July Stripers At Weiss With Live Bait On Ledges

Mark Collins fishes live shad on steep ledges to pick a fight with the summer stripers at Weiss.

Kevin Dallmier | July 1, 2005

No sound is music to the striper fisherman’s ears like an Ambassadeur 6000’s baitclicker sounding off. Your heart jumps in your throat and anticipation mounts as the first few slow “click, click, click” signals the fun is about to begin. When the sound changes to a loud, raucous “clikikikikikikikikikikikik” it is the ringside bell signaling the fight is on. There might as well be a tuxedoed announcer crying “Leeeeet’s get ready to ruuummmble!!

Striper fishing is like that, a heavyweight title fight. No fast-punching, fancy footwork bantamweight fight from these fish, hoping for a high score from the judges after 10 rounds. Instead, a knockdown, drag-out slugfest with the best man (or fish) standing over a vanquished opponent.

In a great evening of fishing, Lake Weiss guide Mark Collins and I went several rounds with hard-fighting striped bass. As usual, the stripers didn’t dance around and go the distance in hopes of a favorable decision, instead giving everything they had from the opening bell in hopes of a quick knockout. A few times, they got what they were after. At the end of the evening though, the judges’ scorecards read Anglers 7, Stripers 3, so both sides gave a good showing of themselves.

Weiss fishing guide Mark Collins with a summer striper in the 10-lb. range. In early July the fish will be stacked up on fast-dropping ledges between the causeway and the mouth of Yellow Creek. Live shad is the best bait to catch them, says Mark.

Our trip took place on one of the Southeast’s best striper fisheries,  Alabama Power’s Lake Weiss on the Coosa River. Weiss Dam and most of the lake’s sprawling 30,200 acres lay in northeast Alabama, although 2,000 acres of the headwaters are in Georgia. What makes Weiss such a great striper fishery is Mother Nature is doing the  stocking, not a hatchery. The Coosa River system experiences natural reproduction of striped bass, very uncommon for landlocked systems. The Coosa River is one of only a handful of exceptions to that rule across the entire United States.

As the striper fishery developed over the last decade, the awesome  fishing to be had in the rivers was northwest Georgia’s worst-kept secret. What may come as a surprise though is the good fishing in the lake itself after the spawn, but before the dog days of summer really set in.

Mark Collins guides for bass, stripers, and crappie on Weiss, but come early summer, it is time to go after striped bass.

“Striper fishing is good down here in the lake from May until mid-July,” Mark said, “although it all depends on the weather. A cool spring will keep them up the rivers longer, and a cool wet summer may keep them in the lake a few extra weeks. In spring, the fish are on their spawning run so you will find them up the rivers in Georgia.

“After the spawn a lot of them come back to the lake, and then by mid-July when the water temperature peaks for the summer, they head back up the rivers looking for cooler water. We have a good fishery here in early summer, especially for numbers of fish. It is not hard at all to go out for a half-day trip and put 15 fish in the boat, most running seven to 10 pounds. You will get a bigger one every now and then, my personal best striper went 26 pounds, but the Coosa and Weiss excel as a numbers fishery.”

As any striper angler can attest, even a 10-lb. striper is no slouch for pulling drag and putting a bruise on your belly. If a Weiss striped bass sounds like an opponent you want to tangle with, let’s find out what it takes to get in on this great summertime fishery.

Frisky shad are the key to catching stripers. Mark cast nets his own shad to ensure fresh bait. The trick to getting good coverage with your net is to spin it as you loft it over the water — sort of like a big Frisbee.

“The first step to most striper trips is catching bait,” Mark said as we idled away from the ramp at J.R.’s Marina on the Little River arm of Lake Weiss.

“For a morning trip, the bait is easy to get. Just be here before daylight, and throw your cast net under the lights here at the marina. This evening though, the sun is still high and hot, and the ripple on the water is going to make them hard to see. Probably going to have to do a lot of throwing blind to get what we need for this evening.”

Mark’s prediction turned out to be true as the hot sun beat down and only about every third throw of the net resulted in a few shad for the bait tank.

“Really though, I don’t like to  catch a net full on a single throw,” said Mark. “It seems like when you do that, they beat each other up in the net and end up dying on you pretty quickly.”

After about an hour of cast netting in three different holes, Mark had the 40 to 50 shad that he likes to start with for a half-day trip. Not just any shad will do.

“I like four- to five-inch gizzard shad,” said Mark. “You will get the most bites on shad that size, but you can go bigger if you are willing to give up a few bites for the chance at a bigger fish.”

Cast netting can get to be work in a hurry, and Mark had a few tips to make it easier.

“You gotta get the net spinning on the throw, kind of like throwing a  Frisbee,” Mark said. “Just lobbing it out there doesn’t work all that well. The best way to get bait is under the lights, but during the day, try to find calm water so you can see the shad flipping and pinpoint the schools. Use Shad Saver in your bait tank. In the summer, live bait is the way to go. Earlier in the year cut bait seems to work better, but after the spawn, the fish seem to prefer live shad, and you want to keep them as frisky as you can.”

Once we had the bait-collection chores completed, it was time to start fishing. A short run put us on the main Coosa River channel near the Cedar Bluff causeway.

“This first spot is a good drop off of a flat into the main river channel,” Mark explained. “What you want to look for is a sharp drop into the channel, not a slow taper. Outside channel bends are good places to find a sharp drop. It is even better if there is some cover down there. This particular ledge here has some trees on the bottom, and the fish will hold right over the trees.”

After a minute or two of work with the trolling motor, Mark proved his point by drawing my attention to the depthfinder and saying, “There are the trees, and there are the fish, just like they are supposed to be.” The arches from the fish suspended over the trees were obvious, and proof positive that for this type of striper fishing, being able to use your boat’s electronics is a must.

There are miles and miles of river ledges in Lake Weiss, but not all of  them hold fish. The trick is finding the ones that do. Mark had some suggestions on where to start your search.

“The Coosa is the main spawning river,” Mark said, “so it makes sense to me that the most fish are going to be in the Coosa channel as they work their way back down the lake. You can catch them in the Chattooga or Little River arms, but the main Coosa channel is my favorite. I rarely go down much below the mouth of Yellow Creek. From the causeway to Yellow Creek there are several good channel drops, and if you can’t catch them on those, you probably aren’t going to catch them anywhere.”

Mark’s favorite striper rig is simple. First he takes a heavy baitcasting outfit spooled up with 20-lb. mono.

“I like just straight Ande monofilament,” Mark said. “I have tried braided line, and unless you use a mono leader, you just won’t get as many bites. I have tried them side by side, and the rod with mono always gets the most bites.”

Mark ties on a No. 4 treble hook, and then about two feet above the hook puts on a 3/4-oz. rubber-core sinker.

“I like the rubber-core sinker since it is so easy to take on and off,” Mark explained. “Sometimes I will switch some rods from downlines to freelines, and the rubber-core sinker lets me make the switch without having to spend time re-rigging.”

Once he is rigged and ready to go, Mark nets up a lively shad and hooks it through the mouth on one point of the treble.

“I like to go in the mouth and come out one nostril,” Mark said. “Don’t hook the fish through both lips. Just go in about an eighth of an inch, go through the roof of the mouth, then come out the nostril. Hooking shad this way doesn’t hurt them, so they stay lively, and the snout is pretty tough, so it is hard for a striper to knock them off without getting hooked.”

When it comes to shad rigs, Mark has one other trick up his sleeve.

“Sometimes the fish will hit short,” Mark said, “especially later in the summer. When they start doing that, I borrow a saltwater-fishing trick and rig a stinger hook. Just leave a long tag end on your knot when you tie on the first hook, and use that to tie on a second treble hook about three or four inches back. Hook the shad on the first hook, and let the stinger hook swing free. You will catch a lot more of those short strikers that way.

“We started in about 22 feet of water at this hole, and we are working up to about 14 feet,” Mark explained. “I am going to set the lines on one side of the boat about eight-feet down and 10-feet down on the other side. I rarely fish deeper than 10 feet. Your active fish are going to be in that eight- to 10-foot depth. Sometimes you will see fish on the bottom in 20 feet, but it is hard to get those fish to bite. Find fish in the eight- to 10-foot range, and you will get bit if you put a bait in front of them.”

Mark uses a treble hook through the nose of a four- to five-inch shad. This shad was raked by a striper that missed the points of the hook.

As if on cue, the first striper of the evening decided to make its presence known by sounding off a baitclicker.

“Don’t be in too big a hurry,” Mark coached. “If you are right by the rod when it goes off, count to three and then engage the reel. Let the rod load up good before you even pick it up out of the holder. They mostly hook themselves that way. When you hook up, I like to pull away from the ledge with the trolling motor. That way, you don’t spook the other fish, or lose track of where you are in the excitement and drift up too shallow and get hung up.”

The first fish of the evening was a 6-lb. striper. In short order, several other fish decided to go a round with us, including one fish pushing 10 pounds.

Occasionally, more than one clicker would sound off, making for some fast action. We had one double where both of us where simultaneously fighting a feisty striper trying to keep them from tangling with each other or the other lines. For more than an hour, the action was steady with either a pull or a hookup every 10 minutes or so.

“The best time to fish is first thing in the morning,” Mark said. “It is usually tougher when the sun is really bright like this evening. On a good overcast day though, fish may bite all day long.”

We speculated too that the water temperature may have something to do with the mornings being better fishing. Weiss is a shallow lake and can heat up with amazing speed. The day before our trip was mostly overcast with comfortable temperatures. Mark was on the lake that day — as he is nearly every day — and the surface water temperature was 77 degrees. The day of our trip was a scorcher, and recent rains had dirtied up the water enough to help it really absorb the heat once the sun came out. By the time of our evening trip, the surface temp had jumped a full 10 degrees to 87.

As the bite slowed after catching six fish with several other hits, Mark decided to fire up and go look at a few other holes. We motored down to the mouth of Yellow Creek and spent several minutes idling around looking at some drops where the Yellow Creek channel meets the Coosa channel.

“They were here yesterday, but they aren’t today,” Mark said as an empty screen scrolled across the depthfinder. “Stripers are always on the move. It is rare to find them on the same hole for more than two or three days at a time. Don’t be afraid to move. Even if I am seeing fish on the depthfinder, I give them 30 or 45 minutes, then I move on if I haven’t had any action.”

Heading back up the lake, we checked some drops near Hog Island, but the picture was the same. Very little bait and no stripers.

“Let’s finish where we started,” Mark said, “we know there are fish on that hole.”

We set up on the same place we had left 30 minutes before, and sure enough there were still fish holding over the trees. The last few minutes before dark resulted in another striper about eight pounds and a chunky blue catfish maybe around five pounds.

As the sun sank behind the ridge and the last few minutes of sunlight  faded over the lake, we used the last of our shad trying to get one more fish before calling it a day.

The scorecard for three hours of fishing was seven striped bass, one blue cat, and a handful of missed hits. We had a couple of fish pull off, and one fish that hit so hard and went under the boat so quickly that it cut the line on the prop before we even had a chance to pick up the rod. If there is a better way to spend a summer evening than floating on a peaceful lake waiting for the baitclicker to sound its call of “fish on,” I don’t know what it would be.

If you would like to give Weiss striper fishing a try, visit his web site at Mark guides full time on Weiss for bass, stripers, and crappie and will take care of everything from catching the bait to supplying the rods to netting the fish you are sure to catch from his favorite river ledges.

And J.R.’s Marina www.jrsmarina. com is close to the action and a good place to launch, eat breakfast or lunch, pick up some extra tackle or snacks and drinks, or even stay for the night in the campground or marina motel.

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