The day was overcast, with
the intermittent drizzle common to an early spring day. The air was cool
enough to nip your cheeks and nose a bit, but it wasn't cold. Not that
it would have mattered if it had been.. .I was out with Stan Rogers, a
friend of mine, looking for pre-spawn schooling stripers.
We were fishing a rocky point at the mouth of a feeder creek which had some decent current, thanks to recent rains. Stan, a longtime striper fisherman, knew that although the stripers in this lake wouldn't be able to make a true spawning run, they would head for the site with the best possible current.. .and this was it. He had fished this point with a lot of success in prior springs, he assured me. If they weren't here, he knew of a good place to look for them in deeper water. He felt confident we would be able to catch some good fish that day.
I wasn't so sure. It wasn't that I didn't trust Stan's judgement.. after all, he had some nice fish hanging on his wall, and he assured me that most of them were taken at this time of the year, in the early spring. What worried me was that he had decided that shallow or deep, we were going to catch our fish on bucktails.
Now, I had nothing against a bucktail jig, not specifically, anyway. But I was basically a live bait or Redfin fisherman, and it seemed to me we ought to at least spend some time with one or the other or both. Still, Stan knew more about this game than I did, or so I tried to reassure myself as I glanced at the bucktail-rigged rods in the boat.
As it turned out, I shouldn't have worried. At first, I concentrated on placing the jig in the current and letting it swim into the eddy. The next thing I knew I was concentrating on working in a hefty striper. I hadn't even realized I had a fish on at first.
I was only aware of a little bump on the line, not too different than the feel of a black bass taking a jig or a worm. I set the hook more or less by instinct.. .and suddenly felt as though I had latched onto a submarine going full speed ahead under the water.
It seemed like an eternity before I finally got the fish to the boat, and Stan deftly got it into the boat. It was one of the bigger stripers I'd ever caught, and I'd done it on a bucktail. I was shaking my head in disbelief when Stan told me not to worry, that I'd probably catch a better fish before the day was over. It hardly mattered. This one fish had already made me a believer in springtime striper fishing with bucktails. Later, the scales would show her to weigh in at 21 pounds, 4 ounces. The nice stripers we caught later that day only strengthened my new conviction.
I was to find out later that many striper fishermen include bucktails in their arsenal of springtime striper baits. I heard the same story over and over. "The bucktail is probably the most versatile striper bait you can use, especially in the spring. It's good shallow or deep, casting or trolling or jigging. For a bait that can do it all, you just can't beat the bucktail jig for stripers." I could fish for stripers all day with any other bait than a pocket full of bucktail jigs
"Stan Rogers. a striper fisherman who has fished a number of lakes for the big fish, said he caught his largest striper in March while fishing a rocky point no too different from the one where I caught bucktail fever. 'It was about two years ago. Rogers said. 'I was out on a homework trip for my guiding business. I was fishing a rocky point about 9 a.m. that day. and caught a nice striper that weighed 26 pounds. We caught a lot of nice fish that day, from 15 pounds on up.
Rogers recommends a slow, steady retrieve when casting a bucktail. 'Try to keep it close to the bottom." he said. "I like to throw it up into about 10 feet of water. and work it on down." He told me that it was very important to stay alert when fishing a bucktail with this method. "You need to hit the fish on the first bump," he said. "If a fish bumps your bait twice, the second one is the fish spitting it back out. You only have about two seconds, most of the time, to set your hook. " However, he said that most people have no problem feeling a striper hit the bucktail. "At night the fish will usually hold on to the bait a little bit better, but most people can feel them take it.
Rogers also said that most of the time it takes very little effort to get a good hook set. "If the striper takes the bait and starts running towards you, it can take a lot to set them. Most of the time, when you hit one it's like they're going full speed away from you. It's sort of like hooking into a freight train barrelling along at 40 m.p.h."
Another method for working a bucktail is to use it in a good current such as in a trailrace area, according to Rogers. "Try to get on the side with the most water coming out," he said. "The stripers will be in the eddy areas waiting for shad to be pulled through the gates, so you need to be where the water is coming through. " He recommends casting the bucktail up in-to the current and letting it swim back downstream toward the eddy area. Should the stripers be deep, as often happens when cool weather prevents the water from warming as early as it should, Rogers said vertical jigging with a bucktail will work under a lot of conditions where you might have trouble getting live bait to survive," he said. "Just pull the bucktail up, then let it fall, pretty much the same way you would a jigging spoon. Keep the slack out of your line because they'll hit it on the fall a lot of the time. You can catch a lot of stripers this way.''
In March he said he usually looks for stripers in the flats or on points. He tries to cast past the fish and swim the bucktail through them. "In March around here, that's usually 10 feet to 25 feet," he said, "but the depth will vary depending on how warm your lake is at that time of year. Rogers went on to explain that on some lakes stripers will be schooled up really tight in the spring, with one main school usually near the dam area. "I try not to fish that main school," he said, "because with the way striper fishing is, especially if people know you're a guide, they'll watch where you go. If I started catching fish out of that main school, pretty soon it'd be elbow-to-elbow fishermen, and that could really hurt your striper population. what I try to do is find the secondary schools, which are usually around points and flats."
Another good place to catch stripers on bucktails in the spring, he said is upriver in the headwaters during a spring spawning run, when the water gets warm enough that the females are searching out the area of most current. "It's a lot like tailrace fishing, usually, when you fish the headwaters," he said. "Another thing I like to do is rig a bucktail as a follow-up. Since Redfins are really effective at that time of year, many times I'll fish a Redfin first. If that doesn't work, or if a fish boils at the Redfin and won't take it, that's a good time to throw a bucktail right back in there where the fish is. A lot of times she'll take the bucktail "follow-up" when she won't take the Redfin."
Rogers said he has found that overall, the best color for a bucktail is white. 'A lot of lakes have their little quirks.. .for example, on Tim's Ford, one of the lakes I guide on, the lake seems to have a quirk for chartreuse, so I throw a white bucktail with a chartreuse trailer on it. Other lakes might have a quirk for, say, red or black. But I usually prefer white, or white or gray, or white and green. I usually make my trailers white or yellow," he told me. He went on to say that if he were going to a lake blind and could only take one color of bucktail and trailer, it would have to be white.
"I usually use 3/8 to 3/4 ounce bucktail jigs," Rogers said. "For my line, I normally use Trilene XT in the 14 pound test weight. I use the XT because when you re fishing the rocky points, the rocks can really abrade your line. I've also found that when fishing a bucktail you can run into problems because a striper's mouth is so rough. If a striper takes the bucktail really well, that rough mouth can wear on your line pretty badly. Also, the scales on stripers are rough. If you catch a fish, and while you're fighting it to the boat your fishing line rubs against its sides, that will wear as well."
Col. 0. Reese, a guide and a regular at striper tournaments on various lakes, is another striper fisherman who believes in the effectiveness of a bucktail jig for catching trophy-size springtime stripers. He didn't always feel that way. "I used to hate bucktail jigs," Reese told me, "because it was like throwing a rock or a stick out there. I didn't really feel like I was fishing because the jig has no action, and it just seemed to me it was a dead weight that did nothing but hang up."
But that was before Reese realized that the bucktail jig didn't HAVE to have any built-in action to work.. As he told me, 'I finally figured out that it was a much easier bait to use overall than most other striper baits. You don't have to have so much of a touch for working your bait, because it's not as demanding. Jig it, cast it, do anything, or even do nothing, and stripers will hit a bucktail."
Reese said that especially in any type of current a bucktail is the number one bait to use. Cast it out and let it drift with the current, he said. "Stripers use the eddy areas, and a bucktail lets you take advantage of that. Just fish a bucktail the same way and in the same places you would fish for smallmouth, and you're going to catch stripers most of the time.''
Downrigging bucktails is another method which Reese has found to be particularly effective, "The advantage of downriggers is that you have a lot of control over the amount of line you have out, and how far down you fish," Reese said. "I don't really think it's necessary to give your bait 50 or 75 yards of line, the way some people do. There aren't that many times a downrigger ball will spook stripers, in my experience. I believe putting the bait 15 to 25 feet behind the ball is plenty.. in fact, it seems almost as though the stripers think the bucktail is a fish chasing the downrigger ball, and it makes them aggressive. At least I seem to get more strikes that way."
Reese, who also vertical jigs bucktails in deep water and drop-offs, told me he usually uses lighter jigs and line in the spring. 'It depends on your lake, but in a lot of places the fish will have a really slow metabolism at that time," he said." I go to a 1/4 to 3/8 ounce bait, or maybe 1/2 ounce if I'm working deep water so I can feel the strike better. By using the small jigs and a light, limp line, say about eight pound test.
I can work the bait slower and the fish will pick it up better.''
But what about line abrasion? Isn't that a problem with light line? Reese admits that except on open-water lakes, such as Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, you could run into trouble with rocks and timber. "However, if you have a striper on and he's in cover, even with heavy equipment and heavy line you're in trouble." Several stripers 30 pounds and over, as well as a few over 40 pounds that he has taken with this method, testify that Reese knows what he is doing. They also testify that for trophy stripers, a bucktail jig is a bait that can catch fish under just about any of the changeable conditions you will be facing this spring. Its versatility and effectiveness are proof enough that the bucktail jig deserves a place in your tackle box. *