To find some of the best wintertime striper fishing on Lake Weiss, George Eubanks depends on the birds.
George, who lives just outside of Leesburg, Ala., is a third-generation cotton farmer and works more than 600 acres of cotton fields near Lake Weiss. In the late fall, when the cotton has been harvested, he has a little more free time and he often spends some of it on Weiss with a fishing rod in his hand. He likes to catch crappie — fishing jigs in deep brush this time of year — or dragging a Carolina rig through deep stumps for bass. But fishing in December and January often means some serious bird-watching and then chasing striped bass.
When George spots a flock of sea gulls milling over shad being pushed to the surface by marauding stripers beneath the surface, the fishing can be fantastic. On his best day in December, the flying fish-finders led George and fishing partner Harry Richardson to a catch of between 30 and 35 stripers in the mouth of Yellow Creek.
“It was unbelievable,” said George. “Three times we had double hookups. And if the first fish missed the lure, the second or the third fish would usually get it.”
Most of the fish were in the 4- to 6-lb. range, with the biggest fish weighing 10 or 12 pounds. George’s best Weiss striper weighed 15 pounds.
“There’s really not that much to it,” said George. “The birds will lead you to the fish. You just watch for gulls diving on shad and that shows you where the stripers are.”
George’s winter striper fishing this year on Weiss began during a crappie-fishing trip.
“We were on the lake crappie fishing and saw some birds diving and heard fish slapping on the surface,” said George. “At first we thought it was a school of white bass, but we finally decided that it was bigger fish. We eased over and started throwing Rat-L-Traps and caught about 15 stripers in about 15 minutes. Most of those fish weighed between two and four pounds, but the next time out, we got into a school of fish that weighed up to 10 or 12 pounds.
“Crappie fishing had been slow, so we got to following the birds and catching stripers.”
The gulls on Lake Weiss are the key to this kind of fishing. When a school of stripers pushes a school of shad to the surface, the gulls swarm to the spot for a banquet of shad. The gulls pick up both the dead and dying shad left behind by the stripers, as well as plunging headlong into the baitfish to catch their own dinner.
A small twister of white gulls circling and diving shows up for a mile across the lake and that’s George’s beacon to fast fishing.
The most common mistake some fishermen make is to run right up on the school of fish with the big motor running. George shuts down early and approaches the diving gulls on his trolling motor.
Locating gulls in a feeding frenzy to mark stripers on their own feeding frenzy below the surface is the work in this kind of fishing. After that the fun begins. Once you’ve located a school of stripers that has pinned shad to the surface, if you can hit the water with a bait you are likely to have the bait slammed. Nearly any shad-imitation bait will attract a strike.
George has three favorites for Lake Weiss: a Lit’l Fishie, a Rat-L-Trap or a Hyper Striper jig.
The Lit’l Fishie is a soft-plastic minnow imitation on a lead-head jig. George likes the 2-inch white body because it closely matches the size of the shad the stripers are feeding on. He fishes the jig on spinning gear and 10-lb. line. Ten-pound line might sound a little light when you hook into a powerful 15-lb fish with an attitude, but George believes the lighter line translates into more strikes. He goes for the strike first and he will worry about getting the fish to the boat later. He sets his drag light and patiently lets the fish wear itself out.
If the fish are actively feeding, George simply swims the lure back to the boat, keeping the bait above the stripers. If he is fishing while waiting for the fish to come up, or fishing an area where the fish have been up, but have gone down, he fishes the minnow imitation much like you would fish a plastic worm — he casts it out, lets it sink to the bottom and then bounces it off the bottom.
A chrome/blue or chrome/black Rat-L-Trap is also a good choice because it will cover a lot of water. George fishes the lure on a baitcaster spooled with 20-lb. line. For the faster-moving bait line size isn’t as critical, he says.
There are two significant drawbacks to the Rat-L-Trap. First, it has twin treble hooks — not a problem in itself until you consider the forest of brush and trees lining the bottom of Lake Weiss. Expect to get hung often, and a plug knocker is standard equipment and is often employed.
The second drawback to a Rat-L-Trap is that it takes longer to extract the treble hooks from a fish. “Usually I will use the Lit’l Fishie because it has a single hook and it’s easier to get out of a fish than a Rat-L-Trap,” said George. “The idea is to get the fish off quickly so you can get your lure back in the water and catch another one.”
When a school comes up, it may stay on top for five minutes or up to 15 or 20 minutes, and often you can catch fish as fast as you can make casts. During these feeding frenzies, the type lure doesn’t matter much — any small shad imitation from Shad Raps to Little Georges to crappie jigs will catch fish. When the fish go down, George says they will often stay in the area for another 15 minutes or more and you can still catch them if you can find them.
Once they have gone down, George may try a third bait, a Hyper-Striper jig. The bait is a variation of a bucktail jig that has a small spinner attached. George dresses it with a plastic trailer and either yo-yos it back to the boat or bumps it off the bottom.
When a school of stripers goes down and eludes George he simply cruises the lower lake area looking to the skies for the gulls to lead him to another school of fish. The lower end of the lake is where you can expect to find the biggest concentrations of fish this time of year. Anywhere from the causeway bridge at Cedar Bluff all the way to the powerhouse impoundment are good places to watch for birds. Water depth doesn’t seem to matter much. The stripers may come up on 4-foot flats or water 40-feet deep over the river channel. When I fished with George on December 15 we caught fish in both Yellow Creek and in the powerhouse impoundment.
The striper fishing on the lower end of Weiss should hold up throughout January and most of February before the fish move up the rivers on their spawning runs. For striper fishing in the dead of winter, bring your binoculars to do a little bird watching at Weiss. When the feathered fish-finders are active and you see gulls crashing into the water — get ready to get your fishing line stretched.