Sluggish striped bass aren’t as hard to catch as you think. Read more to find out how to catch them by ‘slow bumping,’ all winter long.
Like most game fish, stripers slow down during the colder months of the year. The trolling techniques anglers use during spring, summer and fall just don’t produce when water temperatures drop below 50 degrees. Or do they?
Most striped bass anglers I know troll around two miles per hour in spring. In summer, as water temperatures warm, stripers must eat more to support a livelier metabolism. This leads anglers in the know to increase their speeds as high as four to five mph. As each year falls anglers again may choose to return to spring time fishing patterns, as similar weather trends come about. But soon winter is upon the lakes we fish, and most sportsmen opt to winterize their boats, or store their kayaks. That’s a big mistake. Striped bass are ready feeders in the colder months of the year. They, as other target species, will likely not chase reaction baits, but they can still be caught. You just have to slow down.
One great way to do this is in a foot-powered kayak. Not only can you achieve near motionless speeds and vary them easily, but they’re silent. I cannot put a number on the amount of times I’ve found a school of rockfish, had them fired up in the dead of winter, only to have a boat speed by and thus the bite die for at least a half hour. These fish get a bit touchy this time of year. A kayak has no motor. These types of kayaks are big and stable, foot-powered, and are easily rigged with electronics, rod-holders and an assortment of other options. Installing two Scotty rod holders on a pedal kayak, along with a crate in the back of the boat frees up your hands and allows you to carry several rods.
Start with a medium heavy or heavy seven-foot rod. Outfit it with as nice a reel as you can manage. These fish will test your equipment. One setup for trolling many anglers use to offer multiple baits to striped bass is the three-way rig. Attach a one-ounce barrel weight above a bead and then your three-way swivel.
Leader length and pound test is very important in winter. Do not use a leader over 20 pounds. The fish are slow and will have time to follow and inspect your rigs. I usually use a 15-pound test, even in lakes in North Carolina like Kerr and Gaston, where 20-pound plus stripers are caught yearly. And blue catfish as large as you can imagine often mix in. I use a long, six- to seven-foot leader to offer a small stickbait on the long leader. Then I use a shorter leader of perhaps three feet in length to attach a one-ounce bucktail. The heavier bait tied on the shorter leader will create vertical and horizontal spread in the water column. Use two rods rigged in this manner and you are offering four baits from a kayak.
Stripers are often found in creeks off main lakes in winter. I’ve had the most success starting in the backs of these creeks early in the morning, and then moving out with the fish as the day goes on. Find access points on lakes you fish as close to the back of a creek as you can. Launch early and work your way out.
If the water is very shallow, I’ll either look for bird activity or try slowly popping topwater chug-bugs on the surface for the first hour or two. If this is unproductive go ahead and find at least 25 to 30 feet of water and drop your trolling setups. Stagger your lines to reach the depths of fish seen on your sonar. Mixing it up at first will have you covering a larger portion of the water column.
The fish will tell you where they’re feeding. I go as slow as .4 mph but no faster than one mph when utilizing this technique. The idea is to slowly bump along searching for likely marks on your sonar. When you find spaghetti marks all over your screen, get ready.
Some days are so cold, and when barometric pressure is high and steady, any trolling techniques using artificial gear can prove ineffective. When this happens there is another option to try before loading the ‘yak back into the truck.
First, use two similar rod setups and tie Carolina rigs with one-ounce weights and five-foot leaders. Attach your favorite bait hook. When you know conditions aren’t ideal for pulling hardware, pick up some big bass minnows. These are far more enticing to cold fish than bigger live baits like shad or herring. Hook these baits through the nose and employ the same slow bumping tactics over areas with fish present. This can be as deadly as live-baiting in spring if you’re on the fish.
Remember, chasing old Linesides is often described as “hours of boredom, followed by seconds of sheer insanity,” even in summer. So be prepared to put in the time. If you’re adventurous, have the proper water-proof, cold weather gear, and can drag yourself out of bed on a cold, dark winter morning; try some of these techniques and put some meat in the cooler.