Spoon-Fed Stripers

CM Spoon Fed Stripers ENTRYIt’s been a long time since I fished the Santee Cooper area lakes.   Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie are world famous for mondo catfish and crappie.  And they are vibrant striped and largemouth bass fisheries as well.  Recently, I attended the South Carolina Outdoor Writer’s Conference, held at Black’s Fish Camp, and had the honor to fish with two iconic Santee Cooper charter guides…Capt. Leroy Suggs and Capt. Charlie King.

Each morning, I was treated to a home-cooked breakfast at Black’s restaurant while the captains prepped their boat with tackle and a livewell full of blueback herring.   After a short run down the lake, we would set four to six downline rods with live baits and drift near actively working seagulls.  The striper schools would show up on the sonar, and we would typically boat three or four fish before the school would break up or move on.   This is the way many anglers, including me, fish for stripers.   And it’s a very effective method.

Even though the calendar said October, the air temperature said July; with mid-morning temps in the mid-90’s.  The water surface temperature hovered near 85 degrees.   Not ideal conditions for man or fish.   By the time the sun cleared the treetops, the fish went deep and the bite all but stopped.  We could see fish on the sonar, but their enthusiasm to eat a herring diminished as the sun got higher.

Coincidentally, one of the sponsors of the conference was Live Target Lures, and they had put a few sample baits in each of the attendees’ goodie bags.  I’ve known this company for producing super-realistic crankbaits, soft plastics and swimbaits.   My bag had a Live Target Flutter Shad jigging spoon in it.  When the live bait bite slowed, I figured this was as good a time as any to try out the spoon.

Upon dropping it over the side, the first thing I noticed was the erratic, fluttering descent.   With 12 pound braid on a light spinning rod, I could really feel the spoon’s movement all the way down.   The same applied to the jigging retrieve.   You could feel the spoon when lifting the rod and when reeling it back to the surface.

On the second drop, the spoon went to the bottom…and as I lifted the rod…the line came tight.   This wasn’t a subtle, shy take either.   It was a noticeable thump that peeled drag.  And after a gallant fight, a slot-sized striper came to the landing net.  Coincidence? Blind luck? Stupid fish?   All possibilities.   When the third drop produced yet another fish, the other two writers on the boat, and the captain, started jigging as well.   While we were all jigging spoons, we kept a couple live baits out as well.   Interestingly enough, it was the spoons that consistently produced fish.

Quite honestly, this fishing strategy was contrary to tactics I would normally think to be productive.  After all, why would a fish prefer a piece of plastic and metal over a juicy live bait?  Then it occurred to me…the active feeding time had passed, and the stripers were hanging out in the cooler, oxygen-rich deep water until they got hungry again.  Our spoons were most likely drawing a reaction strike as it fluttered past their nose…presenting both a visual and sonic impression of an easy meal.  Although I couldn’t actually see what our herring were doing 40 feet below the boat; my guess is they were just hanging out as well, and didn’t present the same bite-generating action that the spoon did.

All in all, we caught over 50 fish each day, with the majority being caught on a jigging spoon.  We kept a few for dinner and the rest were released to be caught another day.

I’ve always been a believer in the effectiveness of jigging spoons to catch fish throughout the entire water column.   Now I’ve experienced first-hand that spoons can be a great tool to turn the bite back on…whether you fish Santee Cooper, Lanier, Clark Hill, Hartwell or any of our other impoundments.

The unique shape, action, and realistic pattern embedded in the Flutter Shad proved to out-fish frisky live herring in a head-to-head comparison.   These two days of fishing convinced me that spoons will always be a “never-leave-the-dock-without-one” item in my tackle box.

Tight lines and calm seas.

Capt. Cefus McRae

Think Like A Fish

In the real estate world, it’s all about Location…Location…and Location.  Folks want to put down their roots in an area that is convenient to shopping, grocery stores, good schools, social activities and their workplace.  And, they want to live in a climate that suits their particular taste.

When you think about it, the same is true for our piscatorial friends in both fresh and saltwater.  Although they may not be pushing a squeaky-wheeled cart down a grocery aisle, they will find a home where there’s ample forage.  And their schools teach more about the benefits of “safety-in-numbers” than quantum physics.

Picking the most suitable location to make a homestead is as important to fish as it is to us two-legged critters.   If you keep that in mind as you make your selection on where to fish, and in many cases…how to fish, you’ll find your days will become more productive.

Food Comfort SafetyWith perhaps the exception of the top predators, most fish base their location selection on the Big Three…Food, Comfort and Safety.   Identify where all three of those factors converge and you’ve got a very fishy spot.

Game fish have to eat, and they have to eat often…whether it’s a rainbow trout dining on tiny nymphs or billfish that will eat a 25 pound tuna in one bite.   A yellowfin tuna has to eat nearly its own weight in food every day, because it spends its entire life roaming the ocean currents.  And that uses up a lot of energy.  On the other hand, large trout will find a spot in a slip-stream behind a rock waiting for a tasty tidbit to float by.  They simply tilt their pectoral fins and the current lifts them up, just like airplane wings to grab a tiny midge and then glide back down to their rock again.  Not a lot of energy expended for the protein they just gulped.   So your first task is to find the kitchen.  Sometimes it’s pretty obvious when you see baitfish being corralled on the surface.  Sometimes it takes a little more thought and knowledge to locate the dining area.  There are seasonal patterns that occur and if you do a little research, or ask around at the local tackle stores, you can get some very valuable information.

The next component is Comfort.   Fish will move both horizontally and vertically to find a location that is comfortable.  Just like us, they have to breathe.  So they will congregate in place in the water column that has the right amount of dissolved oxygen.  Ever notice how reservoir-based stripers will move to deeper water in the summertime?  Sure the water is warmer at the surface than it is 50 feet down, but that warm water doesn’t hold as much oxygen as the cooler water does down deep.  Fish are cold-blooded, and the actual temperature of the water may have less to do with preferred locations than the oxygen content.  Look at how many fish hang around a natural spring upwelling or at a seamount, compared to a placid, sun-baked flat.   Remember the old adage about water temperature…“68 and the Fishin’s Great!”.    Most of us have experienced the impact weather can have on the fishing.   And changes in the barometric pressure, especially quick changes that occur with rapidly moving fronts can make a dramatic difference in the bite.  As the front approaches, the bite can really fire up.  And when the front arrives the fish may get lock-jaw for a couple days.  I believe the change in pressure (which transfers into the water) can make fish either lethargic or frisky.

And the third piece of the puzzle is Safety.   Why isn’t Safety the number one factor?  Well if you are starving to death, or can’t breathe, being in a safe place doesn’t really matter does it?  Safety can come in the form of a good hiding place like a rock outcropping, vertical structure such as pilings or ledges; or it can be exhibited by large numbers like we see in schooling baitfish.  The ability to blend into the environment or use camouflage is another trait that provides safety from being eaten by something larger.  Similarly, predator fish use those same techniques for finding food.   Flounder will change their color pattern to match the shelly bottom as they quietly wait on an unsuspecting meal to swim overhead.   Speckled trout have unique color patterns on their back that makes them virtually invisible in the grass flats, concealing them from overhead predators like ospreys.   And coincidentally, shell banks are great places to fish for flounder, and grass flats are prime locations for catching speckled trout.

Starting to see a pattern?

An inland lake, coastal waters, even a mountain trout stream will usually have places that provide at least two out of the three factors.   And during certain times of the year, you’ll find a spot that has all three.  That would be considered the gold mine. To find these spots, modern technology has provided us anglers with an assortment of tools.  Simrad DownScan will show ledges and drop-off’s, structure, creek channels, bottom composition.  Typical spots that hold game fish.  Services like Sirius/XM Marine Weather interfaces with your chart plotter to show contemporary weather systems, sea surface temperature, wave period, and wind speed/direction…all of which can be contributing factors to the bite, as well as letting you know when it’s time to head for the barn.

So, do a little homework and check out the real estate below the surface before you make your first cast.  Find a location that has the Big Three… Food, Comfort and Safety and you’ll be well on your way to closing the sale on some fine fishing.

Tight lines and calm seas.

Capt. Cefus McRae – Nuts & Bolts of Fishing

Fishing Rod Basics

Rod-Rack-ASelecting a rod is all about picking the right tool for the job.  And just between you and me, it can be a little overwhelming.  What makes one rods better suited for a style of fishing over another?  Rod companies use all kinds of terminology to describe their rods…there’s light, medium light, medium, medium heavy and on and on.   Then there’s the lure weight and the line weight.  It’s enough to make you want to go back to the good old cane pole.

Well, let me try to break all this down into a few simple concepts and explain the nomenclature that’s shown on the side of the rod blank.  Your first task is to decide the fish you’ll be targeting and the line class you intend to use while fishing.  Now you can narrow down your search on the rod aisle.  When you’re looking at rods, beyond the line class rating, you’ll usually see three descriptors on the side of the blank…Rod Power, Lure Weight and Flex.

Rods 101 PicRod Power:  This is a rating that refers to the ‘power’ of the rod and its ability function properly with a given line class.  And this is usually noted just above the grip, as Light, Medium, Heavy, etc.  What it boils down to is how much ‘beef’ the rod has…how much pressure you can put on the fish in combination with the line class the rod is rated for.  If you’re fishing in heavy cover, and need to get the fish away from the grass or rocks quickly, then you need a rod with a lot of power, or backbone.  On the other hand, too much power combined with light line will either snap the line, or pull the hook from the fish.   A word of caution though…with the popularity of braided lines, there is a tendency to ‘over-line’ the rod by using line classes that are way over the limit of the rod.  I’ve heard tales of using 60 pound braid with rods rated for 12 pound line.  And the angler wonders why his rod broke when he had the drag cranked down with a big fish.  Using heavier braid is OK on light rods, but be sure to set your reel drag to match the specs of the rod.

Lure Weight:  This refers to the lure weight the rod is designed to cast most efficiently.   Most of the time, this is rated in ounces.   A light spinning rod for bream or mountain trout could be rated at one-eighth to one-quarter ounce lures.  While a surf casting rod might be rated for three-quarter to two ounce lures.   And a bottom fishing rod for grouper could be rated at 4 ounces to 10 ounces.   Again, you want to try to match the rod to the size and weight of the lures you’ll be using.

Rod Action: Some manufacturers will use Light, Medium and Heavy to describe Rod Action, as well as Rod Power.  That’s kind of confusing.  Action typically refers to where the rod flex is located…in the top 1/3 of the blank (Fast)…in the middle of the blank (Medium – and the most common)…and Slow which means the rod flexes throughout the entire blank from tip to grip.

The Fast action rods typically have the greatest flex at the upper portion of the blank, and are pretty stiff throughout the rest of the rod.  Fast action rods are great for pitching heavy lures, top water plugs, and where you need lots of backbone to help set a hook in a tarpon’s hard mouth, for instance.

Medium action rods are what you’ll find as the predominant big box store rod.  They’re good all-around rods, and you can cast plugs, work crank baits, troll and even fish live baits with them.  Their flex starts at the tip, and stops about half-way down the blank.

Slow action rods have a nice parabolic bend throughout the blank…almost all the way to the grip.  They are usually all fiberglass construction, and they are great live bait rods.  Slow action rods are more forgiving on the hook-set too.  Their flexibility helps prevent pulling the hook in tender-mouthed fish like crappie and speckled trout.  For fishing with live baits, the flex in the rod lets your bait fish move around with less effort and the game fish can take the bait without ‘feeling’ the rod.  If you’ve ever thrown your minnow or shrimp off the hook on a cast, it’s possible the action is too fast.

Ready Rod CastingIn your quest for the perfect rod, there are a lot of variables that come into play, including personal preference.  There are myriad other factors that go into how a rod is made and how it fishes.  Things like…the construction materials, number of guides and guide placement, length and so on.  But that’s fodder for another article.  For now, these basics of rod label lingo will hopefully get you started down the right path to finding the rod that’s perfect for you.

Tight lines and calm seas,

Capt. Cefus McRae & Buck, The Wonder Dog

Big Fish – Little Hooks

Cefus_Big_Rainbow_CI love fly fishing.  I’m not the best long-pole thrower on the planet, but I can usually make a cast that gets the fly in the general vicinity.  One thing I’m continually amazed by, especially when trout fishing, is how small those dang flies are.  And just how big the fish are that I’ve caught with such a tiny fly.   I mean, some of the flies are almost too small to see.  Or to tie on the end of a leader.

One thing I’ve learned from fly fishing which I’ve carried over to conventional fishing techniques is an understanding of hook size.   And the fact you don’t necessarily need a hook made from rebar to catch a big fish.  The biggest rainbow trout I ever caught was over seven pounds, and I caught it with a fly tied to a #18 size hook.  By the way, a #18 hook is small…really small.

I believe a mistake many anglers make is using hooks that are too big.  They think you need a big hook to catch a big fish.  In some cases, that’s true.  Strong fish require a strong hook that won’t straighten out under pressure.  But more often, it’s the gap of the hook that you really need to be focused on.

Hooks come in a variety of configurations, shapes, sizes and materials.  My rule of thumb is to always use the smallest, lightest hook I can get away with.  And that rule of thumb is guided by the size of the bait that I’m using…not the size of the fish I’m fishing for.  Usually, the two will go hand-in-hand.   A hook used to fish for bream with a cricket is going to be much smaller than a hook used to troll for marlin with a 3 pound spanish mackerel.  The more you can conceal the hook from your quarry, the more likely they are to eat the bait attached to it.  A hook size properly matched to the bait you’re using will let allow that bait to move more naturally, and keep them frisky longer too.

circle hooksNowadays, I use circle hooks almost all the time.  Once you get used to the hook-up technique, you’ll find you actually have a better success rate.  And if you are in the catch-and-release mode, fish have a much better chance for survival after the release.

For circle hooks I like the Gamakatsu Nautilus Light circle hook.  It comes in a variety of sizes…small enough for mud minnows and fiddler crabs and big hooks for full grown mullet.  Even though it’s a relatively light wire hook, it’s strong enough to handle big fish.  The shorter shank means there’s less ‘hook’ exposed that might shy fish away.

While we’re on hook styles, I love to throw soft plastics.  Many worms, flukes and paddletails need a little help getting down into the strike zone.  Carolina rigs, Texas rigs and jig heads will serve the purpose, but sometimes you need to be super-stealthy.  All that weight in front of the plastic can spook fish or get hung up on grass, brush and rocks.   Years ago I discovered the advantages of what I call the “Flutter Hook”.  In reality, it’s a weighted-shank, worm hook.  The Gamakastu EWG (extra wide gap) Weighted Monster hook offers a big gap, sizes to match even the biggest plastic swim baits, and you rig it weedless.  The weighted shank gets the lure into the strike zone quicker too.  On the fall, the lure ‘flutters’ down like a distressed minnow, and as you retrieve the weight imparts a lot more action that a non-weighted worm hook might create.  I’ve used this hook for everything from soft plastics to cut bait, and it’s become my go-to hook for inshore fishing.  Again, I match the size of the hook to the size of the bait I’m pitching.

There’s an axiom that states, “Elephants eat peanuts”.   I think that’s true for fish too.  Fish don’t necessarily eat peanuts…but big fish will often focus on very small prey.  I’ve seen 25 pound stripers crashing baitfish that were an inch long.  And I’ve seen 40 pound amberjack gulping 3 inch glass minnows.  The only way to catch those fish was with similar-sized baits.  And that meant sizing all the terminal tackle down to match.

The next time you rig up, take a moment to consider your quarry.  Also consider what your bait or lure looks like to the fish you hope will eat it.   Does it look and move naturally?  Or is it hampered by a hook that’s too big?  Try sizing down and be prepared to reap the rewards of the big fish you’ll catch.

Tight Lines and Calm Seas

Capt. Cefus McRae

Piscatorial Pooches – Keep you pet safe on the water

Meet Capt Buck ICONI once read a survey that stated about 90% of people who own boats also have at least one dog.   Out of that 90%, nearly 50% of those people regularly take their dogs along with them on the water.  I fall into that category as well.  All my dogs have been ‘boat dogs’, and all of them have loved being out on the water.

But before you leave the dock with Fido, there are a few things to consider prior to putting your pooch on the pontoon.

Just like us two-legged animals, dogs need clean, fresh water to keep them hydrated and happy.  Regardless of what kind of beverages you take for yourself, be sure to have plenty of cool (not ice cold) fresh water for your dog.  That can be in the form of several bottles of water, or even a thoroughly cleaned gallon milk jug with tap water in it.   You should know how much water your dog needs during the day…so take 1 ½ times that much along.    Carry a plastic or rubber-based metal bowl that won’t spill if the boat is rolling a little.

And take them something to munch on too. You wouldn’t go out for a day of fishing without a few snacks.   Take some doggie snacks for your pup.   Something that isn’t affected by heat, and can be kept in a watertight container.  If you plan to be away from home all day, then you need to take a real meal along.

Now the aforementioned items will ultimately result in your pup’s need to relieve themselves at some point during the day.  Let’s presume that you’ve fed him his morning meal, and he’s had time to digest and eliminate breakfast, so you’re not immediately facing a bathroom break as soon as you get on the boat.   But, as a responsible pet owner, you are providing him enough water during the day, he will eventually have to go pee.  And just like us humans, they can only “hold it” for so long.

Don’t make your pet miserable, and induce a mentally bad experience on the boat by expecting them to “hold it” forever.   So, what do you do?   Well, you plan your day and your destinations such that you have easily accessible pit stops during the day.  Even if it means pulling up to an island, a beach, or a marina to let your pup relieve itself.   And of course, remember all the things you need to do to clean up after your pet.  Be aware of leash laws, etc. wherever you stop.   On a normal day, given the conditions described above, I wouldn’t expect my pup to go more than four hours without a pit stop.  Neither should you.

Something else we can tend to forget is shade for your pup, and keeping your pup cool in hot weather.   Find someplace on the boat that offers a cool shaded place for your dog to lay down comfortably.   That hot deck that burns your bare feet is doing the same to his paw pads.   Put down a towel, soaked in cool fresh water, for them to lay on.

All my four-legged best friends have been retrievers, and they have all absolutely loved being in, and around, the water.  In fact, Buck, The Wonder Dog’s been on the boat with me since he was 12 weeks old.

But remember, you’re bringing the dog along so everyone can have fun.  They should not be treated like an inconvenience.  If that’s the case…leave them at home or at the pet spa.  And while they’re on the boat, they need to be constantly in sight, and under your supervision.

If you decide to stop for a swim, and you choose to let your pup go in the water, then I would suggest getting them a Puppy PFD,  which is a comfortable, wearable flotation device that fits your dog’s build. You want them to enjoy having this PFD on.

Here’s a simple fact.   It’s fun to throw the tennis ball and have your pup chase it in the water.  However, because they’re having fun, they will actually swim to the point of exhaustion and could drown.  So be aware of when they are getting tired and get them out of the water before they get into trouble.

For most of us, our dogs are members of the family; whether they’re a duck dog, a show dog or just a loveable companion.  And just like any other member of the family, it’s our responsibility to make sure they are safe and comfortable on the water.  So before you take your best four-legged friend out on the boat, give some serious thought to the things they’ll need out there too.   Make it a part of your Pre-Launch Checklist.  Your pup will definitely thank you for it.

Tight Lines and Calm Seas

Capt. Cefus McRae and Buck, The Wonder Dog.

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