Brawling Monster Carters Lake Stripers And Hybrids
Dirk Dial patrols Carters with big baits to lure stripers. If you try it, prepare for a heavy-duty workout.
The small hand-held scale registered 24 pounds. The battle was over, and I had won… sort of. The fish, a typical hard-charging lineside, never gave up, fighting all the way to the net and winning my admiration.
It’s hard to not like the striper, the biggest, fastest and strongest of Georgia’s reservoir fish. Stripers, which naturally live in saltwater up and down the eastern seaboard, have made a home for themselves in Georgia’s lakes, and in the heart of many a fisherman.
Dirk Dial is one of those anglers. He lives a short drive from Carters and agreed to meet me in April to do what he does best: pull big baits on heavy tackle to catch big fish.
Dirk knows big fish. He has landed a bunch over the past few years, including a 32-lb. striper on Lake Lanier. He regularly fishes in National Striped Bass Association (NSBA) tournaments with his father or his son.
Dirk, like many lineside enthusiasts, became addicted to catching stripers by accident. When he was bass fishing one day, a 12-lb. striper slammed Dirk’s chrome/blue Rat-L-Trap and made a line-stripping run. That was all it took.
“After you hear that drag scream, you’ll never go back,” Dirk smiled.
Dirk believes in using heavy tackle — especially in warm weathermonths — to keep from stressing fish too much. Dirk explained his line of thinking to me at a pre-dawn confab with Buddy Callahan in the parking lot at Bart’s Bait and Tackle.
“Stripers need cold water and lots of oxygen to thrive,” Dirk said. “A long fight can really wear a fish down or even kill it if you aren’t careful, so I like to get them in the boat as quick as possible.”
Dirk carries an array of trolling gear, including several reels with line counters so he will know exactly how far from the boat his baits are. His reels are spooled with 60-lb. test Spiderwire braided line, to which Dirk ties a swivel and a 17-lb. fluorocarbon leader.
A Gamakatsu Octopus hook rounds out each rig. The downlines are weighted with 3-oz. egg sinkers above the swivel to keep the bait down, even when trolling fast. He also keeps one casting rod on board, rigged with a Zara Spook or a Red Fin.
“You should always have some kind of topwater or shallow-running plug in the event that they start feeding on top where you can cast to them,” Dirk said.
After putting the boat in the water at the Doll Mountain boat ramp, Dirk turned away from the ramp and ran straight across the lake to Wurley Creek, a hotbed for baitfish activity. And where there is bait, there are usually linesides.
As Dirk prepared his spread of baits, he talked about finding fish on Carters this spring.
“First thing in the morning and right before dark, the stripers are typically going to be way back in the creeks to feed,” Dirk said. “By mid-morning, they are around the mouths of the creeks and headed to the main lake.”
Dirk said we needed to be fishing when the sun came up to get in on the action in the back of Wurley Creek. Nonetheless, when we started idling up the long creek, Dirk’s fishfinder showed an unbelievable concentration of baitfish. Carters has a healthy population of threadfin shad, and Dirk pointed out that sometimes, the baitfish are schooled so tightly, they just appear as a gray bar on the graph.
“The reason we aren’t seeing as many big fish is because they are probably right in the middle of all that bait,” Dirk said.
In a few minutes, we were fishing with two downlines, a planer board and a flatline off each side of Dirk’s 17-foot center-console boat. The boat has a foot-controlled Minn Kota trolling motor, and Dirk keeps the control within easy reach of the console, gently tapping it with his fingers to get the boat where he wants it to go. And like all properly-rigged striper boats, the vessel has a bait tank. The livewells on a normal boat are square, and keeping shad alive in a square tank is not easy. A round tank with an aeration system, a couple of drops of bait-tank additive, and a handful of rock salt should keep your bait alive and frisky for a trip. Dirk believes that is a key to successful striper fishing.
“The more active your bait, the more successful you are going to be,” Dirk said.
Dirk likes gizzard shad when he is targeting big fish because they grow larger, and they are easier to keep alive than threadfins. He uses a castnet to catch his own baitfish, often spending time on the lake in the wee hours to fill the baitwell. Sometimes Dirk buys small trout to use as bait. They are very hearty and will swim well for several hours. A trout is hooked similarly to a minnow, with the hook going in the bottom of the fish’s mouth and out through the nostrils. Dirk said to feel for the cartilage to run the hook through.
As we trolled, Dirk explained why Carters is fast becoming one of his favorite striper destinations. First of all, there are almost no houses or docks on the lake. In fact, from the water, all one sees are the mountains rising on either side. It isn’t uncommon to see wildlife on the mountainsides leading down to the water. We watched as a doe and two yearlings worked across the top of a ridge next to us, and we had an osprey dive bomb our trout two times.
“I see deer here all the time, and I have seen turkeys. I know of people who have seen bears,” Dirk said. “It gives you the feeling that maybe no human has ever walked on that particular piece of ground before.”
Mostly, Dirk likes Carters for its big-fish potential as a striper fishery. During a week off from work last summer, Dirk went to Carters every day to chase linesides. The move paid off, as he was able to boat a fish in the 20-lb. class each day for five straight days.
We trolled for more than an hour without much action. Occassionally, a fish would bump one of the planer boards, moving it momentarily toward the boat before letting go of the bait. And a couple of times, a striper would make a hard strike, only to be gone by the time one of us picked up a rod. Finally, one fish ate a bait and took off, and Dirk, who had patiently waited to make sure the bite was a good one, set the hook on a beautiful 10-lb. lineside.
“My average fish on Carters is between 10 and 15 pounds,” Dirk said. “But the exciting thing is, you know there are some bigger fish than that in here.”
Many striper fishermen would pick up their baits and move after such a long period of inactivity, but Dirk will stay in an area longer than most anglers if he is seeing bait. Nonetheless, he said it is critical to find baitfish with your electronics.
“The most important thing in striper fishing is to find bait,” Dirk said.
He advises striper fishermen to be patient when the bite doesn’t begin as soon as the hooks are in the water.
“If the water temperature and oxygen levels are correct and there are baitfish, there should be some stripers there,” Dirk said. “If you are on bait and the conditions are right, tough it out and the fish will eat.”
The waiting paid off a little while later when the flatline on my side of the boat got slammed, and the drag began to sing under the surging run of the 24-lb. lineside.
“There’s a decent fish,” Dirk said.
I got a couple of turns on the reel, thinking how I agreed. Then the striper went away from the boat, its run convincing me the fish was more than decent. With plenty of pressure on the rod, the fish would pull line and I would get some back. After a war of attrition that lasted a few minutes, the fish boiled to the surface close enough to the boat that we got a good look at her. The long, wide striper had a tail that from where I was standing looked like a boat paddle, and moved water just as efficiently.
I finally got the fish to roll on her side as Dirk deftly slid the net under her to lift her into the boat.
“That fish is over 20 pounds easy,” Dirk said, grinning as big as I was. “That’s why we’re hooked!”
A few minutes later, another 20-pounder hit on Dirk’s side of the boat. The fish put up a good fight, routinely stripping line from Dirk’s reel as he ran. I reached over the side with the net to help Dirk, but he lipped the monster, held on with both hands and lifted it into the boat.
In all, we boated three fish the day we went. The three combined would tip the scales at more than 54 pounds! Dirk has fished enough striper tournaments to say with some assurance that our two biggest fish would have made for a great payday at an NSBA event.
“Forty-four, 45 pounds of fish will win most tournaments,” Dirk said. “Those size fish are why I love Carters.”
A fisherman can catch big stripers at Carters, but Dirk advises using large bait. Though the fish will sometimes kill a bait because they grab it before deciding it is too big to swallow, the big baits automatically upsize your targets.
“Some stripers can’t eat bait that big, but I am usually looking for big fish anyway,” Dirk said.
Carters is deep. There are places on the lake where depths exceed 400 feet. Wurley Creek, where Dirk and I fished, averaged between 55- and 70-feet deep, and one spot near the main lake registered 121 feet in depth only about 30 yards from the bank.
Dirk will pull bait using downlines, planers and flatlines until water temperatures reach 70. Once it gets above that, Dirk fishes almost exclusively with downlines.
He will fish the lines at various depths as he marks fish in an attempt to see what triggers a strike. And while the bite could come at any depth, Dirk says 28 feet seems just right when temperatures warm up.
“That’s the magic depth in the summertime,” Dirk said. “Too deep, and there’s no oxygen. Too shallow, and the water is too warm.”
Sometimes, Dirk likes to pull an umbrella rig in the middle of the day. The rig is made of two metal wires that form a cross. At each end of the cross, a jig is tied to a short leader. From the point where the two pieces of metal intersect, another jig hangs on a longer leader.
“I like to pull umbrella rigs later in the day because it mimics a small group of baitfish,” Dirk said.
Dirk said when water temperatures climb much above 70, even the stripers in a mountain lake like Carters will get stressed. Dirk guessed the 24-pounder we put in the boat would likely weigh 17 or 18 pounds in the summer. As the weather gets hotter, stripers will lose weight with the stress of warm-water living. But there will still be big fish at Carters, waiting for you to catch them.
To get to Doll Mountain boat ramp, take I-575 north, go left on Ga. Hwy 136 and follow the signs. Stop at Bart’s Bait and Tackle to fill your belly with food from a newly-constructed deli, and get the latest fishing report.
Keep the receipt for your trout, because you can be ticketed for possessing over the creel limit if you can’t prove you purchased them. Then hang on, because you could be in for the biggest fish of your life!
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