How to fish for Winter Hybrids and Striped Bass
Kurt Smits, the winner of the 2017 Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship, has been hooked on chasing Hybrids and Striped Bass for a decade! Known for being unpredictable, finding new patterns, and understanding these specie's behaviors is one of the many thrills when chasing these fish. Still, nothing tops the charts like the adrenaline running through you when you sink a razor-sharp hook into the lip of a Stripe! Some kayak anglers stop chasing Stripes after the early Fall feed is over, so Kurt held a seminar to educate kayak anglers on how to identify their patterns and different techniques to use to reel in success all Fall and Winter long in the Ohio River! We're highlighting and summarizing all of Kurt's recommended tactics in this article!
The number one element to understand before you hit the water in the Fall and Winter is angler safety! During the Winter months, Kurt admits that he fears the water. You must respect all elements of Mother Nature and be prepared! Gloves will keep your hands protected from the elements and will help keep them warm, but if you don't stay moving, your hands will inevitably get cold. Kurt uses angler neoprene gloves that have finger compartments that fold back. This makes it convenient when you need to make a line tie. He also keeps a cheap pair of fleece gloves on standby. Most importantly, make sure that you are outfitted with a drysuit and noninflatable PFD, and have backup clothes on standby in a dry bag. Here's a look at what Kurt wears as a drysuit underlayer and overlayer as temperatures approach freezing:
Drysuit Underlayer-thermal underwear/long-johns, fleece pants and a fleece top, regular pants, and long sleeve shirt.
Drysuit Outterlayer- fleece jacket and fleece vest.
NRS and Striker have great options for drysuits. Kurt states that you can have the best drysuit in the world, but the minute that you hit the water, your safety is in jeopardy. That leads us to the next non-apparel safety tip: no horsing around! Yes, fishing should always be fun, but Winter fishing is no time for horseplay. It's recommended to always fish with a buddy during cold weather, and you can enjoy each other's company, but save the horseplay for the summertime.
The last safety tip is to hit the water with the right tools. Kurt even recommends having a fire-starter stored in your dry bag at all times, because you never know what situation when may find yourself in, and being prepared is critical. When you hit the cold water, make sure you're in a reliable kayak and have the right rods and reels to get the job done. Stripes are hard fighting fish, so don't show up to the fight with 6-8 lb line. Kurt uses a minimum of 12 lb test line. When water temperatures are 40-degree+, try using 12 lb fluorocarbon. When the water drops below 40-degrees, switch to a 10-12 lb monofilament, and avoid the braided line at all costs! To help keep your line guides from freezing, Kurt recommends giving the guides a small coating of car wax. It's not very messy, and you can buy spray wax from most local retailers. This practice is not a permanent solution for freezing guides, and only lasts 4-5 casts, but helps increase your time on the water. Also, make sure to treat your lines with a line conditioner to help maintain line fray.
Now that we've got the safety covered let's dive right into late Summer/early Fall Stripe targeting. When the water is warmer (around 70-degrees), these species of fish will congregate in and around oxygenated waters. You're going to find them around dams, up in the tributaries, and the riffles. During this time, you can also find them out in the Ohio River at about 30-35 feet deep where the water is substantially colder. Use large lipless crankbaits and big swimbaits. And when Kurt says big, he means 12-inch swimbait kind-of big! Don't be afraid of those large baits; large bait equals large fish!
Once the river gets around 50-60-degrees, the large schools of Hybrids and Striped Bass are going to break up into smaller schools. Kurt believes that this is by far the best time to target these species because they're most aggressive! Right now, the only thing on their mind is food, and because baitfish are very sensitive to temperature fluctuations, they start to migrate down the tributary. The tributary cools down quicker than the river, which drives out the bait, and Stripes are just following suit. The hungry Stripes will come out of the riffles and down towards the mouth of the tributary, and linger on that line between the cold tributary water and the warmer river water. When you find conditions like this, start to downside your crankbaits and swimbaits.
The Ohio River is highly susceptible to flooding during the Fall and Winter months, but don't let this deter you from hitting the water! Kurt notes that flooding and blown-out river conditions help position the fish for you and make them easy to find. When river conditions rise 8-10 feet and get muddy, the fish are pushed out of the river's mouth and into creeks and tributaries. When the water is flowing quickly past a tributary and creek openings, the current splits and pushes some water up into the tributary at an angle, and the Hybrids and Striped Bass will follow that split current and hide in the banks near the opening of the tributary. They start to act a bit like Largemouth Bass and protect themselves around larger debris. During these conditions, they aren't chasing minnows or shad but waiting patiently on the edge of the bank for something to come by that they can eat, because they don't want to venture out into the river and expose themselves to the high current and debris that it brings. Kurt has caught some of his biggest fishing during blown-out, milkshake water conditions. Use a light, lipless crankbait or hard bait that puts off a lot of vibration with a 3/0 hook. Vibration is vital over color because when you've got milkshake-colored water, fish rely solely on their lateral line to detect their food source.
You have to change up your tactics a bit when the river floods in the Winter and water temperatures drop around 40-degrees and below. At this time in the season, the water temperatures in the river and tributaries balance out and only fluctuate a couple of degrees from one another. Unfortunately, this means the hot creek mouth bite is over. To find the Stripes, you'll need to find a tributary that is roughly 10-feet+ deep, and that has flowing water. You can find them in shallower branches, such as long drain out ditches, but you'll have the best luck when you find flowing water. These waters that have movement attract more baitfish and more life, and that's where you'll find the Stripes! Remember, at this point, they live to eat, so if you find the shad and minnows, you'll find the Hybrids and Striped Bass.
Once river temperatures drop to 40-degrees and below, the fish stop moving fast and tend to stay in one place for longer. Unlike warmer temperatures, during the Winter, the fish don't school by species but in a large co-species group. That means you'll find Hybrids, Striped Bass, Largemouth, Drum, Carp, and Catfish all assembled together. Sometimes this can be very frustrating because the Drum bite will be crazy, but stay patient and be persistent and you'll land that Stripe you're hunting! If the Winter river water levels are up, the fish will be right by the mouth of the tributary. Don't fish the ledge and creek openings, though; move into the tributary. Just like in blown-out rivers, the fish start to act like Largemouth Bass and will congregate around debris found up in the tributaries. When it comes to lures, you can use any small bait that you won't get snagged. Kurt loves to us a 3-inch paddle tail or minnow-style bait in silver colors on a small 1/4 oz jighead, because now with the water colder, the fish don't want to have to work hard to get their meal. The fish want a helpless, injured baitfish, so try a slow-rolling retrieve right through and around the school of fish.
When a slow-retrieve action is not working, Kurt switches to a Finesse Troll. Are you wondering what the heck 'Finesse Trolling' is? It's only a tactic that can be utilized by a kayak angler because if you try it out in a bass boat, you're going to spook the fish. Here's what you do: let your line out about 50 yards with a minnow-like soft-plastic tied on and slowly roll your bait, no more than 1.5 MPH, straight through the school of fish. With 50 yards of line out, you'll be far enough away in your kayak, so you don't 'tip them off,' and a slow roll with less tail action makes your bait wobble. This allows your bait to perfectly mimick a wounded shad and an easy meal. The Stripes won't hit hard when using the Finesse Troll method; they'll load up your line, and once you set the hook, the battle will begin. Stealth is critical for this approach to work, so as a kayak angler, you have a huge advantage!
On a Winter afternoon, when the sun is high, you can always look for a sun-saturated bank to target Hybrids and Striped Bass. Even though the water might only fluctuate 4-degrees in these areas, the fish are sure to find it and relax there. When you see them, start running stuff past them. Kurt likes to approach them with a 1/4 oz lipless, rattling crankbait. When the bite is hard, switch to a smaller crankbait without a rattle. He also likes to utilize small swimbaits and blade baits, because everyone knows you can't beat the results of a small SteelShade blade bait when they're hanging out towards the bottom!
Winter will inevitably press on and make the rivers and tributaries unfishable with ice; however, once the ice float breaks, you can resume targeting the Stripes and Hybrids. Icey waters are some of the most dangerous conditions on the water, so safety can't be stressed enough! Dress appropriately, wear your PFD, and never hit the water alone. According to Kurt, you don't even have to sacrifice, leaving your Crocs at home, just as long as you layer appropriately.
When water temperatures are 35-degrees and below, the fish will change their locations week to week, because they're continually looking for somewhere to eat and wait out the Winter. At this point, they're not searching for shad, but they'll happily accept easy prey that happens to swim past. The fish will more than likely be hiding right inside of the tributaries on the sides, but sometimes you can catch them right behind the ice float. The first thing Kurt does is throws a small, lipless crankbait. Let it drop to the bottom, allow it to rise with a very slow retrieve, and repeat. If that's not working, switch to the tried-and-true Finesse Troll with a skinny swimbait. Run it above, below, and through the schools no faster than 1.5 MPH. There's no denying that fishing in these Winter conditions can be trying and discouraging. Still, with a little bit of knowledge and understanding of the species, you can have fantastic success, even your personal best!
We hope that Kurt Smit's insight on how to target Hybrids and Striped Bass will help fuel your Winter adventures on the water. Remember, safety is vital, so never compromise it! Tight lines and Fish On!
- Erica Novak