This is the time of year that the fish get a little finicky with the coldest water temps on our area lakes. Stripers can get very lathargic if the water temps drop down in the mid to lower 40’s. The fish become opportunists rather than aggressive. During this period just before the spring warm up, you have to be patient and figure out what the fish are doing. I’ve had success this winter with u-rigs as well as downlining bait to hungry schools. The live bait topwater bite is always a possibility but when the fish refuse to surface, you have to go get them. If live bait won’t work, I’m breaking out the u-rigs. If the u-rigs don’t work, I’m breaking out the spoons. If the spoons don’t work, I’m going home…not really. I’ll move on if the fish don’t want to play, but I’ll probably come back to see if the school gets active. Once again, it takes patience in the coldest part of the year.
My tackle strategy this winter is pretty simple. My winter set-up consists of a minimum of 4 planer boards with an assortment of bait. I will weight and freeline bluebacks, gizzards, threadfin and trout. I’ll freeline the biggest trout and gizzards I can find on ballons or straight out the back at least 100 feet. I’ll also run a small gizzard right behind the boat to swim back and forth, this is called a transom bait and is very effective to pick up a striper or two close to the boat. Sometimes a bait will use the shelter of being around a boat to get away from a hungry striper. Stripers know this and they will not hesitate to come right up to the back of the boat for a quick meal.
I vary the distance of my baits behind my planer boards, but if I’m fishing very shallow water my rule of thumb is the average distance of the bait behind the board is about the same distance as the depth unless I’m using bluebacks as they like to stay near the surface and the don’t usually stray to the bottom like a gizzard or trout. I aways make sure I put out a variety of bait sizes and slowly transition the majority of my baits to what is working the best for me.
I also run 4 downlines with varied baits and various depths. Don’t get stuck on one depth. Your shallower or lighter downline baits should go out the back and your heavier weighted baits in the front of the boat and the depths should be varied until you find a good pattern to stay with.
I’m probably going to have 3 types of artificial tied on. First is some kind of topwater bait. That usually varies acording to what’s laying around the boat. Second is a small bucktail. Winter stripers usually key on the smaller stuff so I use a 3/8 to 1/2 ounce bucktail and thirdly, some kind of jig that I can cast a long way or do some verical jigging. Two years ago we were fishing a big tournament in the middle of winter and ran across a big school of fish. They didn’t hit the downines or planer and freelines so after two passes on the fish I dropped a little verical jig on them and imediately hooked up with a white bass. Dropped back down in them again with the same result. I’m glad I had the little jig tied on or we may have wasted more precious tournament time on those fish. One of the little jigs also won us a top 5 finish 4 years ago in the Striped Bass National Championship landing a 9 pound hybrid with minutes left in the tournament. sometimes a little casting jig can really save the day.
That’s a little bit about my tackle. As far as my fishing strategy, it’s simple in the winter; find the bait and you’ll find the fish. Not every school of bait will hold fish but if you find a creek that has a good concentration of bait, the fish won’t be far away. I like fishing bends in the river if I’m river fishing or fishing a narrow lake in the winter. I also like pulling points and creek channels in the lakes. Sometimes pulling your big baits right down the center of a creek channel will net a big fish. You have to be patient but there’s usually a big striper or two cruising just below the surface or deeper in the channel waiting to greet bait on the way in or out of the creek.
Watch the birds!!! Fast moving groups of gulls headed in one direction and diving or circling gull indicate fish. Loons are a good indicator of bait. Loons are generally working around the lake looking for bait to eat while gulls are more like opportunists sitting around waiting on the fish do the work for them so they can dive in and get a free meal.
Enjoy the winter striper fishing!