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Find and Catch Topwater Stripers

Striped bass are schooling fish by nature, but when anglers talk about schooling stripers they’re usually talking about the melee that ensues when these predators push a school of bait to the surface. It’s a lot like a fireworks show, with explosions occurring in every direction. Fishing doesn’t get more exciting.

Beaver Lake, Ark., fishing guide Brad Wiegmann commonly leads clients to the frenzied fun of schooling stripers and white bass, and says that locating the fish is just the first step. Just because stripers are busting shad on top doesn’t mean that catching them is easy. Because the fish only attack baitfish on the surface for intermittent time periods, knowing when to look for them is important.

“Boat traffic is the worst thing for schooling stripers,” he said. “That’s why early mornings are so good. I also like the late afternoons as long as the pleasure boats haven’t been too bad. That’s usually during the week. Never on weekends.”

Wiegmann typically starts searching for schooling stripers in major creek arms and works his way toward the main lake, but he notes that location varies depending on the season. In winter, the fish often break over shallow mud flats, and during the summer a more likely area is over the deepest water in the lake.

“Once you get on ‘em, though, you can find them close by for days and sometimes weeks afterward,” he said.

Stay ready to pounce while actively searching for schools of fish. Keep the rods rigged and handy, with the drags set to handle 20-pound-plus fish. Scan the water for the obvious splashes and the sky for diving birds. Birds often gather to pick off the scraps and wounded baitfish the stripers miss.

“Diving birds are a dead giveaway that fish are schooling under them,” Wiegmann said.

If he doesn’t see activity initially, he idles around watching his graph for schools of bait and the arches that mark the larger fish. If you can find subsurface schools in an area where stripers have been schooling, the fish may come up within casting distance.

“You can troll a Bomber Long A or cast a lipless crankbait as you go, but I’m hooked on catching them on topwaters,” Wiegmann said. “It’s just more exciting. Plus, you want to stay ready for when they come up.”

If birds or a gathering of boats tip you off to a school busting the surface, use binoculars to confirm breaking fish and then scurry in that direction. Kill the outboard well short of the breaking fish and stay on the edge of the school even as you approach with a trolling motor. Getting too close often will cause a school to sound, which isn’t good for anyone.

Wiegmann’s topwater arsenal includes baits from 2 ½-inches in length to 7 or 8 inches, depending on various factors. He throws the smaller baits like a Rebel Pop-R or Heddon Super Spook Jr. mostly for schooling white bass, although he says there are times when even giant stripers want a small bait.

“Sometimes the fish are feeding on smaller shad,” he said, “and that’s all they’ll eat. Try to get a look at the shad and match the size with your lure.”

For big stripers, Wiegmann likes a big walking bait like a Super Spook or Cordell Pencil Popper, and stresses that working it at a steady pace – even when a fish strikes and misses the bait – is essential to catching stripers on top.

“Keep the bait moving at that constant pace, even when a big old striper comes up and slashes at it,” he said. “If you stop it, he’s gone.”

There are times when the fish won’t commit to a big walking or chugging topwater, a situation that regularly occurs when the water is dead slick and the commotion of these action-packed lures spooks fish. Wiegmann goes to a Cordell Red Fin or Jointed Red Fin and wakes it slowly across the top.

The Red Fin also is perfect for clients who lack the ability to walk a Spook or Pencil Popper. Wiegmann ties a Red Fin on spinning gear, hands him or her the rod and says to simply cast and reel at a constant, slow pace. The Red Fin creates a “V” on top and wobbles and swims, and big stripers can’t stand it.

“Sometimes it’s the best thing to throw, and it catches big largemouth bass, too.”