Atlanta area fly fishers enjoy a relatively unknown winter treasure-hot trophy stripers on the fly. Unlike fly fishers in the northeast who enjoy lots of "schoolie" stripers in the 2- to 3-pound range, Lake Lanier has fewer total fish, but the average striper here is much larger. Fish averaging eight to ten pounds, with trophy fish 20 to 25 pounds, can be caught on the fly in Lanier. Beginning in late October, when water surface temperature drops below 65 degrees F., Lake Lanier provides exceptional shallow water striped bass fly fishing that lasts through April.
Indiginous populations of striped bass were found to be naturally reproducing in Georgia in the Savannah and Ogeechee Rivers. Beginning in the 1970s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources implemented a statewide program to stock Savannah River strain stripers into qualified Georgia impoundments. According to Lake Lanier manager, Reggie Weaver, "We saw the potential with a large shad food base to create a true trophy fishery. We maintain the Lanier fishery through stocking, and it's probably the best in the state." Stripers up to 30 pounds are considered trophies on Lanier, while 20 pounders are fairly common.
A prominent Lanier guide says, "Fly fishing is the most effective way to catch stripers, because we're using unweighted flies that emulate threadfin shad, the striper's primary food source in the cold months. These flies suspend or slowly sink, but maintain a shallow depth and stay in the strike zone longer." These flies really mimic the action of a threadfin shad. Lake manager Weaver said that he has counted as many as 100 one-inch shad in the stomach of a 25-pound striper during sampling operations. Because small threadfin shad are the primary winter forage fish, small shad imitations are very effective.
With so many Lanier stripers weighing 10 to 20 pounds or more, it's advisable to fish an 8- or 9-weight rod, with a fighting butt if possible. A good quality reel with a strong, smooth drag and large spool loaded with floating or intermediate sinking line plus 250 yards of 20-pound backing is also recommended. I use a seven to eight foot tapered leader of 16-pound test, or just an eight-foot section of 16-pound mono. Be prepared to vary the length and diameter of your leader/tippet based on water clarity. One Lanier guide told me, "If fish approach your fly and reject it, go to a lighter 10-foot leader." In very clear water conditions, use 12-pound leader to increase strikes.
Most Lanier guides recommend small, lightly-weighted, white flies that emulate threadfin shad. One guide recommends one to three inch flies tied with long, white rooster neck feathers and bucktail on size-1/0 hooks. Atlantan Henry Cowan's striper fly, called the Coyote, (LEFT) has a small spinner and it catches lots of stripers here. The most popular streamer patterns are of the thin-profile design, and are weighted only by the hook. Lightly-weighted Clouser minnows, or Clouser-styled flies with thin profiles and long silhouettes are also effective.
Finding Lanier Stripers
Because stripers constantly move, they can be suspended in 100-foot water or be feeding in three-foot water in the backs of coves. If you see white terns or sea birds frantically feeding in a cove or diving on a point, cast the area thoroughly. If you see great blue herons fishing in the backs of a coves, probe the water adjacent to them. If you see loons diving and feeding actively, probe the water nearby. More obvious explosions of feeding stripers strafing forage will draw birds and anglers alike. These fish are eating at cruising speed, so note the direction the fish are moving and cast ahead of them. If there is even a single feeding striper, work his area thoroughly. In the absence of explosive surface action, blind cast hold-ing structure.
Be prepared to cast accurately 50 to 60 feet to near-surface feeding stripers, but stay well away from the feeding activity to keep from spooking the fish. Lob casts can be an effective technique: Slowly begin your pick-up and use the water's drag to load your rod. Haul to accelerate your line and fly into your backcast. As the line lays out, push your rod up and over in a lazy circle and push forward into your front cast. Stop the rod and the line and fly will slowly lay out in front of you. You'll reduce the number of casts, and cut your work way down. Since your fly only works when it's in the water, keep it there. Target the rising pods of stripers or "blind cast" the water on points and structure that should hold stripers.
Cast, let your fly settle two to six inches beneath the surface, then slowly retrieve it in brisk, 2-inch strips all the way to the boat. Strikes can occur at any time on the retrieve. If a striper suddenly appears at the fly, stop the retrieve and then slowly strip the fly in.You are emulating an injured minnow. Stripers may roll on the fly, then double back for the take. Try to be calm-something hard to do with a 20 pound striper all over your fly. When the fish hits, you'll know it. Raise the rod to set the hook, or use a strip set, then hang on!
Releasing striped bass as quickly as possible is important. In temperatures below 65 degrees F., try a "jump start" release. Grasp the fish by the tail and support its body under the gill area with your other hand. Holding the fish vertically about two feet in the air, drop it head first into the water. The fish will hit the water and swim immediately.
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