What is my favorite gamefish? Like most anglers, my favorite fish is probably the one on the end of my line when the question is asked. But if I step away from the excitement of the moment and really reflect on the attributes that I hold to be important, such as accessibility, willingness to respond to a number of different fishing techniques, size, fighting ability and the quality of table fare provided I keep coming up with a single answer…STRIPERS!
During the fall, winter and spring, when the bulk of our striper population is residing in the Delta, there are a number of different ways to target them. You can soak cut bait, show them live bait, troll for them, plug for them, jig for them and even toss flies at them.
For consistent numbers day in day out, bait fishing and trolling are great choices and truth be told these are the tactics that the vast majority of Delta anglers employ. While these approaches do offer steady results, they aren’t necessarily the most exciting ways to skin a striper.
If you want to experience the best of what Delta striper fishing has to offer you’ve got to cast for your fish. Depending on your preferences, that might mean using spinning or baitcasting gear or turning to fur, feathers and long rods to tempt them with flies.
I refer to plugging and fly casting as one-on-one striper fishing for good reason. It’s you against the fish. You are working the lure and when the fish strikes it doesn’t expend energy pulling out line against a clicker or tussling against a 1,500-pound boat moving at trolling speed. As soon as a bass takes a plug or fly, the angler gets to experience the power of the striper immediately and directly.
Now I’m betting that some folks reading this that haven’t had the pleasure of plugging for stripers think that casting for bass is complicated and takes a lot of specialized skills. Well, I’m here to tell you that plugging for bass is actually pretty simple. The hardest part of the equation is finding the fish; lure selection and presentation are actually pretty simple.
In this piece I’m going to stick with plugging with conventional gear for two reasons. First I have limited space and second while I’ve done a good deal of fly fishing, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of targeting stripers with flies.
Don Paganelli of Paganelli’s Bass Fishing Experience offers some good advice pertaining to finding stripers when out for a day of plugging.
“You can find stripers everywhere and anywhere in the Delta, but when I want to plug for them, I know that the Delta’s numerous flooded islands can be real hotspots,” relates Paganelli. “These islands are generally uniform in depth ranging from 5 to 6 feet deep. Structure in the form of roads, ditches, tree lines and troughs really stand out on these islands, which tend to be relatively featureless. Any place the provides structure or a change is an area where you want to work.”
Stripers are often thought of as open water fish and while that is true to some extent, they are ambush predators. The structural features that Don mentions attract baitfish looking for safety and the baitfish ultimately pull in the bass. Yet once the bass show up, the structure that the baitfish sought out for protection can become their worst enemy since stripers love nothing better than to crowd forage up against something solid to eliminate potential escape routes. That’s why stripers will often grab a lure right next to the boat.
Other key areas on islands are the levee breaks that connect the water of the islands with the rivers and sloughs that surround them. Any time you have two large tidal bodies of water separated by small openings you are going to get heavy current at certain times. Baitfish get caught up in the current and as a result stripers gravitate to areas featuring abrupt current changes in hopes of nailing disoriented baitfish.
In summing up about locating fish, think submerged islands, think shallow water structure and think abrupt current changes and you’ll be well on your way to bumping into a wolf pack of bad tempered stripers.
Water temperature also plays a big role in plugging success. While you might be able to nail a few stripers while plugging when the water temperature is up, you’ll have the best results when the water temperature hovers around the 50-degree mark.
“When the temperature get cold, it really seems to make the bass get more active and ultimately the more active the fish are the better you’ll do while plugging,” asserts Paganelli.
Okay, now that you’ve got an idea of where to find stripers, let’s take a look at the tackle and techniques used for catching them. We’ll start with rods, reels and lines.
Medium to medium heavy weight spinning tackle can be used for striper plugging, but bait casting gear does a much better job. You could get by with one rod, but two are a much better choice, since you can rig one for subsurface fishing and one for topwater action.
Your light rod can be spooled with 15 to 20 pound mono or 30 pound braid. This is the rod you’ll use for throwing crankbaits, small plastic swimbait and bucktail jigs. Your heavy rod should be spooled with 50 to 65 pound braid. This is the rod that you’ll primarily use for tossing topwaters, but it will also be useful for large swimbaits and wakebaits.
My light rod is a Lamiglas Certified Pro flipping stick, while my heavy rod is a Lamiglas Certified Pro Big Bait Special swimbait rod. Both of these rods are topped with Abu Garcia Revo baitcasters.
Lure selection for Delta striper plugging is actually pretty simple. There are a lot of baits that stripers will hit, but you only need a few to cover all the bases.
First you’ll want some 5 inch hollow body swimbaits. I like both the baits from Hippo Tackle and Berkley. Pearl colors that imitate shad are the way to go and you’ll want to rig these baits on ½ ounce jig heads. I really like the Blade Runner Tackle Spintrix heads. They feature a small willow leaf blade that adds vibration. For variety you can also grab a couple white ½ ounce bucktail jigs such as P-Line Pulse Raisers.
For hard baits you’ll want a few shad or chrome colored half ounce Rat-L-Traps for subsurface work. When it’s time to throw topwaters you’ll want a couple Pencil Poppers in chrome or white colors and a few large walking baits in chrome, clear and baby bass.
When working these baits, whether we are talking subsurface baits to topwaters, the key is to keep them moving. Stripers have notoriously bad aim and they often miss on their first strike. If you keep the bait moving they will usually keep on striking until they get hooked.
With the soft swimbaits, jigs and Rat-L-Traps simply cast them out and slow roll them back to the boat. Be sure to retrieve all the way back to the boat as the strikes often come right at your feet. If a bass misses your bait beside the boat, don’t raise it out of the water, instead start pulling the bait in a figure eight pattern just below the surface with the rod tip. Many times this will provoke a second strike that results in a hookup.
To effectively work either Pencil Poppers or walking baits, you’ve got to learn how to “walk the dog”. This is accomplished by rhythmically twitching the bait on a slack line while slowly retrieving line. With a bit of practice you’ll get the hang of moving the bait across the surface with a hypnotic side to side walk.
When a bass rushes a surface bait you’ll want to haul back and set the hook. Don’t do it! Keep the bait moving until you FEEL the strike and then drive the hooks home. Many times a bass will miss a surface lure two or three times before being hooked.