It would be hard to find a prettier morning than the start of May 9 as Jerry Hester and I scooted over the surface of Lake Lanier in his center-console guide boat. The sun was low on the horizon, casting an orange glow over the water, and the surface of the lake was mirror-like, about as slick as I have ever seen it. It was a far cry from the midday washing-machine action that will better describe Lanier on a summer weekend day.
“Even though this is a pretty sight, it, isn’t the best of conditions to catch stripers,” said Jerry. “I’d feel a lot more confident if we had a little chop and not give the fish as good a look at the baits.”
Jerry knows what he is talking about. A full-time guide for most of the last 15 years, Jerry spends as many as 200 days on area lakes, mostly Lanier. He focuses almost exclusively on stripers and hybrids, and his repeat customers are a tribute to his prowess.
With the water temperatures heating up as we head into another Georgia summer, some anglers might think that the Lanier striper bite would slow down. Not true. In fact, when the summer thermocline sets up, deep-water trolling tactics can produce better numbers of stripers on a more consistent basis than just about any other time of the year.
Jerry and I were on the south end of the lake and were heading on a path toward a small creek just north of Aqualand Marina. As we moved slowly toward the middle of the creek, we could see some activity on the surface. Not the big crashing schools of fish chasing bait that we were hoping for, but isolated splashes periodically. One advantage of the slick water was that you could easily see fish movement from a good distance. That can prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Chasing surface-feeding fish can be frustrating and unproductive. They’ll often be down again before you get to them, and they are as likely as not to come up in the spot you just left.
Jerry positioned the boat near the edge of a large flat in about 15 feet of water.
“We’ll put out a couple of flatlines with live bait and cast some big surface plugs as well,” said Jerry.
The flatlines are simply a hook tied to the end of the line with no weight, and a live bait hooked through the lips. In our case the bait of choice was blueback herring. These baitfish have been established in Lanier for several years now, and the stripers feed on them voraciously. Many anglers choose them over the shad and trout that have been used for Lanier live-baiting over the years. When fishing a flatline, Jerry often throws chunks of frozen bait overboard to help chum some fish to start feeding.
Jerry hooked up two flatline rigs, and we began playing them out over the side as we moved along slowly with the trolling motor. For the flatline Jerry uses medium-weight rod and a baitcasting reel spooled with 12-lb. test Berkley Big Game Line. He feels that the abrasion resistance of the Big Game line is an advantage when catching stripers because their gill plates are sharp and often rub on the line during the fight. In open water like we were fishing, the 12-lb. test was sufficient since there was very little in the way of bottom cover to cause hang-ups. Jerry usually uses a 1/0 hook but will go a little bigger if the bait is extremely large. In clear-water conditions, Jerry will add a 10-lb. test fluorocarbon leader to the line for about the last seven to 10 feet.
“The fluorocarbon leader is almost invisible in the water and can make a lot of difference in whether the striper will take the bait or not in extremely clear water,” he said.
Jerry also warns that you shouldn’t use a Palomar knot with the fluorocarbon line. “I kept having line failures and finally figured out that the fluorocarbon will cut itself when tied in a Palomar knot,” said Jerry.
He says that an improved clinch is a much better knot choice. If the bait is overly large, Jerry will often tie a stinger treble hook on to the primary hook on about six inches of 30-lb. test line. The fish will sometimes hit short on a large bait and miss the primary hook altogether. In those cases the stinger hook can mean the difference between a missed strike and a boated fish.
“We need to let the flatlines out at least 30 yards behind the boat,” said Jerry. “I believe the fish shy away from the boat as it comes across the flat. If the baits aren’t far enough back, you are likely to pull the bait through the area before the fish recover.”
With the flatlines set out, we began fan-casting the flat with big, swimming topwater baits. We were using the seven-inch Blue Fin from Bill Norman Lures in the black/chrome color combination. The Red Fin from Cotton Cordell Lures is a good choice as well. In either case the lure is presented by making long casts and bringing the bait back to the boat with a slow retrieve. The lure has a shallow wobble and makes a classic “V” wake when retrieved properly.
“You don’t want the bait to dive beneath the surface,” said Jerry. “Pull it just fast enough to keep a wake going, and keep your eye on the bait all the way back to the boat.”
Jerry says that novice striper fishermen make a common mistake with both the flatline and the topwater bait.
“The tendency is to jerk as soon as you see the fish smack at the bait on the surface,” said Jerry. “You should always wait until you feel the fish pull the line tight before setting the hook.”
We moved about the flat, dragging the flatlines and casting the plugs, for about 30 minutes before we got our first strike. Jerry saw a fish come up on one of the flatlines, and the blueback skittered across the surface trying to escape. Jerry quickly grabbed the rod and started playing out line allowing the herring to run.
“If a fish comes up behind a live bait and doesn’t take it, let out a little line to allow the bait to run from the fish,” said Jerry. “This will often make the striper pursue the bait and hit it aggressively.”
Sure enough the striper chased down the fleeing bait and engulfed it. Jerry felt the tug on the line, set the hook and the fight was on. After a brief struggle, Jerry guided the striper to the side of the boat and landed it. The fish weighed in at around seven pounds. That is at the lower end of the range of fish you are likely to catch on Lanier. According to Reggie Weaver, a fisheries biologist for the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), the average striper on Lanier should be between eight and 10 pounds. He said the population contains a high number of fish in the 12- to 15-lb. range.
Reggie said the striper population is doing well on Lanier. The addition of blueback herring to the lake, while potentially damaging to other fish populations, has had a positive impact on the stripers. Since bluebacks are cool-water fish they tend to go deep in the summer, as do the stripers, providing a year-round food supply for the linesides. Shad tend to stay shallower and don’t go down with the stripers in the hot weather.
Reggie also mentioned WRD’s new tagging study of stripers on Lanier this year. They tagged 500 stripers and will collect data returned from anglers for one year. Some of the tags have already started to come in. The tagging-study data will provide information about fish mortality/survival rates, fish movements, etc. The last tagging study for Lanier stripers was in 1997.
Biologists have determined in the last few years that fingerling survival is impacted by the density of stocking, and they have modified their stocking program to improve results.
“We used to stock striper fingerlings at three locations on the lake with about 100,000 fingerlings put into the lake at each site,” said Reggie. “We found that the small fish didn’t move much at all during the first few weeks and eliminated much of the food supply, causing many of the small fish to die off early in the stocking process.”
Now WRD stocks in 10 locations that exhibit the best “nursery”
characteristics, with about 30,000 fingerlings at each location. Reggie said the 2003 stocking resulted in about 10-times the number of young fish surviving than in previous years. The bottom line is that through this kind of fisheries management, there should be more catchable stripers on Lanier in the future.
Jerry says that the flatline and topwater bait patterns will produce through May and into June as long as the water temperature stays in the 70s. The surface temperature was around 65 degrees the day we were out. Actually that is a little cooler than you would expect this time of year, so we might have some good topwater action for longer than usual.
When the water heats up later in the month, Jerry changes techniques to deeper-running baits. His three favorite methods are downlining a live bait on a weighted rig, trolling with a downrigger, and trolling an umbrella rig.
For the downline Jerry uses a 1 1/2-oz. sinker with about a three-foot leader below a swivel. Jerry makes his own weights with the swivel incorporated into the weight, but an individual swivel and weight will work as well. Jerry drags the downline over main-lake humps and points in the 25-foot depth range. Blueback herring are the bait of choice, and he again hooks them through the lips to give them more freedom to swim about naturally.
In early June he will also try the creek channels about halfway back into the creeks. Jerry concentrates almost all of his fishing this time of year on the lower end of the lake.
Later in June Jerry switches to deep-water trolling with downriggers and umbrella rigs.
“Trolling is by far the most productive way to find fish in the summer,” says Jerry. “The fish will be chasing deep bait over the main-lake humps, and if you get a bait down to them, you can catch fish in large numbers.”
His two main trolling weapons are designed to do just that, get the baits deep. Jerry uses a 10-lb. ball downrigger and sets it to run a bait at about the 25-foot mark. His first choice for downrigger fishing is a white bucktail jig (1- to 1 1/2-oz.) with a white, soft-plastic trailer. He sometimes mixes it up on the downrigger with a Rat-L-Trap or a crankbait if the fish won’t hit the jig.
The umbrella rig looks like the framework of an umbrella with the fabric removed. Short pieces of line are tied to the arms of the rig, and these are terminated with, you guessed it, bucktail jigs. Jerry uses two sizes of rigs, one with three arms and one with four. The four-arm rig is heavier and will obviously run deeper. The rig is equipped with two jigs per arm and one tied to the middle of the rig. Jerry generally ties a different color jig, like chartreuse, to the center line and makes that line about twice as long as the ones on the arms. Jerry says that the rig doesn’t tangle very often once you get it in the water.
“Tangles in the boat are frequent and messy,” says Jerry, “so don’t spend much time holding the rig up in the breeze or you’ll do more untangling than fishing.”
The umbrella rig is tied to 40-lb. test line and fished on heavy saltwater outfits. The resultant “school” of jigs running through the water often attracts several fish, and multiple hookups are not uncommon. With more than one striper on, you’ll need that heavy gear to get them to the boat.
Jerry usually fishes the downrigger and umbrella rig together. The downrigger runs the bait right underneath the boat, and the umbrella rig is set to trail the boat by about 150 feet. The trolling speed is pretty fast. Jerry describes it as a “fast walk.”
Jerry recommends that you keep your eye on the electronics when working an area. Stay on the lookout for bait or fish on the graph. If you don’t see anything on the screen after a few minutes of trolling, move on.
One thing about umbrella rigs, they get hung up on the bottom. One of
Jerry’s most important tools is a specially designed retriever to extract the rig from roots and stumps on the bottom. Without one you’ll be spending a lot of your fishing time tying on new umbrella rigs and a lot of your money buying them.
When you are fishing a downline or trolling, Jerry says keep a flatline rig on the ready, as well as a topwater plug. Schools of fish will often chase bait to the surface, and the water might erupt near your boat, particularly early and late in the day. Casting a live bait on a flatline or a topwater lure into the fray will usually result in an immediate hookup. Also, a hooked fish will often be followed to the boat by one or more of its school mates — drop a live bait quickly over the side of the boat.
Lake Lanier is one of the South’s most-productive striper lakes, and it well worth your time this month when the summer trolling patterns heat up.
Just watch out for those boats more suited for the inter-coastal than a lake.
To contact Jerry Hester about a guided trip on Lanier, call (770) 479-1584.