Is Smith Mountain Lake's nighttime striper fishing as good as its reputation?
Pete Elkins think so. And if anybody should know, it's Elkins. He wrote the first book ever published on this nascent form of fishing, titled Catching Freshwater Striped Bass (EPM Publications; McLean, $9.95). Until recently, he also lived in Lexington, Virginia, just a short hop from this 20,000-acre clearwater lake nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Roanoke.
Often, during the height of the spring fishing, Elkins would drive to the lake straight from his job as a lawyer for the Army. Arriving just before dark, he would cast for stripers to midnight and beyond. When fatigue finally took its toll, he dragged in the house in time for a few hours' sleep before heading back to work.
Fishing must be good for a man to drive himself like this, and it is. Elkins says he has never been skunked during an outing on the lake during the prime period, March through June. On some nights he and his angling cronies have caught and released up to 40 stripers, averaging 12 pounds and running up to 28. On "poor" nights he takes only five or six.
The reason spring striper fishing on Smith Mountain is so good is that the fish migrate nightly to the shorelines of coves and feeder creeks branching off the main lake near the dam. It's much easier - and also more exciting - to catch the big bass under these conditions than when they are spread out in deep, open water, as they are most other times of year.
Some say the stripers migrate to the banks in an attempt to mate. Others claim they are merely trying to herd the vulnerable spawning shad into shallow areas where they can bust into them like meatgrinders, stuffing their soft bellies till they look like force-fed turkeys.
That seems more likely, for feed on shad is just what the dish do. Listening for the ripple of tiny shad skimming on the surface is a favorite technique used by Smith Mountain regulars to locate spring stripers. Almost always this minor surface disturbance signals rockfish below.
Early in the evening Elkins generally fishes the main lake near the mouths of major coves. Deep, sharply sloping points are favorite casting targets.
As blackness envelops the lake and whip-poorwills begin to sing, stripers penetrate the coves. They feed in loose schools up one shoreline and down the next, holding five to 30 feet off the banks.
Elkins' favorite lure for the big, pinstriped bass is a 3/8-ounce bucktail jig tipped with a yellow-and-white porkrind. This combination is cast close to the shoreline and retrieved at a relaxed tempo, just fast enough so that the bottom is seldom snagged. When the slightest nudge is felt, the hook is set with a sharp snap of the wrists. The method rarely fails Elkins and is worth a try if you make a nighttime outing to Smith Mountain during the next few weeks.
Dale Wilson, a teacher from Huddleston, is another angler subject to striper-motivated fits of insomnia. But Wilson has figured out how to make his striper addiction pay: He guides parties on the lake for a nightly fee of $60.
Bucktail jigs are also in Wilson's arsenal, but one of his most novel techniques for catching stripers involves the use of Spot lures. The shad imitators are cast toward shore, then reeled back slowly for 15 or 20 feet.
Sometimes the fish will strike by this time. More often, however, the retrieve stops at this point. Twiddle your thumbs, stare at the stars, do whatever you like, but don't reel anymore for half a minute or so. The lure will be sinking ever so slowly. Chances are good that a striper longer than your arm will ram into it during that pause.
It not, reel a bit farther, stop again, wait; then crank the shad-imitating lure in and cast again. Strange fishing, but often quite fruitful. Wilson guided two of us on the lake last May, and fully 90 percent of the 15 or so stripers up to 14 pounds that we tood that night succumbed to this odd method.
If neither of these techniques works for you, throw a Rebel Deep Mini R in silver finish toward the shoreline and crank it in slowly and steadily. This straightforward method always draws some stripers to the net and isn't quite as tricky as bucktail and Spot fishing.
Most Smith Mountain stripers will run six to 15 pounds, but be prepared for larger ones. Wilson took a 331/2-pounder last March, second-biggest caught in the lake during '78.
Smith Mountain is big water and can get nasty when the wind wails. It's not wise to try this striper fishing in anything smaller than a deep-sided 14-foot boat. CAPTION: Picture, STRIPER GUIDE DALE WILSON FIGHTS A 12-POUNDER ON SMITH MOUNTAIN. By Gerald Almy.