Ranny Isenberg used to be a bass fanatic. He lived, breathed, talked bass. Bass tackle, Bass lures. Bass boats. Bass books. Largemouths and smallmouths were the only quarry he needed on the end of his lines.
But that was before he met the real bass -- the striper, which is a true member of the bass family, not a sunfish, which is what large- and smallmouths really are.
It was love at first bite when a ten-pound rockfish wolfed down a shiner he'd been pumping beneath a bridge on Lake Gaston on a moonlit November night. The fish dove and tore line from his reel as no other catch had ever done, certainly not any black bass. It's tough to say who was hooked more, the angler or the striper.
True, Isenberg still fishes often for "bass" of the large- and smallmouth variety, mainly because they're available right outside his door in private Lake Jackson, near Manassas. But whenever he can tear loose from work and find the funds for a distance trip, it's the rockfish lakes of Virginia that draw Isenberg's angling efforts. It matters not that these lakes -- Gaston, Kerr, Anna, Smith Mountain -- are also top bigmouth and smallmouth waters.
"Those fish just don't excite me anymore," he says flatly. "At least not when there are stripers around."
Little wonder. The fight of even the pugnacious smallmouth is faint compared with that of a muscular striper. A largemouth comes in about like a wet paper bag in comparison.
The sheer size is another attraction: Two weeks ago, Isenberg ventured down to Lake Gaston on the Virginia-North Caroline border a few days after a major bass association held a tournament on the lake. The top largemouth taken weighed less than seven pounds. Isenberg's top fish weighed 20 pounds even -- a massive, egg-laden hen striper caught by drifting with a live minnow on eight-pound line.
But size is often secondary to the more elusive qualities of milieu and atmosphere. Striper fishing, even on lakes, is often done in big, open waters, in wild and stormy weather.
Last week, Isenberg and a pal traveled to Virginia's jewel-like Smith Mountain Lake, snuggled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just east of Roanoake. Rain spattered on the windshield before they reached the lake. By the time they had the boat in the water, a steady drizzle had soaked everything.
Still they ventured forth and soon they began picking up a fish here, a fish there, probing the deep, main-lake points with bucktails. Eventually, night settled over the lake with white shrouds of mist, dense fog and more drizzle.
The anglers kept up their casting, probing a favorite cove on the lower lake with Spot lures inched slowly back from shore. More fat, belligerent stripers climbed onto the shad-imitators, rewarding their sodden nocturnal efforts. By 1:30 a.m., exhausted, they headed fro the dock and crawled into the tiny camper for rest.
At gray dawn, in spite of weary bones, the anglers arose and again began crawling bucktails steadily back from points and islands, imitating shad sneaking through the crystalline waters. By late afternoon winds were whipping even their tiny cove to a scary froth. The rain that had fallen steadily throughout the trip now pelted them in hard sheets, soaking through rain gear and snowmobile suits, drenching their hats and sending icy trickles down their necks.
It was sheer madness to be out fishing in such weather; but they persisted, even as conditions worsened.
Why? Because stripers, wild and unafraid of the storm, love such inhospitable weather. Gritting their teeth, biting into the face of the storm, the anglers came to fathom the sheer beauty of the dark tempest on the lake.
As night settled over the lake and rain stabbed at their faces, Isenberg made one last cast to a point. A ten-pounder wrenched the lure, dove and raced with a fury that matched the storm: On eight-pound line, he pumped the fish close, but the 50 mph winds pushed the boat away. With the rod bent double, it was several precarious minutes before the net finally slipped under the heavy fish.
Gunning the outboard, the sodden fishermen bounced wildly back to port through the whitecaps.
Twenty four stripers had been caught, eight kept for eating. That's a good indication of the spring rockfishing sport now available in fresh water. Warming lake temperatures and the spawning urge have combined to bring spring striper angling to a peak in recent weeks.
Gaston, Kerr, Smith Mountain and Anna are the major stomping grounds for sweetwater striper hunters. The first three, in particular, offer excellent prospects at this time of year. Probing the main lake points with deeply trolled chrome Hellbenders, Spoonbill Revels and big bucktails is a good early-morning and late-evening tactic. Casting and slowly retrieving white feathered bucktail jigs and live shiners at such locations, and also around bridge pilings and dams, is another proven approach for lake stripers.
On Kerr and Smith Mountain lakes, many stripers migrate up the bigger feeder creeks near the dams, where they are caught by probing the shoreline with bucktails, Spots and Deep Mini R Revels. On Smith Mountain this fishing is usually best from dark through dawn, but on Kerr the method pays off during daylight hours as well.
Kerr Reservoir has one of the world's few naturally reproducing populations of landlocked stripers (most lakes require stocking). The fish migrate up the Roanoke and Dan rivers and drop their semi-buoyant eggs in raucous spawning rituals that see males slashing the surface to a froth as they knock eggs out of ripe 10- to 40-pound females. Fertilized by the bucks, the eggs then float suspended in the current for 50 to 60 miles before hatching several days later.
The runs up both these rivers draw many anglers and should be getting under way any day now. Danville, South Boston and Brookneal are favorite jump-off spots for this fishing. Revels, Rapalas and bucktails are the best offerings.
Latch onto a fish like that in fresh water and you'll understand why Isenberg has been neglecting his black bass these days. Striper fever is hard to cure.