Cool weather has arrived, and with it a change in the fishing opportunities on Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta. Shad and blueback herring are moving into the creeks, and the big stripers are not far behind. While you’ll need to adapt your approach to these cooler conditions, there is plenty of hot striper action available on Lanier this month. With the advance of winter, surface temperatures are heading south, and the lake is completing its annual turnover. This inversion of the water column can drag angling action to a halt as the fish adjust to the change in their environment. However, by December the turnover is usually behind us, and the murky water of November has been replaced by the crystal-clear water we expect on this deep reservoir.
Captain Jerry Hester, of Ball Ground, is a Lanier regular who has been fishing the lake for virtually his whole life. As a full-time striper guide for more than 20 years, he has become known as a striper expert who consistently puts his clients on good fish. I had the good fortune of fishing this excellent lake with Jerry in early November. As an extra treat, I brought along my two grandsons, Michael, 14, and Jonathan, 12, from Smyrna, to give them a chance at boating a big Lanier lineside.
We met Jerry at the Vann Tavern ramp just after sun-up on a Saturday morning. In short order, Jerry had his big center console on plane and heading to our first spot.
As we approached a cove just down lake from Three Sisters Islands, Jerry throttled back on the big outboard and kept a close eye on his electronics.
“The graph is a key element in locating fish in the winter months,” said Jerry. “While we may see some fish busting bait on the surface today, as we move further into the winter, that will slow down.”
Jerry cruised over a likely area looking for schools of bait, and the characteristic arches of big stripers holding beneath them.
In the first cove, we spotted several good fish holding near the bottom in about 30 feet of water, as well as some pretty good schools of bait suspended just beneath the surface.
“We’ll drag some live baits on freelines through the area and see if we can get any interest,” said Jerry.
He pulled out two medium-weight trolling rods and handed them to the boys. He hooked a medium-sized blueback herring through the lips on each and told the boys to let the lines out slowly while we cruised on the bow-mounted trolling motor. The rods were mounted with bait reels spooled with 20-lb. test Berkley Big Game line. The main line was attached to a barrel swivel, about 6 feet of 15-lb. test fluorocarbon leader and a small circle hook.
The reels are equipped with two important features, a bait clicker, which sounds an alarm on a strike, and a counter that indicates the amount of line, in feet, that has been released from the reel. The amount of line released is a factor in how deep the bait will run below the surface on a slow troll (2 to 3 miles per hour). Jerry instructed Michael and Jonathan to let one line out about 80 feet and the other about 120 feet, engage the bait clicker and set the rods in two rod holders near the stern.
We had only been trolling a few minutes when the water about 50 yards in front of the boat erupted with feeding fish.
“I always keep some topwater plugs tied on for just this reason,” said Jerry. “Feeding fish can surface at any time, and they’ll bust a surface bait if you can get it to them.”
We kept trolling toward the feeding fish and got ready to make casts with spinning rods to the churning water. Jerry had a Zara Spook tied on while I had a Red Fin style bait on my line. We told the boys to pay attention to the bait rods while we climbed onto a casting platform to make casts to the fish. We got a few blow-ups on the surface plugs but no connections. The school went down, and we resumed our troll. The slight rocking of the boat can lull you to sleep when the action is slow. And I think Jonathon was just about there when the reel on his side of the boat screamed to life. It didn’t take him long to react, and he soon had the rod out of the holder and cranking as fast as he could. Unfortunately, the fish hit short so the hook failed to connect. Striper fishing can be like that, a quick spurt of excitement followed by either a big smile or a look of disappointment.
We moved down the lake to the area near Shady Grove Park and set up our flatlines again. There wasn’t as much surface action in the area, but we could see fish on the graph. It didn’t take long to connect. The bait alarm screamed on one of the reels, and the fight was on. We knew pretty quickly this wasn’t a big striper, but Jonathon had a good fight from a chunky Lanier spotted bass and landed one of about 3 pounds. His big smile was evidence that the fat green fish was just fine in his book.
We saw a couple of other nearby boats land a striper or two, and we were continuing to see bait and fish on the graph, so we kept dragging the freelines while we made random casts with the topwater baits.
Just down the bank from where we boated the spotted bass, a bait alarm went off again. This time we could tell we had what we were looking for. Pulling the rod out of the stern-mounted holder, Jerry handed the bowing rod to Michael, and the fight was on. After a few exciting minutes, Michael led a striper of about 16 pounds to the net. It was his biggest fish ever!
Since we went out in early November, the conditions weren’t quite at the level they are likely to be in December and through the rest of the winter months.
“When the water temperature gets to the low 50s, I will be working the back half of the creeks almost exclusively,” said Jerry. “In water temperatures colder than 50 degrees, bluebacks and shad move in to the creeks looking for warmer water and the stripers come with them to feed.”
Jerry said that larger feeder creeks like Flat Creek and Shoal Creek are good targets in December. He starts his search about midway to the back and works toward the back paying particular attention to secondary points and pockets off the main creek channel.
During the winter, flocks of birds will often gather over feeding stripers and dive on the bait that is driven to the surface.
“You can often find fish under the birds,” says Jerry. “But I like to find fish before the birds do. If you can see the birds, so can other anglers.”
On a typical December day, Jerry will begin by casting a 1/2-oz. bucktail jigs or a Super Fluke to schooling fish. Jigs are typically white with a white or chartreuse trailer and the Fluke (also in white) is offered on a 1/0 hook inserted sideways through the Flukes mouth. This gives more action to the bait as it is pumped back to the boat on the retrieve.
“The jigs will work under most conditions, but sometimes the relatively slow fall of the fluke will produce more strikes,” said Jerry. “You can’t throw it as far as the bucktail, but the slower fall is a good tradeoff to a long cast.”
Jerry throws these baits toward surface activity or fan casts around the boat when he sees active fish on the graph.
Jerry sets freelines out right away and drags them slowly on the trolling motor as he works the surface action with the jigs. The rig consists of bait-casting outfits spooled with 20-lb. test Berkley Big Game attached to a barrel swivel with about an 8-foot, 15-lb. test fluorocarbon leader and a 1/0 to 2/0 circle hook depending on the size of the live bait he is using. The hook should not overpower the bait.
“The stripers on Lanier get a fair bit of pressure and a smaller hook and fluorocarbon leader will tend to get you more strikes,” said Jerry.
When the water gets colder, size down on the fluorocarbon leader. Fifteen pound test is ok early in the season, but it is best to drop to as low as 8-lb. in the dead of winter to produce more bites.
The freelines ride pretty high in the water, so if the fish are holding a little deeper, Jerry adds a split-shot to the rig.
“I leave a small tag line on the knot at the top of the swivel,” said Jerry. “I crimp the split-shot on the tag rather than the main line. That way there is no crimp to the main line to weaken it.”
Another advantage of a freeline is the angler can control the depth of the bait. If fish are spotted below the current trolling range, pull forward and stop the boat and let the freeline sink to the fish.
Planer Boards and Balloon Rigs
Planer boards and balloon rigs are useful when you want to slow the action and let the bait stay over a promising area. With a planer board on each side of the boat, you can spread your baits and cover a wider area. Jerry will typically fish a planer board on each side and a balloon rig or two behind the boat. That way he gets a good spread of live baits behind the boat and covers a lot of water.
In a tight area, the planer board is clipped on the line only about 20 feet ahead of the bait. This limits the range of the bait and helps eliminate hang-ups on the underwater structure. In places that are deeper or have a wider range of open water, Jerry will put the bait as much as 50 feet behind the planer in order to limit spooking of the fish. The planer board is designed to drag the live bait out from the boat at a right angle and can be set so the bait will run parallel to the boat but as much as 25 or 30 feet away. When the setup is right, you can pull the planer right down the shoreline while the boat is offshore in deeper water.
“In the dead of winter, fish will often get in as shallow as 2 feet of water right up next to the bank, said Jerry. “At those times, a planer board is one of the better ways to catch them.”
The fish get in these spots especially early in the day and on days when the wind is blowing into the bank. Jerry fishes the planer boards and balloon rigs on casting rigs with 20-lb. test Berkley Big
Small Bait and Fly Approach
If you see schooling fish busting the surface and they just aren’t interested in your jigs or flukes, you might try sizing down. Through the winter, schooling fish will often be chasing small baitfish to the surface and aren’t interested in larger baits, artificial or natural.
“In the winter, a fly can be very effective on schooling fish,” says Jerry.
There are guides on the lake that specialize in fly fishing for stripers, and in those conditions they will generally recommend a steamer or clouser baitfish imitation, in natural colors, offered on an 8- or 9-weight fly rod. But if you aren’t a fly fisherman, a float and fly combination on a spinning rod can do the trick as well. Pick the same type of fly that would be used on a fly rod, but tie it on a leader about 3 or 4 feet behind a casting cork that has been attached to the main line. The casting cork provides more mass for the spinning reel outfit, making it easier to make longer casts, and floats, keeping the fly near the surface.
“Following the cast, make the retrieve through the school with a jerk-and-pause rhythm,” said Jerry. “But hang on, the strikes can come without notice, and you may lose a rod if you aren’t careful.”
In these conditions, a small live bait, like a bass minnow on a freeline, can also be quite productive, according to Jerry. Just hook it through the lips, and flip it into the school.
One of Jerry’s winter favorites is an umbrella rig. This rig, named for its resemblance to an umbrella frame, is popular among many striper fishermen and has proven to be very effective at attracting fish.
It is essentially a weighted wire frame that has multiple arms and leaders for attaching jigs. Jerry prefers a 3-oz. model that holds nine jigs. White bucktail jigs are the staple in 1/2- to 3/4-oz. sizes. The jigs are equipped with a trailer, typically white or chartreuse.
“All the jigs are the same with the exception of the middle jig,” said Jerry. “I usually put a slightly larger jig on the middle spot as well as a longer leader.”
The rig is designed to resemble a school of baitfish, and it looks remarkably realistic when pulled through the water.
The depth the rig runs depends on the speed of the troll and the amount of line let out behind the boat. At 5 miles per hour the rig will run at about the 20-foot depth with 100 feet of line out. With 150 feet of line out, the depth drops to 25 feet or so, and at 200 feet, the rig will run about 28 to 30 feet deep.
If the fish are shallow, in 10 to 15 feet of water, put the rigs about 60 to 80 feet behind the boat and get in close to the points.
Speed up to keep the rig up off the bottom. Watch the electronics to look for the presence of bait and fish.
Jerry will vary his trolling speed when pulling an umbrella rig to make the baits rise and fall in the water column. This change of speed and depth will often trigger strikes.
Oh, and one more thing. If you are fishing an umbrella rig, you will get hung up. It would be a great idea to invest in a u-rig retriever. Jerry makes one that is available at most local tackle shops. It is essentially a small grappling hook that is weighted and has a loop for attaching it to the line. A small rope pulls the rig up when the hooks make contact. It is a small investment that can save you a ton of money on tackle.
As you can see, there are lots of options for chasing stripers on Lake Lanier in the winter months. The key is to be flexible and try different things.
“Don’t count on the fish doing the same thing they did yesterday,” said Jerry.” “They move around a lot and respond to changes in conditions.”
But with the arsenal and methods Jerry describes, you are sure to find something that will work on any given day. So go out to Lanier this month, and try some of Jerry’s techniques for boating stripers. Do like I did and take the family. It is an easy way to introduce a kid to fishing while being challenging enough to satisfy the most seasoned angler.
Book a trip with Jerry, and he’ll show you how it’s done. Check out his website at www.georgiastriper.com or call him on (770) 479-1584. He’ll be glad to set up a trip for you, and you can bet you’ll have a great outing.