retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologist who headed the Texas striped bass program for three decades. “Striper eggs have to remain in suspension long enough to hatch, about 48 hours, so they like rivers with a lot of flow. And since they are marine species, they also like water that has high salinity.”

Only three rivers in Texas are known to have the right conditions for stripers to reproduce in the wild: the Brazos, the Trinity and the Red. Almost all the stripers and hybrids caught in Texas are produced in TPWD hatcheries using female stripers taken from below Lake Livingston Dam.

TPWD brought the first stripers into Texas in 1967 and stocked them into lakes Navarro Mills, Bardwell and Texoma. Later, biologists learned to hybridize striped bass and white bass, which are closely related. The fish that result from crossing white bass males with striped bass females are called hybrid striped bass or hybrid stripers and have been stocked into more than two dozen reservoirs across the eastern two-thirds of the state. Striped bass can be found in about half as many reservoirs, including Amistad, Buchanan, Livingston, Possum Kingdom, Tawakoni, Travis and Whitney. (Information on where to find stripers and hybrid striped bass and how to fish for them can be found at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes)

Ironically, TPWD can’t take all the credit for the outstanding striped bass fishery in Lake Texoma. “Oklahoma stocked the first striped bass in Texoma in 1965,” McCabe points out, and Texas has not stocked stripers into the lake since 1985. However, natural reproduction maintains a strong year-round striped bass fishery in Texoma.

“Post-spawn stripers act just like ocean fish and quickly move to the main lake,” says Hollensed. “The big females go all the way to the dam and can’t go any farther - and they’re hungry. They disperse over the lake to flats and points where they can find shad. That’s when the big schools begin making runs on top.” Topwater action intensifies in July and August. “This is a fantastic time to catch them,” Hollensed exclaims. “You can catch them on top and below the schools. It’s fast, exciting fishing.”

Fall striper action varies with the lake condition. “When the lake turns over, it’s rough on fishing,” Hollensed says. “But right before the turnover, when the first few fronts come through, is a great time to fish rocky points and shallow flats adjacent to deeper water. After the lake turns over, schooling action will often resume in the major coves. You can often stay on one school all day, because they don’t move as fast. The school will begin at the mouth of the cove and slowly move all the way to the back as the stripers follow the shad.” In winter you’ll also often find stripers in the backs of coves.

Hunt ’em and Hook ’em

Stripers and hybrids are voracious, aggressive feeders, and finding them is often the key to catching them. Ken Milam has been guiding for stripers on Lake Buchanan for 26 years, and he knows how to hunt ’em down and hook ’em.

We’re within sight of Buchanan Dam with 10 poles baited with live gizzard shad 5 to 6 inches long resting in rod holders around the boat. Kurt Hintze, Scott Johns, Milam and I watch the rod tips for the jiggle that means a striper is menacing the bait. “That front pole is nervous - they’re under us right now,” Milam says. He shows me jagged lines on the fish finder left by stripers running through the baitfish. But they’re not biting. “They’re just not ready to eat yet,” Milam says. He picks up his binoculars and spots birds diving into the water a quarter-mile away. We head that way.

It’s pandemonium. The water boils. Fish fly through the air, mingling with birds diving into the melee. Ken eases the boat into casting range, the school of feeding stripers stretching a hundred yards on either side of us. Hintze and Johns step to the front of the boat and cast, Kurt a Rat-L-Trap and Scott a Top Dog. Both hook up immediately. As soon as a lure hits the water, a striper grabs it. I’m torn between taking pictures and catching fish, so I do some of both. Fish after fish flops aboard.

Milam is catching fish, too, and he’s not even fishing - he’s just dangling a lure in the water while removing a tangle from the line. “I’ve run about 400 trips so far this year, and this is one of the best if not the best,” he says. We can’t argue. In less than an hour we all have limitsand sore thumbs from taking fish off the hook. “This is how I measure a successful fishing trip,” Hintze jokes, holding up a thumb raw from striper tongues.

Ray Williamson also guides on Lake Buchanan, and like Milam he’s a believer in live bait for stripers. “Bigger bait equals bigger fish,” he says. Williamson uses yellow-tailed and gizzard shad he catches with a cast net well before daylight in the backs of coves. We let the wind drift us across schools of fish with rods set in holders. Typical of striper fishing, there’s no action for a while, then bam-bam-bam, rods bend and stripers go on ice.

“Don’t set the hook on a striper, just reel,” Williamson advises. “Setting the hook hard can rip it right out of their mouth. For the same reason, keep pressure on the fish when reeling it in, and always use a net to land it.”

When birds don’t guide you to stripers feeding on the surface, look for travel routes the fish use when moving around the lake following shad. Williamson proves that works by picking a spot on a flat beside the river channel where an island on one side and the shore on the other form a funnel. It’s a natural fish pass, and we catch stripers there, though the school is moving and we only have time to land a couple before they’re gone.

Lake Belton offers similar spots for hybrid stripers, and guide Darrell Nowlain is an expert at finding them. “The river channel has lots of brush, and if you fish there, you’ll get hung up,” Nowlain says. “The hybrids come out of the river to feed, then go back into the deeper water. I anchor or use the trolling motor to fish humps and flats with 4- to 6-inch gizzard shad. If you use smaller bait, you’ll catch white bass. I key on hybrids - they are very fast-growing, aggressive fish. Put a 4- or 5-pound hybrid up against a striper, and the hybrid will out-pull it. I call them white bass on steroids. They will tear up light tackle. Many people can’t get to the coast to fish, and this is the closest you can get to coastal fishing without going there.”

In March and April, Nowlain chases the birds, following the top-water action. “At that time the water temperature is in the high 60s, right at the point where the fish are going to go down and suspend,” he says. “They move out of the river and feed on the flats. The shallow water warms quicker, and that’s why the shad are there, and where they are is where the stripers will be. In spring they will bite anything you put out there - popping lures, lipless crankbaits, top-water lures.”

Using live bait, you will catch stripers, but you may also catch a surprise or two. Hybrid striper fishing with Nowlain, Zoe Ann Stinchcomb reels in an eight-pound catfish and a similar-size largemouth bass. She doesn’t complain.

On lakes Calaveras and Victor Braunig, guide Harry Lamb hunts for stripers using downriggers baited with a silver spoon with a yellow feather or a chartreuse 3-inch grub. Lamb monitors his fish finder constantly to see what depth to set the downriggers. Sometimes a big red drum takes the bait instead of a striper.

“In March, April, May and June, you can sit off Dead Tree Point and wait for them to surface, then throw top-waters,” Lamb says. “They will hit just about anything when they are chasing bait on top. Other times, fish the hot water discharges from the generating plants using live bait, chicken livers, spoons, grubs or Rat-L-Traps. Fish where the water is moving.”

Bob Holmes holds the lake record for striped bass on Richland-Chambers Reservoir (15.3 pounds), and his favorite way to catch them is during what he calls a boil, early morning schooling action on the surface. At other times he uses binoculars to find feeding birds and goes to them.

There are two kinds of angling: fishing and catching. Much to the delight of those who fish for them, stripers and hybrid stripers fall into the second category. No matter where or how you fish for them, stripers and hybrid stripers offer fast-paced action followed by excellent eating. “Many people think stripers aren’t good to eat, but all you have to do is cut out the strip of red meat that runs down the center of the fillet,” says Ken Milam.

Stripers may be big jerks, but they behave quite nicely on your plate.

Striper Specialists

• Steve Hollensed (903-546-6237, www.flywaterangling.com)
• Ken Milam (325-379-2051, www.striperfever.com)
• Darrell Nowlain (254-405-2500, www.centraltexasstriper.com)
• Ray Williamson (512-825-8746, www.raysstriperguideservice.com)
• Harry Lamb (210-633-2801)
• Bob Holmes (214-728-3310, bobholmesguideserviceonrichlandchambers.com/)
• Stocking information (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/management/stocking/)

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