Catching a pair of 25-pound striped bass within a span of 10 minutes is a feat most local anglers would relegate to the realm of fantasy. Certainly, such good fortune isn't likely in the Chesapeake these days -- not with stocks of rockfish lower than they've been in decades.
But you can make such a catch on stripers in the huge inland lakes. Ralph Key and Dale Wilson proved it recently on Leesville, Lake, a neglected body of water that abuts Smith Mountain in southwestern Virginia.
Thunder rumbled through the Blue Ridge foothills and dark clouds fled north across a somber gray sky as Wilson, Key and this angler eased out of Ray's Marina and began idling slowly down the lake in quest of breaking fish.
"Get down boys," Wilson warned as the 17-foot maroon bass boat lurched into high gear. Within a minute or two, they were at the spot where Wilson had seen fish breaking, but nowhere was a striper to be found.
They fished anyway.
Two casts later, Wilson proved he hadn't been seeing things. His rod bowed to the weight of a heavy fish, and seconds later the 17-pound line snapped like a piece of cheap string.
Wilson was still mumbling over his bad luck when stripers again showed, this time farther down the lake, on the opposite shore. These massive fish slashed the surface, splashing water 10 feet into the air as they ravaged a school of hapless alewives that had been rippling the lake surface peacefully only moments before. The tiny slivers of silver leaped frantically into the air, trying to flee the predators below that had them trapped against the lake's surface.
The anglers used three white bucktail jigs on thin strands of blue nylon. Only one came up empty. Wilson hauled in an average eight-pound striper quickly, while Key battled a brute on his 12-pound line, chattering nervously all the while. At lengths, his fish succumbed; 25 pounds of silver-white rockfish slipped grudgingly into the net.
On their next cast, Wilson's rod again bent double. Taking no chances on breaking this fish off, Wilson loosened his drag and fought it gently. His perseverance paid off. The net soon sagged with the weight of another rock that was about two inches longer than Key's.
A harsh downpour sent the shad and alewives deep after the second 25-pounder came abroad. Darkness enveloped the lake. The anglers eased reluctantly but happily, back to the dock. The feed was over.
While the size of Key and Wilson's stripers was above average, the action they enjoyed on breaking fish was not unusual for this time of year on Virginia's striper-rich impoundments. Wilson, who guides striper anglers on adjacent Smith Mountain Lake when he's not teaching high school, has taken as many as 50 stripers on his best jump fishing days in the fall. Four or five fish is more typical, but the higher figure is possible when everything goes the angler's way.
Lake Gaston and Kerr anglers enjoy similar success as fall's cool, crisp nights and building winds work magic on area lake waters.
And what is that magic? The dissolving of the termocline. During summer, lakes stratify into thre layers -- the upper layer (epilimnion), middle layer (thermocline) and bottom level (hypolimnion). The top layer is too warm and lacks sufficient oxygen to support game fish during the summer. The lower layer also lacks enough dissolved oxygen for bait and game fish, meaning all of the finned inhabitants are stacked up in the thermocline, where they find reasonably comfortable water temperatures and sufficient oxygen.
Fall's cooling weather and quickening breezes change all that. The surface layer of lake water cools and blows toward shore, where it sinks and mixes with the lower lake levels. The result is that bait fish can now come topside and find cool water and plentiful oxygen.
Stripers are seldom far behind them. Stomach analyses have shown that a seven-pound striped bass can eat up to 43 shad in a single feeding spree. That generally means a lot of feeding on or near the surface in fall and ample opportunity for a cunning angler to present a fake meal for those stripers to gobble down.
Wilson, who has probably caught as many freshwater stripers as anyone in the Mid-Atlantic, says a backtail in the one-quarter to three-eights ounce size with a feather dressing is unbeatable. He's caught several fish weighing more than 30 pounds on this type of lure and many five to 20 pounders.
Ralph Key says Hopkins three-quarter ounce spoons are also good. "They're particularly useful," notes Key, "when the fish aren't breaking water, but are hanging out over bars, ledges and sunken islands that can be located with a depth finder."
And finally, there is the live bait approach recommended by Kerr Reservoir guide Jim Ambers, of Boydton, Virginia. "Stripers concentrate in certain coves in the fall on Kerr." says Abers. "When you find out which lake fingers they're in, you can drift with live shiners' at various depths from three feet to 20 near the mouths and often do very well."
Action for stripers on island lakes should be excellent through early December.
More information on guided trips can be obtained by writing Dale Wilson, Rte. 1, Box 181, Huddleston, Va. 24104, or Jim Abers, P.O. Box 393, Boydton, Va. 23917.