When it comes to big striped bass, Alabama has some serious big ‘uns.
The sun is barely up, and this July morning is already getting hot. The water is moving just a bit, and the shadows under the trees on the shoreline are growing lighter. The birds are starting their day, making their morning calls and looking for something to eat.
This looks to be a good day. But after the peaceful dawn and early morning, a little excitement would make things better.
At the word of my buddy, who is also a professional guide, I make a cast into the swirling water passing through the massive structure of the concrete wall which is the dam creating Wheeler Lake.
This cast puts my big, heavy jig into some potentially dangerous territory. Lots of big rocks, logs, and other rough stuff out there would love to grab and steal my lure. There are big, dangerous things down in the swift water, too.
I let the jig sink, and then I start a sharp retrieve that provides motion to the jig. At this moment, the excitement I was wishing for happens, and it happens fast.
I need to learn to be careful of what I wish for.
With a solid thump that stops my jig and shocks my arms, a big ‘un has decided that my jig and twister-tail looks too much like something good to eat. The solid thump is replaced by an energetic run as the rapid and powerful beat of a strong tail is transferred through my line to my hands on the rod.
Then the fish decides somewhere else would be a better place for it to be, and it leaves the dam and races downstream. I can’t stop this fish. I can’t even slow it down.
My buddy puts the motor in gear and urges me to hold on, maintain my balance, and keep slack out of the line as we chase the big fish down.
After a good chase and some good luck, I have the powerful fish under the boat. I work it toward the surface. Deep in the clear water of upper Wilson Lake below Wheeler Dam, I see a flash of silver, and then I see the fish clearly.
Freshwater fish aren’t supposed to be this big. But this is the true freshwater trophy fish of Alabama—a striped bass of well over 20 pounds.
I manage to hold on, keep my tired hands on the rod and reel, and gain enough line for my buddy to slide an oversized landing net under the fish when I roll it over at the surface. He grunts as he lifts the fish into the boat, and then I realize just how big this striped bass is.
“This kind of fish is too good a thing to only catch once. It deserves its life, and some other angler deserves a chance to catch this trophy, too.”
Well over 20 pounds, the fish holds still so I can have my trophy pictures taken. Then I ease the fish back into the clear water. When it kicks and recovers, I let it go.
This kind of fish is too good a thing to only catch once. It deserves its life, and some other angler deserves a chance to catch this trophy, too.
Then my buddy asks,” Do you want to go get another one?”
Can You Really Catch these Fish in July?
Striped bass have very particular living needs. They need lots of food; primarily smaller
fish such as shad. And they need cool, well-oxygenated water. Striped bass die when they are exposed to warm water. So, can these trophy stripers really live in Alabama waters in July, and can they actually be caught in July?
Our buddy Brian Barton is a professional guide on the big lakes of the Tennessee River in North Alabama, and he says, “Yes! July is one of the best times of the year to take stripers on Pickwick Lake. Hybrids also school underneath the turbulent water of the Tennessee River dams.”
Captain Brian continues, “Stripers are very aggressive fish. If a bait they like is offered, they’re going to bite it. If you fish a spot for more than ten minutes with no bites, then move to another spot. A striper is an eating machine. Most of their diet is composed of large gizzard and threadfin shad. However, I’ve dressed stripers with small crappie and white bass in their stomachs.”
“Stripers will surface many times in the early morning or late evening,” he adds. “If you see schooling fish chasing shad on the surface, go to them immediately and swim a Sassy Shad just under the surface, or cast a live shad with no weight into the school.”
The key to finding trophy stripers in summer is to find cool water and lots of food fish. The big stripers won’t be far away.
Where Will They Be?
So, where can we find the right combination of food and cool water that the trophy stripers want? Well, there are a couple of places in the North Alabama lakes that meet all of the needs of stripers.
First, the turbulent and swift water just below the massive dams of Lake Wheeler and Lake Pickwick are classic and dependable places where stripers find the conditions ideal for survival.
“Good current along with normal or above normal pool levels is the key,” Captain Brian says. “I like 30,000 to 50.000 cfs release for best striper fishing. The bite is usually best in the early morning or late afternoon. Cloudy days can be better than bright, sunny days.”
He continues, “When fishing the tailraces, you have got to learn to read the seams between turbines. A seam is a region of slack water where the currents of two turbines meet. Bait is pushed into the seam making them easy targets for feeding fish. When the dams are not generating, the fish tend to suspend in the water column in the deepest water present.”
Directly below the dams, the stripers tend to run from five to 20 pounds with an average of about 12 pounds. When anglers find good numbers of stripers, the fish tend to run smaller. When fewer bites occur, they tend to be bigger trophy stripers.
The second location where trophy striped bass are found in July is not as obvious as the fast water below the big dams.
Some of the streams that feed into Wilson and Pickwick Lakes have springs which add their much cooler water to the normal flow of the streams.
The cooler water of the springs create “thermal refuges” of deeper cooler water which permits stripers to spend much of the time in summer in safe and healthy conditions. If an angler takes the time to explore the feeder creeks and streams, some of these spring areas can be located, and some world-class fishing can result.
These spring-fed creeks and streams flowing into the big lakes may be deceptively small and narrow. Anglers looking for trophy stripers up the creeks need to move slowly, quietly, and they should be prepared for a more deliberate presentation. However, there are advantages to fishing the small streams for trophy summer stripers.
Captain Brian says, “The fish in the creeks relating to the cooler water tend to be larger in size. Fish in the upper-twenties with an occasional 30-pound striper are common.”
How Can I Rig for Trophy Striper Fishing?
Once we know when and where to look for a trophy striped bass in July, then it’s very important to make sure we have the right gear and bait. Hooking and losing a striped bass of trophy size is not the best way to determine that the tackle being used is not the right stuff.
“I have three rigs I use depending on where I’m fishing and the conditions that are present,” Captain Barton advises. “If I’m fishing a tailrace, a 1-oz Mister Twister hair jig bumped along the bottom is hard to beat. If the fish are suspended, I like to throw a Mister Twister Saltwater Sassy Shad in white/pearl or white pearl/black back. These lures are deadly on the bigger stripers positioned behind rock piles in the direct currents below the dams.
“If I’m fishing in the creeks with cold water spring areas, I prefer to use cut skipjack or live gizzard shad. For this application I either use a Carolina rig with a short leader or fish with no weight at all in the absence of current.”
“A quality rod, reel, and line are all essential for battling big stripers in strong currents.” — Capt. Brian Barton
Selecting the right rods and reels is critical for successful trophy striper fishing. These are large, powerful fish, and if rod, reel, line or any other equipment is not up to snuff, the angler will soon learn all about it in a sad and depressing way when the fish breaks free and the line goes slack.
Captain Brian Barton has fished for these extra-large stripers for a long time, and he has arrived at some very strong opinions on the right kind of gear needed for this high-pressure brand of fishing.
“A quality rod, reel, and line are all essential for battling big stripers in strong currents,” he says. “I only use seven-foot B‘n’M Silver Cat medium-action spinning rods. A quality line like Vicious fluorocarbon in 17 or 20 lb test will work well.
“For hooks, there is only one choice: Daiichi Bleeding Bait circle hooks. I use the 7/0 circle hook when using large shad for bait. This circle hook allows for an extremely high percentage of hookups.”
Special Considerations when Trophy Striper Fishing
Any time we fish below the big dams in North Alabama, we need to be careful. Powerful and very changeable currents are created when water is released through the power-generating turbines of the dams.
These currents can change greatly in a very short period of time when turbines are shut down or added.
Also, weather conditions can change quickly, so anglers will need to keep an eye on the sky. When the first rumble of thunder is heard—and it can be hard to hear over the sound of the rushing water below a dam—anglers need to make plans to make a run back to the ramps.
Captain Brian Barton advises, “When fishing in hot weather, it’s important to remain hydrated and protect yourself from the sun with quality sunscreen products. I often add a pool umbrella inside a seat pedestal when fishing in direct sunlight for long periods of time.
“Fishing around power dams is always dangerous. You need to be mentally sharp at all times and pay close attention to your surroundings. Water conditions can change within seconds. Of course, always wear your life-vest.”
Important Contact Information:
Captain Brian Barton
Vicious Fishing Line
Mr. Twister Lures