Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta, has long been known as a quality striper fishery. Stocking programs have been very successful over the years, and the reservoir has a good population of these landlocked saltwater bass, many of which are of trophy size. While the striper fishing on Lanier can be good year round, the winter months are some of the best, especially if you are looking for a bigger specimen of 15 pounds or more. But bagging a big striper can be tough, and local guides have worked hard to understand the movement of the big fish and the methods that are successful.
We had the opportunity to try our luck on Lanier during the second week of December, and we enhanced our chances by going out with one of the best guides on the lake.
Shane Watson of Cumming has been fishing Lanier virtually all of his life and for most of the last decade as a full-time guide. His guide service consists of six well-equipped center console boats all staffed by full-time guides. In most years his team will spend about 300 days on the water, all of it on Lanier.
“Our boats are on the water almost every day, and we stay in constant communication,” said Shane. “That gives us an advantage because we can pattern the movements of the fish and share the techniques that produce at different times during the day.”
I met Shane at Hammonds Bait and Tackle, his home base, at 6:45 a.m. on a Monday morning. Shane felt we should get out right after daybreak because a mild-weather front was forecasted to come through at midday and might shut the fish down.
“Any action we are going to have is likely to be early,” said Shane.
We launched the big Carolina Skiff at the Vans Tavern Ramp and headed up the lake into Flat Creek. “Flat Creek is always a good bet,” said Shane. “Especially in the winter. I usually start looking for fish about midway back into the creek and work all the way to the back.”
Shane shut down the big motor on the left side of the creek near some boat docks downstream of the FC 9 marker.
“We’ll start out with planer boards and flatlines at first,” said Shane. “If there are any big fish in the area, they are more likely to come up for a bait on the surface than any other method.”
Shane hooked rainbow trout about six-inches long onto four medium-weight casting outfits spooled with 16-lb. test line, and he set them out in rod holders along both sides of the boat. Two of the rigs were equipped with small planer boards that pulled the baits away from the boat, and made them run parallel alongside as we move slowly under the power of the trolling motor. The planer boards were clipped on the line about 20 feet above the bait, and the terminal end of the line was equipped with a bead, swivel and about 10 feet of 14-lb. test fluorocarbon leader tied to a 1/0 red hook.
“With these small planer boards by Water Bugz I can clip them on the line so they won’t come off during the fight. They are small enough that they don’t affect the retrieve, and the bead at the swivel keeps the board from slipping all the way down to the fish. It sure is nice not to have to chase a planer board after landing a fish.”
The other two trout were fished behind the boat, also on 1/0 hooks, with no weight or float, allowing the bait to swim freely. As a result we had four baits swimming near the surface and spread out nicely around the boat.
We began moving down the bank slowly on the trolling motor in about 25 feet of water. We hadn’t been going more than five minutes when the planer board on the left side took off, and the rod bowed in the rod holder. After a quick hookset the fight was on, and from the pressure on the rod we could tell it was a good fish. The striper made several runs before we got him to the net, but we finally lifted a broad fish of about 15 pounds over the side.
Within the next hour we landed two more fish; one that was a twin to the first. It was accompanied by another striper of about the same size that followed the fight back to the boat, and a big spotted bass that thought our trout looked tasty. We missed one more fish on a good strike, and then the wind got up with the approaching front and the action was over. Shane was right. It was a good thing we got out early.
Two of Shane’s other boats were out that morning as well, and both caught early fish. Both were fishing farther up the lake near Gainesville Marina. Interestingly neither of those boats caught their fish on freelines. One of the boats struck pay dirt with downlines at about 30-feet deep, and the other had success trolling an umbrella rig.
“That shows how important it is to be flexible when fishing Lanier in the winter,” said Shane. “These fish move around a lot, and they can change depth quickly with weather conditions. If you stick with one method that has produced for you in the past you are limiting your chances to catch fish.”
Shane says that there are two extremely important factors in winter striper fishing; birds and electronics. Flocks of seagulls hang out on the lake looking for pieces of bait that are left by feeding fish, and they will dive on schools of bait that have been pushed to the surface. If you see a flock of gulls circling and diving to the water, there may be a big school of fish under them. Look for surface splashes caused by feeding fish.
“I always keep a white fluke with a 3/8-oz. leadhead tied on to cast to schooling fish,” says Shane. “It is also good to have on a jigging spoon to drop down to the fish when the surface activity stops.”
When a school of fish is feeding aggressively, those two baits can draw a lot of strikes in a short period of time. But often a flock of diving birds can be a false alarm. Loons also dive under the water and feed on bait and can leave fragments of bait as well as drive schools of bait to the surface. The result is the same as when fish are feeding. Gulls are attracted and dive to the surface. So if you see diving gulls look around for old mister Loon before you beat the water to a froth casting for stripers. If a loon is in the area, it isn’t as likely that the stripers are there too.
If you don’t find feeding birds, you’ll need to rely on your electronics to locate fish. Shane uses them religiously, and he watches the graph carefully in areas that he knows are likely to be holding fish.
“I look for active fish on the graph,” says Shane. “If I don’t see the angled lines of fish moving, I won’t spend a lot of time in the area. It isn’t enough to just see the balls of bait, I look for active fish.”
When Shane is fishing the lower end of the lake this time of year, he concentrates on the points along the sides of the creeks from about the middle all the way to the back. The upper end of the lake is also good this time for year. Shane and his team tend to concentrate their efforts from the River Forks area to Wahoo Creek and Little River. Shane recommends that you check the creeks in that area, but if you don’t find fish, move out to the main-lake points.
While Shane believes that a free line is your best bet for catching a big fish in the winter, an umbrella rig will produce the most fish by far. Shane uses a rig called the “Dredge” which is a four-arm arrangement with two jigs per arm, and one in the middle for a total of nine jigs in all. He ties 1/2-oz. white bucktail jigs to short leaders on the rig and tips them with white or chartreuse trailers.
The rig, pulled about 80 feet behind the boat, at about 3 mph, will run around 25-feet deep, and it resembles a school of shad. When the conditions are right, multiple hookups are not unusual, but the fish will be smaller on average than with other methods.
Downlining live bait on weighted rigs can also produce stripers in the winter. If you are marking deep fish activity on the graph, drop a weighted live trout or blueback herring down to the level just above where the fish are holding. Stripers are generally more likely to move up slightly for a bait than they are to go deeper for it. A jigging spoon dropped down in the same situation will also often produce strikes.
Shane tells us that on any given day in the winter one or all of these methods will produce stripers, so don’t be afraid to experiment. If you stay with a pattern for a while and don’t have any luck, switch to another one, and see if the fish respond. Be flexible, and your results will improve.
“These fish move around a lot in the winter looking for a meal,” says Shane, “so you should too.”
Watch for surface activity or birds circling, and when you are in a likely area keep your eyes on your electronics.
Following Shane’s tactics can put plenty of fish in the boat, but if you are a novice and want to learn how to catch stripers on Lanier this winter, the best bet is to go with someone who can show you the ropes and help you catch a few fish. Shane and his team are well equipped to do just that. They even run “instructional” trips that are more like a seminar than just fishing. Give them a call at (770) 889-5549 or visit their website at www.lakelanierstripers.com. They’ll be glad to take you out for a quality day of fishing.