Forty years ago a hearty round of guffaws would have greeted an offer to go striped bass fishing in a freshwater lake. Now most anglers would jump at the chance. Indeed, we've come to the point where the striper fishing in fresh water is often superior to that found in the brine.
As the sign proclaims to south-bound travelers on U.S. 301, South Carolina's famed Santee-Cooper Reservoir is the original home of the landlocked striped bass. In 1941, when the Santee and Cooper rivers were dammed and the mosquito-plagued lowlands of central South Carolina flooded, an unseen migrant from the Atlantic was trapped in the new reservoir. Several years later a startled angler latched onto a fighting striper and landlocked striper fishing was born.
While it may have resulted from an accident biologists were quick to see the potential of having such a fast-growing, hard-fighting fish residing in popular fishing lakes. The big pin-striped bass were stocked in many large impoundments, mostly in the South, where it was hoped they would establish naturally reproducing populations.
By the '60s the striper boom was in full progress. Unfortunately, only in a few of the lakes were the big anadromous bass able to spawn successfully.
Rockfish need 50 to 75 miles of free-flowing current in which to lay their buoyant eggs, which must remain suspended in the water until they hatch. Few impoundments have that much free-flowing river mileage upstream.
Santee-Cooper does, and so does Kerr Reservoir on the Virginia-North Carolina border, where rockfish spawn successfully.
Oddly enough, some of the best striper fishing in fresh water occurs in lakes where there is no natural reproduction. Though they require some rather novel hatchery equipment, stripers can be raised for stocking rather easily. Thousands are planted in lakes across the country each year.
Virginia has developed one of the most successful strip programs in the country. The Brookneal hatchery in the southwestern portion of the state has turned out more than 50 million striped bass that have been stocked in freshwater lakes.
Striper fishing is usually a bit slow in August at Kerr Reservoir, but as nights begin to cool in September, jumps-fishing to breaking schools of rockfish will provide good sport. Tail-spinners and bucktails are favorite lures, since they allow casts from a considerable distance. This reduces the likelihood of spooking the surface-feeding fish.
In the winter some exceptional striper fishing occurs on Kerr for those using jigs and depth-finders. The sonar is used to locate either shad the stripers feed on or the stripers, usually in 15 to 40 feet of water. Buck-tails and Hopkins spoons are then bounced in front of the bass or below the shad. At least 10-pound line is recommended, since many bull bass inhale these jigged baits in winter.
Lake Gaston, immediately down-stream from Kerr on the Roanoke, is an especially productive striper lake in the fall. When weather conditions are right schools of stripers break the surface near the dam at the lower end of Gaston almost every day. A fast boat is required to got to his fish quickly before they go down again.
Night fishing is quite popular on Gaston. Red Fins and Rebels are cast near bridge pilings, where the big bass feed. This fishing is often done from shore, so all you need is a spinning or bait-cast outfit with 8 to 15-pound line and a handful of plugs.
Smith Mountain Lake ranks as one of the best striper lakes in the country. Of the 20 biggest stripers caught in Virginia last year, 16 came out of Smith Mountain. Among these were the three heaviest fish taken - 36 pounds, 35 pounds 14 ounces and 34 pounds.
The best striper fishing on Smith Mountain is in the spring, when the bass make nightly rounds in the coves, herding shad along the shorelines in spectacular feeding orgies. Trolling near the dam and jigging over submerged islands and timber produce well in the fall.
One of the newest impoundments to be stocked by the Virginia Game Commission is a gem that many area residents are crossing their fingers for - Lake Anna. The stripped bass were stocked several years back, and since these fish grow at breakneck speed, gaining up to three pounds a year, some are believed to be above the 20-inch keeper size already. Fisheries biologist Charles Sledd, who is conducting a study on the lake, said the striper fishery here "should be very successful."
There are a number of other lakes in the state stocked with stripers, but Smith Mountain, Kerr and Gaston are three top spots that should be producing excelent catches over the coming fall and winter months. With a little prospecting, skillful anglers may even be able to dredge up some eye-popping catches at nearby Anna.