Lanier’s Predictable Summertime Stripers

Forget bait. Jim Farmer trolls artificials in July.

Some striper anglers on Lanier stow their rods in the summer and wait for cooler temperatures and less traffic on the lake. They prefer to stalk the big linesides up in the shallows during the cooler months when the fish tend to be in the creeks and are more accessible to casting and shallow trolling. But the action on Lanier doesn’t stop in the summer, it just changes a bit. If you know where to look and how to approach this deep, clear lake, you can do quite well in the heat of July and even the dog days of August. Jim Farmer, of Cumming, knows where they go and how to make them bite.

“Once we get into the heat of summer, a thermocline forms in Lanier,” said Jim. “The top 25 feet of the lake water is warm and low in oxygen, and fish can’t stay in it for long.”

Jim said that at about 25 feet below the surface a marked gradient in temperature occurs, and the water at that level is rich in oxygen. The cool water rich in oxygen continues to about 50 to 60 feet below the surface where the oxygen content tails off pretty sharply. That thermocline range from 25 to about 60 feet deep defines where the bait and the stripers are going to spend most of their time during the heat of the summer. That means you’ll do most of your summer striper fishing at the lower end of the lake where it is the deepest.

In mid June, I had the opportunity to fish Lanier with Jim. He has been fishing the lake consistently for stripers for more than 15 years, and he is the owner and operator of Cast Away Bait and Tackle. At Cast Away, Jim builds baits specifically for striper fishing, and he has spent a lot of time studying the habits of the big fish and designing lures based on what he learns.

I met Jim at the Six Mile Creek ramp on a rainy morning at 7 a.m., and he introduced me to his son Derek, who recently finished his third U.S. Army tour in Iraq. He and Jim had been fishing the lake off and on through the previous week, and they had a few schools of stripers located.

As we left the ramp on a slow ride through the morning drizzle, Jim explained our approach for the day.

“We’ll be fishing within a mile of the ramp in Six Mile,” said Jim. “Since it is still early in the season, the thermocline isn’t well defined yet, and there are still some fish up in the creeks. There has been a small school cruising the area this week, and I’m pretty sure they will still be here.”

After a short ride up the creek, Jim slowed the big Carolina Skiff center-console to an idle and began crisscrossing the area keeping his eye on the graph.

“There is plenty of bait around,” said Jim as he pointed to clouds on the console-mounted graph. “But I don’t usually put out baits unless I see the arches of at least four or five big fish.”

Jim said there is so much bait in Lanier, there are often significant balls of bait with no fish hanging around them.

“There is just more bait than the stripers can keep up with,” said Jim.

Soon we saw what we were looking for—arches indicating big fish suspended at about 20 feet below the surface.

Jim and Derek went into action setting out rods. Their typical trolling setup is two rods spooled with lead-core lines and two rods on downriggers. The terminal tackle is almost always artificial baits.

“In the winter, we’ll sometimes use live shad or blueback herring on downlines or flatlines,” said Jim. “But in the heat of the summer, the artificial baits work fine.”

We had success on our trip with a Cast Away Monster Blueback combo in the 1/2-oz. size. The jig consists of a 1/2-oz. bucktail dressed in a blueback-herring color combination, with a trailer hook attached. The trailer hook works well for short strikes.

In addition, we trolled an array of Cast Away jigs with soft plastics attached (curly tail or paddle-tail grubs), in various color combinations. Jim varies the weight from 1/2- to 2-oz., depending on the speed and depth he wants to troll. While bright colors like chartreuse and pink will produce at times, Jim generally prefers natural color patterns, like blueback and shad in the clear water.

The lead-core lines will cause the baits to run about 25 to 30 feet deep, depending on the amount of line you let out. The line is color coded with bands of color that vary every 30 feet, so you can keep track of how much line you have out without having to use a reel with a line counter. Jim uses 27-lb. test lead-core line and a generous 20- to 30-foot leader of 20-lb. test Berkley Big Game monofilament. He attaches the lead core to the leader with a surgeon’s knot when making a line-to-line connection. He also makes use of the new swivel technology that allows for the manufacture of very small swivels that are also quite strong.

“These swivels are so small they can pass through the eyes on the rod, and some even through the level wind on the reel, without a problem,” said Jim.

The rods used with the downriggers are spooled with 30-lb. test Big Game and again the same type of leader is attached at the terminal end.

Jim and Derek set out an assortment of four baits and varied the depth slightly on each.

“To get the lead core down to 25 feet or so at our trolling range, you need to let out about 200 feet of line,” said Jim. “The target range for trolling is from 2 to 3 1/2 mph.”

With 10-lb. balls on the end of the downrigger cables, you can control the depth pretty much regardless of speed. Jim hooks the line from the rod into the clip on the outrigger at about 20 feet above the leader. So you end up with the bait trailing the outrigger cable by about 50 feet.

The baits on our rigs were in the 3- to 5-inch range because we were a little early in the season on our trip. Jim said in July and August, baits of 5 inches or longer are better. He tries to match the size of the jigs to the natural bait the stripers are feeding on.

As we trolled over the area, we could see characteristic arches of the stripers suspended where we expected them to be, and some even moved up to our baits. But for the first hour or so, we didn’t get a hit. A front was coming through, and it was raining steadily. The water temperature had already dropped several degrees from where it was a couple of days earlier. We knew the fishing could be tough but were encouraged by the presence of fish below us. We made several passes through the school from different angles.

“This is a reaction strike,” said Jim. “The fish only see the bait for a very short period of time, and if they are facing in the wrong direction, they might not see it at all.”

Jim said it sometimes takes a half-dozen passes to get the fish to see the baits, so don’t be bashful about varying your direction and moving through the school more than once. But remember to make wide turns. The baits on the lead-core lines are often 200 feet or more behind the boat. It takes them a long time to react to changes in direction, and if you don’t make extremely wide turns, you’re likely to miss the school altogether. It is also good to speed up and slow down the troll to give the bait some action to cause strikes. Again, remember how far back your baits are. Action doesn’t do any good when it is 200 feet from the fish.

On the day we were out, a striper inhaled a Cast Away Monster Bucktail in a blueback herring pattern, and a happy Derek fought a nice 10-lb. striper back to the boat.

Jim said in July and August he spends all of his time on the lower end of the lake. He actually has a route he follows from the mouth of Shoal Creek, to the saddle dike, to the dam and then to Bald Ridge Creek.

“I keep the boat over the channels and stay in water about 100 feet deep,” said Jim.

He will make that circuit three or four times in a day and will almost always come upon fish in at least two locations.

Jim’s setup is to have two lead-core lines running at about 25 feet deep and two downriggers at 40 to 60 feet deep. That way Jim covers the entire thermocline. Smaller fish, in the 5- to 10-lb. range, usually stay near the top of the cooler water and are in big schools, so you’ll likely catch more but smaller fish on the lead core.

The big fish generally stay deeper looking for an easy meal as single shad or bluebacks escape from the frenzy above. So you’ll catch less fish on the downriggers generally, but they’ll be bigger.

Jim depends on his electronics to find fish. He begins by going to areas where he feels fish are likely to be holding, but he watches the electronics for arches. And he won’t set out baits unless he spots four or more fish on the graph.

In addition to his regular lower-end circuit mentioned above, Jim said the valleys between the humps at the mouths of both Young Deer and Bald Ridge creeks are two great spots to try. Big stripers use them as ambush points for feeding on bait as they move over the humps. He also recommends dragging baits about 3 feet over the top of the standing timber in the mouth of Bald Ridge Creek. That is another good ambush point.

Heavy tackle is in order for these fish. Jim uses Bass Pro Shops Power Plus Trophy Class rods. These are 7-foot rods in a medium-heavy action designed for trolling 1/2- to 2-oz. jigs. Jim’s rods have hefty baitcasting reels mounted on them.

One thing is for sure: there are plenty of stripers in Lanier, and they will bite in the summer. Give Jim a call at Cast Away Bait and Tackle at (678) 641-5160 or visit his website at www.castawaybaits.com. He’ll be glad to talk stripers with you. And during July and August you will very likely see him running his circuit at the lower end of the lake.

Oh, and by the way, please join me in thanking Derek for his service to our country in Iraq and wish him well. It looks like there may be a tour in Afghanistan in his future. Good luck Derek! And thanks Jim for an enjoyable day on the water.

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