Read Between The Lines

While feisty largemouth are certainly exciting, don’t overlook an even greater gem that’s readily available in many parts of the state—striped bass.

John Felsher April 13, 2011

Stripers are arguably the Eastern Seaboard’s most attainable game fish, yet it’s not too often you hear Florida anglers swapping fish tales about a red-hot stripa’ bite. Maybe you’re one of the many transients who have never even imagined that striped bass swim in state waters. It’s quite possible no one told you that there are several lakes, rivers and tributaries where these glamorous sport fish can indeed be targeted.

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Photo: John N. Felsher

Up in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, stripers spawn in freshwater and migrate offshore to mature. Their Florida counterparts behave much differently due to the warmer climate. Targeted by few and heralded by those who know where and when to find these hard fighters, there’s something else you should know. There are actually three members of the temperate bass family that are adorned with stripes and call Florida home.

…there are actually three members of the temperate bass family that are adorned with stripes.

Situated along the Panhandle, the Apalachicola River holds the only remaining naturally reproducing Gulf-strain striper population in Florida. It also holds white and hybrid bass, making for a trio of temptations. Forming where the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers converge about 60-miles northeast of Panama City, this vast watershed has a drainage basin of approximately 19,500 square miles of Florida, Alabama and Georgia as it flows south toward the Gulf.

“The Apalachicola River holds tremendous stripers,” says guide Matt Bergantino. “I’ve watched people at the Chattahoochee Dam catch 30-pound fish. When water flows through the dam, the fish turn on and the bite really heats up. Once we locate the schools we usually stay connected with live bait.”

If stripers aren’t in feeding mode, Bergantino ignites the bite by throwing some live chum, and he prefers to free-line baits because it offers a more natural presentation. “There’s nothing like watching a live bait trying to outrun a 15-pound striper on the surface,” added Berganitno.

The Apalachicola River creates a vast wetland where it hits Apalachicola Bay—an inlet to the Gulf of Mexico. Many stripers prowl this rich delta searching for menhaden, shrimp and shad. In the brackish estuary stripers tend to seek deeper water, usually 10 to 50-foot depths along major channels.

“Baitfish stack in the river and seek the safety afforded by deep holes,” says Chris Robinson of Robinson Brothers Guide Service. “The lower end of East River is a good place to fish, but so is the area from the mouth of the Apalachicola River to Lake Wimico. While the striper action can be fast and furious, we’ve caught hybrids to 6-pounds, which pound for pound will pull a striper backwards. Overcast, cold days are best for striped bass while the hybrids bite under any conditions,” continued Robinson.

Not far from the Apalachicola River, Lake Talquin is a 10,000-acre impoundment west of Tallahassee and likely holds the largest landlocked striper population in Florida. Created in 1927 with a dam spanning the Ochlockonee River, some areas of the lake drop to more than 40-feet, with Talquin stripers generally weighing 10 to 20-pounds. Anglers target them with chrome jigging spoons and by trolling deep-diving crankbaits near the dam and along the old river channel. “When water temperatures dip below the mid 70s, striped bass start schooling and chasing shad. On overcast days with light winds, we chase stripers all over the lake and catch them with topwaters. When the water gets really cold the bass start migrating back into warmer spring-feed creeks,” says Cliff Mundinger of Lake Talquin Trophy Guide Service.

When not chasing schooling fish, Mundinger looks for large returns on his sounder that reveal concentrations of shad. Hungry stripers won’t stray far from plentiful forage and if the baitfish are holding in 8-feet or less, he’ll throw topwater stickbaits or shallow-running crankbaits. If the bait heads deeper, Mundinger prefers to work the area with larger crankbaits or jigging spoons.

The state also stocks striped bass in the St. Johns system each year. The most consistent fishing typically occurs between Jacksonville and Deland, with hot spots including Lake George, Salt Springs, Green Cove Springs and the lower Oklawaha River. Jacksonville also has a unique fishery with structure oriented stripers holding in deeper depths near the vicinity of downtown bridges.

“The striped bass population in the St. Johns is entirely maintained by stocking, while some Atlantic-strain stripers reproduce in the St. Marys and St. Marks Rivers,” says Rick Long of the FWC.

Consistent hybrid action also occurs along Lake Seminole, Eagle Lake, Lake Edward Medard, Lake Apopka and Clear Lake, a 319-acre urban lake in Orlando that produces hybrids up to 6-pounds. “The Lake Seminole hybrid fishery is unbelievable,” Bergantino commented.

This is where he prefers to fish live bait over lures. Using a cast net he loads up on shad and watches for schooling activity along humps and creek channels. “I’ve seen hundreds of schoolies busting shad on the surface. It’s awesome to see that many fish feeding and flourishing. On Lake Seminole, hybrids average 3-pounds, but we’ve caught fish over 9-pounds and when the bite’s on, it’s on!”

From 2000 to 2007, the FWC Blackwater Fisheries Research and Development Center produced nearly 4.3 million striped and hybrid bass to supplement existing fisheries throughout the state. More recently, approximately 200,000 hybrids were stocked in the Lake Osborne chain of lakes in Palm Beach County. As a result of these significant stocking efforts several fisheries have been developed around the state. FWC fisheries biologists have also developed numerous ways to improve the efficiency of fish production.

“White bass mature earlier in the season so we cross white bass females with striped bass males,” explains David Yeager, an FWC biologist with the Blackwater Fisheries Research and Development Center.

“We stock sunshine bass earlier in the year because as temperatures increase, it’s more difficult for sunshine fingerlings to survive. Later in the season we crossbreed white bass males with striped bass females for increased results,” continued Yeager.

For anglers looking to broaden their horizons, the message is clear. Get out there and take advantage of the state’s striped, white and sunshine bass fisheries. These freshwater gamesters provide incredible sporting attributes and tasty table fare.

Fish Fact

While stripers will readily attack lipless crankbaits, bucktail jigs, jerkbaits, soft plastics and live bait, occasionally schoolies explode on the surface and offer an excellent opportunity to catch one on fly.

Sunshine Bass

A cross between striped bass and white bass, sunshine bass are artificially spawned by biologists from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Also referred to as wipers and palmetto bass, hybrid sunshine bass look like stockier versions of their parents, but with broken black lines. Hybrids grow larger than white bass, but not as large as striped bass.

White Bass

With five to eight horizontal black stripes, white bass are next on the list and although they occur naturally in some Florida rivers, they are stocked in others. White bass look like diminutive stripers but seldom weigh more than a few pounds. The state record (4.69-pounds) came from the Apalachicola River.

Striped Bass

The largest member of the Moronidae family, striped bass can exceed 70-pounds, although the state record weighs in at 42.25-pounds. Long, sleek and powerful, striped bass feature a distinct silvery hue with seven to eight well-defined horizontal black stripes. The Atlantic population thrives while Gulf-strain stripers—a population which once flourished from Florida to Louisiana—has all but virtually disappeared.

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