Lessons from the Striped Bass

I love to fly fish for striped bass. Although my home in New Braunfels is a very long way from the ravaging stripers of the Eastern Seaboard, it is a short drive from Canyon Lake which boasts a tidy population of these powerful fish. Years ago, the stories of stripers in Canyon Lake grabbed my attention and lured me in. At the time, I had never seen a striper and never caught a striper, and I could not have predicted the ways they would test my patience and perseverance as an angler. Nor would I have guessed stripers would ultimately become one of my favorite fish to catch with fly tackle.

From a landscape perspective, fishing for striped bass in reservoirs like Canyon Lake is fundamentally different than pursuing them in their native waters off the East Coast. The scenic lighthouses and treacherous beachfronts of the Atlantic shore are traded for deep inundated river channels, submerged rock piles, and gently winding shorelines. Although the scenery in a reservoir is different, the striper’s behavior as a predator is essentially unchanged. Stripers have a high metabolic rate and a big appetite. They roam in schools and aggressively feed on shad or anything else they can corner. Stripers generally prefer to stay in cool dark places rather than warm sunny ones. But like many fish, they’ll break the rules and behave in unpredictable ways.

One of the first lessons I learned from the stripers on Canyon Lake was that they tended to stay in deep water. The floating fly lines I had been using for years to catch redfish, trout, and largemouth bass at the top of the water column were seriously limited for striper fishing. The idea of throwing poppers at blitzing stripers seemed pretty cool, but it was not practical because I most often located stripers at depths of 20 feet or more. These deep schools were usually suspended, and making an adequate fly presentation to them required a fast sinking line, a heavy fly, and a good imagination.

Initially, the prospect of using sinking lines was a little daunting for me. At the time my only experience with a sinking fly line had been when I accidentally bought one and didn’t realize my mistake until I unpackaged the line on my way to the flats. I was forced to use it because I had no other line with me. By the time the weekend was over, I was so frustrated with that line I stripped it off my reel and threw it away.

But striper fishing was different. It was a deepwater scenario with the potential for catching some very large and very powerful fish. So, I was willing to put aside my bad memories and try sinking lines again. I purchased a type 6 sinking line and a few weeks later I made a stripping basket to go with it. I gradually gained confidence in stripping and shooting the new heavy line and got pretty good at hitting the right depths with it. Tangles and snags were still an intermittent problem, but I tolerated them and started picking off stripers here and there. Over time I improved and my confidence in deepwater strategies grew.

As crazy as it sounds, learning to use a sinking line was a turning point in my fly fishing career. I realized it made a powerful addition to my fly tackle arsenal and I began using sinking lines in saltwater to tag specks and redfish in channels, over deep structure, and in the surf. My productivity across the board went way up thanks to what I learned from those suspended stripers on Canyon Lake.

The second windfall of my passion for stripers was a fly that has become my absolute number one fly for almost any deep water fishing situation. The fly is a version of a Clouser Minnow called a “Chrome Clouser.” Now… let me preface these next few paragraphs by stating I did not invent the Clouser Minnow. Nor do I claim to have made any revolutionary improvement to Bob Clouser’s wonderful fly… I didn’t invent the design and I haven’t really improved it.

All I did was change the body materials. I wanted a deep diving solid silver fly to mimic a threadfin shad, so I replaced the bucktail belly and body of the standard Clouser Minnow with a fat tapered clump of silver Krystal Flash. The result was a big juicy solid silver fly that sank like a rock. It still had lead eyes, still had an upturned hook point, and was still no doubt a Clouser Minnow. But it was the brightest, flashiest, fishiest looking Clouser Minnow I had ever used. And it worked… man did it work. This fly has nailed stripers, smallmouth, trout, reds, and every other fish I have ever thrown it to in both fresh and saltwater. It is a great fly and every time I tie one on to my leader my confidence goes way up.

The third lesson I have learned from the striped bass is humility. Stripers will put you in your place. They are short-strikers, line-breakers, hook-throwers, and notorious no-shows. Their movements and habits in a reservoir will follow general patterns, but their position last month, last night, or even ten minutes ago often has little bearing on if and when they will show again. Fly fishing for reservoir stripers is truly a 3-dimensional game. They can surface, dive, circle, and head for the horizon in a startlingly short amount of time. There have been days stripers have literally blasted shad into the side of my boat only to vanish into the depths and not be seen or heard from again for a week or more. I can’t tell you how many times I have had my confidence rattled by stripers that shut down or failed to appear when every condition seemed perfect.

By nature, stripers are vampires. They have insatiable appetites and prefer to work under the cover of darkness. But, they’ll bluff you into fishing in cold, nasty, raw weather and then decide to show up a few days later when it’s warm and sunny. Just when you think you have them figured out, stripers will change their minds.

But the funny thing is that even after all the bad weather, crazy fly fishing rigs and utter head-scratching disappointments I have endured chasing striped bass, they have somehow kept me coming back for more. And I have to say, like no other fish, stripers have taught me valuable lessons about patience, problem solving, and perseverance in angling. The things I have learned from them have helped me almost every other place I have fished. And that’s why I’ll keep chasing the elusive, reckless, utterly wonderful striped bass.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Striped Bass

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  1. Casey, tied up my first Chrome Clouser a day or two ago. You are right…what an incredible fly and what incredible action in the water. Went yakking for Texoma stripers today and they tore it up. Also tied a version with red Krystal Flash and gray bucktail and they liked that as well. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I’m new to canyon lake. Thanks for all the info. I look forward to try out a new approach to stipers at Canyon lake. It all makes perfect sense

    1. Glad I could help.

      Expect midsummer striper fishing to be tough. Avoid the crowds and fish at daybreak in the dam area.

      The striper fishing picks up nearly every year starting the 3rd week of Sept., and gets better through Oct. Look for surfacing fish from Jacob’s Creek Pt., down the shore (near the sailboat marina) to N. Park Pt. and across the front of the dam. For surfacing fish, overcast or foggy days will usually be better than clear ones.

      Good luck,
      Casey

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