As the evenings and the water begin to cool, my fancy turns to stripers! Cool air, salt spray and striper slime are the finer things of fall and winter. Long before I ever sat in a yak, stripers were a part of growing up around the tributaries flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Fittingly, a striper was the first fish I caught from a kayak. Perhaps I like catching them because they are relatively easy to catch; maybe not all the time, but they are predictable.
Stripers like to eat around the conveyors of bait that current provides as it moves over and around submerged structure. Add light and shadows to the mix, and it becomes a feeding frenzy. It seems logical that the fish would hang in the eddies behind structure, out of the current, positioned to ambush bait as it is pushed by. This seems to hold true during the day, but at night, the best fish are usually found in front of, or adjacent to structure.
Growing up, I always tried to present a swimming presentation. A lead head jig with a fast acting tail. Swimming Mullet, Grubs and Storm Lures have always been consistent producers. When these baits are retrieved through the strike zone, they are irresistible to hungry stripers. However, last year I was introduced to a sharp, fast jigging, light tackle technique, using lead heads and fluke style plastics. Presenting these baits with a medium/light setup has been more productive during all portions of the tide, and even more so during the unavoidable periods of less voracious feeding.
This year, there has been an abundance of micro-schoolies, fish less than 16”, cruising under lights, busting bait, but the larger fish, 20”-36” have consistently come from deeper in the water column. While fishing deeper water, nearing 30’, it can be difficult to swim a bait down to the bottom of the pilings. To present a bait to these fish, I started doing more vertical jigging in these areas, with consistent results. I’ll drop the bait far enough up-stream of structure so as to time the descent of the bait to get to the bottom ahead of the strike zone. I’ll start to work it with sharp jerks up from the bottom, then let it sink, all the while keeping tension on the line. Depending on the speed of the current, I can usually get a good 5-6 jigs before retrieving, paddling back up current, and dropping it again. The hook up usually comes right after the lure begins to fall after getting yanked vertically.
My first go to combo for these fish is a 6’10” M/L G Loomis Pro Green paired with a 2500 Stradic, spooled with 20 lb braid. A 20 lb flouro leader and a 1/4 or 3/8 oz jig head round out the setup. This rod is as sensitive as it needs to be to feel the often subtle bite of a cool water striper, but plenty of backbone to pull them away from adjacent structure. The second is a slightly heavier custom casting Hand Tide Stix from a rod builder on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This heavier rod and Lew’s Inshore Casting reel can handle heavier jigs, up to an ounce, but still offer ample sensitivity.
Because current plays such a critical role in the feeding habits of schoolie size rockfish, it is imperative that the timing of the ebb and flood play an important part of planning a trip. My most productive trips this season have been scheduled around the max current, both ebb and flood. Depending on the location, these max and min’s, as they are called, occur 1-3 hours behind high and low tide. At these times, I’ve been able to find fish concentrated around submerged structure. During slack current, I’ve found the fish to be more prone to wandering. Not typically oriented to structure, but likely to move away from cover and structure to pursue bait, rather than waiting for it to be delivered by the booming ebb or flood.
While in pursuit of late season striper and other cold weather fish, the right gear is a must. I’m familiar with 3 options, all of them viable, but quality kayak specific dry gear is far and away the superior option.
I started out with a pair of big box breathable waders and a waterproof shell for a jacket, and fished fairly comfortably for a few seasons. Had I ever wound up in the water wearing this outfit and a wading belt, water would have been kept out for a few minutes, but the clock would have been ticking rapidly.
Wrapping up my second season, I stepped it up to a pair of Kokatat’s Gore-tex Whirlpool Bibs and a Tempest Jacket. The bibs have built in waterproof proof socks. The Tempest jacket is a semi-dry top and has a neoprene collar which is more comfortable than the latex neck gasket found on dry tops. It does have latex wrist cuffs to keep out drips, which were the largest annoyance while using a standard rain shell as a splash top. The bibs and the jacket can be used independently of each other; They can also be mated together to form a seal between the jacket and bib by rolling together the outer skirt on the bib with the inner skirt on the top. It’s pretty slick.
After a season or two using this outfit, I was fortunate to win a Kokatat Super Nova Paddling Suit. Again, semi-dry neoprene neck collar, latex wrist gaskets and integrated socks. I wear flats boots over the socks. This is by far the most resilient option, but if it warms up during the day, I miss the ability to take off the Tempest top.
Regardless of what your outer layer consists, your base layer is a key component. I prefer both Kokatat and Patagonia, who make exceptional base layers in a variety of weights. These garments offer moisture wicking technology which you will appreciate as kayak fishing often results in periods of exertion, as well as rest. It is common to go from paddling hard and generating body heat, to sitting relatively inactive for long periods of time. While idle, you will quickly find yourself with the chills if your base layers aren’t getting moisture away from your body. When it’s especially cold, I’ll layer with as many as 4 base layers, each progressively heavier than the layer below it.
A good wool hat is clutch, windproof and wool is even better. For gloves, I’ve found rag wool with a thinsulate liner to be a great option. Even wet, wool gloves retain their ability to insulate, and will keep your fingers warm. While paddling and generating heat, I’ll stuff both my gloves and my hat in my PFD, which keeps the gloves dry, and allows some excess heat to dissipate out of my head. When I take the gloves off to re tie or change lure, again I’ll stuff them in my PFD. Be warned however, woe to the angler however that tries to handle a Miro-Lure while wearing wool gloves.
In closing, chasing winter stripers with jigs has been a blast. Planning, trying, succeeding and bragging are all a part of what makes kayak fishing so much fun. Furthermore, I have to say that these are not techniques that I have developed on my own. I’ve read about what others have learned, and quizzed a number of anglers about what they do and how they do it. Then, while on the water, I’ve done my best to apply what I gleaned from their experience, and figure out how it relates to the conditions in which I’m fishing. Enjoying success while trying something new and duplicating a pattern is one of the fundamental tenants of what brings driven anglers back to the water.
So this year when the short fish are kissing your bait near the surface, upsize your bait’s profile and get it down deep! Stay warm, be safe, and catch some fish!
When the short fish are kissing your bait near the surface, upsize your bait’s profile, and get it down deep to find their larger cousins.