The danger of fishing for landlocked stripers breaking on the surface is that when you hit things just right, all other forms of freshwater fishing seem a little pale afterwards. Thus it probably is a disguised blessing that this incredibly exciting fishing is such an ephemeral sport - available at certain limited times of year and specific times of day - and then never totally predictable. It gives us an excuse to go back to bass and crappie, rationalizing that searching for breaking "rock" is too risky to become a consuming obsession.
But those devoted to more placid forms of hook and lining should break out at least once for breaking rock. Smith Mountain Lake, snuggled in the shadows of the Blue Ridge, and Dale Wilson, teacher and cracker jack striper guide, are the place and person that will get you addicted to this fishing.
Sleep hung heavily on our eyelids as Garvey Winegar and I pried outselves from the tiny camper, stretched like overfed cats, fixed coffee, and made friends with a 5 a.m. world that we were none too well acquainted with.
Then along comes Wilson, bright-eyed, energetic, and full of thigh-slapping good cheer in spite of having been out casting for bass along the dock pilings and stickups until 1 o'clock that same morning.
A few weeks earlier a call to Wilson had revealed that stripers were breaking the surface virtually every morning and evening. The fish were staying up off and on for an hour or more, providing an exceptionally long time to exploit their feeding frenzy. Better still, the bass were striking top-water baits.
Predictably, we were slow to react in setting up a trip. August's 90-degree, sticky-hot doldrums set in and the fishing was now only sporadic. Two days earlier Wilson and his client fished two hours before dark and caught nine fish, the top two 16 1/2 and 17 1/2 pounds. But three other guides working the lake that evening failed to account for a single fish.
"It's all a matter of being in the right place at the right time," said Wilson. "We got lucky and were right on them when they broke. We turned a bend in the lake and there were two acres of stripers breaking the surface. Two minutes later they were down, but it was afterward that we caught most of our fish, on bucktails."
Jigs worked deep would have to take our fish this morning too, it seemed. Only sporadic breaking activity greeted us midway up the lake.
Soon Wilson showed us fish were there, however, and that they would strike if we dropped our jigs down 10 or 15 feet and worked them back slowly. A fat 18-incher sucked in his bucktail and struggled bitterly before the guide slipped the jig out and watched him swim away.
Winegar and I felt the sharp bumps of pecking rockfish, but in spite of our best hook-setting attempts we could not garner a keeper by 8 a.m., when Wilson said "that's it till evening, boys."
In the evening, we went at it again, Winegar did lose a big fish, but boated a smaller one around 8 p.m. Still, we felt the day was sadly lacking in the excitement we had hoped for. True, we had seen some breaking fish - scattered rock flashing their brilliance on the surface for a sparkling moment. But it was not the hundreds, even thousands of surfacing fish we had dreamed we might be lucky enough to see and fish over.
Then it happened. Fifteen minutes before nine - before dark and the end of all chances for catching stripers at this time of year - the surface erupted 200 yards to our right in a small cove. Winegar saw them first, and was stunned.
"I couldn't believe it was fish. I thought maybe it was waterskiers or the wake from a speedboat making the commotion," he said afterwards.
It wasn't. Wilson knew exactly what it was as he sped to the furiously feeding fish.
One boat was already amid the half-acre mayhem of slashing stripers, another moving in, but the fish were still unperturbed by the human presence. They boiled the water, throwing heavy sprays of froth six feet in the air as the frightened silver baitfish leaped wildly from the surface, praying, it seemed, for wings to flee the robust gamefish below.
Our rods bowed quickly as we worked bucktails briskly through the water, Winegar was onto a five-pounder, mine was just over 10 pounds, and Wilson assured us there were 20-pounders in the school.
Action subsided minutes after we boated our fish. Like the wind, stripers are constantly moving. They can travel hundreds of yards in minutes and it is impossible to stay with them unless they keep breaking. Because of the extremely hot weather, the only came up briefly before being forced back down into the cooler depths.
That we didn't boat a limit of four stripers each was inconsequential to us as we cast against hope a few last times. The final glimmer of daylight was disappearing from the mountain-rimmed lake. We had gambled and won. The long drive, the expense, the stultifying wait during the hot midday hours - all seemed trivial prices to pay for the excitement the big school of stripers offered.
Wilson's favorite lure for stripers is a white quarter- or three-eighth-ounce bucktail. The version tied locally for Smith Mountain stripers and sold at Saunders' Marina for a buck apiece is his favorite. He works this with a slow, steady retrieve, occasionally stopping to let the jig sink, like an injured shad might do. If a good school is busting shad, work the jig back medium-fast and steady. A striper Swiper or Rebel sometimes works better when the fish are going strong on the surface.
For those interested in guided trips, Wilson can be reached at 703-297-5650. CAPTION: Picture, Dale Wilson displays an 11-pound striper from Smith Mountain Lake. By Gerald Almy for The Washington Post