If you want to catch stripers, all you need to know is the water temperature. It’s that simple.

Stripers prefer water temperature around 55- to 68-degrees. If the water is too hot, they may feed shallow occasionally, but quickly return to the oxygenated rich, cooler water. Same goes for extremely cold water. But between the two extremes comes your best bet for some of the most exciting fishing freshwater has to offer.

In the fall as the water circulates from bottom to top and “turns over,” stripers spread across the entire impoundment. During the turnover and shortly afterward, stripers are harder to catch as they migrate from one end of a reservoir or lake to the other. But when things settle down, the fishing can be fantastic. On highland reservoirs like Beaver Lake, Lake Norfork or Lake Ouachita in the Ozarks, turnover usually begins around the middle of September. It’s during this season that stripers will travel toward the upper section and into major tributaries while feeding on big schools of baitfish.

In the spring as the water temperature begins to rise, stripers slowly begin transitioning from the upper section and major tributaries of the reservoir back toward the dam. In Ozark reservoirs, the majority will have migrated from the upper tributaries by the last weekend of April. The migration in the spring doesn’t seem to be as abrupt as in the fall due to slower water-temperature change.

During the summer months when the water is hotter than 70 degrees, stripers have no other habitat to migrate to except for the lower end of impoundments. These areas offer stripers the oxygenated, cooler water temperatures they require.

It’s not hard to identify a striper that has just traveled a long distance. They will often have a long, thin body attached to a large, oversized head. The disproportionate shape will slowly transform as stripers gorge on abundant schools of shad or blueback herring.

During the springtime in Ozark impoundments, stripers migrate toward major tributaries and feeder creeks in search of schools of baitfish, which move into these areas to spawn and feed on plankton. These are the same areas they use in the fall when the agenda is to fatten up and simply stay alive.

Locating stripers in transition is a challenging task. “Here today, gone tomorrow,” is how Beaver Lake guide Brad Wiegmann describes it. Any time of year when they are migrating or transitioning, they’re searching out baitfish and water with the right temperature and oxygen content, but those two characteristics aren’t the only things dictating their location. Wiegmann says that two other factors that can influence their movements – both positively and negatively – heavy runoff from a lot of rain and intense (or lack of) direct sunlight. These two factors alone can create a tributary hotspot or run them out of the area completely.

The most obvious way to know you’re in the right area is to actually see them busting the surface. Three common areas regardless of season are the back of coves, on big flats and off the ends of long extended points adjacent to the old river channel. Since this structure can’t move, it’s good to have these locations in your pocket and check them on each trip.

Another way to locate stripers is using your sonar and GPS unit. Stripers will use river and creek channels to migrate away from the dam area towards other areas in a reservoir (and back again). A high quality mapping chip will show exactly where river channels and creek channels are located, helping you navigate over them to graph for stripers.

While graphing will help locate schools of baitfish, anglers should remember that not all big marks or arches are going to be stripers. Most reservoirs with stripers are also blessed with carp, catfish and gar that also produce big, exciting marks. A good way to tell the good fish from the trash fish is that stripers normally school together, meaning you can put a big question mark on solitary arches.

Productive lures during transition depend on where the stripers are feeding and on the size of baitfish. Stripers will be aggressive and shallow early and late feeding on baitfish in coves, pockets, points and flats. Topwater lures are lethal and produce violent strikes.

For topwater fish, Wiegmann likes the Heddon Chug’n Spook, Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper and Cotton Cordell Red Fin. He is most likely to throw a topwater very early in the morning or as the sun hits the mountain in the evening, or any time the fish are smashing baitfish on the surface.

“When I have a client who knows how to fish we’ll throw the walking baits – the Pencil Popper and Spook,” he said. “But even folks who aren’t really that proficient can catch them on top. I put a Red Fin on a spinning rod and show them how to wake it. It’s real easy and they catch on pretty quick.”
Stripers can be viciously feeding on baitfish on top one moment then disappear the next. It doesn’t mean they’ve stopped feeding or abandoned the area. In some cases the baitfish move down in the water column and regroup while the stripers do the same.

Wiegmann throws a one-two punch when hitting stripers that are gorging on baitfish. He grabs his topwater rod when the fish are thrashing the surface, then launches a soft-plastic swimbait like a YUM Money Minnow or Lil’ Suzee rigged on a jighead when they descend.

“Cast past the spot where you saw the fish and just reel slowly and steadily,” he said. “If the single swimbait doesn’t produce, I throw a multi-lure rig like the YUMbrella, Flash Mob or Flash Mob Jr., rigged with either Money Minnows or curly-tail grubs.”

Stripers can be finicky eaters during periods of transition. It’s the one time that matching the hatch can make the difference between catching one or never getting a bite. A good general rule of thumb is use smaller lures or multi-lure rigs during the winter and spring months and go to larger baits in late spring and early fall.

Depending on the reservoir you fish, stripers will be in transition twice during the year. On Ozark highland reservoirs it’s usually the beginning of October and again toward the end of April. Just watch your calendar and the water temperature and get in on some of the most exciting fishing in fresh water.