Hop in the old Carolina Skiff with myself, Bryan and Todd on a trip up the fertile rivers of Tennessee in search of trophy striped bass during the height of the spawn. Grab a beer, sit back and enjoy the ride!
A cold front was approaching as Bryan and I set out for the drive to Tennessee. I checked the radar an hour earlier and a thick line of rain stretched from the Great Lakes to Louisiana and moving rapidly into our area. It was going to be a wet drive north. We were on our way to meet up with Todd, our trophy striper guide in Tennessee. Bryan and I were looking forward to a couple of days of trophy striper fishing in the fertile waters of Tennessee in the spring. We were hoping that we planned our trip between fronts and the weather would cooperate for us. The water temps were just about perfect according to Todd and we would probably be arriving at the tail end of the spawn. The striper spawn is a narrow window in which female stripers gain weight in leaps and bounds feeding and nourishing their eggs for the spawn. A female striper can drop somewhere between a half million and 3 million eggs during her spawn. The weight of the eggs alone is rather large, plus the fact that she eats constantly until she spawns out. These big girls can put on some serious pounds during this period and it’s a great time to catch a trophy striper.
Bryan and I left the Atlanta area around 2 pm and figured we would arrive in the area for a late dinner. The drive was brutal, battling an approaching cold front through the winding roads of Tennessee. Bryan and I are retired military folks with Bryan being a former Air Force fighter pilot and myself being a former Navy technician on fighter aircraft. We never found ourselves lacking of conversation. As we drove on in the relentless rain I worried that too much rain would stain up the rivers where we would be fishing. I worried that the rivers would be stained and full of debris. Murphy’s Law was always a factor when it comes to my fishing trips. When I plan these fishing trips in advance I’m always at the mercy of the weather. I’ve seen times where heavy rains have blown out the rivers and fishing the rivers becomes non-existent due to water levels and swift currents. About halfway through the drive I got a reassuring call from Todd saying they had caught a few nice fish before the wind and driving rain arrived and he thought the next two days should be good.
As we drove on we hit areas that the rain was heavy and times that it was very light. We finally made our destination and after a bite to eat at a local restaurant we were checked into the hotel and watching the Weather Channel. The front had picked up speed and was moving through the area quicker than anticipated. It looked like we were going to be fine; just a little post front wind to worry about.
Todd called promptly at 6 am and let us know where to meet for the launch. We were up and ready to go. The morning dawn was cold and windy on the back side of the front. The temperature was dropping as the drier, colder air moved into the area. We made it to the ramp in the back of a cove at the lake and sat in the parking lot waiting on Todd. Before long a Carolina Skiff being pulled by a pick-up appeared at the ramp. It was Todd, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to guide us on our quest for a trophy striper. I had met Todd earlier in the year at a Tennessee Striped Bass Club meeting in which I was a guest speaker. I was very impressed with the club and it’s members, a great bunch of guys and some very very knowledgeable fishermen. I knew about Todd from before the meeting and followed his progress as a very good guide in the area. It just so happened that I found an opportunity to make it up to Tn. during the spawn and Todd had an opening to accommodate us. After pleasantries, Todd gave us the skinny on what we would be doing during the day and we got familiar with the boat and tackle selection as we got ready to launch. The wind hadn’t kicked up across the lake yet and before long we were on our way headed for the river to catch our bait. Our plan was to catch a few dozen Skipjack Herring and use them to catch bigger stripers. In order to catch these Skipjack Todd had equipped us with light spinning gear with small crappie jigs. We ran up the river a ways and before long Todd brought the motor back to idle for our first drift for the Skipjack. Todd explained that the Skipjack generally traveled in groups, most times along the shoreline. We would keep the boat pointed up stream and slowly drift and cast to the shore.
Before long all three of us were chunking and winding as we drifted back towards the lake. It didn’t take long and Todd hooked up. Bryan and I threw into the same area and in a instant we were tripled up on jacks. We lost one at the boat and put two in the tank. Quickly we got the jigs right back to the area and pulled another jack in the boat before they moved on. I’ll tell you guys, if you’ve never fished for Skipjack to go catch stripers, you’re missing out. It’s like having big fun and then going on to having bigger fun. These jacks were anywhere from 1-3 pounds in weight and they put up a good fight on light tackle in the current. Stripers love them and the jacks provide the stripers with a very high fat and protein diet while fueling up during the spawn. Soon we were drifting through another pocket of fish and little by little we filled the tank with the jacks that we needed for the stripers. It was getting close to midday as we made our way back down the river and across the main lake only to go up another river with a little less current. The river was running at full pool and the afternoon sun cast shadows just beyond the overhanging trees along the waters edge. To me those shadows looked like a great place for a big fish to hang out and ambush a wandering Skipjack. We dropped the trolling motor and broke out the big boy gear. We ran the big 8/0 hook through the big Skipjack’s back and tossed him in the water to hook up the planer board. A planer board is like an outrigger at water level. They are small and effective for planing the hooked skipjack out away from the boat and into the shadows of overhanging trees. The outside planer ran just outside the shadows of the overhanging trees and the inside board ran closer to the boat in deeper water.
The wind had kicked up and the sky had not yet cleared from the passing front over night. We had a few problems fighting the wind to keep the boat from drifting us off course. The scenery in the area was just beautiful. As we moved along the shore I was in awe at the many ancient rock formations and the shoreline carved out by many many years of water flow through the river. There were a few blow downs along the shore and I knew from experience that a blow down, or in layman’s terms, a dead tree that has blown or fallen into the river, is a great ambush point for a big striper. We approached an older blow down and the Skipjack got very nervous. The Skipjack pulled hard just behind the planer board fleeing the blowdown area. The jack suddenly stopped, rolled over sideways and stiffened up just before a large boil and shadow appeared just beyond the lifeless jack. The jack was playing possum. I lifted the rod out of the holder and unlocked the spool on the big Penn reel. I fed some slack to the jack as the big striper studied the bait. Todd said to pull the bait a little and when I did, the striper made a final swirl and picked up the jack. The striper started moving off with the jack and I slammed the bail forward and layed into the big fish. Upon feeling the cold steel of the hook the big fish made a run for the deeper channel of the river. The drag was a bit loose and the fish made a turn back to the blown down. I thumbed the spool to turn the fish away from the submerged tree but it was too late. I felt the rub of a branch on the line and I knew the fish had buried into the tree. We moved the boat over the area and gave the fish some slack in hopes he would swim out. He was buried too deep and when I re-applied pressure to the fish the 50lb test finally wore through just as I saw a flash of silver in the tree below us. The fish had outsmarted us.
We re-composed ourselves and baited back up to continue our pull up the river. Todd set out a downline with a 6 ounce weight and one of our smaller jacks and dropped it just behind the boat in a few feet of water. It was our idea of a weighted transom bait. We watched the planers and joked back and forth and jawed about fishing stories from the past. I watched as the downline jack rod started bouncing wildly and the rod doubled over, popped back up and doubled over again. Todd grabbed the rod and hollared “Who wants him!!” I was just behind Todd and after Bryan waved him off, I grabbed the rod in a nano-second and was hooked up with my second fish. It was heavy, but it felt a little unfamiliar. It didn’t pull like a bigger striper and had a quicker rhythm pulling on the line. I forced the fishes head up, feeling confident about the strength of the 50lb test. The fish finally rolled at the surface and I saw the familiar grey whiskered shape for a brief second before it disappeared into the depths. It reminded me of catching the huge Blue cats on the shore of the Mississippi just south of New Orleans some twenty years back. It was a big cat; when we finally hoisted the big cat on the boga it was 24 pounds. We took a quick snapshot and we were back at it.
One thing that I’ve learned about big striper fishing is that generally you’re fishing for one or two bites a day. If you put 2 fish in the boat it’s considered a successful day. We felt good about hooking up on two fish by noon but as luck would have it, we went into a slump. It wasn’t for a lack of fish. We had several blow-ups by bigger fish over the next few hours but sometimes the big stripers, in my opinion, become very territorial and sometimes lash out at a bait without eating it. Around mid-afternoon we moved to another spot, much like the first with shadows lining the edge of the shore and the hanging trees. Shortly after putting the baits out, one of the planer boards shot straight to the middle of the river and the board released from the line. The rod was next to me and I grabbed it out of the holder and pulled hard on the fish in an effort to bury the hook and turn her head back towards the boat. The resistance I felt wasn’t the kind of the resistance I’d felt before from bigger stripers. She gave up too easy and I knew the fish was probably a spawned out fish, more than likely fatiqued from the spawn. My suspicions were correct as we lifted the the 23lber up on the Boga. She may have weighed 30+ before spawning out. She was a good fish to warm up on and after a quick snapshot she was released back to the shadows. We had one big Skipjack left by early evening and the sun was setting as we decided to make one more pull back up the shoreline before calling it a day. Todd was frustrated at the amount of blow-ups we had on our bait without getting good hook-ups. Here’s a picture of what our biggest Skipjack looked like shortly before he met his demise.
Todd hooked up our biggest jacks for the final pull, up wind and up river. I sat in the front of the boat and looked back at the planer boards and thought of what a great day it was. Plenty of action, including some awesome skipjack fishing. The blow-ups created by the big stripers were something to witness. Watching the big blow-ups made me very optimistic about tomorrow’s trip back out to this area. The glare of the sun made it almost impossible to see the light colored planer board. From what I could see, the board stopped, which indicated a change in the jacks swimming habits. Todd yelled “Blow-Up”!!! I strained to see the board through the glare and realized it was on the front rod where I was sitting. I saw the jack roll over on it’s side in an attempt to fool the big striper into thinking he was dead. The jack was locked up and the fish was no where to be found. Todd waved his arms and let out a hearty curse at the big fish for spoiling our hopes. I still had the rod in my hand as I laughed at Todds frustration. I felt a hard jerk on the rods tip and knew the fish had returned. For the next few minutes the fish nipped and pushed at the crippled jack. It was frustrating to me that the fish would play a game of cat and mouse with the jack. The jacks head would bob up and down out of the water like he was doing some kind of Skipjack death dance. The fish moved the bait back into the glare and I was working by feel with the rod. Todd was at a different angle and told me to pull hard to take the bait away from the big striper. When I did, I couldn’t see the result through the glare but I felt the fish inhale the jack and in a second I was setting the hook on a running fish. This was a bigger fish. She wasn’t giving ground but taking drag at will.
I’d like to say that the fish was tearing drag at breakneck speed or pulled off hundreds of feet of line, but with 50lb test, I was pretty confident I could put some serious pressure on the fish. For that reason she didn’t run far. I kept the constant pressure on the fish and worked to gain and get her to the boat. In my opinion, the quicker the fish is caught and released, the easier it is on these big spawning females. You can easily kill a bigger fish by prolonging the battle. The first time she rolled Todd said it was a nice fish… in so many words. I knew she was big but I wondered if she was bigger than the 38lber I caught up here a few years back. I honestly couldn’t tell. When she came to the surface a second time she had company with her. Another smaller striper came along side for a brief moment and then disappeared back to the depths. Todd and Bryan assured me that the fish was over 38 pounds. Once I saw the big belly on the fish I knew it was over 40. Here’s a little video to explain what happened next. There is a couple of bad words during the video so I wouldn’t show this to the kids.
Before we released her we took a length and girth measurement and her stats came to 42 inches in length and a girth of 29 inches. She swam off after a little coaxing and last I saw she was headed back to the shadows. High fives and fist pumps followed and we were all elated at our success. I had a new personal best striper and we had another day to work on Bryans new personal best. It was after 7pm and we were exhausted. A solid twelve hours of fishing was behind us but it only felt like a few short hours. It seemed like everytime I looked at my watch another hour or two had past. It was time to call it a day. The sun was setting behind the trees, we were getting tired and Todd had done more than his fair share to show us a good time. We parted ways at the ramp and agreed on the same time, same place in the morning.
When Bryan and I stepped out of the hotel early the next morning we were greeted with record low temps. It was 37 degrees at sunrise and when Todd called to check on us, he said he had an inch of ice in the bottom of his boat. When we met at the ramp we were a bit discouraged at the layer of fog over the lake. It was thick and we decided to wait a few minutes before heading up the river. The warmer water and cooler air temps made for a tough situation to navigate through when heading up lake. We took it slow and hit pockets of less fog till we hit the river. It was thicker in the river so we decided to drift a little ways to see if we could locate any Sikipjack. It started slow but we finally hit our stride and pulled in a couple of dozen jacks of various sizes over the course of the first few hours. We had a few mongo jacks in the 2-3lb range and we decided to hit the same area as we did early the day before.
I was banned from touching the rods since yesterday I caught all the fish as Bryan was a humble rider. Today was Bryans day. His personal best was 24 lbs and we felt very optimistic that his record would be shattered. I took my place in the front of the boat as we made our first drift. This time we put a big jack straight out the back on a float and our 2 planer board baits running parallel to the shore. It wasn’t long until we had our first action. The big jack on the float took off for another zip code with a large wake in tow. The float dissappeared in an instant and Bryan grabbed the rod. Bryan pulled hard as the big 8 foot rod doubled over. Bryan keeped the fish in front of him as the big fish paced back and forth 30 yards behind the boat. Todd warned Bryan that there were trees in the area of the fish as we tried to reposition the boat for a better angle on the fish. Bryan pull hard and tried to impose his will on the fish but the fish found the strcture she was looking for. The rod went to dead weight and our fears were confirmed as the line snapped and the rod came back to neutral. Another loss to the trees. She was a big fish and before the line break, I thought for sure Bryan had his 30’s fish. It wasn’t meant to be and soon we were baited back up and moving along. We joked and cut up for the next couple of hours. Every once in a while we would see some sign of fish in the form of a tremendous blow-up or a nervous jack trying to escape what was lying just beyond the shadows. It was getting close to lunch and Bryan was still on the hook for a fish. Finally, as we were talking about making a move a fish slammed the jack on the float behind the boat and the float was headed south at a high rate of speed. Bryan snapped to life and grabbed the rod. Once again Bryan faced the fish a kept the pressure on her. She stayed up on top as Bryan worked the fish to the boat. Todd brought the fish in the boat and Bryan was on the board with a solid 27lber.
She was another spawned out female. During the height of her spawn she was a much larger fish, possibly a mid 30’s fish. We decided to make a move and hit the spot the 46lber came from the day before. It was early afternoon by the time we got the baits back out. Bryan and I decided to make this a much earlier day as we knew Todd was tired and we had a long drive back to Georgia. We worked hard over the next couple of hours trying different tactics and bait presentations. We had our share of blow-ups but getting a fish to commit was not in the cards. We decided to make one more pass before calling it a day. It was getting into late afternoon and we were getting a bit desparate for one more fish. These big stripers seem to take a break through the afternoon and they don’t get cranked back up till early evening. I feared that would be the case on this day. We pulled out all the stops and put our best baits out for the final pull. If it was going to happen it needed to happen soon. As if on que, our outside board skidded backwards as the big fish hammered the fresh jack. Bryan grabbed the rod and layed the hook into the fish. The fight was on. We knew it was a bigger fish by the way she ran towards the deeper water. Bryan kept the pressure up and the fish slowly gave ground and eventually pulled along side of the boat. Todd snatched the fish from the water and soon the big fish was hoisted with the Boga. Bryan had his 30 pounder. The big girl weighed just over 30 and provided more high fives and fist bumbs.
Bryan was pleased with his fish and we both knew it was time to go. We all felt the same way. Pulling in the baits to end the day was like pulling teeth. It’s the most painful time of the day. Bryan and I both left with a great feeling. Our experience is one of those fishing trip neither of us will ever forget. I’ve been on a lot of fun fishing trips, and fishing in Tennessee with Todd and Bryan was one of the best fishing trips I’ve ever been on. Todd was a gracious guide and really over extended himself to show us a good time and put us on a trophy fish. Fishing the spawn is a small window to getting a trophy fish. Stripers are an elusive fish and a worthy advisary for fishing. If you’re ever in the mood for a trophy striper or maybe some great fishing action give Todd Asher a call from Shadnasty Guide Service (www.shadnastyfishing.com/)865-789-1991
Tell him Jim and Bryan sent you. You’ll have a blast!