October 01, 2021
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are one of America’s most popular gamefish where they are found. Atlantic striped bass are one of saltwater’s most popular gamefish and have been a staple “everyman’s” fish on the American East Coast for centuries. They can live in either salt or freshwater and are the largest of the all the world’s true bass species (speckled peacock bass can get larger, but are actually cichlids). Inland (or freshwater) stripers, born of a trapped population of Atlantic stripers in South Carolina in 1941, also make fantastic gamefish, especially on fly tackle. Atlantic striped bass differ from inland freshwater striped bass only by their habitat and evolved diets.
Striped Bass Size
Adult Atlantic striped bass typically run between 15 and 35 inches, and about 3 to 20 pounds depending on age. Large specimens can reach more than 50 inches and 50-plus pounds, but these fish are currently quite rare due to a population crash. The world record Atlantic striper is 81 pounds, 14 ounces, taken on Southwest Reef in Long Island Sound, Connecticut in 2011.
Adult inland stripers can reach similar sizes, but more often run a bit smaller due to their smaller habitat and home waters, averaging between 2 and 10 pounds. The largest freshwater striper ever recorded weighed 69 pounds, 9 ounces, and was landed from Upper Blackhead Reservoir in Alabama. It was only 45 inches long, but had a girth of about 38 inches.
Striped Bass Native Range
Atlantic striped bass, the stock that has been there for thousands of years, are native to the North American Atlantic coast from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Saint Lawrence River in New Brunswick Canada to the Gulf of Mexico along the Texas and northern Mexico coast. Currently, they only viably range as far south as North Carolina (with occasional exceptions that range further south). This population seems to be slowly migrating northward due to changing ocean temperatures.
The original population of inland freshwater stripers was accidentally created when some Atlantic stripers were trapped in South Carolina’s Santee and Cooper rivers by the creation of St. Stephen Powerhouse Dam and Lake Moultrie. These fish quickly adapted to fulltime freshwater residency (similar to Great Lakes steelhead) and at least 30 states currently have inland freshwater striped bass populations through stocking programs.
Striped Bass Habitat
Saltwater stripers are typically found in coastal waters within about 5 miles of shore and coastal bays. They make seasonal spawning runs into brackish bays and freshwater rivers.
Inland freshwater stripers live in cool-water reservoirs and streams, and often spend time around shallow bars and points near deep water.
Both saltwater and freshwater stripers make their spawning runs in the spring, when they’ll be found in upstream rivers. They can survive in water temperatures from 40 to 70 degrees F, but their ideal range is between 58 and 68 degrees.
Striped Bass Life Cycle
As stated above, striped bass, similar to trout and salmon, make seasonal spawning runs into freshwater rivers and streams when the water temperature reaches about 60 degrees in the spring. The eggs then hatch and the new fish stay in natal streams until sexual maturity between ages 2 and 8 (males mature before females). They can live to between 20 and 30 years old with favorable water conditions and habitat.
Striped Bass Diet
Stripers are generally not terribly picky and will eat what’s available.
In the saltwater, stripers eat a variety of ocean-dwelling prey including menhaden, alewives, American eels, mullet, peanut bunker, squid, plankton, clams, and crustaceans.
Inland stripers primarily feed on shad (both threadfin and gizzard), and will eat herring, panfish, worms, crayfish, and clams, where available. They will also eat aquatic insects when necessary.
Strains of Striped Bass
Although saltwater and freshwater stripers are not technically different strains or species, they are evolving differently to survive different conditions and eat different foods.
There is a very small genetically distinct population of striped bass indigenous to the Gulf of Mexico that are called gulf coast striped bass, that could tolerate higher water temperatures. These fish are exceedingly rare today, and most of the stripers caught in this area are inland-reservoir escapees.
Striped Bass Locations
Atlantic striped bass can be found along the inshore coast from North Carolina to New Brunswick, Canada. These fish do migrate north seasonally with water temperatures, preferring 58 to 68 degrees F. Chesapeake Bay is the main spawning estuary for Atlantic stripers, and produces more fish than anywhere else. Thusly, the mid-Atlantic coastline along New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia is a hotspot for saltwater stripers. In the North Atlantic, waters off of Montauk and Jamaica Bay in New York, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Block Island in Rhode Island are favorite haunts of both fish and angler.
There are also non-native anadromous stripers in California’s San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, and at scattered locations north on the Pacific Coast.
The best inland reservoirs for freshwater striped bass include Hartwell (Georgia/South Carolina), Lake Russell (North Carolina), Clarks Hill (aka Strom Thurmond Lake, Georgia), Lake Murray (South Carolina), Lake Sidney Lanier (Georgia), Buggs Island Lake (aka Kerr Lake, Virginia), Smith Mountain (Virginia), Old Hickory Reservoir (Tennessee), and many more.
In the western U.S., some of the best locations include Lake Mendocino (California), Castaic Lake (California), and Lake Powell (Utah/Arizona).
The map below shows locations of “Tournament Striper Lakes."
Fly Fishing for Striped Bass
As stated above, stripers are generally not terribly picky and will eat what’s available. Anglers should research the available forage foods in a given fishery and target them patterns that imitate these foods.
Atlantic stripers can be found anywhere in the water column from the surface to about 30 feet deep, depending on forage-fish activity, therefore a variety of sinking and floating fly lines are useful. Nine- and 10-weight rods are typically used for saltwater stripers. Good striper flies include the Bush Pig fly, Clouser Minnows, Lefty’s Deceivers, Humboldt Squids, and more.
They can be surf-fished from shores and jetties, or fished for from small ocean-going boats.
Inland freshwater stripers are generally targeted with slightly smaller rods, reels, and flies, and baitfish patterns like Clouser Minnows and Sheep Minnows. A variety of fly lines is still required to target fish at different depths as they follow baitfish.