“Tony, we are fixin’ to get hit, here.” said Randy, watching the arches on his graph. “ They are coming up.”
Ten seconds later one of the rod tips began to bounce — the bait being taken by a striper
“Here we go,” said Randy, as the rod tip crashed into the water.
Randy’s brother-in-law Tony Long grabbed the rod out of the rod holder, set the hook, and our first striped bass of the day was on.
On May 10, I was on Lake Nottely with Randy Hampton and Tony, both of Blairsville, for a look at striped-bass and hybrid fishing on this mountain lake.
Our first fish of the day weighed nine pounds. During the first 45 minutes of fishing, we boated two more stripers, a six and another nine. We had a bigger fish hit and bend a rod to what looked like the breaking point before it could be pulled from the rod holder. That fish cut behind the boat, reversed course and then snapped the line.
In a half-day of fishing, we caught six stripers, two hybrids, a 2 1⁄2-lb. spotted bass, and a 3-lb. largemouth. They all went back into the lake.
We did not get the big one, but you can put your money on Randy to catch one. He rightfully has the reputation as Nottely’s monster-striper specialist. If you could put together a list of the top-10 biggest striped bass caught from Lake Nottely, Randy has had a hand in catching several of them. In just the last four years, his boat has seen six fish over 35 pounds, including the lake record — a 53-lb., 12-oz. striper caught by his son Chris. And there have been some near misses. Chris caught a 50-lb. class striper on a Fluke and brought it to the side of their boat. Randy, however, slipped on the deck while reaching for the fish, fell into the lake on top of fish, and the line broke.
There have been several other mystery fish hooked, too, including one earlier this year, that were too powerful, too big to turn.
Randy is nonchalant about his success.
“I have been lucky every once in awhile,” he says.
But there’s a little more than luck behind catching so many monster stripers. If there is a secret to his success, it revolves around three things: light line, small baits and stealth.
First, he has down-sized his tackle.
“There are a lot of people up here who fish with 25-lb. line,” said Randy. “I fish with 12-lb. line. I break off a lot, but I think I get more hookups and with a lot bigger fish.”
His attitude is, “Let’s get the fish on, then we will worry about getting it in.”
Often he has had to chase a big fish with the trolling motor to keep from being spooled.
Second, he also downsizes his bait.
“A big fish will hit a three- or four-inch shad,” he said.
He fishes both bluebacks and gizzard shad. He prefers the shad when he is up the lake, bluebacks when he is on the main lake.
Third, and importantly, he likes to put some long distance between his boat and his baits. He says he was one of the first to use planer boards on Nottely. The idea was to use the planers to move the bait away from the boat and any disturbance it might cause. The bigger fish are going to be more spooky, he says, so if you can get the baits away from the boat, you have a better chance of getting a strike. He lets his freelines out far behind the boat, too.
“It is usually the line that is the farthest from the boat that gets hit,” he says.
Stealth can play a part, too. Two of his biggest fish came by wind-drifting baits as silently as possible through an area where he had seen a big arch on his graph.
On May 10, our day began at 6:30 a.m. in one of the gaps between the islands where the river channel makes a horseshoe turn near Point No. 3. Randy and Tony deployed shad under two planer boards, two downlines, a freeline, and a freeline under a float.
“We put everything out until we see what works,” says Randy. “It changes from one day to the next. If you think you have got them figured out, you better regroup. What works today, might not work tomorrow.”
The shad were hooked through the nostrils on a 1/0 hook. On the downlines he ties in a 1 1/2-oz. live-bait weight about four feet up the line. Randy prefers small baits — three or four inches long.
“Some of the biggest fish have hit small baits,” he said.
Chris’s lake-record striper hit a big bass minnow.
The graph is a key piece of equipment, and Randy monitors it constantly watching for the big arches that are stripers. He keeps his baits above the depth the stripers are holding.
“As long as you keep the bait above them, they’ll hit.” he said. “If you get it below them, you can forget it.”
He uses line counters on his downrods to keep accurate track of depth.
The fishing can be frantic when you pull that much bait into a school of stripers. On Mothers Day, 2003 Randy caught 18 hybrids and stripers. Two Hampton-family boats fishing that day caught a total of 35 linesides.
“One time we had six fish on at one time,” he said.
Randy keeps several spinning rods standing at the center-console ready with topwater tackle to fire at any fish breaking near the boat. The big plugs included a saltwater-sized Chug Bug, a Red Fin, a Sammy, and a Super Fluke on a weighted jig head. If a fish breaks close to the boat, the splash rings are quickly bombarded with plugs.
“When they blow up like that, it’s a feeding fish,” said Randy. “If you can get the plug there fast enough, they will usually hit.”
The topwater activity was just beginning in early May. We saw a couple of schools of fish blow up on the surface. One of them was close enough to cast to, and we pulled out a 3-lb. striper on a weighted Fluke. Early in the morning we saw a fish surging near the bank that left a wake like Namu. There are some big fish in Nottely.
Randy has fished for Nottely stripers only since 1999, when open-heart surgery temporarily put him out of the day-to-day operation of Hampton Well Drilling Co., a water-well drilling company that his grandfather began in the 1950s.
Randy started to learn about striper fishing by booking trips with striped-bass guides on Lanier, Hartwell and other striped-bass lakes. He says he learned a lot on Lanier fishing with guide Don Roberts.
Randy is always tinkering with his fishing. The day we fished, he had a one freeline shad out under a 2-inch Styrofoam float pegged about 12-feet up a line. The float trailed out to 50 yards behind the boat.
“I don’t know why, but I have had more success with that little float than I have with balloons or any other kind of float,” he said.
We caught a couple of nice hybrids the day we fished, and Randy says there are some big ones in the deep, cool-water lake. Hybrids were stocked in Nottely to help control the population of blueback herring, and the fish accepted the task with enthusiasm, growing fat in the process. According to Randy, Tony caught and ate a 14-lb. hybrid that was deep-hooked. The lake record stands at 7-lbs., 12-ozs., a record Randy expects to fall any day.
This time of year, Randy fishes primarily with gizzard shad.
“Bluebacks are hard to beat as bait,” he says, “but the gizzard shad handle the heat a little better.”
At his home, Randy has a bait tank to keep bait fresh and ready to go. If you don’t have a cast net, you can purchase gizzard shad from Tri-State Bait & Tackle in Lakewood on your way to the lake. The bait shop phone number is (706) 374-2030.
Randy fishes Nottely, a relatively small lake at 4,180 acres, from one end to the other depending on the season. In the spring, he fishes the mouth of Youngcane Creek, Canal Lake or up the river. Through the summer he will focus on main-lake points with deep water nearby. If the fish aren’t cooperating on live bait, there are rods ready for umbrella rigs. Randy uses the umbrella-rig array of seven jigs as a fish-finder rig. He runs the banks in likely areas waiting for a fish to hit, and watching the graph for concentrations of fish.
“I would rather catch them on live bait,” he said. “But you can cover a lot of water with an umbrella rig.”
His umbrella rigs have six white jigs and one chartreuse jig.
“They almost always hit the different-colored jig,” he said.
The umbrella-rig bite will improve as the water warms into the 80s and the fish stack up on main-lake points, he said.
An umbrella rig will catch big fish, too. The 39.9-pounder caught by Brandon Duff hit an umbrella rig.
With deep, cool water, and tons of bluebacks to feast on, the striped bass and hybrids at Lake Nottely have the potential to become trophy-sized. To date in 2004, Randy hasn’t cracked the 35-lb. threshold for stripers at Nottely.
But it’s just a matter of time.