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Live-Bait Secrets for Giant Stripers
written by Don Wirth

Serious about tangling with a trophy? You'd be wise to put something squirmy on the end of your line.
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giant river striper 2
Get your hands on the striper of a lifetime with the live-bait tips in this story!

No question, lures can produce amazing results. Unquestionably one of the biggest thrills in freshwater fishing is the moment a big striper smacks a topwater lure -- the impact has been likened to that of a Buick falling off a bridge. And don't sell crankbaits and jigs short when it comes to catching these silvery fighters.

But day in and day out, the best "lure" for a real wall-hanger of a striper is live bait. Most of the giant stripers taken every year succumb to some form of bait, and if you're serious about tangling with a trophy, you'd be wise to have something stinky and squirmy on the end of your line.

Here's what you know to score big on bait. Put the following tips into practice on your home striper waters and watch the quantity and quality of the fish you catch escalate.

Baiting Up

The experienced striper fisherman spends a great deal of time searching for, gathering, holding and caring for his live bait. He knows that on many fishing days, if there's no good bait, his chances of a bite are minimal. Thus productive striper fishing demands some general knowledge of where to hunt the bait the fish want, and some specialized gear to catch and maintain it.  

Landlocked stripers are often typecast as indiscriminate eaters; many anglers even hold them responsible for declining populations of bass and crappie in some reservoirs. But biologists know such is not the case. Stripers feed mainly on pelagic forage fish including threadfin and gizzard shad and blueback and skipjack herring. They'll also eat trout, bluegill, eels, drum and an occasional carp. At times, stripers will even dine on crappie minnows!

 

striper bait castnetting
A cast net is essential for gathering live bait.

Of the above, the most popular landlocked striper baits include shad, herring, trout and bluegills (the latter two where legal). Shad and blueback herring are best gathered in a cast net; trout, skipjacks and bluegills can be caught on rod and reel.

Throwing a cast net is an ancient art that's well worth mastering. If you can't find these nets in your local tackle outlets, Bass Pro Shops (1-800) BASS PRO) sells them, along with instructional videos. Net size is indicated by radius (example, a 10-foot net spans 20 feet across when thrown properly). A good starter size is 6 feet; once you get comfortable with this, you may find a larger net more desirable. If you're after big baits like gizzard shad, choose a heavy net with a fairly large mesh size; this will sink faster, especially in current.

Shad and blueback herring can usually be netted in large quantities below dams, however extreme caution must be exercised -- stay out of posted areas and wear your pfd! In the Tennessee striper reservoirs near my home, I also find gizzard shad in the back-ends of tributaries as well as around river eddies and shoals.

Skipjack herring are a tremendous live bait; they can occasionally weigh over 2 pounds, but that's not too big for a monster striper. Skipjacks thrive in the fast water below dams. The best way to catch them is to use a spinning outfit with two or three tube jigs tied 6 to 12 inches apart up the line. These buggers really put up a fight when hooked; catching them is a blast.

A shad tank is a necessity for keeping shad and herring frisky. These aerated tanks are rounded inside so the bait doesn't swim into the corners and get "red-nosed." The best ones have a filter to trap scales and crud. Get the largest shad tank you can deal

 

giant river striper
Monster stripers like this 47-pounder are usually caught on live bait, as legendary Tennessee guide Ralph Dallas knows.

Skipjack herring are much harder to maintain in a tank than are shad and bluebacks. Many anglers catch them in a likely fishing area and immediately bait them up and fish with them rather than risk killing them in their tank. Some highly sophisticated skipjack tanks are in development as this goes to press; they include a remote tank to hyper-oxygenate the water and a much more powerful aerator pump than is commonly used in a shad tank.

Your bait tank's water must be kept cool (preferably 60-70 degrees) and treated with a livewell chemical. I treat the water in my shad tank with Shad-Keeper and Foam-Off. I also add ice in hot weather.

Proven Bait Rigs & Presentations

Like catfishermen, striper anglers have a variety of bait rigs they rely on under various conditions.

When tying these rigs, keep in mind that factors such as line test, sinker weight and hook size are relative. In deep water, and in heavy current, you may need a much heavier sinker than in shallow, slack water (where you may need no sinker at all). Likewise, your hook size will vary according to bait size.

 

striper bait
A bait tank with rounded corners helps keep live shad frisky.

When stripers are below 15 feet deep, a down line comes in handy. This bread-and-butter reservoir rig presents the bait directly beneath the boat and is especially recommended when stripers are suspending off the bottom and around offshore structures such as humps and channel drop-offs.

As shown, the down line should be fished with a heavy sinker so your bait doesn't drift back too far, which would alter its depth. A sturdy swivel is necessary to prevent the baitfish from twisting your line during its struggles.

Long baitcasting or spinning rods with a fairly soft action are perfect for downline use. I like to keep my downline rods in holders until a fish strikes.

Once suspended stripers are located on your graph, note the depth of the highest fish and measure out enough line off your reel so your bait is presented just above their level. For some reason, a suspended striper will usually swim up to grab a meal, but will seldom swim down.

types of bait can be fished on a downline. In hot weather, a live bluegill can be surprisingly effective.

Flatlines are used when a shallower presentation is required, and are often employed by reservoir anglers in conjunction with downlines. Here, a baitfish is hooked and a cast length or so of line peeled off the reel. Every time the boat speeds up or slows down, the bait will rise and fall in a most enticing manner. Adding a split shot above the bait will put it a little deeper if desired. Besides stripers, a flatline will often take a bonus bass or walleye.

When fishing downlines and flatlines in combination, try to present a Duke's mixture of bait sizes. On some days the fish want only the biggest baits in your tank; at other times they prefer a much smaller bite.

Planer boards are currently in vogue with reservoir and river striper hunters. These wedge-shaped devices attach to the baited line and cause it to swing out to either the left or right of your boat. Reservoir anglers find this gives their presentation more coverage; river anglers like the fact that the board can present the bait tight to shoreline cover. Depending on how aggressive the fish are, run your bait anywhere from 3 to 20 feet behind your boards.

Floats and balloons are arguably the most exciting method of presenting a live bait. They're recommended when stripers are using shallow river bars and shoals or reservoir coves and points; they're super-deadly when fish are holding tight to submerged trees or snaggy undercut banks, such as is often the case in rivers. In the tailraces I fish, I may get a follow from a big striper early in the morning when casting a topwater lure or crankbait past a sunken tree, and will return to the spot later and chunk a big shad on a float to this spot. Often the bait gets creamed the instant it hits the water.

Stinger rigs may be required for large baitfish, especially skipjacks and trout. Here, the bait is hooked both through the lips or nose as well as through the tail. Wire leader material works great for attaching the stinger hook to the main hook; its stiffness helps prevent the tangles you'd get from using mono or braided line.

Bottom rigs are best used on gravel bars and flats, and are deadly in river current. Either live or "cut" bait (sections or filets of baitfish) will work on the bottom. Some of the biggest stripers ever recorded were taken on cut bait fished on a bottom rig.

Tackle Recommendations

The type tackle you use will depend on the kind of bait rig being fished and the size of the striper you're likely to encounter.

Where stripers run up to 10 pounds, bass-sized baitcasting and spinning gear can be used. In open reservoirs where stripers may range from 10 to 30 pounds and a combination of downlines and flatlines is used, 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot medium-action baitcasting rods and wide-spool reels such as Ambassadeur 6500s with 15- to 20-pound mono are recommended. And in snaggy rivers, where giant fish are a possibility, use 7- to 8-foot medium-heavy to heavy baitcasting rods, Ambassadeur 6500 and 7000 reels and 30- to 50-pound mono. Some river anglers I know are using braided lines to 130-pound test; these work better in murky water than clear water. If you do use braided products for stripers, keep in mind that these superlines have almost zero stretch; you'll need to compensate by using softer-action rods than you'd normally use with mono.

More Bait Tips

  •  When drifting bait, a bow-mounted graph with its transducer attached to your trolling motor is a great help in pinpointing striper location and bottom structure.
  • Stripers sometimes hit a bait so hard, the impact can break the line. Keep your reel drag fairly loose. Then when a fish runs off with your bait, tighten down the drag gradually to control the fish.
  • Use an unmounted bilge pump and hose to drain the water from your bait tank and replace it with fresh water as needed. Clean the tank's filter regularly during the fishing day.
  • If you don't see stripers on your graph, don't panic -- look for big schools of baitfish instead. The stripers won't be far behind.
  • When you detect a strike, set the hook immediately rather than allowing the striper to swallow the bait. If the water is cool, the fish can be released alive. --  Don Wirth 
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