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Smith Lake’s Trophy Stripers On The Move For Fall
October is a transition month for big fish as they move up the lake, and you’ll need a plan and have plenty of bait to catch them.
 
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of AON
 
Guide Mike Walker with a Smith Lake stripe he caught on a recent trip that weighed close to 20 pounds.
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Smith Lake provides a unique experience among Alabama fisheries.

Not only does the topography contrast sharply with the average state reservoir—depths down to about 300 feet are routinely found on the lake—but the fishing opportunities are unique, as well.

Boating a saltwater-sized trophy is one of the unique opportunities on Smith Lake, located between Cullman and Jasper in north-central Alabama. The striped bass fishing on Smith is a long-established tradition and continues to evolve with the introduction of the blueback herring, a high-protein, invasive baitfish that fuels the rapid growth of not only striped bass but the spotted bass population, as well.

Smith’s stripers are the closest thing to a saltwater experience found in freshwater, especially for those anglers far removed from the Gulf of Mexico in north Alabama. Only the biggest catfish exceed the striped bass in size; however, those fish fail to match the power of the stripers pound-for-pound.

To illustrate the true muscle of the fish, the first hook-up of a trip with guide Mike Walker provides perfect evidence.

I had met Mike, of Fishing 24-7 Guide Service, at the ramp at Smith Lake Dam, where he launched his big Carolina Skiff center console powered by a Suzuki 250. The boat was equipped with multiple Humminbird electronics units and a long-shaft MinnKota trolling motor among many other accessories for a specialized striper trip.

“We’ll look for a few fish (on the graphs), and if we see something we like, we’ll stop and fish,” Mike said.

Mike repeatedly pointed out smaller fish as we cruised at about 5 mph over an offshore location near the dam.

“Those are not what we are looking for,” he said. “We’re looking for bigger fish.”

The second spot demanded a little more attention as the arches on the Humminbirds revealed numerous big fish in the standing trees in about 80 feet of water.

We dropped big spoons—the same Ben Parker Magnum Spoon that raged in popularity among bass fishermen along the Tennessee River in recent years—and dropped them vertically through the water column. The 8-inch models sank to the correct level in just a few seconds, and Mike suggested a steady retrieve back toward the surface.

His first drop was interrupted by a big fish, and a few moments of chaos ensued. Instead of running away from the boat, the fish swam a fast oval as Mike scrambled to keep up with it by nimbly circling the boat.

Suddenly, the true power of the fish was on display. Like a steroid-stoked bodybuilder, it found another gear and literally began pulling the heavy boat to the side for several seconds before burrowing up in the trees.

“That was a bigger one,” Mike said as he attempted to retrieve the pricey spoon. “I don’t know how big, but even one in the 30s is a powerful fish. There are definitely plenty of fish that big and bigger here.”

Later he added, “Smith has a great population of striped bass from 25 to 35 pounds. They are big, powerful fish when they reach that size. Sometimes they are just too strong to get out of the trees.”

We continued fishing on the same spot, and that first hook-up seemed to create a frenzy of action. At a couple of points during the trip, Mike made the comment that certain actions either attract or scare the fish. The fighting fish appeared to turn on the school for a few moments, and I hooked up with a solid striper a few seconds later.

The fish hit the spoon about halfway to the surface and came in fairly quickly, only surging when it saw the shadow of the boat. At first glance, Mike thought the striper weighed in the 14- to 15-lb. range and then adjusted the weight with a better look.

“That fish approaches 20 pounds,” he said.

We continued the trip, running up the Sipsey arm of Smith and surveying another location that featured a series of humps that rose to as little as 20 feet deep and then plunged to more than 200 feet. The Humminbird continued to mark groups of smaller fish but not the bigger trophies that Mike likes to target.

“I think they’re gone,” he said.

That simple statement summed up the migration of Smith Lake striped bass that traditionally takes places in the fall. Dictated by water temperature, the move normally takes place a little later in the year, but the turnover of the lake had already started due to a decrease in surface temperatures and prompted the bigger fish to move off their normal spots in anticipation of their move upstream.

Mike said the smaller fish on Smith don’t appear to have the same instincts as the older stripers. He said most of the smaller fish that we were seeing on the electronics were chasing deep schools of the blueback herring and would stay in place much longer. They had grown up feeding on the baitfish, and the allure of an easy meal appears more appealing to them than moving upstream with their bigger brethren to migrate quickly when the water begins to change.

“The bigger fish are the first to react to that change,” Mike said. “The smaller fish are the last part of the transition. All of a sudden you are catching 8-pounders. That’s a sign that the change is on.

“The trophies are getting off their normal patterns and getting ready for that push.”

We looked over a couple of more spots with no evidence of the trophies. Mike checked the fish on one spot and hooked up with another mid-sized striper, slightly smaller than the one I boated.

“It’s probably about time to make a move,” Mike said, meaning he would shift his fishing to the mid- to upper-lake areas in an attempt to intercept the biggest striped bass on Smith.

“I could stay in this area for probably another month and catch these fish. But the bigger ones that we’ve caught all summer seem to be gone.”

Along with a change in location, Mike said the annual pilgrimage by the stripers upstream also dictates a change in tactics. Instead of relying on the spoons, fall fishing on Smith normally involves bait rather than lures.

Mike trolls big swimbaits during the transitional period when the stripers are still roaming. Once they settle down on spots —this year October appears to be that time because of the cooler water temperatures in late summer—he relies mainly on bait.

He collects gizzard shad, preferring 8- to 10-inch baitfish, from river systems. He calls the constant need for bait a “traveling circus” that demands hours of time, effort and travel on his part.

He fishes the baitfish on what would roughly be considered a Carolina rig, sliding a 2-oz. egg sinker on the main line, adding a swivel and then a 5- to 6-foot (occasionally longer for finicky fish) leader. He completes the rig with an Owner circle hook from 2/0 to 5/0 that matches the size of the bait. On Smith, Mike said you can nose hook or hook the bait behind the dorsal fin. Both methods work well, and he really didn’t have a preference.

He fishes the bait setup on tackle rigs that would serve light-tackle duty in saltwater. Mainly the rigs are Shimano reels paired with Ugly Stick Tiger saltwater rods.

“I’m big into quality reels,” he said. “I want reels that you can trust. You can buy cheaper reels with plastic parts that might last two trips. They are just going to break.”

He spools with 20-lb. test mono. He said the no-stretch quality of fluorocarbon is better for a hookset, but the stretch of the mono allows some forgiveness on a surging, powerful fish.

“I like 20, but you could bump up to 30 if you wanted,” he said. “Even then, 30-lb. test is not going to keep a big fish out of the trees if it wants to go there.”

When quizzed about the possibility of a fall topwater bite, Mike described that action as sporadic, probably another result of the introduction of bluebacks in Smith. Long a staple of striper fishermen in the fall and early winter on Smith, the topwater action has waned to a trickle in recent years.

“It’s nothing you can count on,” Mike said. “If you hear about it, don’t spend your day looking for them. If they come up around you, take advantage of it, but if you’re having an occasional pop here and an occasional pop there, ignore it. We call it chasing dreams.

“It’s a waste of time going looking for it.”

The bait presentations produce a steady dose of stripers in the fall, however.

“(By October this year), the lake will have fully flipped about a month early,” Mike said. “The fish will likely have made their transition from the lower end of the lake to the north. The majority should be back up top, meaning the upper half of the lake.

“Pick a middle part (on one of the arms) of the lake, and they will work slowly toward the creeks. The target will be 30 to 70 feet, definitely less than 100 feet of water at that time.”

In the fall, Mike likes the Ryan Creek arm of Smith, usually launching out of Smith Lake Park. It’s also the easiest trip from his home in the Birmingham suburbs.

“Smith Lake’s a huge lake,” he said. “We’re big on fishing a section. Whether you choose Rock Creek, Clear Creek or the Sipsey or the Cullman side and the Ryan Creek area, it all offers good striper fishing. Unless it’s just plain bad in one area, you’re better off picking a spot and learning it, living it. Until you see you got that section down, fish it. If the bite dies, then go learn another spot.”

All sections of the upper lake hold stripers in the fall and winter. Despite his preference for the Ryan Creek arm, Mike said it might be the most difficult to learn simply because of the volume of water.

“I like the Ryan Creek side,” he said. “It’s the widest water. Other people might tell you Rock Creek. It’s the easiest side to figure out because there is less water.”

Regardless of the location on Smith, the vast schools of blueback herring will figure into the equation. Mike said the bluebacks have created a different fishery on Smith with some pros and cons associated with their spread.

In the short term, the bluebacks have created a steady supply of baitfish that the lake was lacking. The result is bigger, thicker, healthier stripers. The easier meals, however, have also made the stripers more difficult to catch.

“Before the bluebacks, the lake was short on bait,” he said. “The fish were more opportunistic. It’s a harder fishery to fish because the patterns have changed.

“Now the lake is starting to settle in, and what you have learned now will hold true for several years. The fish are going to get bigger with the higher-protein diet. They don’t have to work as much and will grow as a result.

“That’s one of the pluses. Among the minuses are they don’t have to eat your bait. You really have to be on fish. Used to, people would babysit a school of fish waiting for them to eat. We bounce on fish. We treat it like a bass tournament, running milk spots. If you have 200 spots, you’re better off hitting those 200 spots rather than waiting for one school to bite. You will eventually come across a school ready to feed.”

Mike said the fall and winter is a perfect time to sample the trophy striper fishing on Smith.

“Prespawn is where it’s at,” he said.

While the true prespawn occurs after the first of the year, the fish continually feed through the fall and reach their peak weights in late winter.

To book a trip with Mike, contact him at (205) 503-2020 or through his website at www.fishing24-7guideservice.com. He also maintains an active Facebook presence, posting trip reports and pictures on a regular basis. In addition to Smith Lake, Mike also guides on Lake Martin and along the Coosa, as well.

“We provide a variety of options, depending on what the customer wants to do,” Mike said. “If they want to catch a trophy fish, it’s definitely Smith Lake.”
 
 
 
 
 
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