Lake Lanier Sumertime Stripers on a Downline With Shane Watson

Bluebacks on a downline are your ticket to hearing the drag sing.

One of the best sounds of fishing is the sound of line being ripped off a reel by a heavy, hard-fighting fish. It’s a sound that you can expect to hear on a striped-bass fishing trip to Lake Lanier this time of year. When summer weather sets in, the stripers at Lanier stack up in the south end of the lake, and they will set your reel’s drag to screaming.

On June 15, I was on Lanier with striper-fishing guide Shane Watson and Martin Kline, one of four striper-fishing guides working for Shane.

Our trip started at daylight on a hump near Lake Lanier Islands. The hump topped out at about 31 feet, but there was water more than 100 feet deep within 50 yards and some deep timber, too.

“The stripers will cruise through the timber,” said Shane, “and then pull up on humps and points to feed.”

Shane and Martin quickly baited up four rods with live blueback herring and set them in rod holders in the four corners of his 21-foot center-console Carolina Skiff.

Shane slowly eased the boat along the edges of the hump with one eye on his graph, and another trying to watch all four rods.

“We’ve got some lookers —some window shoppers — looking at the baits,” he said, watching striper-sized arches that had appeared on the graph.

The rod tip next to me began to vibrate, signaling that the blueback herring on the hook some 30 feet below the boat was getting seriously concerned about its immediate future — and with good reason.

The rod tip suddenly plowed straight into the water under the weight of a striped bass.

I pulled the rod from the rod holder, felt the surge of a nice fish and heard that best sound — line pulling off the reel.

“Take your time,” Shane cautioned, but I was in no hurry. This is the fun part of fishing — a heavy, powerful fish trying to pull the rod out of your hands.

While I was hanging on in the front of the boat, a rod on a back corner of the boat arched over, the rod tip disappearing under the surface.

“That’s what makes this summer fishing so much fun,” said Shane. “You can get on a pack of fish and when one rod goes down, they can all go down.”

After a minute or two, my fish came to the surface to thrash, and gradually swirled close enough to net.

Nice, thick, silver-and-black striped fish, about 15 pounds.

The fish on the other line came off, but three minutes later, Shane boated another striper in the 10- to 12-lb. range.

“This is the closest thing to deep-sea fishing there is without going to the ocean,” said Shane. “The fish are big, but the trip is short, and the water is smooth.”

Shane, 36, grew up in Cumming and has fished Lanier since he was a kid. His first guide trip took place on January 1, 1988, he says. Today, his guide service operates five boats exclusively for stripers, and he books more than a thousand trips a year.

Striper fishing has been good at Lanier. Some days are better than others, but last summer, during a 90-day period (July, August & September), Shane said his records show that he averaged 15 stripers per day.
Big, fat stripers are on the increase at Lanier, and the credit goes to blueback herring, he says.

“Fishing is better now for both size and numbers,” said Shane. “The reason is blueback herring. It used to be that by the end of the summer we were catching fish with a 40-lb. head and a 28-lb. body because the fish were stressed, and they weren’t eating. If they wanted to feed on shad, they had to come out of the deep, cool water. But bluebacks are a deep-water bait. They stay down with the stripers all summer, and they are high in protein. We are seeing short, fat stripers with a lot of growth.
“There are tons of fish in the 12- to 15-lb. range. And we are seeing a lot in the 20- to 25-lb. range — more than I have seen in years.”

Shane fishes primarily in the south end of the lake.

“There are a lot of little fish up the lake, from Browns Bridge to Gainesville,” said Shane. “But I think the bigger fish will be down the lake, and the bigger fish aren’t usually found in schools. The big fish are loners. When a fish gets to be 20 pounds or more, he’s not a schooler.”

Shane’s heaviest fish of the year so far was a 38-pounder caught by one of his clients on a downline fished over a hump. To date this year, his clients have caught nine fish over 30 pounds.

The heaviest striper Shane has caught, back in 1987, weighed 42 pounds. Last year, a client boated another 42-pounder, which is just four pounds off the lake record.

Shane usually fishes only four downlines.

“When the fish are biting, four is all you can keep up with,” he said. “Sometimes all four of them will go down at the same time.”

His rods 7 1/2-foot medium/light action striper rod. The rods are very forgiving, said Shane.

“When you have a fish on, you don’t want to pump and wind or you will pull the hook out. A lot of times, the fish is just barely hooked. When the fish is pulling drag, you just hang on and let the rod and reel do the work.”

The Diawa Accudepth reels on his rods have a built-in line-counter, which makes it easy to ensure that the bait goes down to the right depth.

The reels are spooled with 17-lb, Cajun Red line with a 14-lb. fluorocarbon leader. Shane fishes a long leader, five- or six-feet long — when downlining bluebacks. In early summer, when the stripers are still on the humps and points, he uses a 1 1/4-oz. weight: later in the summer when he is fishing deeper water over the river channel, he switches to a 2-oz. weight to get the bait down more quickly.

Shane uses Owner 1/0 red hooks, and he uses the red-colored hooks for the same reason he fishes with red line.

“As it goes down in the water, red turns gray and is just about invisible,” said Shane.

Bluegill and shad will catch stripers, but Shane pretty much sticks with bluebacks.

“You can’t fish shad or bluegill as deep as bluebacks,” he said. “In August we will be fishing 80- or 90- feet deep, and a shad won’t live that deep on a hook.”

Most of the herring he rigged up were in the four-inch size range.

“Four-inches is a good-size bait,” said Shane. “You want to give them the size they are feeding on, and you can catch a 30- or 35-lb. striper on a four-inch bait.

By July, the striper fishing will be best out over the river channel and Shane’s guide trips will center on the area from the dam to Vanns Tavern access. During the summer, you can catch stripers over the channel in this area by trolling lead-core line and a single bucktail jig, or by pulling umbrella rigs. Shane, meanwhile, will be loading the boat by downlining bluebacks.

“You can catch stripers on artificials,” he said, “but downlining live bait is hard to beat because you are putting the bait down where they are.”
What may be the single most important key to fishing live bait is to keep fresh, lively bait on the line.

“The main thing is to change your bait — keep a fresh bait on the line all the time,” said Shane. “That is the main mistake that people make up here. If your rod-tip isn’t bouncing from the bait, change it.”

Another small, but critical detail, he says, is the length of your leader.
“Anything less than four feet long is too short,” he said. “With a long leader, the bait is pretty much free to travel, and it looks more natural. If the leader is too short, the bait will be pulling the weight around with him. That can spook the stripers off.”

One more tip has to do with your weight.

“You don’t want to use a shiny weight,” said Shane. “When a striper comes up to take a bait, first, he’s got to get past the hardware, and you don’t want him seeing a shiny sinker.”

Shane recommends painting the weights red or black so they are less noticeable.

Shane says that when the stripers are really biting, the little things probably don’t matter so much, but red hooks, lively bait, fluorocarbon line, long leaders and other details to keep the odds tipped in his favor.
He also recommends patience when targeting stripers.

“If you have good live bait, you ought to be able to come out to any main-lake point or hump or reef marker and catch fish,” he said. “You can run and gun if you are looking for schools of small fish. But you can spend too much time riding and graphing. These fish cruise all the time. If you are on good structure with live bait, these fish will come to you. It is fishing, don’t make it hunting.”

During the summer months, Shane says he fishes only five or six holes, and he catches fish consistently.

“If you have had some success, you need to wait,” he said. “What brought the fish by once will bring them by again, and they usually come in waves.”

For sheer numbers of fish, Shane says July and August are the best months of the year. And a big fish is always a possibility. He expects to catch one over 20 pounds every trip out.

“It’s the result of a combination of good groceries, and a good stocking program,” he said.

You will know in a hurry that you have a trophy-class striper on, says Shane.

“What you like to see is when the fish will burn drag while the rod is still in the rod holder. A really big fish makes it hard to get the rod out of the holder — they will pin you down. And the big ones will peel the line off your reel. Usually they will be heading for deep timber, and they will stay down. Smaller fish will go down, but they give up and come up sooner.”

On the day before we fished, Shane said his party hooked seven fish in the 20-lb. range.

“We lost a tremendous fish in the timber,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything with him.”

In four hours out with Shane and Martin, we had eight strikes, seven fish on and boated five stripers. The biggest fish weighed 15 pounds, and we had a pair in the 10- to 12-lb. range — fish that all made the drag sing.
For more information on Shane Watson’s striper guide service, visit his web site at lakelanierstripers.com., or you can call him at (770) 889-5549.

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