West Point’s Downlake Lineside Bite

With the spring run finished, hybrids and stripers are stacked up and feeding on the downlake humps.

Joe DiPietro | June 1, 2009

Todd Pursley holds two stripers that show the future of West Point Lake’s lineside fishing.

There’s no doubt that amongst the beautiful scenery of West Point Lake there’s a huge population of hungry, eager and hard-fighting linesides.

And, as the weather continues to warm this month, the action should only get hotter, according West Point Lake angler and part-time guide Todd Pursley. Now that the crowded spring striper and hybrid run up the river is over, fishing pressure for linesides will drop off. Despite that, there’s a very large, productive portion of the lake south of the train trestle and the Highway 109 bridge that will really start to pick up, Todd said.

And, if anyone should know where to find good hybrids and stripes on West Point Lake at any time, it’s Todd. He has guided clients to both the current lake-record striper and, most recently, the 14-lb., 12-oz. hybrid-bass lake record caught by Dustin Pate in March 2009.

A die-hard lineside fisherman, Todd can be found out on the lake tearing up fish on days when other anglers wouldn’t spend the money on gas to go fishing.

“A lot of guys out here like to fish when it’s overcast and cloudy because that brings the bait and the fish to the surface,” Todd said. “But I like to fish clear, sunny days because it pulls the fish and the bait down to the bottom and concentrates them.”

One of the most critical parts of having a successful day of fishing on West Point is to have fresh bait, and fortunately there’s no shortage of it in the lake. However, it takes a dedicated angler to get up well before dawn to go out in search of lively, 3- to 4-inch gizzard and threadfin shad. Not to mention that you’ve got to be willing to get wet throwing a cast net to catch shad.

“Some days I’ll catch all the bait I need in 30 minutes, and other times I spend three hours doing it,” Todd said. “But the key is that you’ve got to have live, frisky shad, and you’ve got to be able to keep them that way throughout the day. If that bait isn’t thumping, most fish won’t pay any attention to it.”

In order to accomplish this, Todd recommends using a good, quality, circulating bait tank with a filter in it to keep scales from building up in the tank. Todd said he typically doesn’t like to head out to fish unless he’s got at least 100 to 150 quality shad.

“It’s nothing for me to go through 100 shad in a day,” he said.

In terms of terminal tackle for West Point linesides, Todd uses baitcasting rigs spooled with 15-lb. main-line with 2 to 3 feet of 10-lb. fluorocarbon leader tied to the main line with a swivel. Above the swivel, Todd slips on a 1-oz. to 1 1/2-oz. egg sinker. For hooks, Todd advises using 1/0 or 2/0 straight-shank hooks.

In order to help keep the shad alive and to attract more hits, Todd said hooking the bait through the clear portion of the fish between its eyes and nostrils is the best way to go.

“I don’t know what it is, but they live longer that way,” he said.

Fishing downlines a few feet off the bottom is primarily what Todd suggests, and on his 24-foot center console he tries to keep six lines in the water at all times.

On the day Todd and I fished the lake, we first pulled up onto a flat near the lowest end of the lake.

With more than 25,000 acres of surface water and an average depth of about 25 feet, it can take some work to find the fish. The time spent looking for them is well worth it, though. Before Todd made the call to bait lines and start fishing, we spent a little while finding the fish.

“To me, one of the things I love most about these fish is the hunt,” he said. “I also love to see people catching these fish. They just fight so hard.”

Todd uses an old-style paper graph fish-finder to locate fish, timber and other structure before dropping a marker buoy and the trolling motor. Then, he switches over to a more modern liquid-crystal fishfinder and uses the trolling motor to keep the boat in and around the buoy.

“The paper graphs are just so much more sensitive. When you get around timber, that’s where the paper graph is really critical,” Todd said. “I guess maybe I was just taught the old-school way.”

Once Todd found a nice group of hooks on the fishfinder we had a double hook-up within five minutes. Before long we brought two average, 3- to 5-lb. stripers to the boat.

“These days are great when you can’t fish six lines because they’re all getting hit as soon as you drop them down,” Todd said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Todd Pursley hoists one of the stripers that will be the future of West Point’s lineside fishery now that hybrid
stockings have ceased at the lake.

Throughout June, Todd recommends paying close attention to the subtle humps and roadbeds from the train trestle south and in areas just above the trestle. But, anglers shouldn’t overlook flats with timber where suspended fish can often be found. Those on the hunt for linesides also want to keep an eye out for fish busting bait on the surface, as it can prove an effective method of locating fish, as well.

After fishing the first location for about an hour, Todd and I had caught about a dozen average-sized stripers, hybrids, white bass and a single spotted bass.

“On this lake, you just never know what’s going to hit or how big it may be,” Todd said.

Todd made the call to move on to another location in the main lake, and after locating and marking fish we repeated the pattern, dropping downlines. And we were rewarded with more non-stop bites from linesides. Again, we caught the average-sized linesides, with the occasional fish pushing 5 to 7 pounds.

There’s no other way to describe the third spot Todd and I fished other than smoking hot. There were fish busting the surface all around us and big hooks showing up deep on the fish-finder. After battling our way through the white bass to get our baits to the bottom of the lake, we hooked a good fish by West Point standards.

“I love the feel of these fish pulling drag,” Todd said, drag ticking. “They fight differently in this lake than they do in the deeper lakes. They tend to take off running instead of heading straight to the bottom. But when you’re fishing over timber, you’ve got to be careful or they’ll take you right into it and break you off.”

Arches stacked up to 5 feet on the graph over a 20-foot bottom is a glorious sight for a lineside angler, and it can produce hot-and-heavy action from some hard-pulling fish.

Several minutes later a nice 10-lb. striper came to the surface ready to go in the net.

“That’s a good fish for this lake because they’ve only been stocking stripers here for the last few years,” Todd said.

In about five hours of fishing, Todd and I had landed a mixed bag of about 30 hybrids, stripers and white bass, including that nice 10-lb. striper. We lost and missed countless other fish, including one that broke off after nearly ripping the rod out of the rod-holder.

Todd said he owes a lot of his expertise and knowledge about the linesides of West Point to his mentor, another West Point guide, Herschel Calhoun.

As a former largemouth bass angler, “I’d all but quit fishing when a friend of mine talked me into going on a live-bait trip for hybrids with Herschel,” Todd said. “I took one trip, and I was hooked. Over the years, Herschel has taught me an awful lot, and he’s a lot like a grandpa to me.”

While hybrids have been stocked in West Point for more than 20 years, DNR did not begin stocking Gulf-race striped bass until 2005, said DNR Fisheries Biologist Brent Hess. Since then, the lake has received more than 200,000 striped-bass fry and fingerlings each year. The other side of the coin is that stocking of hybrids was discontinued in 2006, Hess said.

This was done because, “right now we’re focusing mainly on stripers,” in a cooperative restoration effort with Georgia, Alabama and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hess said. The goal of the switch is to restore a naturally reproducing population of Gulf-race striped bass from West Point all the way downstream to Apalachicola.

“The ultimate goal is to establish a reproducing and fully functional striper fishery,” Hess said.

While some natural reproduction has been documented in West Point up to this point, it’s not enough to sustain itself yet. This is mainly because of the water flow required for stripers to reproduce is marginal in West Point, Hess said.

That’s where the high stocking numbers come in — the more fish stocked, the higher the probability that more fish will successfully reproduce. The high stocking numbers also produce good numbers of large female brood fish.

“We want good numbers of fish and decent-sized fish,” Hess said. “But, the main thing is to provide a good quality, year-round fishery.”

Recent surveys of the lake have turned up some fish in the 20- to 30-lb. range, Hess said, and with continued heavy stocking there’s a good possibility that the number of fish heavier than 20 pounds will increase.

Despite the heavy stockings of stripers, Todd is an advocate of catch-and-release fishing for the species.

“How can you catch a 20-lb. fish if you keep it when it’s only 5 pounds?” he said. “It’s up to the fishermen to be the conservationists. We’ve got to be the ones to protect these fish.”

If you’ve got to keep fish for the table, “there are lots of big crappie in this lake and, to me, they’re the best eating fish there is,” Todd said.

Regarding the discontinuation of stocking hybrids, Todd said: “I’m really going to miss the hybrids.”

No doubt though, there will be some beastly hybrids lurking in the lake for the next several years. With the regular stockings of stripers, the future of the lake’s striper fishery looks like “it’s only going to get better and better,” as those fish grow to maturity, Todd said.

To book a guided trip with Todd, be sure to call ahead early because he only guides part-time. To reach Todd, call (404) 379-6583.

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