There is usually a time during the fall when the lake is turning over and the fall leaves are blowing off the trees with a strong north wind. When I see this I know that a large group of stripers are starting a migration north to the cooler, cleaner waters of the rivers. Generally conditions need to be right with water temps, water color and water levels, and often river fishing is a crap shoot. Brett and I had scouted the river two days earlier and found warmer dirty water from the recent rains and decided the bite may have moved south because of the water conditions. We fished down lake the day before and caught nothing but smaller stripers. We made the decision to go back up river and take our chances for the tournament day. My partner Chris, the other member of our team had never been up the river and he was looking forward to pulling big baits in the cool shallow river water.
Launching went off without a hitch and we were on our way up river for a two mile run in the dark of early morning, navigating by moonlight and the tracks I had laid with the GPS days earlier. As my 21 foot Carolina Skiff planed out heading north, I thought back to a time a few years ago when I was doing the same thing, running the river in the dark and ran over a big log floating just below the surface. I felt the log sliding down the hull of my boat and watched as my graph went to 0 feet and flashing. I knew right away the big log had taken out my transducer. That is definitely a sinking feeling first thing in the morning. River fishing without a graph is no big deal if you know the river, but it sure comes in handy to find the deeper holes that the bigger stripers like to lay in. Anyway, that was then and this is now. I learned from that trip to be a little more cautious and keep a close eye out for floating debris, even if it’s by the moonlight.
It was a cold morning on the river with the outside temps around 40 degrees and the water temps around 57-60. The river had a foggy haze just above the surface which made it even harder to watch for floating debris. Chris and Brett were covered and huddled behind the center console as I made the twists and turns through the river channel up to our fishing grounds. We finally arrived right on time and we were thankful to see that no other boats were within site as we dropped the trolling motor and started getting the tackle ready. Our spread was 2-3 planer boards per side with big monster trout on the outside boards and nice frisky gizzards on the inside boards. I like to run a big bait straight out the back on a balloon at about 100 feet and smaller bait out the back just behind the boat.
Once our spread was out, we all grabbed our coffee and started to warm up from the cold water of the bait tank and bait handling while getting everything out just the way we wanted it. The sunrise was a pink and blue glow in the east and the water was like a sheet of ice, smooth with a hint of fall leaves reflecting in the dawns light. Everything was right. You couldn’t of ask for a better morning on the river. The water temp was 58 and we were trolling through 6-8 feet of water. The area we were in had produced nice fish for me before and I was hoping for another successful trip. It was that magical moment of the early morning for a striper fisherman when the planer boards are all out and running smooth over a glassy surface and inevitably someone will say “It doesn’t get any better than this”.
We were all warming up with freshly poured coffee and a few hand warmers Chris had brought from his last deer hunting trip. We heard a splash and a pop and looked over to the right outside planer board just as a nice striper disappeared after a near miss on one of the big trout. It’s not uncommon to have a striper miss or short strike big bait up river. Although frustrating, I’m an optimist and I said “at least we know there’s one striper up here”. Brett brought the offering back to the boat and saw that the big trout’s head had been crushed. It was a striper alright. A nice one at that. Brett and Chris got busy re-rigging the gear and I watched the trout on the balloon start getting nervous. I moved closer to the rod in the holder and positioned myself to take up the rod in the event the fish nailed the big trout. It wasn’t to be as the fish moved away with a big swirl. It was starting to look good. The inside planer board closest to Chris torpedoed back and disappeared into the depths as Chris grabbed the rod out of the holder. The fish pulled hard against the drag of the reel. Chris kept the rod tip in the air as the fish bared down and as quickly as the fight was on, the fight was off. The line snapped at the hook and the fish won the battle. After a quick re-rig the bait was back out. Break offs are a fact of life. The trick is to minimize the break offs by tying good knots and changing your line and leaders often. Usually when I have a break off it’s followed by another break off. Well, it happened. A fish hit the short bait we had out the back and I finally had a shot at my first fish of the morning. I backed the drag off a bit remembering Chris and his break off and sure enough, I felt the fish pull hard and the line snap up and break off. At this point we were all trying to figure out what was going on and analyzing the point of the break. We knew there were fish to be caught so we didn’t spend much time wondering and got to re-rigging the rods.
The trout on the freelined balloon skittered across the top of the water with a wake directly behind him. It didn’t take long and the fish was on. Brett grabbed the rod out of the holder and worked the fish towards the boat as Chris moved the rods that would get in the way. Soon our first fish was in the boat, a nice 10 pounder to start the day off. The striper was slid into the Live System tube and we were back at it. Chris took the next fish, as the right outside planer board went skimming backwards down river, the fish pulled hard on the Tiger rod. Chris guided the fish through the other lines and within minutes our second fish was in the boat. A nice 12 pounder was placed in the second tube and without delay Chris was fighting another fish while Brett and I tended to the tube wiring. For the next 15 minutes Chris and Brett took turns bringing in stripers and by the time the smoke cleared and the frenzy was over the tally was 6 stripers with yours truly without a fish to my name. Nothing to contribute for me. Every time I got near a rod that looked promising, the fish would leave me hanging. It felt good to have 6 fish in the boat before my second cup of coffee. We had a respectable starting weight and we had all day to upgrade to bigger fish. The three of us felt good about our chances and agreed we were glad we took the gamble of running up the river. As quick as the bite had started, it had stopped. We saw a few fish boil up on our baits but clearly the action had slowed. I told the guys that since it was my boat and I was basically the captain of our jam up team, I wanted to catch a fish. We agreed that the next fish would be mine. After a few more boils and swipes at our bait, we settled in to a long dry spell.
Now I’ve always believed in making my own luck so I had to bear down and make it happen. I knew that most of our fish came off large or medium trout and most of the fish came from the center of the river channel. I pulled in the closest planer board on the left which had a small gizzard in trail. I looked in the bait tank and found the biggest medium trout we had. I baited up with the trout and fed it back out hooking up the planer board 10 feet forward of the bait. The board was back in place and we went back to chatting and watching boards and bait. I glanced over at the board I had just set out and watched as it stopped in place. I thought for a brief second that the trout had found the bottom. In the next instant the board torpedoed backwards and I reached down and grabbed the rod. I felt a strong pull and the fish stripped off a good 30 feet of drag crossing lines as it looked for deeper water and structure. I knew the line was strong on the rod and I just let the fish head up river with constant pressure on the fish. I knew it was a bigger fish by the way it was head shaking and pulling. Nothing huge but I felt like the fish was bigger than what we had. I worked the fish to Brett who was waiting with the net and the fish cooperated and planed right into Brett’s waiting net. We looked at the fish once it was safely in the boat and agreed it was over 15, but less than 20. We culled out the 11 pounder we caught earlier and after a few high fives and chuckles we got back down to business.
We figured that if we could get one more upgrade we might finish in the money. By 11 am a half a dozen boats had run up and down the river in the area we were concentrating on. River fishing is fun and up close and personal but boat traffic can turn the fish off in the confines of the shallow narrow river. For the next 3 hours we ran our baits through holes and flats but it wasn’t meant to be. We pulled in the lines and headed to the weigh-in with what we had. We felt like our weight was respectable, but not a winning weight. The competition was tough and we knew there would be bigger fish brought to the scales. Running back to the ramp and trailering to the weigh-in was uneventful.
As luck would have it, we wound up with the second biggest fish of the tournament and finished 4th in the tournament. I think we all had visions of a first place finish but it wasn’t meant to be on this day. I have learned over the years not to dwell on what could have been, but to look at each trip as a gift. You take what the lake will give you and enjoy the moments you get to spend with friends. That’s what fishing is all about, making memories.