Earn Your Stripers

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The lake looked calm.

Forty feet down, however, the sonar told a different story.

Schools of fish teemed, appearing as orange darts streaking among the ghosts of the intact houses and trees left behind when this once-inhabited area was flooded by damming the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers 40 years ago to create the 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake.

You never know what you might snag when you drop your line among the broken-out windows and pine branches of someone's former front yard. Is that tug a record-setting bass, good enough to earn you an appearance on the Outdoor Channel -- or, as sometimes happens, just someone's left-behind shirt?

The region's fishermen have found the odds decidedly in their favor. Spooky as it is to fish above a flooded town, all that debris -- and the hiding places it creates -- make for one of the best striped bass spots on the East Coast.

Nestled between Roanoke and Lynchburg, Smith Mountain Lake is 41 miles long, with about 500 miles of shoreline. The movie "What About Bob?" was filmed here; "Dirty Dancing," contrary to popular belief, wasn't (that was Mountain Lake Resort, 88 miles to the west in Pembroke). In the summer season, the lake is bustling with tourists. But now, when the water is too cold for swimming or other water sports, you can go all day without passing another boat or, most important, a Jet Ski. There are plenty of moderately priced, comfortable places to stay, ranging from house rentals to simple motels such as Westlake Waterfront Inn, where I stayed with my boyfriend, Wade, on a recent weekend. Each of the rooms has a spectacular view of the lake.

The area overall is booming, attracting vacationing families from Northern Virginia as well as retirees looking for reasonably priced lake-view homes and easy access to a little rest and relaxation on the water. And it attracts fisherfolk. As sport fishing has achieved near-NASCAR status, with shows on ESPN and multimillion-dollar tournaments, Smith Mountain Lake has emerged a hotbed in the subspecialty of striped bass.

Anyone with a boat and a license can fish, but Smith Mountain Lake is brimming with outfitters to make it easier for the rest of us. Wade and I hired one of them, Todd Keith, for a recent Sunday afternoon. His company, the Shad Taxi, is one of many operations on the lake that take anglers out for a few hours or a day. All you have to bring is a cooler (if you plan to keep your fish) and a valid Virginia fishing license (which you can buy online, at Wal-Mart or at many of the area's outdoor supply stores and marinas). The guide provides the boat, bait and tackle, and most important, his or her knowledge about the lake's fishing hot spots.

Striper fishing is no cane-pole-from-a-rowboat affair. Keith picked us up at the dock in a 21-foot Hurricane so high-tech it could have been the marine version of KITT, the tricked-out car on the '80s TV show "Knight Rider." Even cooler than the onboard sonar was the wristwatch remote control he uses to steer the electric trolling motor. (Apparently, he couldn't quite let go of his pre-fishing guide life: At 29, he has a computer science degree from James Madison University and spent four years working as a government contractor.)

The bait of choice, however, is still distinctly low-tech: little fishies called alewives, a favorite snack of striped bass. As Keith began setting up the rods along both sides of the boat, he explained that at this time of year, the best way to catch stripers is by using planer boards, lightweight fins that help carry the bait away from the boat. We deployed two of the bright orange boards off each side of the boat and four lines off the rear, for a total of eight hooks in the water. Once the planers had floated into position, we were ready to fish.

Now don't let all those fishing shows fool you, with their slick editing and pulse-pounding thrills. The big strikes are exciting, but in between? Fishing might as well be a synonym for waiting. It's mainly sipping beer and swapping stories about the ones that got away -- and the odd old shirt or other artifacts from the small-town Atlantis below.

But once you do attract the attention of a striped bass, your heart will start pounding. They can get quite large -- the world record is 78 pounds 8 ounces -- and they are fierce fighters, strong and wily.

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