It’s not for everybody, but I love fishing for schoolie stripers in the winter. The fish aren’t always cooperative, but when they are, daily catches in the 100 to 200 fish range aren’t at all uncommon. And truth be told, they are cooperative often enough that most winters, we consider sub-hundred fish days a disappointment. But no matter how active and cooperative the fish are, hundred fish days don’t just happen — you’ve got to make them happen.
Like fishing for winter schoolies itself, going for the big numbers isn’t for everybody. Some guys tell me it makes it too much like work. But from my perspective, the best part of fishing is sensing the bite and setting the hook. If I’m going to be out there in the cold, the more bites and hook sets I get to enjoy, the better I like it. Over the years, I’ve tuned and tweaked my approach to maximize the # of bites and more important, the number of times I get to swing and feel a solid hookup. Here then, is how I go about it.
- Gear. I use medium spinning gear rigged with 10# test braid for baits smaller than 6″ on heads of 1/2 oz or lighter, and medium heavy casting gear with 20# test braid for larger/heavier offerings. When the fish force me to head beyond the salt line to catch them (as they did for most of October and quite a bit of November this year) I wash out and re-lube the casting reels every time out.
- Spinning: Rapsody RM2S72MHF rod with a 2500 class reel. The Daiwa Avids I use have been replaced with the Exceller line. I spool with 10# Sufuix 832. I do NOT use a fluoro or mono leader for schoolie fishing. Note that I fished these with straight fluoro for years. Then with braid with a fluoro leader. But the only guy who consistently outfished me on winter stripers was using straight braid, so I figured I was wasting time and effort with the leader, and stopped using it.
- Casting: RM2C70HF rod with a Standard, bass sized bait casting reel, spooled with 20# test Sufix 832. I like Daiwas, but there are any number of quality reels on the market today that will do the job. Note that this is the same setup I use for throwing unweighted 7.5″ and 9″ Slug-Gos in the spring, except then I add a few feet of 25# test mono leader.
You can’t catch a lot unless you get bit a lot. That requires finding the biters (as opposed to just finding fish), then putting the right bait among ’em at the right depth, with the correct motion. Getting bit over and over means repeating that combination of location, depth, lure and movement as many times as possible before something changes. And of course it means recognizing when adjustments need to be made to any of those factors, and making the right adjustments.
But before even thinking about where to cast and how to work your lure, give some thought to preparation. Fishing time spent changing lures, re-rigging lures, unhooking fish, etc., is fishing time not spent getting your next bite. Time on the water spent doing anything other than catching the next one should be minimized. Toward that end…
- Eliminate most of your tackle selection. The fish aren’t that finicky. Really. Time spent staring into the tackle box trying to decide what to use next is time not spent catching a fish.We use soft plastic lures designed to imitate baitfish, and we rig them on jig heads. Personally, I have caught winter stripers on straight tailed, fork tailed, paddle (boot) tailed, and twister tailed plastics in sizes from 2½ inches up to 9 inches long, rigged on jigheads from 1/8 to 1 ounce. Far and away, the big number catches most often come on 5 to 6 inch baits, either straight or fork tailed, on 1/2 ounce heads.As far as color goes, all you really need is a generic baitfish imitation. Everything else is bells and whistles. My own personal bells and whistles include a very translucent bait, a bait with a lot of flash and a brighter colored (high viz) bait.
I use Lunker City Fin-S Fish, either 5 or 5¾” size on 1/2 oz jigheads, and the 7″ size on 3/4 or 1 oz jigheads. As far as color is concerned, I use #132 ice shad, #101 S&P blue phantom and #218 ayu pretty much interchangeably. That takes care of the transparent, flashy, and natural baitfish choices. When I feel the need for a high-viz offering, I use limetreuse, but to tell the truth, it’s not all that often. If you think my selection is small, my regular fishing buddy Alex uses albino 5″ Super Flukes on ½ oz heads and 7″ Super Flukes on 1 oz heads almost exclusively. And I don’t believe there’s anyone on the river that catches ’em like Alex.What about action tail baits? I’ve had some good days with them, but to be honest, except late in the run, they almost always seem a step behind the straight or fork tail baits. I theorize that the extra action isn’t all that attractive to the fish in sub-34 degree water. Once it begins to warm up in mid March though, the paddle tail’s productivity (especially on castable umbrella rigs) increases quite a bit.Speaking of castable umbrella rigs, they work great. I fish a version (ChandelieriouZ) myself, under certain circumstances. Sometimes it helps me unlock what I need to be doing to maximize my catch, and I’ve had some otherwise very slow days when switching to the gang rig produced a reasonable catch. But the big number catches always come fishing a single bait on a single head.How about plugs, jigging spoons, blade baits, etc.? Assuming they are equally attractive to the fish, any lure with treble hooks will necessarily take you longer to land fish and much longer to unhook and release them as compared to a single hook lure — especially a barbless single hook lure. Time spent unhooking them is time not spent catching the next one! You could probably catch fish all day most days trolling a silver foil, #8 or #9 Shad Rap. But you still wouldn’t catch nearly as many as a jig & plastic guy will catch.
Mash the barbs down on your jig hooks. It’s easier on the fish, and it’s much faster for you to release them. Whenever possible, we don’t even bring the fish into the boat. I prefer to bring the fish along side, and unless I want it for a picture, just drop some slack in the line and jiggle the rod tip. With jig hooks that have been made barbless by squashing the barb with a pair of pliers, twenty to thirty percent of the time, that’s all it takes for a quick release, without even getting a finger wet.
Some days, it seems like I can shake off half-to-three-quarters of the fish. Some days, it seems like almost none of them will let it go. I have noted that jigheads with shorter shank, round bend hooks are much easier to shake free quickly than longer shank hooks, especially those with a sproat style bend. If it doesn’t come free quickly that way, the next option is to lift the fish’s head out of the water and reach over the side to grab the jighead (if it’s visible outside the fish’s mouth) and release the fish with a flick of the wrist.
Only as a last resort will I actually swing or lift the fish into the boat and work the hook out manually. Heaven forbid I need to waste time with the pliers — although even with barbless hooks, sometimes you just can’t get the hook out without doing it the hard way. Of course I don’t mind bringing a fish into the boat when it’s too big to swing in and I have to get down and land it by hand or with a net or gripper. I’ll sacrifice some numbers for a big fat one any day of the week!
But always keep in mind that when you’ve brought in a fish, your absolute best chance to catch another one is to repeat that last cast as quickly and precisely as possible. The more time you let pass before you do that, the more the chance of a repeat hook-up diminishes.
Similarly, when you swing and miss, or even when you hook up and lose the fish half-way in, just let the bait drop for a count or two, then resume the same retrieve you were using when you got bit. At least half the time, you’ll get hit again almost immediately. Was it the same fish going after the ‘meal’ that just got away, or was it one of a group that was following the hooked fish? Who cares? Stop over thinking it, and set the hook!
- Pre-glue your baits to your jigheads. I always start out with freshly glued-on baits on each of the rods I’ll be using for jig fishing. The night before I head out, I’ll trim four or five baits to neatly fit the jighead I use, and secure them to the heads with super glue. In my nice warm office/workroom, I can take my time and rig them nice and straight. With a half-dozen extras premade in the tackle box, I won’t find myself threading plastic baits onto jigheads in the boat with cold fingers.With pre-glued baits, (especially the way I do them these days, as shown in the video below) it’s rare to have to replace more than a couple a day, and I can tie one or two knots a day much faster than I could replace eight or ten plastics, rigging them onto heads that are already tied on. Heck, with pre-glued lures, there have been plenty of days that I caught over a hundred and never changed a bait.
I know it seems like cutting a slit in the bait will weaken it, but I can almost guarantee that your plastic baits will last through 2 to 3 times as many fish when rigged as shown above, as opposed to just threading them on and adding a dab of glue.
- Fish from a stationary boat! Trolling and drifting are proven ways of fishing for river stripers, right? Yeah, if you mean proven to be inefficient as opposed to hovering over or adjacent to the fish and repeating the exact same productive presentation over and over. Anchor if you have to, but using an electric motor to hover in place is a better technique. A Minnkota motor equipped with the i-Pilot accessory to allow you to lock on to a GPS coordinate is better yet. I can’t imagine going back to fishing without my i-Pilot — especially when it comes to river stripers.
- Find the biters! Once you’re properly prepared to maximize your catch, the next important step is to spend as much of your day as possible presenting your lure to fish that are anxious to bite something. Casting to fishless water is a waste of time. So is casting to water full of fish that aren’t willing to bite. Anyone who has spent much time chasing these things in the middle of winter knows the frustration of looking at the depth sounder and seeing a 10 to 15 foot thick layer of fish that seems to extend forever in every direction, yet not being able to get bit. We call those February fish. You can run into them any time, but you kind of expect most of them to be in that suspended, non-biting mode in February. Time spent casting to non-biters is usually better spent searching for fish that are willing to cooperate. Here’s a few hints…
- Current. It may not be be 100% guaranteed, but it comes close. Fish moving water. Except in special circumstances, the most willing biters will be found in or around moving water. This means it’s usually best to avoid the slack tide periods, and except in times of flood or sudden cold snaps, don’t spend too much time on fish that are stacked like cordwood in areas of negligible current.Speaking of current, whenever possible, fish the swing! A swing bite is when you let the current impart most of the movement on the lure, and there’s several different productive swing bite techniques, each of which can be the ticket to sustained, fish every cast type action in the right circumstances. Casting cross current and letting the flow of the water tumble your bait downstream as it sinks is one. Casting at an upstream angle, across a shear line in the current and letting the flow and the line’s water resistance pull the bait out of the slack and into the current is another. As is casting at a downstream angle and letting the bait drift downstream as it sinks, then just holding the rod steady, and letting the water resistance on the line lift the bait as it reaches the end of the swing. Twitch it occasionally, then let it drop back a foot or two. Money! After two or three fish, you know almost exactly when and where in the swing you’re going to get bit!This video illustrates taking advantage of the swing bite –specifically the downstream angle option discussed above…
Be forewarned though — When the river’s running hard and dirty, there’s a fine line between the best fishing being in the heaviest current and all the fish moving completely out of the current. Speaking of which…
- Out of the current. When the air temp just dropped from the 40s into the low 20s overnight, you might need to look at the coves and other current protected areas.When the river is experiencing flood conditions — high, fast moving, muddy water — expect to find most of the fish, and virtually all the biters, out of the current, in the coves. Unless of course they are smack-dab in the heaviest current.Seems to me that the smaller (and much more numerous) fish move out of the current and into the coves pretty quickly on flood or sudden thaw conditions, while the big girls actually go the other way, into the heaviest current, at least for a day or two.
- On the rocky banks. Usually, from the time they first show up in numbers until Christmas or the first of the year, they are most likely to be found in areas where the shallows are primarily rocky.
- On the sand/mud flats. The closer you get to the end of March, the more often you’re going to find the stripers on the sandy or muddy banks with limited rock. And when you find them here, they are almost always chewing.
- Mid-river suspended. Go home.
Not really, but when the fish are suspended mid-river over 35 to 40 feet of water is the toughest time to find enough concentrated biters to put together a big number day. Not that it doesn’t happen, but hundred fish days are a lot harder to come by when mid-winter stripers are suspended in deep water.
- Sometimes, the biggest catches come where the fish are a lot thinner. There are plenty of times where the fish are really stacked on your depth sounder screen, and all you’re getting is a hit every 10 or 20 casts. Move around a bit though, and look for areas where you see a few arches close to the bottom and you might just start catching them left and right.
- Staying in contact with the fish. Or more accurately, regaining contact with them after they disappear or dissipate. It’s not hard and fast, but as a general rule, the schools seem to move upriver at night and downriver during the day. When you are sitting on a solid bunch and they move, check downstream first. If you don’t pick them up pretty quickly, you might want to make a quick run upstream of where you were catching them, but usually, you’ll find them again downstream. Sometimes, we’ll play leapfrog with the fish, moving downstream until we feel like we’re reaching the end of the school, then locking in and fishing them until the whole school moves past us, and doing it again and again. Note though that you shouldn’t move as soon as you lose the fish on the sounder. There are almost always some ‘thin spots’ in the school of fish. As always,the more time you spend casting to fish instead of casting to nothing or looking for fish, the closer you are to a big numbers day. Being able to judge when to try to head them off and when to hold on for the rest of the school comes with experience.
- Don’t drive over the fish. When you’ve got a school chewing, a boat running over the top of them with the gas motor often either scatters them or turns them off for a few minutes.
- Finally! Getting bit. You already know what we’re using. Now you’ve got to know how to get bit on more than just an occasional basis. It’s all about count and cadence. When your lure hits the water, count it down as it sinks. On thin, 10# braided line, a half-ounce jighead with a 5″ bait sinks at about a foot and a half per second. Start by trying to work your lure just over the top of the school. If the depth sounder shows fish from 10 feet down in 20 feet of water, you want to start your first retrieve about 8 or 9 feet deep. A 5 or 6 count will do. If the top of the school is 15 feet down, you’re talking a 10 count, and so forth.Those are starting points, and you’ll need to adjust and experiment until you get bit. But once you get bit, stay with that count until the fish tell you to change.Your retrieve will consist of a sequence of rod tip twitches, slow sinks and straight swims, and you’ll want to experiment with the cadence of your retrieve. I usually start with a couple 6 to 12 inch “pops” of the rod tip followed by a slow turn of the reel handle, just enough to keep the bait headed in my direction as it swims back down to the starting depth. Every 2 or 3 repeats of that sequence, and I’ll throw in a single much more forceful, 2 or 3 foot pop, or I’ll skip a couple pops and just swim the bait steady for 5 or 6 feet. If the fish are in less than 20 feet of water and in contact with the bottom, I want my bait to touch bottom intermittently, but rarely do I want it to drag along the bottom. Remember though, rarely does not mean never.It might seem that I’m trying to make the retrieve as erratic as possible, but what I’m doing is probing for the count and cadence that will trip the trigger of the fish in this bunch, at this time, in this situation. As I get a feel for it, I will try to repeat that count, and will repeat the motion that generated my last strike repeatedly, until the fish tell me to start experimenting again.When you swing and miss — and it will happen — don’t reel it in and make another cast. You may think of it as “Damn, I just missed a fish,” but the fish reacts to the meal it just failed to eat, and is looking to complete the deal. Just let the lure settle back for a count or two, and repeat the cadence that generated the strike in the first place. Even if you hook up and lose the fish a couple seconds into the battle, do the same thing! You’ll be amazed at how often it results in an immediate hit.
What about bigger fish? Generally speaking, if we’re catching 14″ to 18″ fish, we don’t expect to catch a keeper mixed in with them, and unless we’ve already tried and those little guys represent the only bite we’re able to find that day, we’ll go looking for something else. But if we’re catching 20″ to 25″ fish, a keeper or two does not come as a surprise. Please note that the term ‘keeper‘ only signifies a fish of 28 inches or more in length. We don’t actually keep any of them.
On days when we catch two or more keepers early, we will likely keep moving around to areas we have big-fish-confidence in, to try to find more biggies, and numbers become incidental.
Also, once we get the first topwater bite of the spring, usually sometime in late March or early April, we pretty much start concentrating only on bigger fish. But for the winter fishery, the more often we can get bit and set the hook, the happier we are.