A Fall Striper Story

                I left my house for Lake Hartwell at 4 am. My plan was to meet my partner Chris and two buddies from the striper club at a Waffle House close to the lake, drop off some planer boards, eat a little breakfast and my partner and I would launch at around 6:45 am. Today was a special fishing trip for my partner and I because we were fishing in a tournament against some excellent striper fishermen from all over the south. Everything went according to plan right up until the time the waitress at the Waffle House informed me that they were out of gravy for my biscuit. That set the tone for the day of fishing. So, after finishing a hearty greasy breakfast and a trip to the head my partner and I were on our way to the launch, on time I might add. Our launch went without a hitch and after parking the truck we were on our way to the mouth of a feeder creek on the south end of the lake. Everything in the creek looked familiar even though we hadn’t fished the area in two years. The last time we fished the area was in early winter and we were still in late fall with leaves still turning a dropping to the ground. It was worth a chance, and we knew there were plenty of fish and bait present on our previous trips. We positioned our first pull to run down the inside of the first point just at the mouth of the creek. Gizzards went to the outside planers and trout to the inside planers with my largest bait in the tank going straight out the back at 140 feet. We ran a shorter free line with a frisky gizzard zipping around the back of the boat at 60 feet. Next was four down lines deployed with various sizes of trout, bluebacks and gizzards. Once the baits were set, I no sooner got my coffee poured when we saw our first sign of a fish. A large boil appeared just behind the port outside planer board close to the shore. After a good pull back, my gizzard quickly skittered around the planer board and eluded a big wake directly behind him. My outside rod is generally set in my spreader rod holder along the left or right side of the boat. I have to reach above my head to pull it out of the rack. After seeing the attack on my gizzard, I reached above my head and threw the spool out of gear and thumbed some line out in an attempt to slow the speedy gizzard. It was no use; the fish was gone. After we were sure the fish was clear we brought in the gizzard to see how he had faired. It wasn’t good. He had a bite mark close to the head and more than likely died of fright.

I decided to make a big circle and try another pass along the shore. This time I armed the outside hook with a large active rainbow trout. My thought was that if the fish was still there, he may be a bit gizzard leery and may try a shot at the trout. On the next pass over the same area the large trout started pulling wildly just before a distinct pop was heard followed by a small boil just next to the trout. It was another near miss by a big fish. My partner and I decided to let the area settle down a bit and we moved to deeper water after seeing some gulls working over some bait in the creek channel. The nearer we got to the action the more surface activity we were seeing. They appeared to be smaller fish, sometimes coming out of the water to chase the smaller threadfin shad. Our suspicions were confirmed when we caught two smaller stripers and a hybrid passing through the area of activity. As the sun came up the surface activity subsided, the gulls quit diving and the lakes surface went from glass to a small chop. I’ve always preferred a small chop when pulling baits near the surface. My guess has always been that the bait is under less scrutiny from a hungry striper due to a choppy back drop. The wind had switched directions and was blowing from the east at 5-10. I found cover from the wind in a small cove off of the creek and trolled around while trying to conserve my battery power expecting a long day of wind. We weaved our way in and out of the cove along the wind break, watching the graph for signs of fish and bait. We wondered if fishing may be better deeper in the creek now that the wind had shifted and was blowing straight into the creek. I shook off the notion and decided to stick to our plan. The plan being that we would work primary points along the mouth of the creek. For most that know me, it’s common knowledge that I don’t move much after getting to the area I plan to fish. I’m not one to start the big motor and chase fish or search for signs up and down the lake. I have a good idea of patterns and hold a mental history of where fish show up during a given season. The plans rarely change in mid-stream. We decided to make another pass through the area we were getting the blow ups along the shallows of the shoreline. It was getting close to lunch, and I was getting desperate for a decent fish. The weigh-in was at 4 pm and we had to trailer the boat and drive 45 minutes to get to the weigh-in. We needed to be leaving the fishing area by 2:45 pm which gave us just a few hours to catch 2 nice fish for the weigh-in.

We decided to reload the hooks with fresh bait just before pulling through the area of the big blow-ups. With all of our hooks dragging the fresh trout and gizzard shad we put the baits right in the area and slowed the trolling motor to a crawl. Like clockwork, the largest trout on a free line at 140 feet behind got very nervous. We watched the surface of the water boil, and the 14-inch trout came straight up out of the water as we saw a foot of daylight between the trout and the water. I just knew we had the big fish on this pass, because that big trout was stunned and an easy meal for the hungry striper. The trout hit the water with a splash as I flipped the lever to release the spool on the reel. I fed out a good 20 feet of line for the fish to work with but there were no secondary signs of the huge fish. I thought that was just the way our day was going. I just knew the gravy problem at the Waffle House had jinxed us on this trip. It was the third strike at the fish, and we were running out of time. We continued on into the creek and ate lunch. The next two hours were uneventful with a lot of down time and idle chatter and silence.  My partner Chris and I were in the Navy together and we retired around the same time frame and settled in the North Atlanta area around Lake Lanier. We’ve never ran out of conversation and often passed the time reminiscing about old friends and good times while in the Navy. Sometimes we would just sit and silently think about old friends and old times without ever saying a word.

We had around 30 minutes before time to head to the weigh-in and I told Chris that since we were basically skunked up to this point for the tournament, we should think about just blowing off the weigh-in and make the best of our trip here and just fish till dusk before the long drive home. Chris is like me, a fisherman. There’s not much that could beat a beautiful fall evening on the lake. Our belief has always been that if you can just stick it out till dusk, good things could happen. It was agreed to make another pass through the hot spot for the day and if we came up empty, we would make our final decision to stay on the lake or go to the weigh-in empty handed. As a last-ditch effort, we put new fresh bait on all of the lines and started the pass. We got to the sweet spot and could see the bottom just a few feet under the boat. We watched the inboard planer boards as they scooted along parallel to the shore. The fresh gizzard dug into the bottom as he was pulled along. The gizzard nearest the shore dug into the bottom hard and hung himself into some structure. Just as I was about to tell Chris to give him a jerk, out of the corner of my eye I caught my outside planer board flying through the air and the sound of drag pulling. Now there is a difference between drag peeling and drag screaming. This pull was of the “drag screaming” variety. I reached up to pull the rod out of the rocket launcher and quickly realized it wasn’t coming out without a fight. The drag was still screaming as I managed to pull it free from the rocket launcher to work the big fish. I saw a big boil in the middle of the bay and realized the fish had pulled off 160 feet in a matter of seconds. He started another run, and I looked down at my spool. It was getting smaller with every run the fish would make. I thought about the line and leader I replaced before the trip and knew I couldn’t horse the fish too much with 25-pound Big Game on the main and a fresh leader of 17-pound Yozuri fluorocarbon. The only worry I had was that the fish would find some structure to get into. I remember seeing plenty of brush and small trees below the surface in the area the fish was occupying. Finally, the fish turned and tried to parallel the boat staying close to the surface as he pulled. Chris kept the boat in a good position, and I slowly gained on the fish with constant pressure. After 5 minutes, finding a free line and a few planer boards to get tangled in I was able to get the fish close enough for Chris to get the net under and hoist the fish into the boat. While Chris was removing the hook from the fish, I was hooking up the wires to the striper tube. Once the pump was on we lifted the fish and slid him into the tube. We knew the fish was around 28-30 pounds and would provide a respectable finish at the weigh-in.

We took a breather, laughed and hit another high five. We decided to get packed up and get to the weigh-in quickly to get the fish weighed and released with as little stress to the fish as possible. My tube was churning fine and the weigh-in was 45 minutes away. I knew the fish would be fine for the ride. The drive was short as I thought about weighing the fish and getting him back to the water. As we pulled into the marina I could see the tent and the scales. We wasted little time getting the fish from the tube to the scales. The fish was weighed, and our estimations were close as the fish weighed in at just shy of 29 pounds. We got the fish back into the water and with a few pushes and pulls the fish swam off into the deep along the edge of the dock. I fully expected to be out done by a few of the more seasoned anglers entered into the tournament, but as luck would have it, it was a rough day for many teams and Chris, and I wound up with a 2nd place finish in the tournament and a second-place finish for the Big Fish pot. Not a bad finish to a slow day of fishing. Fall has always been my favorite time of year. You have the World Series, college and pro football, the NASCAR chase, basketball is kicking off and some of the best striper fishing of the year. Not to mention the turning leaves and cool breezes that remind us that winter is just around the corner…

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