Fishing Tactics for Winter Freshwater Stripers: Plus Lure Choices

News & Tips: Fishing Tactics for Winter Freshwater Stripers: Plus Lure Choices...

Angler dressed in winter clothing holding a striped bassSince they were accidentally trapped in Santee-Cooper lakes in South Carolina over half a century ago, striped bass have been introduced in hundreds of lakes throughout the country. In most cases the fishery requires stocking to sustain, but in a few long tributary rivers flowing at just the right speed natural reproduction can succeed. Sufficient water flow helps to keep the eggs suspended until they hatch (in about 2 days).

In either case, these pin-striped battlers provide thrilling angling, with a typical Hybrid striped bass specimen often averaging 5-10 pounds apiece and for these fish topping 25 pounds is not uncommon. When left alone a striped bass can grow to a weight of 50+ pounds in freshwater or 120 pounds in saltwater. Because a striped bass is an anadromous fish species, they can adapt to freshwater habitat however, their natural instinct is to spend their adult lives in saltwater.

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What makes fishing freshwater striped bass even more appealing is that they bite strongly right through the winter months. Imagine a brutally cold January day. Then wham, you get a strike! There’s nothing like a heavy fish on the line to take away the blues of winter. Some of the best fishing of the year occurs when ice forms in rod guides and you need heavy layers of clothing to ward off the cold.

Over the years I've caught landlocked striped bass with everything from a surface lures to a chunk of live bait soaked on the bottom. Here's a look at the tactics that have produced the best results for these sleek, scrappy members of the true bass family during the heart of winter.

James Bramlett holding up his all-tackle world record striped bass
This striper bass was caught by James R. Bramlett on February of 2013 in Alabama.

1 arrow pointIn case you're wondering the current all-tackle world record for a landlocked striped bass is 69.9 pounds. The striper was caught by James R. Bramlett on February of 2013 in Alabama. IGFA certified his catch the following May as the new world record freshwater striped bass not to mention the huge striper is also a Alabama state record.

Where to Find Striper Bass

Before delving into actual strategies, though, a few preliminary steps will help. First on the list, check with biologists and wardens to determine which lakes near you are best for stripers. Then talk to bait shop owners, guides, locals and boat launch workers about where on the lake the fish have been caught recently.

Most lakes stripers are found in are rather large, so it helps to get a heads up on where the fish have been congregating. No one is going to tell you an exact spot to fish, but narrowing things down to a general part of the lake or feeder arm of it gives you a good starting point.

In some lakes the water near the dam is good during winter. In others the fish move far upstream into headwaters or in shallow coves searching for shad and other baitfish. Knowing the local preferences on the lake you choose is a big help.

Buy a topographic lake map and pencil in recommended spots. Then if they produce, you can mark them permanently with ink. The map is also valuable for showing you key potential winter striper hangouts such as bridges across feeder arms, river channel edges, the backs of feeder creeks, mud flats, submerged islands, deep points, and power plant discharge areas, if there are any.

Pick the ramp closest to where you plan to fish, so you won't have a long cold boat ride in winter's frigid air. Also pre-rig several fishing rods at home, so you won't have to fool with that on the water and will have several good lures tied on or bait rigs already attached.

Fishing Tackle Options & Methods

Tackle can be anything from medium-heavy largemouth gear to slightly longer, stiffer rods taking heavier fishing line. It all depends on what size fish are present where you're going and what lures or baits you plan to use.

Live bait is one of the most reliable methods of all for catching winter stripers. I use live threadfin shad if I can get them or 3-6 inch shiners. Larger shad and blueback herring can also be used if big fish are present. Keep the shad in circular aerated bait containers to make sure they stay lively.

Using Live Fishing Bait on Striper Bass

Two methods work with live bait. One is a technique similar to fishing a plastic worm for bass. Hook the baitfish through both lips from the bottom up on a size 2-2/0 bait hook. Add several split shot 12-18 inches up the line, or a barrel swivel and 1/4-3/8 ounce sliding egg sinker above it. Vary the weight according to the depth you're fishing and whether there is current, as well as how deep the stripers are holding.

TacticsWinterFreshwaterStripers2
Dale Wilson, a guide on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, lands husky stripers casting and retrieving white jigs with a saddle hackle tied in along the flanks of the lure for extra flutter appeal.

You can fish this rig anywhere that you locate lots of baitfish and stripers, but bridge pilings on creek arms of the lake are especially hot spots. The current there tends to attract stripers in winter. It also works at all the other striper spots described earlier such as points, drop-offs and thermal discharge areas.

Cast out, allow the minnow to reach bottom or come close to it, then begin slowly reeling it back. Raise the rod tip, then lower it back down to reel up slack. When a fish taps, give it a few seconds to take the bait, and then set up with a hard sweeping motion to drive the hook home.

The second method for fishing bait is to use shad or shiners fished directly over the top of a known striper hangout or a school of fish you've located on the depth finder. You can either anchor or use an electric motor to stay on the spot.

To rig up for this method, thread a 1/2 to 1 1/2 ounce egg sinker on the main line, then tie on a barrel swivel and 24- to 48-inch leader with a 2 to 2/0 hook. Impale the shad or minnow through both lips or lightly through the back.

I either strip line off in measured increments to the appropriate depth or lower the rig to the bottom and then reel the bait up a few feet. You can hold the rod, but it's just as effective to set the outfit in a sturdy rod holder. When a fish strikes, wait for the rod to bend solidly, then set the hook while cranking on the reel handle to apply extra pressure.

Sometimes it helps to chum while you're waiting for a bite. Cut up a few shad or shiners and drop them overboard. Also try different depth levels. After half an hour if the action is slow, move to a new spot.

At times cut bait will produce even better than live bait. Try a cut piece of shad or several dead shiners on a hook. This is particularly effective in shallower areas such as long, gradually tapering points, mud flats and humps. The scent of the dead fish can attract stripers from long distances.

Try the Jump Fishing Technique on Winter Stripers

This is another good way to take winter stripers. Watch for gulls swooping down or choppy, broken water where fish are feeding explosively on shad near the surface, then get to them quickly. Stay a short distance back and ease up slowly with the trolling motor. Then cast either elongated surface poppers or soft-plastic shad lures towards the breaking fish. Try to match the size of the quarry, which could be anywhere from 3-7 inches.

Offshore Angler Baitfish Bucktail Jig at basspro.com
Great for inshore too, the Offshore Angler Baitfish Bucktail Jig is fitted with super-sharp Mustad hooks

Work the plugs with a jerky, twitching retrieve and occasional pauses. Reel the soft shad imitations with a smooth retrieve, trying different depths. Start near the surface, then probe levels as deep as 10-15 feet where bigger fish may be lurking.

Know Your Striper Fishing Lures: Casting Bucktail Jigs

If fish aren't breaking on top, blind casting and retrieving lures in prime areas can be productive. Work either spots where you've just seen stripers breaking or structure that would likely hold these fish in winter.

You can toss deep-diving elongated minnow plugs, lipless crankbaits, blade lures or other offerings. But over the years I've found nothing will beat a plain bucktail jig, preferably white, and preferably with a single chartreuse, dark green or red saddle hackle tied in along each side, surrounding the bucktail. Weight can range from 1/4 to 3/8 ounce. Anything heavier sinks too quickly. You can add a plastic twister tail if the water is murky or you want it to sink more slowly, but usually just the plain jig is best.

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A jig fooled this striper from Lake Gaston in North Carolina.

Cast these jigs out over prime striper-holding areas or where fish have swirled and begin a slow, steady retrieve. This imitates a shad slinking slowly along. Count down anywhere from 3-20 seconds to let the bait get in the strike zone for that particular day or the level where you see fish on the depth finder.

Don't jerk or twitch these lures. Simply reel steadily. If strikes aren't coming, try pausing part way back and letting the jig sink for several seconds. Then resume the retrieve. This will look like a struggling, wounded shad running out of steam. If 10 or 15 casts don't produce, move to another fresh spot.

Vertical Jigging for Striped Bass

This is the final tactic I keep in my bag of tricks for winter stripers. This method lets you put your lure right down in front of the striper's face.

bass pro strata spoon
The Strata Spoon’s natural appearance and outstanding fluttering action entices spoon-fed fish to strike

When fish are packed in tight schools over structure such as a point, dropoff, creek channel, or submerged island, working lures up and down directly over top of them is the way to go. First pinpoint likely areas to check out on the topo lake map before leaving the dock. Then scope them out with the depth finder on the water.

If you see baitfish, large gamefish, or both, drop a buoy marker and try pumping lures seductively up and down over them lifting and dropping the rod tip, 12-36 inches each time. Other than live bait, this is by far the best way to entice stubborn, non-feeding fish to strike. Or, locate good striper structure from 20-50 feet deep. Lower a slab spoon, blade lure or lipless crankbait to the level of the fish or just below where you've detected baitfish. Lower the lure fast enough that it falls freely but excessively slack doesn't form in the line. 

Good lures to vertical jig for stripers include tailspinners, jigs, blade lures and best of all, slab-type jigging spoons such as the Hopkins Shorty, Mann-o-lure, Bass Pro Strata Spoon, or Luhr-Jensen Crippled Herring. Depending on the depth you’re fishing and whether there is current, lures weighing from ½ to 1 ½-ounces can be used. Top colors are silver, chrome, chartreuse, or white.

 1 arrow pointTIP: Highly rated by customers, the Strata Spoon is an an excellent winter lure for suspended and bottom hugging bass.

Strikes may occur at any time, but often come on the "drop". Set the hooks fast if you feel a tap or the line moves sideways or stops falling. When a 10 pound striper bucks back and streaks away on a sizzling run, chances are good you'll forget how cold it is outside!